Meet Catalyst Debra Sonkin

Debra Sonkin
Founder, Search Advisory Group

In 2011, during its founding year in the region, Teach For America South Carolina (TFASC) started partnering with school districts but had not yet recruited a board of directors. The long-time strategy of Teach For America (TFA)’s national leadership team was to encourage its regions to recruit industry leaders and philanthropists as advisors who would create guiding principles for success that best reflected the culture of their own locations.

Enter Debra Sonkin.

As founder of Search Advisory Group, Sonkin had a long career in executive search – advising corporations and nonprofits with selecting senior-level hires. Previous experience with TFA in her native New York City made Sonkin a natural fit for helping create a new TFASC board of directors.

“A board of directors helps a nonprofit in a variety of ways,” said Sonkin. “For starters, board members bring a wealth of knowledge and real-world experience to an organization. Think of them as guiding lights in decision-making, especially on critical topics including budgets, strategy, and community outreach.”

When Sonkin and her husband changed residence from New York City to the Charleston area, she offered to work with Josh Bell, founding executive director of TFASC, and his leadership team to identify and recruit an advisory board.

The helping hand came at a perfect time. Bell and his team were industriously handling day-to-day operations and activities. Missing, though, was the oversight of knowledgeable directors to help with vision and governance.

“We determined that the best TFASC board would be diverse in every category – different genders, races and ethnicities, ages, and industry sectors as well as people from South Carolina and from elsewhere,” said Sonkin. “It would look the way our state looks.”

Sonkin applied her years of recruiting experience to the task of finding the right board members for TFASC. Bell made several introductions to people he had met and wanted to recruit, including Pat Crawford, Tommy Preston, Mark Richardson, Terry Richardson, and Ansel Sanders. Sonkin and Bell successfully brought them on board. She also found other members on her own – Jason Brown, Kevin Floyd, David Haythe, Carrie Lanning, and LaTisha Vaughn – and convinced them to join the newly established board.

“What we came up with successfully represented our state and its diversity,” said Sonkin. “We had great chemistry too – it was a very collegial board that enjoyed meetings and get-togethers. Every member cared deeply about TFASC’s mission.”

Sonkin remains a powerful advocate for TFASC, chairing the board from 2015 to 2020 but now having passed the baton to Brown. When Bell chose to leave in 2018, she participated in the search effort that brought Troy D. Evans to TFASC as executive director.

“Our mission evolved slightly when Evans arrived,” said Sonkin. “We were looking for someone to lead the organization in an expansion to new school districts and to deepen and broaden our footprint in areas where we already had strong relationships. We wanted to expand in the Upstate area and to increase the number of TFASC teachers and their collective impact.”

Despite many challenges during the pandemic, TFASC’s board continues its good work.

“We’ve expanded to include representatives from major industries in our state, and we’ve assembled TFASC board and staff members who wholeheartedly support our teachers,” she said.

Sonkin was born in Brooklyn but grew up in New Jersey. She attended Boston University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in special education. Sonkin earned an MBA from Northeastern University before moving to Wall Street with Morgan Stanley and later into the search profession. She started with Russell Reynolds Associates and later moved to Heidrick & Struggles. She established her own consultancy in 2004.

In addition to freely giving her time, Sonkin and her family have been generous financial supporters of TFASC. “I can’t think of a better investment than the education of a young student,” she said. “That’s why TFASC matters to me and so many others in our state.”

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