In the competitive nonprofit sector, charitable organizations constantly have to prove themselves and their relative merit, to the general public and to funders, just to survive. Some believe that this requirement to prove worth especially reflects what women in business do every day. And it may explain why many of America’s charitable organizations are (and historically have been) driven by female leadership. According to a 2011 Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management study, the number of women could be as high as 74 percent of all nonprofit employees, including in “the most powerful, prestigious roles.”
To find out why women really are the “best man for the job” when it comes to running a world-class nonprofit, we sat down with Lorna Miles, chief marketing officer for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary of preserving history and educating the public (to the tune of more than 36.5 million visitors to date), is also led by a female director and boasts 50/50 gender parity on its senior management team.
Why is the Holocaust Museum among the best places for women to work?
There are more women than men who work here because of our educational mission — in museums in general, you find more women than men. People who are curious, who are interested in education, who are engaged with history and with a sense of social justice, it’s a beacon for a lot of passionate workers, regardless of gender. Even our interns, the fellows in our scholar programs, they come here because of the museum itself and what it stands for. And it’s fascinating work, because this history is still unfolding. All of our staff members feel it’s an extraordinary privilege to be working here, keep the Holocaust memory alive today and even long after the generations who experienced the Holocaust are no longer with us.
Why do you think women predominate in museum leadership across America?
I think it may be an outgrowth of the predominance of women in education, and I would hazard a guess that there are more women than men in nonprofit work in general. Our director is a former teacher, and Alice Greenwald — who is now the head of the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York — formerly worked here. I think there is a radiant impact by people who work in museums to go on to work in other museums. There is a group of museums called the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, of which we are one, and half of their board of trustees is made up of women who were either founding directors or executive directors of museums. But I went to Wellesley College, where I got a real boot-camp education that drives home the fact that women have to run in order to be perceived as standing still. We had to be stronger and smarter just to keep up, and it was a lot of work. The women I met in D.C., many of whom are my best friends, have that same mentality. A lot of them work in nonprofits or NGOs that have to kill themselves in order to succeed as organizations. You’re constantly making your case to your funders; you constantly have to prove yourself just to stay afloat. There’s a very strong work ethic and networking ethic among these women — a “we’ll help you no matter what” ethic among these women who are highly connected to other women.
Are nonprofits and museums a good choice as a career path for women aspiring to leadership roles?
A lot of our women continue to move up the nonprofit ladder by moving to other museum opportunities. Our VP of finance is an African-American woman who, I believe, was at the Smithsonian Institution before she came here. But it’s an interesting choice that you make as an individual if you’re going to devote your life to nonprofits — you’re taking a certain course financially. This is not Coca-Cola. You can do well, and every year museum directors and university presidents are making inroads in terms of what they’re paid, but in the past that hasn’t been the case; the salary scales were not the same. The museum world in many respects is catching up, and there’s much more of a business approach because there has to be — they have to be more responsive to their audiences to fundraise and to stay vital. The American Alliance of Museums has an annual conference, and every year the tracks become more business and marketing oriented. In nonprofits, marketing used to be the M word, and the idea that you had to attract people to come see your work was unheard of. Now, it’s all about impact and annual reports and ROI, and I think you’re going to see some shifting around with more men coming into the nonprofit arena as the business proposition becomes more broadly embraced and more of a necessity. Women may lose our dominance. It could make it more gender competitive, and more competitive in general.
What do you think the relative importance of gender is in a person’s chances for a successful career?
I think women who don’t believe in the importance of gender will be rudely surprised. I took my daughter to a Wellesley graduation when she was in junior high, when Barbara Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev were the speakers. She said to me, “Why would you go to a women’s college if you didn’t have to?” as though there was something wrong with it. And I did go because I had to, because at the time other colleges weren’t open to women. While things have changed since then, there are still salary inequities and gender perceptions about family life that remain to be addressed to this day. I don’t think the struggle is over.
Melissa Massello is a freelance writer, former startup executive, and serial entrepreneur who is passionate about supporting women’s leadership and gender equality, both in business and at home.