He never thought of becoming a nonprofit executive, but after 22 years with Scripps Networks, Tim Chandler found himself at a crossroads, where he could choose his next chapter. The position at Friends of the Smokies enables him to help protect one of his loves.
When you have a passion, it finds a way in to your life in ways you wouldn’t expect. It was January 2007, and Tim Chandler sat at the Friends of the Smokies Evergreen Ball taking in the scene. Tim was an executive at Scripps Networks at the time, and he was tasked with bringing some clients to the event.
Tim recounted his first encounters with Friends of the Smokies to me this past fall. He tells me how connected he felt to the work of preserving and protecting the park. “My family, when my kids were young, camped often when we were in Knoxville, and the Elkmont area was a favorite place to camp,” he says. The fireflies were magical and the three streams surrounding the campground made for incredible experiences for his family. But it was seeing those deteriorating cabins during those trips that stuck with him. “We so need to preserve our past,” he recalls thinking.
Tim studied marketing and quickly received an opportunity to get into sales with a computer company, using “some natural talents that I had.” This opportunity eventually led him into the television and tourism business. “That’s where I found my passion,” he says. “And it just took off.” He was moved to Knoxville in 1993 for work and three years later took a leap and joined a startup network called HGTV. “That began a career that was just absolutely magical.”
Tim’s role with Scripps was in advertising sales, and he was there for 22 years. It’s hard to imagine HGTV as a fledgling network, but Tim can vividly. He calls it “humbling” to have seen firsthand where it started and where it would eventually end up. “I got to travel the US working with this startup because there weren’t that many of us,” he tells me.
During his time with the network, he oversaw the promotion of the then-new HGTV Dream Home program for its first six years. “Seeing that grow over the years probably really defines my career,” he says of his time with the network.
His success there is part of what helped his early success as a volunteer at Friends. Years in sales meant his contact list was vast. “I knew that I could help them out in the auction,” he recalls thinking after that first ball. So he volunteered to be a silent auction committee member that next year, securing donated gifts from others who wanted to give back to the park. “After chairing that for a couple of years, they actually asked me to be the host, the chair of the whole event,” he says, beaming.
Tim was a for-profit executive, so I’m curious to understand what pushed him to make the switch to nonprofit life a number of years later. And while Scripps being sold to Discovery, Inc. in 2018 may have started that leap—“it kind of rocked my world,” he admits—Tim tells me he was ready to reinvent his career.
Mentors played a role in this. “Mentoring relationships are so important at every stage of your career,” he says, adding that is whether you become a mentor or need one. “That gets you past those bumps in the road or when your career stalls out at a certain point. You think, okay, do I need to do something else? Do I need to change something? And going back to those people and getting wise counsel and advice is really good.”
Connections are what helped Tim know in his heart where to go next. “Scripps had a long history with the Friends of the Smokies,” he says. Friends’ longtime president Jim Hart was a former Scripps executive and approached Tim about serving on the board. His role grew from there.
“Fundraising is about selling your project or purpose that your organization is doing and transitioning that,” he says. “I’ve always found that if you tap into the passions that we have, it naturally flows from there and people just glow when they talk about the park, when they talk about whatever project they’re working on.” And those people, he says, inspire him to get up every morning and do the work.
Just last year, the organization opened one of the first ADA-compliant trails in Cades Cove, a moment Tim calls out as one of his most proud in his Friends career. “That was very exciting to see these families that were not able to get to the cabin, and now they could do and experience our history and be out in nature.”
This is Tim’s life. And even though he works daily in support of the park, he is a patron himself, spending time amongst the wild whenever he can. And he supports national parks across the country, too. Next up, a revisit to the Grand Canyon in 2023.