Connecting Leaders: A Conversation with Dr. Teresa Granillo

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August 17, 2020
AVANCE CEO Dr. Teresa Granillo reflects on her recent experience with CONNECT and her mentorship with RGK Center director David Springer.  

In the fall of 2019, Dr. Teresa Granillo was settling into her new position as CEO of AVANCE, a nonprofit that aims to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty through a two-generation model that provides early childhood education and parent education to families furthest from justice. Dr. Granillo was excited about the impact AVANCE had made in the Latinx community over the past 46 years and had goals to expand the impact by building a more robust data collection and management system that allowed for a deeper examination of the holistic impact of AVANCE’s program. One afternoon, Dr. Granillo was sharing her goals with Anurita Mittra, the Program Director of the AVANCE Austin chapter, and Anurita recommended that Dr. Granillo look into the CONNECT program at the RGK Center as an alternative way to conduct data analysis and evaluation for the organization.  

“Anyone who knows me knows how much I value data and prioritize data-drive decision making,” Teresa said. “Anurita shared in my vision for improving the research and evaluation activities throughout the network. She had shared that the Austin Chapter had good experiences with CONNECT and recommended that I look into the program.”  

Teresa brought to AVANCE her belief in the importance of supporting nonprofit data and evaluation efforts, especially when attempting to measure the impact of the program or establishing measurable outcomes. The organization already had in place a set of pre- and post-surveys sent out to participants to determine the impact of parent-child education programs. However, they were outsourcing the development of reports based off this data, an expense Teresa believed they could do without.  

“I came on board and looked at the kind of reports we were getting,” Teresa said. “It wasn’t regression analysis or hierarchical liner models; it was nothing high tech that you needed a Ph.D. to do, so I thought, ‘Can’t we just do this in-house?’”


After hearing about CONNECT, Teresa recognized the opportunity to not only reduce costs of the important data and evaluation work her organization needed, but also to provide a valuable learning experience for a graduate student looking for professional development. Working together with Victoria Reyes, AVANCE’s Senior Director of Strategy and Innovation, Teresa developed a project that she submitted to CONNECT for the spring 2020 cohort.  

“The student we got ended up being useful on multiple levels,” Teresa said, explaining that AVANCE’s original project scope included supporting the organization’s quantitative efforts in data analysis. But after meeting with their CONNECT fellow, College of Liberal Arts Ph.D. student Gabriela Perez, Teresa and Victoria realized that Gabi’s background in data collection and management might be better used for a different project.  

AVANCE had just begun a process of strategic planning, the first phase of which was to hold focus groups with key stakeholders and prospective clients from the community. After meeting with the CONNECT team, Teresa and the AVANCE team got approval to transition Gabi’s CONNECT position description to better suit her skills in qualitative work and fill AVANCE’s need in this area.  

Gabi helped AVANCE with their revised strategy and conducted many of the focus group interviews, as well as supporting efforts to improve their survey design and conducting research on different standardized measures that aligned with AVACNE’s theory of change.  

“I love working with students because they come with the brand-new ideas,” Teresa said. “They just came out of a classroom, they’re on the cutting edge on all these things. I always learn so much, and I think that it’s really important for nonprofits to capitalize on organizations like CONNECT.”  

Teresa attributes the project’s success to having a dedicated AVANCE staff member, Victoria, work directly with Gabi, hold regular meetings, and recognize not only Gabi’s unique strengths, but also how the organization could best utilize these skills while she was with them.  

“I think in the nonprofit sector, that’s something that we constantly do,” Teresa said. “People come in because they want to do nonprofit work, and they’ll apply maybe for any job. Maybe it’s not the right position but they’re so committed to the mission, so we try to find a better position for them that will help build on their strengths and will also contribute to the mission.” 

Teresa is a former professor of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, where she met and worked with David Springer, current director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service.  

“David’s always just been my go-to, and even in the nonprofit sector I call him up and talk to him about different ideas because I want to get his opinion.” Teresa said. “After I heard about CONNECT and looked into it a little bit more, I thought, ‘Well, anything coming out of David’s shop, I trust." 


