Former attorney charts a path to collaborative nonprofit world

by Jeanine Matlow
Legal News
Sometimes one career lays a solid foundation for another. That was the case for Larysa Blysniuk, director of the Southeast Michigan Senior Regional Collaborative in Detroit. 

After working as an attorney for 10 years and then taking time off to be with her children, she returned to the workforce as the governance director for the United Way for Southeastern Michigan. 
“What an incredible introduction to the nonprofit sector,” says Blysniuk, a graduate of University of Illinois College of Law.  

Working at a nonprofit felt like a continuation of the public interest legal work she had done throughout her career – legal aid, public defender, guardian ad litem. 

“I also soon saw the parallels between nonprofit governance and my favorite subject, constitutional law,” says Blysniuk. “Both value process, checks and balances, transparency, accountability, and civic engagement.”  

Still, she says, working to address society’s challenges was going to require something other than the “sum-zero-I-win-you-lose” approach she had seen in the legal profession. A long-term, hard-working collaborative approach was the only way to tackle big issues, such as failing schools or the aging adult population.
“My first involvement with nonprofit collaborations – which I consider a joint venture with a social mission – was to structure how the partners were going to work together,” she explains. “Structures need to be supported by actions and culture. So after I left the United Way, I began working with nonprofit collaborators not only to create structures but also to create collaborative thinking and practices.” 
Her legal skills continue to serve her well. 

“I like to think of myself as a nonprofit leader with a legal edge,” she says. “When I need to, I can put forth a tough argument which is hard to dismiss.”   

It’s also hard to dismiss the fact that the nation is facing a huge demographic shift. By 2030, Blysniuk says, one in four households in Southeast Michigan will have a household member who is 60 or older.

Those who are 85 and older are the fastest growing population in the state.  

The Southeast Michigan Senior Regional Collaborative (SRC) consists of 25 nonprofits that serve these older adults. The organizations came together in 2008 to develop a coordinated advocacy approach, programs and systems to address the demographic shift. Services include everything from meals to yard maintenance.
“The SRC, which collectively serves over 200,000 older adults, wants Southeast Michigan to be a place where people of all ages choose to live and live well,” Blysniuk says. “The SRC believes that the continued growth and revitalization of the region depend on our communities’ ability to both support our older residents’ ability to live vibrant, safe and healthy lives as well as prepare ourselves to meet their challenges, wherever they may be in their life’s journey.”  

Tina Abbate Marzolf, CEO of Area Agency on Aging 1-B in Southfield, which works to enhance the lives of older adults and adults with disabilities, is a colleague who has nothing but praise for Blysniuk. 

“She is very professional and very well read; she does quite a bit of research and she is a good communicator,” Marzolf says. “She’s always looking for opportunities to be innovative. She’s an enjoyable person to work with and she really likes what she does. She works hard and that really shows.

“As a person who really cares about older adults, I’m really grateful to see someone dedicate their talents to that arena and connect to that population,” Marzolf adds. “It’s a really important field and I’m glad that she chose this. I have a lot of respect for her.” 

Outside of work, Blysniuk has been known to belt out a few tunes on the karaoke machine she bought for her “daughter” for Christmas. She also reaches out to a younger crowd. 

“I have volunteered as a preschool teacher for the past nine years, which helps me stay creative and playful when working to find solutions to big problems,” she says. “I am fairly certain that Play-Doh and ‘circle time’ can solve all the world’s problems.”