Melkis Alvarez-Baez is the Deputy Director of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York (NPCC), a nonprofit organization that serves as the voice and information source for New York City-area nonprofits and works to create a sector that is better informed, managed and represented at all levels of government. NPCC helps over 1,400 member nonprofit organizations by giving them tools and information to fulfill their missions. In this column, Alvarez-Baez and I discuss how she has evolved from a pre-med student to a nonprofit director (and geek) who dreams of effective nonprofit management practices in her free time, as well as how becoming a mother changed her perspective on work and life.
Caroline Kim Oh: Thanks for speaking with me. So, what’s your story? How did you get started in the nonprofit field?
Melkis Alvarez-Baez: Well, I was that kid who grew up thinking for a fact that I was going to be a doctor, then along the way, something else happened and I found a new passion.
Volunteering felt more vital than pre-med.
Everything I ever did — like taking really hard classes, being a tutor after school, and volunteering on the weekend — was meant to lead to medical school. I thought of everything as a stepping stone to getting into medical school.
Then I got into Harvard, which I thought was my sure ticket to medicine. But I kind of struggled to find my place in college, and then realized that the thing that grounded me was actually my volunteer work. I volunteered at Boston’s Children’s Hospital as an student advocate for children with developmental disabilities, and I volunteered as a tutor for third graders at an elementary school in East Boston. Those experiences were what made my college experience rich and wonderful. When I was volunteering, I would gladly take that B+ because I was doing something else that felt more meaningful.
I started to question the whole pre-med thing, and I decided I was going to work in education after college. I figured that if medicine was something I really wanted, I could still go back to it after getting some work experience. And I actually never looked back!
CKO: Where did you go?
I worked as an education advocate at Advocates for Children of New York, which is an incredible organization that works to ensure that all children have access to a quality education. I serve on their junior board now. It was there that I had my first experience as a nonprofit professional. I really loved working there. Most of my colleagues there were attorneys. I never had an interest in going to law school but I loved working for a nonprofit, so I decided to go to graduate school at The New School – Milano, to get a Masters degree in Nonprofit Management.
When I finished my degree, a friend sent me a job description for NPCC’s Associate Director of Special Programs. As someone who was interested in effective nonprofit management, NPCC was is like a nonprofit management student’s dream. This is exactly where I want to be. That was in 2011.
CKO: What does NPCC do?
MAB: (Laughs.) This is what I tell my friends. I say that we are the voice and information source for New York City nonprofits.
Then they say, “Yeah, but what does that mean?” So then, I tell them that we advocate for nonprofits, we resource nonprofits and we convene nonprofits with the goal of improving and strengthening all nonprofits in New York City. We do that through our Government Relations Council, which works to reduce the burdens for nonprofits, education, and training programs that promote effective management practices, and through cost-savings that allow nonprofits to effectively pursue their missions and maximize the impact of their services. One of our flagship programs is the New York Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Awards, a program that we created 10 years ago to highlight, honor and promote best practices in nonprofit management. Participating organizations go through a free 360-degree review of their management strategies.
CKO: How big is the organization?
MAB: Our budget is about $1.5 million. We’ve actually doubled in size this year from five to nine staff members. This is a really exciting time for the organization.
CKO: What’s behind the growth?
MAB: We’ve recently gone through an executive transition, with the retirement of our long-time president. We took the opportunity to go through some restructuring. We were able to bring in a policy strategist position, as well as a communications coordinator, who has already improved our online presence and how we market our work to other nonprofits. Basically, we are building a team that allows us to do the kind of work we want to do to best serve our members.
CKO: How has your role changed in the last five years? How about with the recent executive transition?
MAB: I’ve had three roles in the last five years since I started working at NPCC, which is kind of crazy now that I think about it.
When I first started as the Associate Director of Special Programs, I was managing all aspects of the Nonprofit Excellence Awards program, which was in its 5th year at the time, and I was also supporting our fundraising work.
When our long-time Director of Programs left, I was promoted to that role to oversee all programming. With the most recent leadership transition, I became the Deputy Director, which is a new role for us. I now oversee all of our programs and member services and I work closely with our new President, Sharon Stapel, to set strategy for the organization.
CKO: Congratulations! When I think about you, the first thing that comes to mind is when I was serving on the Nonprofit Excellence Awards Selection Committee a few years ago, and everyone panicked because you were about to go on maternity leave. It was this big thing for the organization!
