Pursuing Partnership Series: Men & Women in Ministry
Part 23: Leadership Profile on Hmong and Lao-American Ministry Leader Mani Khy
By Rebecca Hopkins, Paraclete Mission Group – Writer about nonprofit work
The Power of a Mistake
Maybe her bosses were making a mistake in choosing her to head up the foundation, thought Manivanh Khy. She was 8 ½ months pregnant, after all.
“I was so big and swollen, and I remember asking, ‘Are you sure about this?’ ” She laughed.
But the founders of First Fruit, Gail and Peter Ochs, both smiled and told her, “We’re not in any rush. You’re the one, and we’ll wait.”
So, three years ago, Khy became a first-time mom and the foundation’s first chief of staff. First Fruit has been awarding grants to ministries in the Majority World for over 45 years. But, at that time, change was needed as they moved toward greater focus in their work, which included moving from an executive director model to chief of staff—unusual in the philanthropy world. This restructuring by the founders was done in the hope of fostering more trust and connection between the Ochs, their board, and staff.
“They saw potential in me to build that critical foundation of trust that we needed,” Khy said. But also, “They cared more about how I was doing as a new mom than how I was doing as chief of staff.”
Thankfully, Mani has learned to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Born to Hmong and Laotian refugees, Khy has a self-described God-given wanderlust. And her expansive view of the world has given her a layered view of many things: home, trauma, money, community, and development work.
But she also likes to experience the world not just as a spectator but with this question: “Is there something I can learn about myself as God shows me new things?”
She grew up in the church as the daughter of a pastor, driven by idealistic views of a better world. She got her start in international development through secular circles, like when she served in the US Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa. After returning from her service, Mani struggled with the culture shock that set in after being away for a few years. Not to mention, the struggle to navigate what was left of the American recession of 2008 (for which she was not in-country to experience directly) was intense. It was in that struggle that her mom challenged her to grow in intimacy with God, and it was where she sensed an invitation to “walk in pace with God.” This led to a deeper relationship with the Lord, and ultimately, to development work that included spiritual transformation.
“During my time overseas, I saw how transactional and ‘efficient’ development work really was, often coming at the expense of the very communities we served,” she said. “In effect, I was internally wrestling with finding a solution to the solutions being dispensed. Something that felt more human, more honoring, more empathetic to the suffering going on in the world. What has intrigued me since working at First Fruit—even now—is the tangible difference between just meeting a felt need and actually finding creative blueprints for redemption and transformation.”
She applied at First Fruit over nine years ago and went through four rounds of interviews that lasted several hours. Her first role? An executive assistant.
“One of my first impressions was how serious they were about who they bring on…to make sure it’s a true culture fit,” she said. “And I was intrigued by the process.”
The intentionality employed in First Fruit’s hiring process is the same ethos the foundation applies to their relationships with their grantees.
“What we’ve learned through some of our most cherished partnerships, is that when the people we’re serving are treated with dignity, given the right tools to feel empowered, and provided the space to dream big, there’s unimaginable transformation that is more aligned with what God teaches us in scripture,” Khy said. “The fact that I can have a front row seat to what the Spirit is doing around the world has deeply changed me on a personal level, even though this is my professional work.”
Mani was promoted several times in the ministry, but still, she is the first woman of color to lead the organization.
“Being a young woman and person of color brings an element of doubt about one’s ability to carry out the responsibilities of her position,” she said.
And that self-doubt can carry the weight of implications about who will come after her, and the path she’s setting for those future leaders coming from similar backgrounds. And that’s when Mani learned the power of making mistakes.
“When an organization’s culture involves risk-taking, there’s a greater sense of freedom to give others that space to try something new and learn from failing,” she said. “There’s more latitude for prayer, reflecting, feedback, and acquiring new information – failures are just another source for new insights that you didn’t have before. This is a critical aspect of the iterative process of innovation and remaining nimble in our line of work where God is always surprising us and using us in wonderful ways.”