Women in Nonprofit: Changing the World

By Lindsey Townsend

Throughout history, women have never questioned their ability to make a difference in the world through their time and talent. They have given generously, establishing schools, founding hospitals and sheltering the homeless.

After the tragic events of September 11, many Americans are questioning their values and re-examining priorities. There has never been a more appropriate time to spotlight the invaluable contributions made by the unsung heroes who work in the nonprofit sector.

The women who are drawn to this work share a determination, enthusiasm and passion to make the world a better place for others that keeps them going during lean times. Apathetic individuals and clock-watchers need not apply. To successfully any nonprofit organization, its leader needs a unique combination of people and leadership skills. Stellar diplomatic talents are mandatory, since nonprofits typically work with many kinds of people and personalities-from donors to board members to clients--who all have a vested interest in the activities and direction of the organization.

Two other essentials, say industry insiders, are a knack for achieving results and a flair for teambuilding. “A lot of people have good ideas but no idea how to implement them into a community,” says Christine Grumm, executive director of the Women’s Funding Network. “You need an ability to listen and help a group define its goals, then focus its energies and move people towards action,” remarks Becky Sykes, executive director of the Dallas Women’s Foundation.

Intangible Benefits

The opportunity to help others through nonprofit work provides a soul satisfaction that pays rewards far greater than a paycheck, say many.“You're never going to be independently wealthy doing this type of work, so you have to care about and believe in the mission of your organization. There are rewards, but they won't necessarily find their way into your wallet,” says Kathy Rodgers, president of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

As a nonprofit, NOW salaries don’t typically pay quite as much as comparable positions in the private sector. “It's a challenge for us, because we're competing-but competing successfully, I should add--with high-paid, high-powered private lawyers and lobbyists,” Rodgers says. “Together, we reap the rewards of doing meaningful work.”

While a career in the nonprofit world will generally not provide the financial rewards available in much of the for-profit world, things are looking brighter, especially for those with business skills. Executive salary levels are based on size of budget and staff overseen, experience, and, often, the ability to raise money.

Career opportunities in nonprofit encompass a broad range of positions, including everything from running a one-person, grassroots organization to managing a national hospital that employs thousands. “We still have a glass ceiling that has a lot to do with the size of the nonprofit, although that is changing,” says Grumm.

Because the field is becoming increasingly competitive, women planning to enter the profession should equip themselves with the proper educational background as well as volunteer experience. Many colleges and universities, including Southern Methodist University (SMU), now offer majors in nonprofit management, along with graduate programs in Arts Administration. The LBJ School at UT Austin also recently developed an emphasis in nonprofit management and philanthropy. “I would advise anyone--male or female--who wants to work in the field to consider such educational opportunities and to get some business administration courses along the way,” says Sykes.

Christine Grumm
Executive Director
Women’s Funding Network
“Hope is a verb that requires action.”

“Our job is to get the message out that women and girl funds should be the philanthropy of choice,” says Christine Grumm, executive director of the Women’s Funding Network (WFN) in San Francisco, California. The WFN (www.wnet.org) is comprised of more than 75 women and girl’s funds in the U.S. and internationally and has more than $175 million in combined assets.

Now, the 17-year-old cyber network has announced plans to increase funding to $250 million by 2003 and $450 million by 2008. Its members support efforts for women and girls to combat domestic violence, rape, and sex trafficking, while providing funding for anti-violence programs, shelters and advocacy.

Grumm says the most rewarding part of her work is having the ability to empower others to take control of their lives, whether it’s watching an abused woman in the U.S. say “no more” or a group of single mothers in Tanzania learn to support themselves economically. “If you give people the right resources, they can be incredibly creative about finding their own solutions,” she says.

The nonprofit world is becoming more competitive and increasingly requires the same organizational, analytical and business skills as the for-profit sector, according to Grumm. Although the industry is so broad that it encompasses everything from one-person grassroots organizations to major hospitals, where top jobs often pay six figures, women tend to predominate in the smaller organizations. “We still have a glass ceiling which has a lot to do with the size of the nonprofit,”Grumm says.

Now that over 50% of all personal wealth in the U.S. is held under woman’s names, increasing women’s overall charitable giving is a top priority for WFN. Women and their talents are desperately needed in the nonprofit world as donors and volunteers. “Women have to become part of the solution,” Grumm urges. “If ever there was a time to get involved in your community, it’s now.”

Rachel Muir
Founder and Executive Director
“Be afraid and do it anyway."

Don’t ever tell Rachel Muir that you’re not good at math. Like so many other females of her generation, Muir grew up feeling that girls weren’t capable of excelling in math or science. Once she realized how she had limited her own choices, she set out to make sure that no other young girl would do the same.

“I want to change the way the world thinks about girls, but more importantly, to change the way girls think about themselves,” Muir said. So in 1997-with $500 and a credit card--she founded Girlstart, an Austin-based, nonprofit organization (www.girstart.org) dedicated to promoting math, science and technology-related skills for girls.

