After nearly eight years leading the C&O Canal Trust and a 40-year career in fundraising and nonprofit executive leadership, President and CEO Robin Zanotti is retiring on March 31, 2023. We asked Robin to reflect on her time at the Trust, and share her plans for the next chapter of her life.
What brought you to the C&O Canal Trust?
My career has been spent exclusively in service to nonprofits. I have received the most joy from my work when I engaged with volunteers and donors with whom I shared a passion for the mission of the organization. When I was asked to consider this position, it didn’t take me long to realize how gratifying it could be. I already loved the park and could easily commit to using my experience to maximize support for it.
Additionally, it is a rare opportunity for the lead fundraiser, my usual role, to become the president and CEO. The Trust’s board of directors was looking to stabilize the organization’s finances, and it was clear that my fundraising skills could be of benefit to the Trust. It sounded like a great opportunity for me.
What has been your greatest challenge at the Trust?
When I became president at the Trust, it was during a period of transition. The organization needed a steady hand, but at the same time, fundraising had to be a top priority. We had a small but strong, dedicated staff who were eager to move forward as a team and willingly embraced me as their leader. Our board was just as dedicated and ready to put its energy into moving the Trust forward. It took some time to get everything aligned for forward momentum, and those early months were a bit unnerving.
What has been your greatest achievement at the Trust?
I can point to a number of programs and projects that I’m extremely proud of. I was grateful to work with very talented staff and generous donors to help make them possible. In a more macro sense, the steady growth of the organization, and what that has meant to the support of the C&O Canal, would have to be my greatest achievement, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. We still managed to double in size during the last eight years, which means more eager and motivated staff are working diligently each day to achieve our mission to preserve and protect the park. Having doubled our budget means that charitable support has doubled, in effect putting to work the generous gifts of a growing number of donors, many of whom have deepened their commitment. For a woman with a fundraising career and commitment to mission, it doesn’t get any better than that!
Is there anything you’d do differently?
Gosh, for what was essentially a fledgling organization at the time I arrived, there were plenty of things I could have done differently. There weren’t enough of us to go around to do all that was needed. I prioritized mission, investing in and supporting staff, and engaging donors and volunteers in as many ways as I could. I wouldn’t change any of that.
What will you miss the most?
People. Always the people. Being with like-minded park lovers is a reward unto itself.
While I’ll miss the daily commitment to supporting the park, I certainly won’t miss the park. I intend to take with me the deeper appreciation I developed as a result of these eight years and enjoy the park with the satisfaction of knowing I had a role in its preservation.
Do you have a favorite spot or favorite memory in the Park?
My lockhouse visits were special experiences. I especially liked the early morning walks in what felt to me like my very own piece of the park. Staying at Swains Lockhouse might be one of my favorite memories. My husband and I were the first to stay overnight after we helped rehabilitate it and added it to the Canal Quarters program. We were ‘kicking the tires’ and learning what our guests would experience to be sure it was really ready. I felt so much pride for the Swain family, the National Park Service, and generations of visitors – past, present, and future. Together, we preserved a very special part of the history of the C&O Canal. I definitely had a moment.
What do you hope for the future of the Trust?
I haven’t yet mentioned the Trust’s relationship with the National Park Service. I wish for a long, healthy partnership based on mutual trust and earnest goodwill. It has been with this approach that the Trust has flourished and been able to enhance its support of the Park. There is so much more to do, and it will all be within the construct of this mutually supportive relationship.
What’s next for you in retirement?
I’ve purposefully decided to craft my retirement years as they present themselves, at least initially. I have some vague notions about travel and more time spent with family. There are many books to be read and parks to be explored. I plan to take some time to enjoy the freedom while sketching out a fulfilling plan.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I cannot imagine a better way to cap off my career than with the work I’ve done here at the C&O Canal Trust. The board of directors graced me with their support, provided me with the latitude to run the organization, and were my soulmates in crafting a strategy for developing the organization into a high-performing partner for the National Park Service. I’ve worked with two amazing park superintendents who were also willing partners. It’s with a fair amount of satisfaction that I leave this work and these important relationships to my successor. All best wishes to Lauren Riviello and everyone at the Trust and the National Park Service. See you on the towpath!