Breakthrough: Donna Perkins Whitman

Posted by: DVULI | January 26, 2023

Donna Perkins Whitman

by Kimberlee Mitchell, Staff

Reaching age 50 is, for many, a turning point that comes with the onset of a new normal. When Donna Perkins Whitman (Los Angeles 2005) entered midlife, slowing down was not a variable in her plans. In fact, the 28-year veteran urban youth worker got her second wind, and despite what looked like obstacles were opportunities in her eyes.   

“I wanted to work toward something that would launch me into the second half of my career and leverage my years of leadership experience in youth development,” said Donna. Her top priority was completing the master’s degree that she had already started before age 50, but personal setbacks hindered her from finishing. She considered quitting due to being anxious about keeping up with the academic rigors and was nervous about the financial change the degree would bring. As a career missionary, moving from receiving her income from missionary support to monetizing her services was a big shift.  

“It made me so anxious,” she shares. “I was questioning my worth.” Leaning into fear and stretching herself proved to be the right move. “It empowered me to push through my insecurities about my ability to engage with technology in an advanced way!” She kept up indeed, and in 2021 Donna earned an MS in Instructional Design and Technology from California State University, Fullerton.  

Years earlier, when she completed her undergraduate degree, Donna took a job with Cru Inner City (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) and worked there in different capacities for 20 years. “I learned so much at Cru,” she credits. “I improved my Spanish speaking ability, built trusting relationships cross-culturally, increased my understanding of different denominations, and learned how to create unity among diversity.” Through Cru, she also learned practical best practices for youth development of all ages and was introduced to “life-giving” networks, including Urban Youth Workers Institute, the S.A.Y. Yes! Center Association, and DVULI.  

Upon graduating from DVULI, she learned about opportunities for additional training and later signed up for a module that taught the technical side of developing curriculum. “DVULI helped me realize I was a lifelong learner,” explains Donna. “Taking that DVULI-led course in Instructional Design made me want to go back to school.” She used the workshop knowledge to design a one-year distance training and coaching program for international youth workers to help coordinate citywide youth development networks. Donna was hooked! “This was the beginning of me putting into practice what DVULI planted in me,” explains Donna. “I made it a personal goal to get a master’s degree by the age of 50.”  

Armed with the core value of interdependence, among other leadership tools, Donna decided to leave Cru and switch to Global Service Associates (GSA). This nontraditional missions organization offers missionaries, church planters, counselors, pastors, and other leaders the freedom to pursue their calling in ministry while being bi-vocational. Donna liked the spiritual practices, sense of community, and financial flexibility GSA provides its missionary members, which made for a smooth transition to her next project.  

In her new role as Director of Neighborhood Development at a booming community-based after-school nonprofit in Fullerton, California, Donna screened, onboarded, and trained volunteers. There weren’t enough hours in the day to get to the long lists of volunteers. Feeling the tension of keeping eager volunteers waiting repeatedly forced her to take a step back to see what was limiting the ministry from reaching more children and families. She identified two limitations: the turnover of reliable volunteers and the lack of time for staff to recruit and train new volunteers.  

“We were a newly launched nonprofit with a lot of momentum, but we could only expand as fast as the staff could manage,” she explained. “It’s very hard to zoom out to get a bigger picture when you’re running and building new programs. I realized that I was the bottleneck in the system!”   

With online learning emerging gradually around the world, Donna took note and wondered if creating an online volunteer training would solve the bottlenecking issue. “We could bring on new volunteers year-round instead of only twice to four times a year,” she reasoned.   

Donna made the first step by enrolling in a program to learn how to create self-guided or hybrid online courses. She then transitioned her volunteer training to online. Little did she know that by March 2020, the rest of the world would be making the same transition to online learning and convening.  

“I feel like God was guiding me to gain these skills and move past my own insecurities just months before the whole world would face similar challenges,” reflects Donna.  

Although it’s been nearly 20 years since graduating from DVULI, Donna can boast about the collaborative efforts she has been engaged in over the years alongside some of her fellow DVULI alumni. “I still lean on the friendships I made while going through DVULI and through my network of urban youth workers,” she said. “This interdependence and collaboration have also led to work.”  

With her liaison Eric Johnson (Los Angeles 2010) and fellow cohort alum Curt Gibson (Los Angeles 2005) at Stars, Donna assisted efforts to build staff and volunteer capacity and honed existing training and educational curriculum. With John Park (Los Angeles 2010) at UYWI, she is integrating instructional design best practices into their training and reviewing the Certification Program to offer assistance in making updates. Donna also is working with Irene Cho (Los Angeles 2019) of Able Works on the annual revision of financial literacy curriculum called FutureProfits taught in high schools.   

Donna’s midlife career change gave her reach with no bounds. She has seen her passion and ability to serve youth elevate in California, which has made reaching age 50 look real good on her!   

“By admitting my self-limiting beliefs and choosing to trust God and myself, I have the ability to change as the world changes,” Donna concludes. “The heart of DVULI training is transformation. That’s transformation through relationships, transformation through experiential learning. I’m addicted to experiential learning because I always want to continue transforming. That’s where the biggest growth happens.”