Marianne Downing has come to the board of Big Ocean with more than 20 years of experience in management and evaluation in the nonprofit sector. For six of those years, she owned a successful consultancy firm in New Zealand that specialized in the evaluation of nonprofit organizations and their programs. She brings to the board best practices taken from 150 organizational assessments of a variety of sizes and cultures. She has previously been a member of other nonprofit boards in New Zealand including social work and educational organizations. Prior to coming to live in the United States in 2012, Marianne was engaged in a project to expand a social service agency into the French speaking areas of France, Switzerland and Belgium.
One day in 2007, after finding herself a single parent to four children, jobless, at times homeless, and struggling to make ends meet, Marianne Downing packed a single suitcase and moved with her two young sons from New Zealand to Paris, France. Though it first seems that this should have been a turning point for her, a chance to start again and create a new life for herself, Marianne will tell you that the real change came earlier—when she made the conscious decision to take her life into her own hands and take charge of her own story. After her first husband left their family for the second time, she moved cities and started her own business. As she did so, she gained confidence in herself, faith in her choices about her life, and realized that she could do just about anything that she put her mind to.
Born in New Zealand to Dutch immigrant parents, Marianne spent most of her adult life in New Zealand, attended University where she got a degree in history, then married, had four children, worked as a guidance counselor, and went back to school for her Master’s Degree in Education Guidance and Counseling. Marianne is endlessly optimistic, and loves to tell about how she has changed and grown through the choices she has made in her life, and how she has learned from even the most challenging times. And there were challenges.
At one point Marianne found herself going through a very traumatic time; a single parent, alone, unemployed, overweight, and at a loss to how to change things for the better. But one thing Marianne is good at doing is reframing her life to see how she can learn from her challenges, and move forward without bitterness or anger. She decided to get busy, own her own power, and make a change for the better. So she moved cities, joined Weight Watchers, and started her own business as a consultant for non-profit organizations, putting her skills and experience to use.
When you talk to Marianne, one thing you notice immediately is her openness, and her willingness to share her story with others; both the good and the bad. This generosity comes from a genuine belief in the power each person has to change their lives and their stories, and her desire to help be a part of that change. Marianne is passionate about history, and about helping others find their own story, and claim their role in it.
She told me about a study done with children in New York, where researchers were looking into the impact of family history, and a knowledge of that history on the emotional state of the participants. What they found was that children who knew their own history were more emotionally resilient. This study became particularly relevant after 9/11. Researchers returned to their participants and found that among those same children, the ones who knew their family histories were better able to cope with the trauma that surrounded the events of 9/11 than their peers. Marianne loves to help others find and reclaim their own stories, and one of the ways she does this is to share her own, freely and without reservations.
Marianne’s willingness to share her talents and her experience has led her around the world; from New Zealand, to Paris, to New Jersey, and finally to Provo, Utah where she currently resides with her second husband, in a home nestled at the base of the mountains near Brigham Young University’s campus. She is quick to say that most of these dramatic changes were not her own idea, but that she was being led to one opportunity after another, and that she had to have faith to follow the callings that she felt. From owning her own successful consulting firm in New Zealand, to working with social service agencies in France, Switzerland, and Belgium, to following her second husband to the United States, and now working with nonprofits in Utah county and Salt Lake, Marianne has tried to be open to being called to different service within her church and her career. She credits this to her faith, and her deep belief and trust in God.
Marianne said, “God can direct me and God knows what he is doing, and I trust him—if God says jump, I ask him how high—He will take me in the right direction-—not always the direction I was expecting, but every time it was something that benefited my life.” This faith has sometimes led her to surprising places, but it has been something to rely on, and a principle that guides her actions. “Be led by faith. It will help you understand the direction you need to go, the messages you need to hear, and the story you need to tell.”
She recalled a time shortly after moving to France, one where she was unsure of why she had been led to leave everything that she knew for someplace where she knew no one, and where everything was unfamiliar. She left the house one morning, a stack of resumes in hand, eager to find a job and a purpose for her move. She told me, she remembers asking God to guide her to a new job, and what followed was a series of experiences that she will never forget. She felt prompted at one point to leave the bus, and walk into a small garden. Following the prompting, she found two women, lost and in tears. She helped them find where they needed to go, and then felt like she should return to her previous route. The rest of the day unfolded with one experience after another where she found herself in a position to help others, but not really finding the answers to her questions of employment. “What I learned was that there were a lot of ways I could help others, and that it wasn’t just about finding a job.” Marianne has tried to continue to follow the callings that she has felt, both big and small.
Marianne married her second husband in the Manhattan LDS temple in 2012, shortly before Hurricane Sandy hit. After moving to Utah in 2015 she became acquainted with Big Ocean Women through her step-daughter, who participated in the same homeschooling group as Carolina Allen, one of the founding members. By this time, she had worked in nonprofit consulting for almost 20 years, and quickly realized she could help reframe Big Ocean by creating the structure and organization that has helped them reach out to women and families all over the world. “Being able to guide the passion of women who are creating; being a part of the planning, organization, and scope of an organization that is trying to change policy by reaching out to people is powerful,” she said. “Big Ocean looks for needs and tries to motivate and inspire—it’s a better approach to getting things done. We change people, and those people change systems.”
Marianne is quick to share with you her views on creating the most powerful, fulfilling life. “How we view the world is key to everything we do. It is essential in our day and age, especially with the polarization happening everywhere, that we create avenues for communication, and look for common ground where we can compromise and create change. We can be more powerful, we can be more assertive, and we can change the way we view the world if we approach life from the side of good. Instead of fighting against something, we need to fight for something.”
Written by ShelliRae Spotts