Work-Life Demands Intense for CEO’s at Nonprofits

By Cindy Krischer Goodman
The Miami Herald

A nonprofit leader, Saliha Nelson, 41, has dragged her two kids with her to community meetings, written grant proposals in the middle of the night, and even substituted for sick workers at youth after-school programs: “I want the organization to be successful, so I do whatever it takes.”

When you lead a nonprofit, where the end game is about making the community a better place to live, the workload can be immense and the emotions intense. It’s a big responsibility, and one that people in their 20s and 30s aren’t rushing to undertake.

As the demand for leaders in nonprofits increases, young workers say they don’t want to make the work-life sacrifices required of nonprofit executives like Nelson, who leads Miami’s Urgent Inc., which supports low-income youth with after-school and camp programs, according to research by the Meyer Foundation in Washington.

The 2008 study of 6,000 next-generation leaders shows that even young workers already employed at nonprofits are wary of rising to executive positions, an outlook researchers say hasn’t improved in the past five years. While the daily responsibilities for nonprofit chief executive can vary with the size and scope of the organization, the deterrents include low earning potential and an expectation of doing more with less.

“Young people are saying, ‘I can still do good and help out with causes whether or not I work for (a nonprofit),'” says Derrick Feldmann, CEO of Achieve, which helps organizations reach younger generations of donors and volunteers.

As the nation struggles to recover from the economic downturn, the pressure on executive directors to deliver has intensified.

Leaders must manage their organization’s internal operations and programs, be the public face of the organization, attend events, and work harder at courting donors and identifying funding sources.

Because of small budgets and a lack of resources, “as executive director, you are trying to make up for the deficits yourself, and it becomes way more than a 40- or 50-hour-a-week job,” says Rick Moyers, vice president of communications at the Meyer Foundation, which invests in visionary leaders and effective community-based nonprofit organizations.

Most leaders say passion for the cause outweighs the personal trade-offs. “I like giving services to communities who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford them,” explains Kathleen Cannon, CEO of United Way of Broward County, Fla.

On a given day, Cannon, 49, races from morning meetings with business partners to the office to meet with her board or staff.

On weekends, she often will attend a Saturday night gala or a community fundraiser: “I have to get in front of people and remind them of the difference they are making.”

In her off hours, the single mother raises a teenage son.

“It takes an unbelievable commitment,” she says of her work with United Way. “This is a partnership with the community like none other, a way to create big change.”

Cannon says she knew the time demands when she took the job and made a game plan for home and office to manage her time. Sundays and Monday nights are sacred family time: “I just have to forgive myself when my balance is out of whack and remember that I’m running a business and the product is changing lives.”

Nonprofit CEOs often find time demands are complicated by the need to navigate the interests of various stakeholders with different relationships with the organization.

Ken Moskowitz, 53, heads Jewish Family Service Inc. of Broward County, where he manages leadership of the organization’s wide array of programs in addition to supervising staff and overseeing internal operations.

Much of his time also is spent cultivating relationships with potential donors: “You have to spend the time to make sure they develop trust in you as a leader. Your passion can be contagious.
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Moskowitz has been in the top job for 10 years and has worked at the organization for 19 years, and now balances his workload with caring for his teens and aging parents.

“Stress is ongoing,” he says. “There’s never a time when I’m not concerned about whether we are going to reach the bottom line. It never disappears, no matter how long you are in the business.”

With the competing time demands and the high stakes, nonprofit leaders say preventing burnout requires setting priorities, and reminding yourself of them. “I plan a lot,” said Ileana Ramirez-Cueli, 44, executive director of Schott Communities, a Broward County not-for-profit that provides many programs for people who are physically or intellectually challenged.

When courting a donor or spearheading a fundraiser, Ramirez-Cueli’s job takes priority. She calls on her spouse, grandparents, or friends to help out with the activities of her three children, ages 8, 10, and 12: “I am serving people who have disabilities and creating life-enriching programs. That’s really important.”

The staff needs to see the leader’s commitment, she says. When possible, she will include her family in her job activities, bringing them along to annual fundraising events, such as the Schott Run, Walk and Roll in Cooper City, Fla., or the organization’s fashion show.

With all the daily responsibilities, directors say it can be hard to think about succession planning or grooming next-generation leaders, particularly when one’s own identity often is tied to the job.

But Nelson, at Urgent Inc., says she tries to do that in the context of cultivating a team. “Every week, I have to meet payroll. Being responsible for people’s paychecks is a big weight,” Nelson says. So, when she submits a renewal for a grant or requests a donation, she explains to each team member his or her role in the process and how it contributes to the organization’s success.

For all the commitment required, the biggest drawback may be salaries, which lag well behind those in the corporate sector.

In 2013, 60 percent of executive directors were 50 or older and earned an average salary of about $119,000 according to the 2014 Nonprofit Salary and Benefits Report published by The NonProfit Times. (Average pay for the CEOs of the top for-profit 350 firms, including the stock options they exercised, was $14.1 million in 2012, according to the Economic Policy Institute.)

Most nonprofit leaders say the real rewards are intrinsic, a sense of purpose. Such is the case with Carlene Sawyer, 59, who leads the Dranoff International 2 Piano Foundation, a nonprofit organization that champions two-piano repertoire and artistry.

Sawyer works days and often, four or five evenings a week as well, in addition to travel: “But I’m around people who are talented and fun and have a love of music. It’s a great collegial environment. Even though I’m working hard, my job is kind of cool most of the time.”

Derrick Feldmann, who wrote The 2013 Millennial Impact Report, said young workers want to be change-makers, they just don’t see the need to be executive directors to achieve their mission.

Feldmann’s research shows that 72 percent of millennials are interested in participating in nonprofit young professional groups and that others are engaged in the social-impact sector by starting for-profit businesses with a social purpose.

Nelson says she encourages bigger aspirations: “We try to help young people discover they can create that alignment between personal values and the work they get paid for.”

Moyer, at the Meyer Foundation, has hope for future leadership: “We don’t need 70 percent of employees in nonprofits to want to become executive directors. We just need some people with passion who want to do the job.”
Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at Read her columns and blog at

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