ITA NEW GENERATION OF LEADERS RUNS SOME OF THE REGION’S HIGHEST-PROFILE NONPROFITS, CHANGING THE PERCEPTION THAT IT’S A MAN’S WORLD AT THE TOP
“The last three years have seen more than a dozen women named to president, executive director or CEO roles in Western New York,” Tracey Drury. Stephanie Crockatt, Executive Director of the BOPC, was one of the nine women leaders featured in Buffalo Business First, Feb 12, 2016.
BUFFALO, NY — Call it the era of the woman, or call it no big deal, but the number of women leaders is growing at the region’s largest nonprofit organizations.
The last three years have seen more than a dozen women named to president, executive director or CEO roles in Western New York. Among the 100 largest organizations in the region and in the last 10 years, the number of women in the top post has increased from 26 to 39 – a 50 percent increase.
Though they’re still in the minority overall, these women CEOs are leading organizations that have a huge impact economically, with combined revenue of $879.3 million, compared to $278.7 million 10 years ago.
And that’s just among the 100 largest nonprofits on the Million Dollar Nonprofits list, a Buffalo Business First research report on organizations with revenue of at least $1 million. When nonprofit hospitals are considered, the list grows to include leaders such as Candace Johnson at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. When she was named to the post a year ago, Johnson became the first woman president and CEO of the 118-year-old institution, managing a $722 million budget.
Patricia Ahern joined Hospice Buffalo in January 2014, taking over from a long list of male CEOs. She oversees about $60 million in revenue at the agency and several affiliate corporations.
“It’s not lost on me that I am the first woman CEO here at Hospice Buffalo in its 36 years,” she said. “Our founder was a woman, a nurse, and that’s kind of cool. I often wonder what she would think of me, also a nurse. Candace Johnson and I have talked a few times and she says the same thing. You have to wonder if it’s just that we got to the right age.”
“This does seem to be a community that is starting to really ripen for women who want to lead, which is really cool,” she said.
Indeed, most of the women CEOs arrived in their positions after long careers at their organizations, some spanning 20, 30 or more years, starting at entry level and working their way up. Some entered their organization at a time when it was exceedingly rare for a woman to run a nonprofit or for-profit company, even in the so-called “helping” professions such as health care or social work.
Some say the gender of the person running the show should be irrelevant, while others say it’s important, partially symbolically.
Both raise a big question: Will it make a difference for the organization, and does it matter? Again, that all depends on whom you ask.
Despite recent local gains, women’s advocacy groups say women continue to lag behind in leadership posts in most segments of the workforce. According to Catalyst, women represent 49 percent of the overall workforce, 67 percent of college graduates and 70 percent of valedictorians, but represent just 36.8 percent of managers and just 4.6 percent of CEOs.
In Western New York, just three companies of the 67 companies on Business First’s Top Private List are run by women CEOs. Just three women lead any of the Fast Track Companies, representing the fastest-growing private companies in the region.
Having more women running the region’s largest nonprofits absolutely helps to turn the tide, said Sheri Scavone, executive director of the WNY Women’s Foundation.
“You have to see women in leadership roles for women to feel they can take on those roles,” she said. “If we don’t have the woman’s perspective, if we’re not looking through a gender lens, then we’re leaving out half of society.”
Having women in charge or in leadership positions can have a significant impact financially on an organization. Scavone points to data from McKinsey & Co.’s “Women Matter” report that shows less corporate fraud as well as a 26 percent higher return on invested capital at companies with more women in leadership or director positions.
Even if they lag behind in the corporate world and among private companies, the fact that women are making gains on the nonprofit side is positive, especially in organizations that have a major impact on the local economy as employers and economic generators.
“We always have to remind our community of the work that the nonprofits do, and the impact the nonprofits and higher education has,” Scavone said. “I think a lot of people want to think it’s not important – it’s not Delaware North, it’s not New Era. But when you look at Kaleida and People Inc. and Hospice, a lot of these major nonprofit organizations have a significant impact on this community and that’s really important.”
In the developmental disabilities field, part of the transition comes with the aging out of a generation of social workers who founded nonprofit human service organizations to handle the influx of individuals after New York closed its institutions and shifted care to the community in the 1970s.
Rhonda Frederick runs the largest. People Inc. has $154 million in revenue and annually serves 12,000 seniors and individuals with disabilities. Before taking the CEO post in late 2014, she spent 30 years at the agency, including 12 as chief operating officer.
Despite a workforce that’s 75 percent female, having a woman at the helm just wasn’t reality in those early days, she said.
“If you look at the people who retired, the people who had been in those top spots for 30-plus years, it was more common for men to be in those positions,” Frederick said. “Fast-forward 30 years, and who’s next in line was part of that female workforce.”
Frederick is quick to credit the men who came before her, those who led and grew the agencies to where they are today.
“Certainly a female may bring a different side to a job, and may have some differences, but these agencies were run by wonderful colleagues, and whether they were men or women, they built them and did the right thing for clients,” she said.
Denise Jones agrees, sort of. She moved up from COO to CEO at The Resource Center in Jamestown in March 2015. Jones, who joined the organization 25 years ago, said the mission of serving the disabled didn’t change just because there’s a woman at the top.
However, she realizes there is a difference when it comes to work-life balance. Simply, many women try to keep work at work, separate from their social and family life.
“This may be controversial to say, and we laugh about it around here, but (women) tend to interact more at the conferences, whereas previously with the men it was different,” she said. “They would tend to interact on a social level, conducting a lot of business at golf tournaments and in social arenas.
“From my perspective, men identify with their careers and use their career to define them, where to me, personally I think my family is what defines me as a leader. I don’t identify my whole being and personality with my job, even though I have a big job.”
At the same time, running the $95 million TRC, one of Chautauqua County’s largest companies, means her family sometimes gets pulled into work and her new identity.
“I’m not identified now as Denise Jones, mom and wife,” she said. “It’s been a little overwhelming how much recognition I get in the community. It’s almost like my life is intertwined with the work.”
Others point to specific differences in men’s and women’s leadership style. Mari Howard moved from COO to CEO at the ReHabilitation Center in late 2013, working her way up over 25 years through the $39 million organization. She has great admiration for her predecessor but is doing things differently, changing as the industry and payment systems change.
“Men ran this agency when the money was flowing and big ideas landed you where you needed to be,” she said. “Now you need the detail-oriented mind, which is what you find in women. It’s easy to build when the money is flowing and any idea is a good idea.”
Howard said she has brought optimism to the organization and some fresh ideas.
“My mantra in this agency is it’s not what we can’t do, let’s start with how can we …” she said. “We just have to be agile and flexible and move with the times and make that somehow one of our core strengths.”
The mental-health sector has seen a similar shift of older male founders retiring and being replaced by women who spent decades waiting for a shot at the top.
It happened for Rosemary Duran in mid-2013 when she moved into the CEO spot at Transitional Services Inc. after 35 years at the agency. Though she had to wait until her 60s, she plans to lead the agency as long as she is able.
“I was widowed four months after I took this job,” she said. “Now that I’m a widow and alone, it feels great to have a mission and I love this agency.”
Tracey Drury covers health/medical, nonprofits and insurance