Even at a young age, Tara Benson recognized leadership characteristics within herself.
As a third-grader, she was organizing secret clubs and collecting dues – even though she wasn’t entirely sure what to do with them. She also was the only person from her hometown of Kennett to apply for an international trip with the Girl Scouts. That childhood desire to be active in her community remained ingrained in her as she arrived in Springfield 11 years ago with a determination to be a community volunteer and leader.
Benson has served since 2013 as associate director of Missouri State University’s Plaster Student Union and director of student engagement. She’s in charge of 20 full-time student and graduate assistant staff, budgets totaling around $1.5 million, and promotion of campus events, festivals and the overall image of the university.
“Along my journey, I found that leadership sometimes means doing the job others don’t want to do and doing it very well, having tough conversations and celebrating success while learning from failure,” she says. “I am always willing to say yes – if at all possible – and when I do say yes, I am all in. Role modeling a giving attitude and willingness to serve has provided me with great opportunities to serve in many leadership capacities in community-focused boards and organizations.”
Among multiple off-campus roles, Benson is active on the boards of The Junior League of Springfield, Missouri Inc., Springfield Little Theatre and the Discovery Center. She also served on the city of Springfield personnel board from 2010-16.
“Serving on three very active community boards over the past three years has taught me a lot about how to best support nonprofit organizations,” she says. “Not only do you need the board to be task-oriented, but to also have connections to sponsorship dollars to help move the organization forward.”
Benson carried that mindset when she was elected in 2017 as Springfield Little Theatre associate board president. With the desire to recruit a wide variety of young professionals in the community to visit SLT by building up activities aimed at them, Benson says the board last year held multiple events, such as an “Elf Jr.” party geared toward families with young children. The various events helped bring 200 young professionals to attend a theater production who had never been before, she notes.
Benson also took the lead when it came time to find a new executive director of the Discovery Center, serving as chair of the search committee – an undertaking she says currently serves as her greatest accomplishment in the Springfield nonprofit community.
From writing the job description, meeting with potential candidates and leading a needs assessment workshop with the nonprofit’s board, Benson says the search was a smooth one that ultimately led to the December 2017 hiring of Rob Blevins.
“This was the time to utilize the skills I’ve learned in hiring, along with human resource practices, and also to talk with other community leaders about the importance of having a strong leader at the head of this now 20-year-old organization,” she says, noting many of the community leaders she reached out to during the search process have come on board as donors.
The Forward SGF comprehensive plan was born from the input of residents, and one message that came through loud and clear was their desire for connection.