PMA Partner Spotlight: Smart Start of Mecklenburg County

May 2021

Creating Solutions To Accelerate Early Childhood Learning

By Charmain Lewis


In today's world, children are expected to come to school ready to learn by age five.  Depending on the family situation and environment, not every child is fully prepared.  This was the catalyst for the creation of Smart Start back in 1993, a nationally recognized early childhood initiative to expand and improve services for children ages birth to five and their families.  It is also where Chief Administrative Officer Mike Blackwelder, CEO Jake House and the entire team work to make certain that Smart Start of Mecklenburg County is fulfilling the vision to ensure that each child in the Charlotte region reaches his or her potential and is prepared for success in a global community.

Blackwelder's journey at Smart Start began in August of 2019.  While working as a PMA consultant, he was asked to step in for a short period as interim executive director until an official executive director was hired.  However, when Jake House came on board as the new CEO, he recognized Blackwelder's accomplishments and wanted to leverage his skillset.  A Chief Administrative Office position was created to combine Blackwelder's nonprofit leadership strengths in fundraising and business operations, which includes marketing, finance, and all programmatic activities of the organization.  The end goal was to ensure that all fundraising tied in directly with the core early childhood initiatives and programs for the organization.  

In his new role, Blackwelder hit the ground running.  With his vast experience in the nonprofit world and having learned a great deal while working as the interim executive director at Smart Start, Blackwelder was ready for the challenge.  It was during this time that the coronavirus pandemic made its way into the picture, causing a range of economic and societal disruptions, affecting the health and well-being of children and families everywhere.  Fortunately, Blackwelder and his team were able to make a smooth transition.  Staff members quickly adapted to a new working environment while continuing to fund all of the programs their families rely upon.  "Everyone's agility was really impressive," said Blackwelder.

Moving forward, Blackwelder says he's most excited about the CEO's vision of what Smart Start should look like for the community by "leading the conversation at the table."  He also emphasized that they're open to new ways of partnering and collaborating and have plans to expand beyond the tradition of what Smart Start has been.  According to Blackwelder, people mainly view the organization as a funder, "They haven't really seen us in the spot as innovation, gathering data and implementing projects.  That's our future," says Blackwelder. 

With plans to bring a transformation that will meet the needs of the county, Blackwelder and the rest of the Smart Start team are looking forward to all of the possibilities of improving the lives of children in Mecklenburg County.  To learn more about Smart Start of Mecklenburg County or find out how you can get involved go their website:

​​​​​​About PMA Nonprofit Leadership 

As a firm, PMA Nonprofit Leadership is constantly developing content and programs to help you in three distinct ways.  The first way is to help you be a thought leader in the nonprofit sector by producing weekly content through our podcast Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership. The second way is through individual coaching, training and our unique Mastermind Nonprofit Leadership program. The third way is to help your nonprofit organization through support of its strategic planning, board & staff development, and fundraising. Through our exclusive partnership with the Institute for Philanthropic Leadership, we also  guide aspiring nonprofit leaders thought the virtual New Development Professionals cohort training program, as well as the annual Leadership Gift School, now entering its 10th cohort season.  Let us know how we can help you! Join our community by signing up for our free resources here, and schedule a call if you'd like to learn more about ways we can help you on your journey to nonprofit leadership.