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What It’s Like to Be a Nonprofit CFO: Video

Sarah Gillman, finance chief at the Natural Resources Defense Council, talks about the challenges of her job and her commitment to improving the world.

What do you spend your money on?
Our number-one issue is climate change. We’re fighting in court to make sure that environmental laws are upheld. We are defending the Clean Air Act. We’re working with President Obama and his advisers to consider ways to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. We’re working on issues related to chemicals that interact with humans. Right now we have a campaign on antibiotics. Eighty percent of the antibiotics in this country are given to livestock to prevent them from getting ill and to make them more saleable. That causes a lot of problems for humans, and so we’re working to improve that situation. We also work to make sure wildlife is protected. We work on energy policy, asking questions like what’s a good location for solar panels? We work on campaigns to change people’s awareness.

Is NRDC itself a sustainable organization? Do you have solar panels on the roof?
That’s a great question. Some nonprofits really try to walk the walk. For others it’s not in the DNA of the organization. Sustainability is part of the DNA of NRDC. For example, we sort our trash in the office. We separate it into five waste streams; everybody’s responsible for doing it. Our number-one energy issue is reduction of consumption. How do we use less energy? We have solar panels in our offices in Santa Monica and are thinking about sustainable energy sources wherever. I’m very proud of a major heating and cooling change that we made to our New York office. We switched from number two diesel oil to biofuel for our boilers. We’re putting up a green roof at that office, too.

Where are you growing?
One way that we’re growing is internationally and globally. Pollution has no border. We want to make sure that we’re working around the world to combat climate change, keep the water clean, keep the air clean. We’ve just launched a really exciting new program in China, where we’re working with the government to think about carbon pollution limits and what could be put in place there. Our programs in India are really important to us too. We work where people live.

What else are you thinking about?
Measurement is a big topic right now. How do nonprofits measure what they do? Let’s set goals. They may be non-financial in nature. How many court cases do we want to win? What do we want to reduce in terms of emissions? How will we measure whether the Los Angeles river is cleaner than it was a year ago or two years ago? And at the end of the year we want to find out whether we achieved the outcomes.

We’re also often measured on overhead. How much are we spending on program services compared to management and general expenses and to development expenses? We think there has been too much of a focus on that type of ratio in measuring what we do. I’d like to see that changed to a more performance-based approach.

You have a long history with mission-based organizations. How did you get where you are?
My career has been at the intersection of for-profit companies and nonprofits. I’ve worked on both sides of the fence over the years. I started as a classroom teacher and director of admissions at a private school. I got an MBA and a master’s in educational administration. So I was straddling the business world and the educational world in graduate school. Later when I worked for KPMG in a management consulting practice, my clients were always colleges and universities and nonprofits.

My first job out of college was at an advertising agency in market research. I was 22 years old, and one day I was in a really important meeting with senior executives in a big conference room. I worked really hard on the presentation. And I woke up and I realized we were talking about dog food. I didn’t care about dog food. I knew I had to work on things that I really cared about. Otherwise I would be bored out of my mind and ineffective.

You can make a decent living at a nonprofit. It’s multiples different from what I would be making had I chosen another path. But I thought to myself, if I had a private charity of my own, what would it focus on? It would focus on the environment. It would focus on the arts and it would focus on education. And so those are the causes that I decided that I really cared about and that I wanted to pursue.

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