Inspiring Women in Nonprofit Management

According to a study by the University of Denver and The White House Project, women constitute only 21 percent of leadership roles among nonprofits with budgets in excess of $25 million—even though they make up 75 percent of the workforce. To celebrate the contributions of women who have broken through as leaders in nonprofit management, we’ve assembled a list of accomplished and inspiring women at the top of their game.

These diverse women represent a variety of causes—from education to medicine and youth issues to global hunger. Some, like Alicia Polak and Barbara Dwyer Gunn (a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate), hold Master of Public Administration degrees. They all share a common drive to help others and leave the world a better place than they found it.



Gail McGovern
McGovern has been president of the American Red Cross since 2008, leading the organization with quick responses to several high-profile disasters including Hurricane Sandy and earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. Prior to joining the Red Cross, she taught at Harvard Business School, served as president of Fidelity Personal Investments, and served as executive vice president of AT&T’s Consumer Markets Division. She is the only nonprofit leader serving on President Obama’s Management Advisory Board.

Nancy Brown
Brown has been the CEO of the American Heart Association (AHA) since 2009, leading the organization toward an ambitious 2020 Impact Goal of reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases. She has been involved with AHA since 1986, when she led fundraising initiatives in the Michigan AHA affiliate. Brown later worked her way up to be executive vice president of the former Massachusetts and New England affiliates and served as chief operating officer before assuming her current role as CEO.

Jennifer Pahlka
Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America, a nonprofit aimed at using technology to solve community problems. Pahlka also served as the White House deputy chief technology officer for government innovation under US Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. She delivered a popular TED talk called “Coding a Better Government.”

Judith Rodin
Before becoming president of The Rockefeller Foundation in 2005, Rodin served as president of the University of Pennsylvania and provost of Yale University. Rodin has refocused The Rockefeller Foundation to meet the challenges of the 21st century, supporting work that “advances health, revalues ecosystems, secures livelihoods, and transforms cities,” according to its website.

Lauren Bush Lauren
Bush, who is the granddaughter of former President George H. W. Bush, has become famous in her own right for her nonprofit work, most notably cofounding the FEED Foundation in 2006. The FEED Foundation has donated more than $6 million and 60 million meals to schoolchildren worldwide. Bush designed the original burlap FEED bag while she was serving as an honorary spokesperson for the UN World Food Program.

Perla Ni
Ni founded Stanford Social Innovation Review, a leading journal of nonprofit management and philanthropy, and GreatNonProfits, a review website where volunteers and donors share their experiences with nonprofits. For her work in bringing greater transparency to nonprofits, The Huffington Post named Ni a “Top Philanthropy Game Changer.”

Pamela Davis
Davis founded the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group in response to the difficulties nonprofits faced finding affordable liability insurance during the mid-1980s. Davis is also the founder and president of American Nonprofits, a platform where nonprofit executives can discuss local and national issues, initiate solutions, and collectively improve nonprofit finance.

Laurene Powell Jobs
Powell Jobs cofounded College Track, a nonprofit that works with students from underserved communities from the summer before freshman year of high school through college graduation. Through leadership training, college scholarships, and academic support, these students receive the tools they need to graduate college and launch careers. Powell Jobs is the widow of Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs and is involved in a number of other philanthropic initiatives.

Vicki Smith
Smith began her career as a special education teacher in rural West Virginia and spent 10 years as deputy director of the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems (now the National Disability Rights Network). Since 2007, she has served as executive director of Disability Rights NC, an independent nonprofit that advocates for North Carolina residents with disabilities, helping them gain access to services and opportunities through advocacy and legal help.

Alice Lutz
Lutz has worked in executive roles for nonprofits including the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (Central Florida Chapter) and the Foundation of Hope for Research and Treatment of Mental Illness. She also ran a consulting company that helps nonprofits with planning and fundraising and is currently CEO of Triangle Family Services, a nonprofit that provides families with credit counseling, mental health services, and family safety services.

Barbara Jessie-Black
Jessie-Black grew up on a US military base in Germany and went on to work as operations manager for Belk Inc. and cofounder of the OneVoice Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship. She’s now executive director of PTA Thrift Shop, a nonprofit resale business that benefits the Parent Teacher Associations of North Carolina public schools in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Anne-Marie Slaughter
In 2009, Slaughter became the first woman to serve as director of policy planning for the US State Department. She has taught at Harvard Law School and served as dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Currently, Slaughter is president and CEO of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute and idea incubator.

Nancy Birdsall
Birdsall is cofounder and president of the Center for Global Development, which conducts research and analysis on economic issues such as aid effectiveness, climate change, and globalization. Prior to cofounding the Center, Birdsall worked in research and policy at the World Bank, served as senior associate and director of the Economic Reform Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and worked as executive vice president of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Melinda Gates
Gates held several positions at Microsoft, where she met her husband Bill Gates. Together they cofounded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is aimed at improving equity in the United States and around the world. Among Melinda Gates’ accomplishments is leading the London Summit on Family Planning, which set a goal of bringing contraceptives to an additional 120 million women in developing countries by 2020.

