A Conversation With Jenna Ekstrom

New position feels like coming home.

Jenna Ekstrom is the new director of development and marketing at Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity. But she’s certainly not new to the organization.

Ekstrom arrived at Habitat in 2006 through the AmeriCorps program and signed up for a one-year contract. She ended up staying at Habitat for six and a half years. Feeling like she needed to take the next step in her career, Ekstrom took a position with the Des Moines Art Center. After two years there, she returned to Habitat last month.

“It feels like coming home,” she says. “The people at Habitat are like my family, and they’re more than coworkers. I feel lucky to be back.”

What does your job entail?

I oversee the development department, working to ensure that our organization is meeting its fund-raising and grant-writing goals. I also handle the group’s events and manage its internal and external communications.

What are your projects and goals for 2015?

We’re planning to build or renovate 27 homes and sell those to hardworking, low-income families. We would also like to complete over 130 of our Rock the Block projects. A few years ago we realized that Habitat was about more than building one house and serving one family at a time. Rock the Block was formed to help people who already own their homes stay in their homes, whether it is through minor repairs, beautification, or weatherization. We’re doing this in the communities where Habitat is building homes, partnering with families that currently live there. The program is about holistic neighborhood revitalization.

The most important goal for me is making sure we’re raising all the funding necessary to meet our goals. I’d like to bring more awareness to what Habitat is and who we are in our community. I think people recognize the brand, but don’t necessarily know what we’re doing in the Metro. I want to educate people on how they can get involved and be advocates for affordable housing.

How did you get involved with Habitat?

I knew I wanted to give back to the community in some way, and I wanted to do an AmeriCorps term. Looking through the potential options, Habitat really struck me because I knew it was something I could get behind and felt passionate about.

How did you end up at the Art Center?

I was very happy at Habitat, but I had an opportunity fall into my lap. I realized that as much as I loved the organization, in order to take another step in my career I probably needed experience outside the organization. My college degree is actually in art history, so the Art Center was a perfect fit for the two years I was there. I was in charge of the membership programs, overseeing donor relations and member events.

Why did you decide to return to Habitat?

I knew that I had done a lot in two years at the Art Center and again was ready to take that next step in my career. I learned about the vacant marketing position through my husband, Jason, who also works at Habitat. I was lucky enough to have some conversations with senior staff and was able to come into the position I’m in currently.

What did you learn at the Art Center that you’re using in your current job?

I learned a lot about how to really form and maintain positive relationships with donors and volunteers, in particular. It allowed me the opportunity to solely focus on that part of what I had been doing at Habitat. My work at the Art Center introduced me to a lot of different people in the Metro with whom we hope to have future collaborations.

Describe the biggest obstacles or challenges you see facing your organization.

A more global challenge is dispelling the misconception that many people have that Habitat is a handout and not a hand up. A lot of people think that families are given or gifted the homes. They are not; they purchase the homes for an affordable mortgage. I think locally the challenge has really been that the need continues to grow. We want to rise to meet it, but we can’t do that without more support, more volunteers, and more donations.

We’re making it a goal this year to be out in the community more to raise public awareness of Habitat. We also want to share the story behind the ReStore. Sometimes people come in because it’s such a great value. They don’t realize that shopping there is really contributing to our mission.

Describe your experience as a female in the construction industry.

It has been so unbelievably rewarding for me. It was really a big challenge in the beginning to gain the trust and respect of my male counterparts. Even though I’m not building on the job site, to be able to speak the language and to understand things like what a truss looks like and how a foundation is poured—that has been such a fun process for me to learn about. I think people respect that you’re taking the time to learn what you do for a living. It has helped tremendously in terms of making connection, building relationships, and staying on industry trends.

Are you involved with any other nonprofit groups?

I’m currently the board chair-elect for the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute and on the board of the Junior League of Des Moines. I also volunteer for Community Youth Concepts, which provides after-school educational opportunities and mentorship programming for at-risk youth in the community.

Tell us about your personal life.

My husband and I live in Des Moines with our two cats. We both love to travel. I also like to bake and am a huge University of Illinois sports fan. I enjoy drawing, painting—anything that provides me with a fun and creative outlet.