Alumni Spotlight: Madison Ayers

Alumni Spotlight: Madison Ayers

Over the years, YLC has facilitated training for more than 3,000 individuals, many of whom continue to serve and support our local nonprofit community as board leaders. As participants graduate from the program, many of them transition into a one-year board internship, where they can put their newfound knowledge and skills to use and immediately make an impact in the community.

We recently received an inspiring note from Sarah Lingo, Executive Director for Sister Cities, a nonprofit organization focused on promoting peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation by connecting individuals in Nashville to other people around the world. Sarah shared her experience with one of YLC’s recent alumni, Madison Ayers, a YLC Nashville Class 78 graduate who completed her one-year board internship with the organization. Please see Sarah’s note below.

“Madison has become an important part of our board and our organization. She has participated in many events including helping us prepare for our largest fundraising gala, donating homemade macarons for the event, donating a personal yoga instruction class for our silent auction, and regularly participates in all things we do.  In May, she accompanied an official delegation visit to Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq as we explored a possible new sister city relationship between Erbil and Nashville.  This was a huge endeavor and one where Madison, as our youngest delegation member, showed an incredible amount of professionalism, cultural competency, and leadership. Madison has consistently shown an effort to reach out to our Kurdish brothers and sisters here in Nashville as well as forge connections with those living in Erbil.  I am continuously impressed with her and have come to lean on her as a vital member of our organization, as well as a friend. Though she technically could not vote on the Erbil relationship, she was a strong voice of recommendation for our board to look to when making this major decision.  Her participation in this delegation visit was, in simple terms, a really big deal.” 

Sister Cities plans to offer Madison the opportunity to become a full board member this fall and expressed sincere gratitude for the work she has done to support the organization over the past year. YLC is truly proud of Madison and her commitment to advancing the mission and global work of Sister Cities.

We love to hear from our alumni and community partners! If you would like to share your stories with YLC, please email Rachel Reyes at

Young Leaders Council announces spring graduates

Young Leaders Council announces spring graduates

Nashville’s Young Leaders Council has recognized 112 young professionals through its 2023 spring cohort.

According to a release, the group is comprised of the Nashville Spring 2023, Junior League of Nashville and the Jack C. Massey College of Business at Belmont University classes. Spring training began in early March with an opening session and address from Derek Young, YLC alumnus and president/CEO of Young Motivation Group.

Training concluded on May 17 as participants transitioned into their board internships, where they serve as non-voting members of local nonprofit boards. 

YLC seeks to train a diverse group of individuals to participate on the boards of nonprofit organizations. Founded in 1985, Young Leaders Council has more than 3,000 alumni.

“YLC has the honor of ensuring that the nonprofit community has direct access to bright, well-trained  young professionals who have the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively serve as board leaders,”  Kim James, YLC executive director, said in the release.

Young Leaders Council’s philanthropic partners include The Frist Foundation, HCA Healthcare Foundation, Truist Foundation, The Marlene and Spencer Hays Foundation, The Memorial Foundation and The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

Alumni Spotlight: Nikki Walker, Executive Director of the East Nashville Hope Exchange

Alumni Spotlight: Nikki Walker, Executive Director of the East Nashville Hope Exchange

Nikki Walker photoNikki Walker is a graduate of YLC’s Nashville Class 77 and currently serves as the Executive Director for East Nashville Hope Exchange (ENHE), an organization focused on strengthening children’s literacy through the exchange of knowledge and support among families and the Nashville community to affirm the right to read for all. YLC recently caught up with Nikki to learn more about her work and how she’s using her professional passion to make a difference in the East Nashville area.

Please tell us a little about your work with the East Nashville Hope Exchange. How did you get involved with the organization and how does the mission align with your own personal values?

In my role as Executive Director for East Nashville Hope Exchange, I am responsible for the planning, management, and direction of the organization’s operations and programs. ENHE provides programming designed to close the educational “achievement gap” between children from poorer and more affluent families. This gap has increased due to learning loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Youth literacy rates in the U.S. are at the lowest level in thirty years and are even worse among low-income families and especially for black and brown students.

I started working with ENHE in 2017 as a summer volunteer coordinator and, after transitioning to a new role with a different company, continued to stay engaged with the organization as a program volunteer before joining the Board. The work that I’m able to do through ENHE fuels me each day to ensure that all children have access to a good education, and I will continue advocating until access is no longer a barrier.

How did your YLC training prepare you to effectively serve as a leader in the nonprofit community?  Are there elements of the program that have been particularly useful for you in your current role?

YLC provided me with a better perspective of how nonprofit boards work, and how the collective impact of the work affects the organization’s goals and outcomes. Before going through the program, I didn’t truly understand how all of that came together. Now in my current role, the most useful things learned were centered around board responsibilities, understanding the financials, and fundraising. I have learned that these are the most important things to know when leading and driving success for the organization. Gaining knowledge from YLC’s experts in these areas, really prepared me for what I am doing now.

What advice would you share with others looking to elevate their community impact by serving on a nonprofit board or becoming an executive leader for a nonprofit organization?

I would tell them to make sure that the work of the organization aligns with your passion. Truly take the time to learn about the organization, ask meaningful questions, and, if you can, go see the work in action. That will really help you decide whether that is in fact the area in which you want to serve. For those looking to become nonprofit executive leaders, it’s important to invest your time in learning the operational structure of the organization you desire to lead.

