The Women Behind Leading Nonprofits: 11 Questions with Amy Palmer

The Women Behind Leading Nonprofits: 11 Questions with Amy Palmer

This interview series, conducted by MBA@UNC, features seven women leading nonprofits across a variety of fields. Despite spearheading organizations that are doing tremendous good, these female entrepreneurs are not traditionally recognized for the incredibly hard work they do every day.

The nonprofit sector is female-dominated. A 2012 “Current State of Women in Leadership” report from theWomen’s College of the University of Denver found that women make up 75 percent of the nonprofit workforce in contrast to the business world where women account for 49 percent of the workforce. However, men still hold 79 percent of the CEO positions for nonprofits with $25 million in assets or more. And although the gender gap among nonprofit CEOs is narrowing, less than one in five charities with budgets of $50 million or more are run by women. These statistics may seem discouraging, but they have not prevented all women from rising in the nonprofit ranks nor inhibited them from starting their own nonprofits.

In the first installment of this series, we interviewed Amy Palmer, the president and CEO of Soldiers’ Angels, a nonprofit that provides aid and comfort to the men and women of the United States Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coastal Guard, their families and a growing veteran population.

What drives you to do what you do every day?

I love serving those who serve or have served our great country. Just one trip to visit patients at the VA quickly reminds me why we do what we do. They are not thanked and appreciated nearly enough for their sacrifices and service. When you realize that what you do has an impact on another person, it drives you to want to continue to serve.

Who are your role models?

My role models include women in business who understand the importance of giving and serving others—for example, Oprah Winfrey, who used her TV platform as well as her own personal wealth to change the world. My second role model is Patricia Harris: While she is not well-known, she leads Bloomberg Philanthropies. She began volunteering at a very young age and then went into public service through politics. She is such a strong woman with a heart to serve.

Do you think entrepreneurship can be taught, or is it an innate skill set?

I believe entrepreneurship can be taught.  While you can’t always teach people to think outside of the box, I think you can teach them how to avoid pitfalls, and I think you can teach people valuable entrepreneurial skills from your own prior experiences.

Leadership is one of MBA@UNC's core values. What values do you look for in the next generation of female leaders?

I am looking for women who believe in themselves and believe they are equally as capable and deserving of a job as their male counterparts. I’m also looking for people who are creative thinkers and who are innovative and passionate about our mission.

What is the most difficult part and what is the most rewarding part of leading a nonprofit?

The most difficult part of leading a nonprofit is the constant changes in the donor landscape. While you often want to control situations, it’s hard to control how a donor will respond and behave. Situations like natural disasters and economic downturns dramatically affect a donor’s behavior and direction.

The most rewarding part of the job is serving military families and veterans. When you get to spend every day of your life serving others, it gives you a reason to go to work.  I feel like my life has meaning, and I am exactly where God wanted me to be.

What challenges do nonprofits encounter that other businesses do not?

I believe the biggest challenge we encounter that some other businesses do not is the level of accountability we have to many different people. We are accountable to those we serve, as well as to thousands of donors around the country. Every decision we make is based on ensuring we do the right thing for everyone involved, and that means being held accountable to thousands of people each and every day.

What advice do you have for women interested in launching their own business?

The best advice I have is to do your research and plan, plan, plan. When I work with others who are trying to start nonprofit organizations, I always advise them to talk to as many people as they can about their business idea. Some people assume that just because they believe in their idea and would be supportive of it, others will feel the same way.

I always challenge people to recruit 10 volunteers, get their first $1,000 donation commitment and fill three board seats before they even consider launching. Many find out during this process that it’s much harder than they thought to start a nonprofit. If you do the research and planning, then my next advice is to stick with it, trust your research and continue to plug away, one day at a time. It’s hard work and a slow process, and it never happens at the pace you want.

In your opinion, do you think there is a lack of female representation in nonprofit leadership roles?

Statistics show there is definitely a lack of female representation in nonprofit leadership roles. While many women do work in the nonprofit sector, men still predominantly hold leadership positions.

How can we encourage more women to go after leadership roles?

I often volunteer to speak at events and conferences focused on women in leadership and at events related to nonprofit management and governance. I also focus on working with fellows and interns in our organization to ensure we are reaching as many young women as we can.

Where do you see your industry in five years?

I believe the nonprofit environment will continue to shrink, particularly with military and veteran-focused charities. I believe for those nonprofits that remain, they will run more like a business than they have in the past. Nonprofit organizations will continue to look at mergers and acquisitions and will continue to put more for-profit business principles in place to become more efficient and effective.

What CTA would you like us to share with our audience?

We are always in need of monetary donations to continue our work. Soldiers’ Angels went through a major restructuring when I joined in 2013. They were in financial crisis at that time. We are now debt-free and are trying to rebuild. Monetary donations are greatly needed to continue that progress to long-term stability.