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A Closer Look: Erica Axiotis

Executive director, ChildServe Foundation


Before Erica Axiotis ever began working at ChildServe, she got a peek behind the organization’s work through her volunteer initiatives. 

Axiotis learned about ChildServe through her membership in the local Junior League chapter. Before the Junior League of Des Moines joined the national Junior League organization, it was known for several years as the Junior Social Service — and leaders organized the Convalescent Home for Children in 1928, which today is ChildServe. 

“That was a very good basis for me to understand that ChildServe has always been a fantastic organization,” Axiotis said. “I was looking for my spot to lay roots and make an impact, so I joined ChildServe in the fall of 2016.”

Axiotis began her career working in human services at Mainstream Living as a job developer, assisting individuals living with chronic illness or other disabilities in finding full-time jobs. From there, she spent time as a fundraiser at Mary Greeley Medical Center and Mercy Foundation. 

Axiotis initially joined ChildServe as the director of development, and after three years began her new role as the executive director of the ChildServe Foundation in July. She was an honoree in the Business Record’s Forty Under 40 Class of 2013, and a graduate of the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute’s Class of 2012.

Can you describe your new role? 

In conjunction with our board of trustees, with Dr. Teri Wahlig [ChildServe CEO] and our executive leadership, my role is to connect our vision and strategy with philanthropic opportunities — how we partner with foundations, corporations, individuals and family donors. 

Say, for example, we want to launch a new program, but we don’t have the funding for it. We look at potential funders to come up with the dollars to support the launch of that program, because we’re primarily funded by Medicaid, which is a tight operating situation. … The funding allows for the payment of the staff member, the therapist, but there might be a piece of equipment that would really enhance our programs and be a huge benefit to the kids that we serve. 

We work with our internal teams to identify those opportunities, and then the board, executive leadership and myself work to connect donors and make those partnerships happen. 

What are the challenges facing an organization like ChildServe during 2020?

All of our personal lives and, of course, our work is being impacted, [and] fundraising is going to be impacted in a pandemic. 

Our tagline is “believing in the spirit of a child,” and I think that there’s a lot of ways that you can convey that message to potential donors, current donors, former donors, the community. The best way to understand and feel our mission is to come on-site and tour — you really get a sense of the impact that the staff makes, the joy of children as they’re learning new skills and progressing in their various programs and treatments. That’s probably the biggest hurdle for us in terms of fundraising now and in the foreseeable future — you miss something when you’re not able to be on-site. However, we’re all in that situation — every organization, every company is in that spot. 

We’re coming up with creative ways to share our mission. Flynn-Wright, who is a great partner of ours, just produced an excellent video showing the impact of our respite services. It’s so touching and really does the job of sharing that impact, and what the services mean to our families. That’s the biggest challenge I see until we’re post-pandemic, whatever that looks like. The way we primarily connect with donors is in person. We all have to be creative and change up the ways that we serve the mission. 

What is the best piece of advice or feedback that you’ve received in your career so far? 

Listen to all constituents, especially those that are receiving services that you’re fundraising on behalf of. So at ChildServe, [that’s] listening to kids … but it’s also hearing the parents, and how ChildServe has really embraced them and walked the path with them that they didn’t know they were going to walk. 

As you listen to them, then you’re able to relay that message to donor partners and make that meaningful connection. We exist to connect people that want to make an impact on those that they’re going to serve. So listening to both sides of that partnership has been the most meaningful advice. 

What are your goals for the next year? 

Our biggest goal is the ongoing stewardship of our donor partners. It’s so crucial. We were fortunate to close our capital campaign as the pandemic was hitting — we closed a $10.6 million campaign that took us about 16 months. That work has now started — we were able to complete the first phase of our behavioral health clinic. 

That campaign was one of the highlights of my career, because not only was that the largest ever campaign in ChildServe history, but we saw so much joy, so much enthusiasm from our donors, our campaign, our staff, our families. The biggest goal now is how do we show the impact of that campaign when we can’t get people here on-site to do a ribbon-cutting or have a celebration like we would in typical times. We’ve got to reach out … we’re still caring for kids, we’re still doing the work. We’re working more now in the telehealth space than we would have previously. It’s important to inform those donor partners that were so supportive. … I think that’s our biggest goal, communicating that through nontraditional means. 

What have you been reading, watching or listening to lately?

Jerry Panas wrote a book that I think is the most classic and important baseline for all fundraisers called “Born to Raise: What Makes a Great Fundraiser.” I think it’s applicable even if you’re not a fundraiser. If you believe in nonprofit work, if you have a favorite organization or charity, it’s an excellent read. Jerry Panas has since passed away, but he is a well-recognized guru, a fantastic individual and fundraiser. 

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