In the Marketplace: Angela Lett of Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers

Reflections on 15 years of service in the nonprofit sector
  • By Caroline Panchelli
  • Published on December 19, 2019
Angela Lett with a capuchin monkey
Angela Lett, Executive Director of Helping Hands, with one of her organization's capuchin monkey helpers , Photo courtesy of Helping Hands

The Social Innovation Forum’s marketplace approach to social change brings many unique people through our doors. Angela Lett came to SIF through the Capacity Camp program, a condensed version of the nonprofit accelerator, in 2019. She is the Executive Director of Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers, but her path to the position has been anything but conventional. Her story serves as a reminder that every experience we’ve lived in the past or present remains relevant.  

Originally from Michigan, Angela received a degree in biology from Guilford College in North Carolina and later a degree in voice from the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. She did not know much about the nonprofit world before becoming involved with the work 15 years ago. She graduated from the Boston Conservatory in 2005, and as the school was preparing to start its first-ever building campaign, she ended up working in the school’s development office to tackle this initiative. She quickly went from Development Assistant to Development Associate and was responsible for the annual fund and parent and alumni relations there. 

“One of the best opportunities I had was starting out at the Boston Conservatory because it had a very small development department when I was there,” she said. “I didn’t realize until my next job what a breadth of experience I was able to get there.”

Returning to North Carolina in 2010, she took on a role as the Director of Development for the graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and later went back to Michigan to work at Michigan State University in another development position. But after realizing she wanted to do more than be a major gift officer in higher education, she eventually came back to Boston and began working for smaller nonprofits outside of the education sector. 

At The Food Project, she oversaw a team of six people and gained experience in marketing and communications, an experience she said was very rewarding. In 2016, she was recruited by Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers as the Director of Development and Communications. She then served as Interim Executive Director, before taking over as the Executive Director in 2018, her current role. 

What I like about small nonprofits is that I’m always forced to learn new things.

“What I like about small nonprofits is that I’m always forced to learn new things,” she said. “Managing workload and being able to continue your mission is very challenging.”

Angela said that attending a performing arts school prepared her to be able to speak in front of large groups and make a case for her organization, and her background in biology also helps her to organize and systematize information. Understanding trends and knowing of tools available for fundraising are also skills she said are necessary for successful nonprofit management. 

For those entering the nonprofit sector for the first time, Angela recommended working with people in different positions within an organization to widen your perspective and to adopt best practices.

“It’s pretty easy to get involved with nonprofits because we’re a needy bunch,” she said. “Look for every opportunity you can to learn, and be willing to learn on your own. Don’t expect anybody to spoon-feed you.” 

Angela Lett is the Executive Director of Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers, a nonprofit organization in Boston that trains capuchin monkeys to help people with spinal cord injuries and other mobility impairments with their daily tasks. She has been with the organization for four years and has served as the Executive Director for three years.

About the Author
Caroline Panchelli served as the Social Innovation Forum’s Program and Events Co-op from July to December, 2019. She is a fourth-year student at Northeastern University pursuing a combined degree in political science and sociology with a minor in journalism. 

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