MAB: Ha. Yes! But we have a much better system now, so that won’t happen this time. I’m actually pregnant now with my second child coming at the end of January.
CKO: Wow, congratulations! That’s really exciting! So what do you enjoy most about your new role?
MAB: I think it’s the opportunity to blue sky, and to do some big picture thinking. Because we had been such a small team in the past, I was always so focused on getting through the day-to-day tasks. But this role pushes me to think outside of the box and be more creative in my work. And the opportunity to learn from and to partner with our new president is just really cool.
CKO: Do you feel like you work longer than other colleagues as your responsibility grows?
MAB: No. I think that I used to, but I don’t think so since I had a baby.
Work has always been super important to me, but it is not my entire life, and that became really clear when I had my daughter. I leave at a regular time, work some more on my commute, and I will glance at my email, but I wouldn’t reply to work emails really until the next day. We have an unofficial office policy to use phone or text if we have something really urgent, so that gives me that peace of mind.
But I have a really understanding husband who gets the natural flow of work. So if I truly need to work an extra hour or two in the office sometimes, he encourages me to get that done before coming home, so that I can be really present at home once I’m there.
CKO: That’s SO nice. You almost never hear that. Does he also work in the nonprofit sector? Who takes care of your daughter?
MAB: He works in education, at a public school in the Bronx. We drop off our daughter together in the morning at 7:30am, and he will pick her up after work around 3:30pm. If he can’t, she stays in extended care and I can pick her up at 6pm.
CKO: While you were adjusting to being a mom, you also began working for a new boss. I know that the first year after a long-term leader leaves is a very difficult time for an organization. What was that like?
MAB: Yes, transitions can be challenging. But ours was well planned out. Both the board and our former president, Michael Clark, were all engaged and mentored us as we went through the transition. Actually, I had the opportunity to work with Sharon when the organization she ran previously, The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, applied for the Nonprofit Excellence Awards Program. So I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already working with my future boss! It’s been wonderful to have her fresh perspective in our work.
CKO: So then, what was it like to come back to work after having your first baby?
Work is important, but family is, too.
MAB: Oh gosh, it was rough. The first day was the hardest. I thought about calling in to “quit” before even coming back. I was able to take almost four months off, and at the end of that leave, my daughter and I were like one person. To leave her at home and to go to work…it was really hard.
And that first month, I was trying to still keep my old way of working long hours and not giving myself any allowance to take the longer view. I was trying so hard to be the best employee and the best mom, and I was feeling like I was doing neither.
But with the support of my very generous, flexible and understanding husband, and with my parents taking care of my daughter the first year, I was able to create a new routine that worked for us. Some days, the baby would be sick, and I knew I needed to be home with her to feel better. Some days, there would be work deadlines and I knew I needed to work a little extra to feel good.
I also have the good fortune of working with a team that understands that we have commitments to our families outside of work. We gently shame each other to make sure that when we take time off, we are really taking the time off.
CKO: It sounds like you’ve found a way to trust yourself to do your best on a given day, whether as a mom or as an employee. If you were gifted with a mandatory sabbatical from NPCC for one year, what would you be doing?
MAB: You are going to laugh. I’m such an eternal student. I just love being in school, with binders and stuff like that. I just love being in the classroom and studying and staying on top of things, you know? I would love to go back to school that year and learn something new.
MAB: Yes! And travel!
CKO: Yes! Where would you go?
MAB: At the core of the Nonprofit Excellence Awards program is the belief that we can and should learn from those that are doing well. I think I would love to travel to other parts of the country and learn from other organizations like regional associations of nonprofits and see how they support great management. I would like to meet people who are doing really good work in that area.
I would also love to go to other countries, and learn all about their nonprofit communities.
CKO: Wow, you REALLY love nonprofit management! And lastly, how can people help support your work? Where can people connect with you?
I would also love for people to learn about Job Path, an organization I serve as a board member. They support people with developmental disabilities in exploring what they want out of life and helping them chart their own journeys, be it employment, getting an apartment or joining a community group. My work sometimes can feel disconnected from the missions we help our members achieve. I serve on the Job Path board and the junior board of Advocates for Children as a way of staying grounded in the mission — in work that is personally significant to me.