This week we say goodbye to Alison Sowden, The Huntington’s chief financial officer for the past 24 years. She recently accepted a position to head the financial operations of the Art Institute of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute. She will do great things there as she did at The Huntington, because she’s a remarkable person of enormous talent. But we will miss her dearly.
Alison is a rare bird in the world of finance. Of course she is an incredibly serious and industrious CFO, playing a key role in turning years of deficits when she arrived into balanced budgets every year since 1994. She shepherded the growth in endowment from $66 million to its current $450 million. She was recognized for her striking accomplishments by the L.A. Business Journal, who named her CFO of the year for L.A. nonprofit organizations in 2013.
But Alison is also a wonderful weaver of narrative. (Maybe it’s her graduate degree in English, the one she thought would never land her a job.) Every staff and governing board member can quote her explanation of Huntington finances as “the three-legged stool”—endowment payout rate, gifts, and earned revenues. Though simple enough for those of us who have trouble balancing our checkbooks, the concept is illustrative enough to support our entire philosophical approach to finances. The Huntington is an organization in balance, made so in large part through Alison’s ability to make our financial challenges and vision accessible and, dare I say, fun!
Her talent is infused with an effusive positivism and joy that infects the whole institution. Her boisterous laugh can often be heard down the hallways; her sense of style is the envy of many. Whether dancing at the annual ball, leading the holiday sing-along, or chatting with a security officer, joy is the hallmark.
Alison and I have worked together for 28 years, launching our careers when we were 12, in case you’re doing the math. She is largely responsible for my career, evidencing a huge leap of faith by bringing me as a young, relatively inexperienced kid from the Getty to The Huntington to grow several newly merged departments in an institution that was striving for solidity. She supported me, trusted me, guided me, and let me blossom, as she has done for so many others. She taught me to cross-country ski, tried to convince me to love camping (perhaps her only less-than-stellar effort), and allowed me to be “auntie” to her most amazing son.
These are not the kinds of things that end up in financial audits or budget reports. And they’re not the typical measurements of success. But Alison’s colleagues know full well the ways that her talent and experience have been enlivened by her vibrant sense of humor and verbal acumen.
I’ve enjoyed a longer-term and more familial relationship with Alison than most, but everyone would agree that she is a joy. Chicago, prepare for a welcome incoming warm front.
Laurie Sowd is Vice President for Operations at The Huntington.