For more information on East Nashville Hope Exchange, please visit or reach out to Nikki directly at

January Nonprofit Spotlight: TN Innocence Project

January Nonprofit Spotlight: TN Innocence Project

Hayley Levy, Tennessee Innocence Project, Director of Development | Nashville Class 71

Hayley Levy is a YLC Nashville Class 71 graduate and serves as the first Director of Development for the Tennessee Innocence Project, where her work centers around individual, corporate, and foundation fundraising initiatives. Hayley also focuses on fundraising through special events and oversees community awareness and communications for the organization. YLC recently caught up with Hayley to learn more about her work and how its impacting the Nashville community.

What is the Tennessee Innocence Project and how does its work impact the Nashville community.

If you’ve ever seen a true crime documentary, listened to a podcast, or read an article about someone being exonerated and freed after years in prison, that’s what we do. The Tennessee Innocence Project is a state-wide, non-profit law firm whose mission is to free wrongfully convicted Tennesseans and facilitate systemic changes that prevent wrongful convictions from occurring in the future. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Tennessee has only achieved 30 exonerations since 1989, including four achieved by the Tennessee Innocence Project; our four exonerees collectively spent 95 years wrongfully imprisoned. Some of our neighbors – such as Georgia (48 exonerations), North Carolina (72 exonerations), and Ohio (98 exonerations) – have had innocence organizations for 15 to 20 years. Tennessee is not administering justice better than any other state. We simply did not have the mechanisms in place to ensure we could fix wrongful convictions until our organization was formed only four years ago. Since opening, the demand for the Tennessee Innocence Project’s services has gone through the roof, with more than 700 inquiries received to date.

How does your YLC training influence the work that you do with the Tennessee Innocence Project and as a leader within the Nashville nonprofit community? 

As a nonprofit professional, I learned so much from YLC. On the practical side, I must admit I learned how to read a profit and loss statement! YLC also encouraged me as a young leader to get involved and give back. The program helped me connect with Project Return, where I interned and then served as a Board Member for two years. The training also prepared me to lead in the Jewish community, where I serve on multiple Boards, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Nashville, Jewish Middle School, and National Council of Jewish Women – Nashville Section. In my current role at the Tennessee Innocence Project, I helped set up our YLC internship program, and we are proud to be welcoming our second intern this fiscal year.

What has been the greatest benefit you’ve received from participating in the YLC training program?

I’ve truly enjoyed the network of people I’ve met and continue to meet through YLC. I’m still friends with other participants from my cohort, and it seems like every other week I’m invited to a YLC event or meet someone else who went through the program.

What advice would you share with other YLC alumni who are looking to plug into the work you’re doing at the TN Innocence Project? 

Please reach out to me if you have questions about nonprofit development or the Tennessee Innocence Project. We would love to have more volunteers, help others learn more about our work, and would certainly appreciate any financial support for our mission. I can be reached via email at


What Recent Graduates are Saying About YLC!

What Recent Graduates are Saying About YLC!

There are so many wonderful components of the YLC program, but what stands out the most to me is the opportunity to engage with a multitude of passionate nonprofit leaders and organizations in the Nashville area. I have been an active volunteer in the Nashville nonprofit community for 15+ years, but was introduced to numerous outstanding organizations that I didn’t know about that are doing inspiring and impactful work. 

I would recommend YLC to any young professionals who are eager to expand their nonprofit skills, multiply their impact in the Nashville nonprofit space, and develop community with like-minded individuals. I found my cohort members to be sagacious, open-minded, curious, empathetic, and lots of fun! 

I loved many aspects of the Young Leaders Council training, but what stood out to me most was the pure excitement and engagement of the leadership team and YLC board members. When you walk into any meeting or event, you can feel the energy in the room – these leaders are eager to share their knowledge and expertise simply in the hopes of you fulfilling your dreams to serve your purpose.  

The YLC training program is extremely beneficial for a number of reasons. Overall, young leaders will benefit from the program because it offers a safe space to obtain the knowledge needed to become a successful board member and a well-rounded young professional with access to numerous resources beginning on day one. 

I enjoyed the YLC training program because it gave me the opportunity to learn from current nonprofit board members. YLC taught us to not be afraid to ask all of the questions and encouraged us not to be followers.  

Experiencing this program with other likeminded individuals made me feel like I had a team to fall back on and kept me from feeling out of place. I loved hearing different perspectives from future board members. One of the best parts of the program was knowing that the YLC team are always willing to help and guide you along the way. 

Thank You for Your Leadership – Sarah Rochford Benfield

Thank You for Your Leadership – Sarah Rochford Benfield

For more than six years, Sarah Rochford Benfield has donated her time, talents and treasure as a Board Member for Young Leaders Council and has spent the past two years as Board Chair for the organization. Sarah has been a constant source of support and encouragement for the YLC team throughout her tenure, helping to build partnerships and sharing her passion for the organization throughout the community. Sarah is a member of the Junior League of Nashville and is a Human Resources Operations – Business Analyst with HCA Healthcare. Sarah will continue to support the YLC Board for an additional year, providing guidance and assistance to the incoming Board Chair, Julia Bonner Zade, Founder and President of Pierce Public Relations. YLC is truly grateful for Sarah and her and leadership in service to YLC.