By Tova Green
Helen Degenhardt recently stepped down as San Francisco Zen Center’s Board Chair after serving on the Board for ten years. Her connection to SFZC began shortly after she moved to the Bay Area in 1983, when she started attending Sunday programs at Green Gulch Farm. Since then she has “orbited” SFZC, mostly bringing her skills as an architect to many building projects at Green Gulch Farm and Tassajara.
When former Board member Brian McCaffery invited Helen to join the Board in 2011, it seemed like a natural next step to deepen her involvement with the organization and serve in a different role. San Francisco Zen Center had become an important part of her life; it had changed how she saw things: “Working closely with ZC staff for all these years was my practice, my training by osmosis almost. People were so thoughtful in their interactions and had a presence that I valued.” She joined the Board in 2012.
In 2019, Helen was appointed Board Chair. Together with the Central Abbot and the President (the Abbots’ Executive Group), she developed priorities for the organization focusing largely on the long-term financial health of SFZC. The group also helped to develop a ten-year plan that will guide the Board and administration in making well-informed decisions over the next decade. When the Covid pandemic shut everything down in March 2020, the focus suddenly shifted into “survival mode” – how to support the continued functioning of SFZC, keep everyone safe, offer programs, and create enough revenue to support the residents and the three temples.
The pandemic eliminated many of SFZC’s revenue sources with the closure of Tassajara’s summer Guest Season, the closing of conference spaces at City Center and Green Gulch Farm, and the challenge of operating Greens Restaurant during the pandemic. Together with Ed Sattizahn and the Board, Helen mounted a fundraising campaign to offset these losses. Many residents left near the beginning of the pandemic. Helen realized that it was necessary to assure the remaining residents that they could stay at SFZC and would continue to be supported.
During her ten years on the Board, Helen has seen some very significant changes: “SFZC has become so much more professional.” For example, the Accounting Department now produces monthly cash flow statements and has the capacity to project budgets several years in advance. In addition, members of the Board Finance Committee (that supports and advises the accounting department) bring valuable professional knowledge and expertise. This is crucial for the organizational and financial health of SFZC. She sees similar advances in the IT department, the growth of SFZC’s online programming, and the streamlining of the administration, now called Zen Central.
Two years ago, when Margie O’Driscoll, who was vice chair, left the Board, Helen began looking for a new vice chair who might eventually take on the role of Board Chair. She immediately thought of Angela Ni, who had joined the Board in 2019. With her background in strategic planning she seemed a natural choice.
When Angela became vice chair, they collaborated on many aspects of governance, created agendas for Board retreats, and set goals for both the Board and the organization. After six months Helen invited Angela to be the next Chair. The transition has been smooth. Helen appreciates Angela’s energy, ability to think strategically, her way of interacting with people, and sees Angela as a tech whiz.
Helen’s long tenure on the Board was honored at the December 2022 Board Holiday party at Greens Restaurant. Helen misses the frequent interactions with other Board members and staff and the rapport she developed in working with Abbot Ed Sattizahn and President Sozan Miglioli. However, she continues to be engaged with SFZC. Her expertise as an architect is proving invaluable in working on the BMT (Beginners’ Mind Temple/City Center) renovations. Helen currently acts as the owner’s representative for the project. She also enjoys participating in monthly one-day sittings at Green Gulch Farm.