In 2010, Dr. Granillo was in her last year of her dual Ph.D. program in Social Work and Psychology at the University of Michigan. She was working on her dissertation and was on the job market searching for a tenure track position. She applied to the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and one of the interviewers for the position was Dr. David Springer, who was the Associate Dean of the School of Social Work at the time. At the young age of 28 years, Dr. Granillo was selected to be an Assistant Tenure Track Professor at the School of Social Work. She had an MSW and clinical experience with children and adolescents so she was assigned to teach the Evidence-Based Treatment of Children and Adolescents course, which was a course that Dr. Springer has taught for years. Dr. Springer became one of Dr. Granillo’s mentors. He passed along some of his materials from his days teaching the course and helped prepare her for her first day of teaching. During Teresa’s first semester of teaching, she went to David to help her think through strategies to improve her teaching scores and walk her through potential solutions to tough situations in the classroom. 

“I was really young when I started as a professor and suffered from the imposter syndrome” Teresa said. “He gave me some really good tips because he was also really young when he started. They not only paid off well in the classroom, but I carry them throughout my profession and now I use them every single day.”  

Teresa often thinks about the advice David gave her to “look the part” of a professional, especially one starting their career so young. As a young professional himself, he made it a point to wear suits every day while teaching and suggested Teresa do the same.   

“I don’t know if you’ve spent time in the School of Social Work, but nobody wears suits,” laughs Teresa, who still makes a point to wear suits in her position as a nonprofit CEO. “I brought my professional A-game gear every day. I knew I needed to look really professional-- and I’ve also grown accustomed to it. But that was one thing that he stressed, that you have to go in there and own the room.” 


After teaching at the School of Social Work for two years, Teresa accepted a CEO position with Con Mi MADRE, an organization that empowers young Latinas and their mothers through education and support services that increase preparedness, participation, and success in post-secondary education.  

During her time at Con Mi MADRE, Teresa helped build the organization’s capacity, increasing the budget by 200%. She led the team through an expansion of services into El Paso and Fort Worth by building an easily transferrable earned revenue model that successfully operated through the school districts. Teresa describes her experience with Con Mi MADRE as fun and rewarding, and she valued the chance to put some of her research background into practice in the nonprofit world.  

“I really utilized my skills in evidence-based practice and working with two-generation models,” Teresa said. “I was able to implement a system of data collection and management and help the organization share the mission through impact stories, utilizing data to elevate the true impact that they were making in the community.” 

Teresa stayed with Con Mi MADRE for five years before responding to AVANCE’s national search for a new CEO. After doing intervention work in the Latinx community with Con Mi MADRE, Teresa saw AVANCE as an opportunity to work on the prevention side, working with families from the time their children are born.  

“The Latinx community is my heart and soul,” Teresa said. “The fact that I stay with the two-generation model tells you a little bit about my background and how important my mom was in my life.” 


After a successful spring cohort project, AVANCE applied for a second CONNECT project for the summer 2020 cohort to evaluate programmatic impact by developing reports and improving pre- and post-surveys. As a strong supporter of data analysis and evaluation for nonprofits and a participant in two successful CONNECT projects, Teresa has several tips for any other organizations interested in participating in the CONNECT program.  

Think outside the box: “When we took a step back and looked at Gabi’s skill set, and what we really needed, we thought outside the box and realized this would be a really great opportunity, not only for her to utilize her skills, but for us to get this really critical work that we need to get done. Don’t just stick to your traditional research data collection and management way of thinking.”  

Find the right supervisor in your organization to mentor the CONNECT fellow: “When you assign that dedicated staff person, make sure they like coaching and mentoring, that’s really important. Victoria, our Sr. Director of Strategy and Innovation, that’s her thing—she loves to mentor and coach, so that’s why it all made a lot of sense to me. It’s just like taking on any intern; if you have a staff person who doesn’t have a whole lot of extra time or patience, it’s not going to work. I think that’s something to be mindful of in the match, that you’re putting the right person with whoever you’re bringing on, particularly because it’s not just what the nonprofit can get out of it. Organizations really need to consider if they can provide this student with the best experience they can. They need to ask themselves, ‘Will my organization give this student additional skills and experience that will help them in their future?’”  

Ensure your organization is ready to think strategically about data evaluation: “There’s not exactly an abundance of funding out there to support research in the nonprofit sector, because they want us to show impact but they’re not willing to invest in the research and evaluation side of the house; they only want to invest in the programmatic side. But the data is only as good as what’s collected, and if you don’t have dedicated staff people to be able to think through strategically, ‘Okay, what are our outcomes that we’re trying to achieve and what’s the survey or questionnaire that we need to use to make sure we’re measuring that outcome appropriately?’ There’s all these pieces that funders, a lot of time, don’t really get and they don’t prioritize, so having a program like CONNECT is really helpful.” 


Applications for organizations to participate in the spring 2021 cohort of CONNECT open on September 1, 2020.  
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