After four years at the helm of Utah’s largest gay rights organization, Equality Utah Executive Director Mike Thompson will depart on May 29 to pursue other job opportunities in San Francisco.
“It’s a life transition more than it is the work opportunity,” explained Thompson, who has worked in consulting for several years. Upon leaving Utah he will help one San Francisco organization prepare for a capital campaign, and advise another “fledgling organization” on hiring a staff to advance its work.
“It really is the different facets of growing an organization that I’m part of, and that’s what I really love about in my career: tapping potential in organizations,” said Thompson.
Thompson first came to Utah in 2004 to work as the deputy campaign manager of Equality Utah’s No on 3 Campaign. This campaign, chaired by Scott McCoy two years before he became a state senator, opposed a voter initiative (called Amendment 3) which sought to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman in Utah’s constitution. Although the initiative passed by 66 percent of the vote, No on 3’s efforts managed to bring voter approval for the amendment down from 72 percent.
Thompson said Equality Utah advisory council Jane Marquardt asked him to interview for the position of executive director upon Michael Mitchell’s departure in 2005. Thompson was excited to interview for the position, but he had one stipulation.
“During the interview process I had mentioned to the board of directors that it’s my personal belief that an executive director [of a non-profit group organization] should serve between three to five years,” said Thompson. “I feel when you’re growing an organization it’s always good to have fresh blood. We’ve had some significant growth in the four years I’ve been here, and I really felt like it was time to hand the reigns over to the next person to lead the organization to its next level of growth.”
And now, the time for handing over the reigns has come. Recently, Thompson has received some short and long-term contracts for consulting work which excite him.
“I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to make a life transition that I hoped to make at some point,” he said, noting that the period after the general legislative session is a “good time of year” for him to make such a transition. “It’s almost as if the planets had aligned to allow me to do this at this point in my life.”
During Thompson’s term, Equality Utah has changed drastically. The organization has gone from two-full time employees to four, and fewer than ten endorsed, fair-minded political candidates in office to over 30. The group has helped pass laws addressing bullying and hazing in public schools and a Salt Lake City ordinance forbidding the city government to discriminate against gay and transgender employees. Its annual Allies Dinner, which raises money for the organization’s political action campaign, has also gone from just 500 attendees to 1,300 last year.
Thanks largely to Equality Utah’s work, the state it serves has also changed. Polls released by Equality Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News earlier this year indicated that the majority of Utahns not only knew someone who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, but supported such basic protections as inheritance and insurance rights for same-sex partners, and employment and housing nondiscrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity. And while Republicans on Capitol Hill balked at passing a collection Equality Utah gay rights bills known as the Common Ground Initiative this session, the initiative has been popular among Salt Lake City businesses and municipal governments like Salt Lake County.
“I feel well accomplished for what we have done, and it really has been a collective effort,” said Thompson. “We’ve got an amazing and incredibly committed staff and board of directors, and we’ve got a significant commitment from our allies and the LGBT community that things are really in place for the next level of significant growth.”
Still, Thompson said that his departure is bittersweet.
“There are so many people I love here, and [it has been a] privilege coming to work with people I admire, respect and enjoy,” he said. “We’re friends as well as co-workers; it really is a special work place. There’s a lot of grieving that goes with the transition. While I’m very excited about what’s next for me, it does come with some grieving for what I’m leaving.”
And that grieving is not only on Thompson’s part.
“He’s been a great leader of this organization and a great friend, and we love him a lot,” said Keri Jones, Equality Utah’s Manager of Programs and Administration. “We’re excited for him and proud of him and wish him well, but also hope he comes back.”
“He’s been a great mentor to me,” added Lauren Littlefield, the organization’s Field Coordinator. “I’m happy for him and excited for his future to move on and do some good in another place.”
“Were definitely gonna miss him and he’s been great for the organization,” said Public Policy Manager Will Carlson. “Equality Utah is going to continue to exist and the needs of the LGBT community are going to continue to be met. We’ll miss Mike, but we’re excited about possibilities that come with the change.”
But while Thompson is leaving at the end of the month, that change won’t come as immediately as it might seem. Thompson said that he would continue to work with the organization after departing “to ensure that the new person who comes in will have a smooth transition to continue the great work of the organization.”
He will also not soon forget the kindness and support Utah has shown him.
I felt a very warm embrace form the time I landed here in 2004 and a wonderful reception when I came back in 2005,” he said. “I’ve witnessed the community really get behind work of Equality Utah. It’s really humbling because I feel like when a community or even individual within a community donates their time or financial resources to an organization, it really is a significant vote of confidence. And with that comes a high level of stewardship. And because of that we’ve been able to expand our donor and volunteer base. That’s humbling. It feels like we’re doing the right thing when we have such broad-based support.”
Currently Equality Utah’s board of directors is accepting résumés for the position of executive director. The position will be closed on May 18, after which time the board will begin evaluating applications and conducting interviews.
A farewell party will be held for Thompson on May 27 at Club Jam, 751 N 300 W,
from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.