Melissa Palank has been making things happen since the age of 12, when she learned that her grandfather was HIV-positive from a blood transfusion in the early 1980s. In response to this terrible news, she says, “I just knew I had to do certain things. I had to educate myself first, and then everybody else.” And she did. She began sharing her knowledge with others through programs like Camp Fire USA’s Fighting AIDS Through Education. She began speaking at conferences and became one of the youngest AIDS educators in the nation, even flying to Washington, D.C., to speak.
“I didn’t think about it,” she says. “I just did it.” Except for taking a short break for some emotional healing – her grandfather died in early 1995, but she kept up a busy volunteer schedule for some time after that – Palank has been engaged in the fight against HIV and AIDS since 1990, recently joining the board of directors of the Minnesota AIDS Project.
This alone would be quite an accomplishment, but if anyone can compare their life to a three-ring circus, Palank is surely among them. She works full-time as an account executive for Nonprofit Solutions, providing strategic guidance to nonprofits. She serves as a volunteer and founding member of the Leadership Circle at The White House Project, a nonpartisan organization working to advance women in business, politics and the media. She also is VP, alumni student program committee on the UST alumni board of directors. She had other volunteer commitments, “but I had to drop some,” she says.
Palank’s current work may be related to her extensive nonprofit experience, but before she came to Nonprofit Solutions, she gained a solid background in the corporate world. Her career started with a challenge: during her senior year, she lined up a finance job – a nice position to be in in 2001. Then, as graduation neared, she was told her division had been outsourced. Fortunately, having had to pay her way through college, she was able to fall back on the resources she had developed. “I used my networks, and I temped,” she says. It wasn’t long before she acquired a permanent position in finance with GMAC. “It was entry-level, nothing special, but it was a foot in the door,” she says. “I was determined to learn.”
She had always appreciated the liberal arts education at St. Thomas and considered herself a “Jill of All Trades.” Palank joined committees at work, including the community involvement team, embracing the opportunity to grow, contribute and network. She spent eight years at GMAC, working later in the legal department and in marketing, but the company began laying people off, and eventually she had to leave and work in marketing for an organic food company. The economy was affecting this new job, too. That’s when a casual phone conversation redirected her career.
“I was on the American Marketing Association, Minnesota chapter board,” she says. In her role with the Minnesota AMA, she had become acquainted with Nonprofit Solutions’ president, Maria Huntley. During a phone conversation, Huntley asked Palank about her new job. Palank confessed that the future didn’t seem bright, and Huntley said, “We have an opening. Are you interested?” Palank has been working for Nonprofit Solutions for more than two years now. Speaking of her career path, Palank notes, “It’s about the right opportunity, and it’s about who you know. Not CEOs or well-known people, just people. You have no idea who will connect you.”
For her personal and professional commitments to changing her community, Palank was recognized last year by the Minnesota Jaycees as one of Ten Outstanding Young Minnesotans. “I’m honored,” she says. “I don’t volunteer to get recognized, I volunteer to help the community. The award is most meaningful to me because it brings attention to the groups I work with.” She will continue to work, building on each experience to get things done. And while she may have a lot going on in her three-ring circus, she’s in control – a ringmaster who makes things happen.
About Nonprofit SolutionsNonprofit Solutions is an association management company, a one-stop shop for nonprofit organizations. Its clients include the Minnesota American Marketing Association, the Minnesota Association of School Business Officials, East Africa Medical Assistance Foundation and the Insurance Regulatory Examiners Society. Each of the account executives brings a different field of expertise to the table, from experience working on nonprofit boards to public policy expertise. The work is something that most of them didn’t even know existed prior to coming into contact with Nonprofit Solutions. “We’re not just here to have a job,” Palank says. “We are all passionate about what we do.”