Girlstart provides an empowering atmosphere in which girls perform hands-on activities with robots, microscopes, environmental science, math, engineering and technology. Four years after its inception, it has raised over $1.5 million dollars, created the first technology center for girls in Texas, and served thousands of girls aged 9-15. This past summer, a team of Girlstart “ROBOLAB Divas” took first place in the National Instruments robotic competition, where they competed against professional engineers and computer programmers to design and program a robot.

In addition to serving as a role model for her young clients, Muir hopes to provide an example of how social responsibility and entrepreneurship can co-exist happily. As executive director, she is required to pursue donors with as much imagination, energy and creativity as any new business venture seeking funding. “The entrepreneurial spirit that makes one person a millionaire is the same entrepreneurial spirit that makes a program like Girlstart so successful,” she says.

For Muir, it’s tremendously exciting to see that spirit of drive and determination take fire in her young clients. “At Girlstart girls learn to build a Ferris wheel, a web page, solve a mystery by testing DNA, or take apart a computer. But what they learn that’s the most valuable of all is that girls can do anything!” she says.

Becky Russell Sykes
Executive Director
Dallas Women's Foundation
“Use your God-given gifts to make the world better.”

Every zig and zag that Becky Sykes ever made in her life has in some way prepared her for the role of executive director of the Dallas Women’s Foundation (DWF).

As one of most successful of the national women’s funds, DWF grants have helped more than 100,000 women and girls move from welfare to work, recover from domestic violence and abuse, learn financial planning, and develop math and science skills.

Still, the need is great. Nationally, only six percent of all grants now go to projects specifically targeted to women and girls, and DWF is able to fund only one in four qualified grant requests. Yet women and children make up 75% of the poor and are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. Ninety percent of single-parent households are headed by women, and more than one-third of those families live in poverty.

As one of DWF’s original founders in 1985, Sykes first discovered her passion for community service when she stayed home to raise her two sons, now grown. “What really motivated us was the fact that so few philanthropic dollars that went to programs designed for women and girls,” she says.

When her husband’s real estate business suffered during the recession in the 1980s, Sykes took a job as administrative assistant to the CEO of Greyhound Lines, Fred Currey. After Greyhound went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Sykes worked as the director of an educational program at KERA, helping to develop a curriculum using Sesame Street in child-care centers.

She later fine-tuned her fundraising skills as development director of the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU before accepting her current position, where her responsibilities include fundraising, grant distribution, and working with an active volunteer board of 40 women. “We raise money via a large luncheon and an annual campaign each spring, and we are continually raising money for our endowment,” Sykes says. DWF’s endowment, which now stands at $5 million, ensures a steady stream of funds for future grantmaking.

If you’re determined to make the world a better place, Sykes has two pieces of advice: “Learn how to raise money! And take good care of yourself so you will have the energy and emotional resources for the work.”

Kathy Rodgers
NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund
“Whatever the odds, you can change public policy.”

The horrific terrorist events of September 11 had a catalyzing effect on Kathy Rodgers: it convinced her that her work is more important than ever. “Americans have been forced to remember our priorities and the value we place on family, community, and freedom. And it is for families, communities, and individual freedoms that we work for here at NOW Legal Defense,” she says.

The New York-based nonprofit has been at the forefront of sexual harassment policy and has won many successes for women, including the protection of reproductive rights and clinic access through the passage of Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The Fund also led a nationwide coalition to achieve passage of the landmark Violence Against Women Act and is currently working to ensure that all families have access to quality, affordable childcare.

But the work is far from finished. As president, Rodgers guides the Fund’s direction, establishes priorities, and serves as its chief spokesperson, traveling nationwide to raise awareness of issues and raise funds. “Many Americans don't want to believe that work still needs to be done to ensure women's full participation and equality in our society, but it does,” she says.

“While it may be true, for instance, that women have risen to some of the highest levels in business, only 1% of the heads of Fortune 500 companies are women, 90% of adults on welfare are women, and much of the work that women do remains low-wage or unpaid. These statistics need to change,” she says firmly.

An attorney by profession, Rodgers entered the legal field as a labor law litigator and later became the first general counsel at Barnard, a premier liberal arts college for women. She also served as Barnard's vice president for non-academic student services and as acting president for a year before joining NOW Legal Defense. “Working for NOW really gives me the opportunity to combine my legal/civil rights and administrative background,” she says.

Rodgers feels privileged to have the opportunity to work with a staff, board, and supporters who share a vision of equality for women. “It is extremely rewarding to contribute each day to an organization that represents all that I care about--one that really does make a difference in the lives of women and girls,” she says.

Help for Terrorist Victims

The New York Women’s Foundation, the only public U.S. foundation dedicated solely to low-income women and girls in New York City, has set up a special disaster relief fund for women and girls affected by the September 11 terrorist attack. Many of the low-wage workers in the World Trade Center will suffer financial loss of a job or were uninsured, and others are missing family members who may have been breadwinners. To make a donation, log on to http://www.nywf.org or call (212) 226-2220.