Ruth Rathblott

President and CEO, Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF)

How old is your organization? 30 years
What sector do you work in? Nonprofit, Education
How long have you been working in this sector? 25+ years
How long have you been with your current organization? 6.5 years (Started at HEAF in January 2013)

What has been the most significant development in your sector over the last 40 years?
Over the past 40 years, we have raised the level of professionalism and standards of quality in the field. When I graduated with my Master of Science degree in Social Work, there was so much confusion around the role of social workers, the culture of nonprofits vs business, and the true impact of the work. Over the past 25+ years, I have noticed a professional shift within the field. We have become much more accountable and mindful about the impact of our work, the outcomes we are trying to achieve, and the interventions we use. We have begun to integrate data in increasingly thoughtful and critical ways to inform our practice and tell the story of our organization. As a field, we have become more sophisticated in the how and why of what we do with outcome data to back up our work.

What has been the greatest challenge during this same period?
As we professionalize the field, we have had to raise the level of staffing to match the needs of our clients and organizations. This increase in professionalism has direct financial implications, from salaries, to professional development, to retention. During hard times and budget deficits, it can be hard to retain staff, even as dedicated as they are to the mission, if you can’t offer monetary compensation. Retention of great professional staff is one of the biggest challenges that many of us face in our work.

How has communication changed over the course of the last 40 years?
Communication has become more immediate and urgent. With 24-hour technology access, we are all now trained to respond and react immediately. There is now a sense that we must respond quickly without pause. I worry about our mindfulness and genuine thoughtfulness in our responses.

What is the single greatest challenge you face today in your sector?
Leadership Succession. I am concerned about the void I am beginning to see in the nonprofit sector. Good, strong leaders are leaving their positions without concrete next steps or new positions, in many cases due to burnout and exhaustion. Nonprofit leaders are faced with a myriad of pressures and take very little time for self-care and recharging due to the demands of the job.

What leadership qualities are necessary to succeed as a nonprofit executive today?
Balance, Integration, and Meditation. Balance requires constant multi-tasking; as a nonprofit leader, we are required to make hundreds of decisions each day, but it’s about knowing when to prioritize, when to delegate, and when to let go—finding the balance of how to triage situations. Integration to me means acknowledging that jobs have become 24/7 with technology, and still finding time to decompress and recharge as part of one’s routine. Meditation is part of my necessary practice, it allows me to relax my mind from all the noise, create a gap in my reactions with others, and better problem solve by slowing me down.

How do you see shifting views on race, gender, sexuality, age, immigration status, educational achievement, wealth, poverty, and health affecting your organization in the future?
Educational achievement will remain critical for youth from underserved neighborhoods for quite awhile. Education absolutely levels the playing field, from one’s thinking to one’s ability to compete in careers, to one’s feeling of confidence. As I think about my own passion project and influence on the future of the nonprofit sector, I want to assist in broadening the conversation and definition of diversity. As someone who was born with a physical limb difference, I did not grow up seeing role models on television or in movies; I did not hear people talk about ability, rather the conversation was often focused on dis-ability; and still today, difference and disability are rarely part of the language when we talk about diversity. We need to include inclusion in the diversity dialogue.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing today that will impact your nonprofit and your sector in the future?
Collaboration has become a trend that will have a significant impact on our sector now and in the future. For many years, we saw our peer organizations as competitors, but now with scarcity in resources, growing demands from clients, and repetition of services, we need to find ways to collaborate to accomplish more together.

What skills do you believe are necessary for people to succeed as managers over the next few decades?
Meditation. Valuing difference. Responsiveness

Why did you join this sector?
I originally joined the nonprofit sector to become a private clinician, but after spending the summer during graduate school in Appalachia, I realized I had a much bigger purpose—I wanted to provide young people with opportunities and exposure to give them choices. From my early days running a girls’ group in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to providing New York City youth with individual mentors, to my current role of ensuring youth have paths to educational enrichment and achievement, I continue to fuel my passion for making a difference in the lives of young people and helping them secure choices for their future.

In what ways would others say you are a trailblazer? Why did you want to become a President/CEO?
I am a leader who has spent my entire career focused on providing opportunities for those who face obstacles. I wanted to become the CEO of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund to provide youth throughout New York City with educational opportunities and roadmaps to graduate college. As someone born with a limb difference, I currently speak on issues of diversity and inclusion, the gifts of being unique, and the freedom of accepting your differences.

How do you hire?

Please name three qualities that are inherent in being a strong leader.
Decision-making ability. Being available and fair. Listening actively

What are your organization’s values, and specifically leadership values, and how do you ensure everyone who is part of your team embraces them?
Our values are Achievement, Education, Innovation, and Leadership. I strongly align myself with the HEAF vision of providing a continuum of educational, development, leadership and personal resilience opportunities. One of the first activities I did when I started at the organization was to review the mission, vision, and values of the organization; the staff and I developed and defined the values together. They continue to be part of our annual evaluation process and ongoing conversations.

Based on your experience, please offer one piece of advice to a person hoping to break through as a leader in your sector.
Take your time to learn and grow in your job, and realize that titles don’t matter if you don’t have any accomplishments, challenges, or learning lessons.

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