City employee switches focus to nonprofit work

By Fathima Siddiqui

DeKALB — Jason Michnick is stepping down from his position as economic planner for the city of DeKalb to become the first executive director of the DeKalb-based Tanzania Development Support [TDS].

TDS is a nonprofit organization focused on improving the lives of the youth in the Mara region, the northern part of Tanzania. The group’s vision is to give kids access to supplies for better education, according to its website. Michnick has served as the nonprofit’s vice president since 2016.

Kurt Thurmaier, chairperson for the Department of Public Administration at NIU, co-founded the organization in 2008. His work began after leading study abroad courses in Tanzania. TDS members recruit volunteers through the study abroad courses and people from the community.

“Our mission is to help fund education, especially for girls in the Mara region, so they can escape poverty,” Thurmaier said.

Tanzania’s population is about the same as that of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania combined. However, 75 percent of its population still has limited access to education, health care and economic opportunities, according to the TDS website. With resources from TDS and supporting organizations, members said they see an opportunity to change lives in Tanzania.

Since the organization’s founding, members have been working on a single project at a time. Thurmaier said in the past the board and volunteers would raise money and allow their partners to manage the construction.

Now the board is working on multiple projects at a time, so the workload and fundraising opportunities increased. This led to the creation of an executive director position.

“Something that I really wanted to do while I was in school was to work for an international NGO or nonprofit,” Michnick said.

Michnick said he requested to Thurmaier to be considered for the executive director position. After many conversations with Thurmaier, Michnick said Thurmaier believed he was the perfect applicant.

“We decided not to do a national search [for an executive director] because we have an excellent first candidate,” Thurmaier said. “[Michnick] knows what our strategies are — he knows our weaknesses [and] our strengths.”

Michnick and Thurmaier said they were aware in order to focus on the projects in Tanzania, Michnick would need to relinquish his duties as the city’s economic planner.

When Michnick first told Mayor Jerry Smith he was going to leave his position, Smith said he was disappointed. After learning Michnick was going to be the first executive director of TDS, Smith said he knew it was a great opportunity for Michnick.

“[Michnick] felt this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, and I couldn’t agree with him more,” Smith said.

Michnick will be responsible for all the fundraising efforts and overseeing the programs and projects in the Mara region.

Michnick said recently the nonprofit constructed a community library and resource center and are now campaigning for books to put in the library. He said the group’s next steps are to work with teachers to build their technology skills with computers to then be able to incorporate technology with reading and writing in classrooms.

Michnick also said are not only focusing on children, but adults as well. They want to assist adults with skills on how to do business or agriculture. He said they will be having a strategic planning session on Feb. 9 to figure out how to blend his ideas with the ideas of the organization’s partners.

“He’s got lots of ideas about how to improve the organization,” Thurmaier said.

Smith and Michnick said the city is not planning on replacing Michnick or finding a new economic planner anytime soon.

“Michnick has been a very valuable asset to the city of DeKalb in his relatively short time here,” Smith said.