Diana Ayton-Shenker
Ayton-Shenker became interested in human rights after self-funding a trip to the Soviet Union in 1984. She is founding president and CEO of Fast Forward Fund (FFF), a social venture aimed at getting young leaders excited about social investments. Named one of 25 Leading Women Changing the World by Good Business New York, Ayton-Shenker is also president and CEO of Global Momenta, an organization that works with private foundations, nonprofits, and social ventures to maximize their impact.

Judy Vrendenburgh
Vrendenburgh is former president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and senior vice president of revenue development and marketing at the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation. She is currently president and CEO of Girls Inc., a nonprofit that provides more than 138,000 girls across the United States and Canada with mentoring opportunities and research-based programming that encourages them to resist peer pressure, set and achieve goals, and confront challenges. Vrendenburgh has also served on President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Advisory Council and was named one of 100 Women Leaders in STEM by STEMconnector.

Susan Rittscher
Rittscher spent 30 years in leadership roles with the YMCA before becoming president and CEO of the Center for Women & Enterprise in 2008. Since its start in 1995, the Center has worked with more than 30,200 Massachusetts and Rhode Island entrepreneurs, helping women gain financial independence and achieve professional success. Rittscher received a Lifetime Achievement Legacy Award from the Boston Business Journal for her work to bridge the gender gap and empower women.

Wendy Kopp
Kopp founded Teach for America in 1989 with the goal of reducing education inequalities across the United States. She now serves as chair of Teach for America’s board and CEO and cofounder of Teach for All, a network of 34 independent educational organizations around the world. Time magazine recognized Kopp as one of its 100 Most Influential People for advancing education.

Anne Wallestad
Wallestad has held leadership roles with the Human Rights Campaign, Boys & Girls Club of Central Iowa, and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Leadership Institute. Currently, she is the president and CEO at BoardSource, a national organization focused on strengthening nonprofit boards of directors through live and virtual training, memberships, and a library of resources. Wallestad joined BoardSource in 2008 and helped grow BoardSource’s programmatic reach by more than 150 percent in less than two years.

Alicia Polak
Polak honed her business skills as an investment banker on Wall Street and is now executive director of The Bread Project, which runs a nine-week baking training program so that low-income individuals can learn marketable skills and gain financial independence. Polak is also a Fulbright Scholar and earned an MBA and Master of Public Administration from New York University and The University of Cape Town.

Kalsoom Lahkani
Lakhani’s background includes serving as director of Social Vision, the venture philanthropy arm of ML Resources, and as a global ambassador for Sandbox, a global network of innovators younger than age 30. She is currently founder and CEO of Invest2Innovate (i2i), which supports impact-oriented enterprises in developing markets, starting with Pakistan. The organization’s goal is to help build a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem for economic growth and social change.

Laura Weidman Powers
Weidman Powers is the cofounder and CEO of CODE2040, a nonprofit that aims to create awareness and opportunities in technology and engineering for black and Latino individuals in the United States. Prior to CODE2040, she founded an arts education nonprofit and a for-profit tutoring company. Goldman Sachs named her one of the 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of 2013.

Nancy Lublin
At age 23, Lublin founded Dress for Success, an organization that provides interview suits and career development training to women in need in 15 countries. In 2003, Lublin took the helm of a failing nonprofit called Do Something, and in a decade, turned the organization into, one of the largest youth organizations in the world with more than 2.5 million active members. For her creative and innovative leadership, Fortune magazine named Lublin one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

Abbe Land
Land is a tireless advocate for youth and the LGBTQ community. She served as mayor of West Hollywood and is currently executive director and CEO of The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to young LGBTQ people between the ages of 13 and 24. Before joining The Trevor Project, Land was co-CEO of Los Angeles’ Saban Free Clinic, where she managed a full-time staff of 140 and 300 volunteers.

Joanne Liu
At age 13, Liu read a doctor’s account of working with Médecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders, MSF) and it sparked her interest in someday joining the organization. She started working for MSF in 1996 helping with Malian refugees in Mauritania. Since then she has provided support after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, assisted with controlling a cholera epidemic in Haiti, and offered medical assistance in conflict zones including Palestine, Central African Republic, and Sudan’s Darfur region. She was elected international president of MSF in June 2013.

Helene D. Gayle
After completing a residency in pediatrics, Gayle joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studying malnutrition in children and the HIV/AIDS programs and policies. In 2006, she became president and CEO of CARE USA, a humanitarian organization with a mission of fighting global poverty. CARE also emphasizes providing economic opportunity to poor women.

Vivian Bass
Bass spent three decades working to support quality of life improvements and opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Bass became CEO of the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes in 1995. The agency has 74 residential locations for adults in the Washington, DC, area, two transitional programs, and two social and recreation programs for young adults. Under her hands-on leadership, the agency has grown from $5 million in total assets to more than $26 million in 2014. For her work supporting residents and their families, Bass was named a 2006 Washingtonian of the Year.

Alyse Nelson
Nelson co-founded Vital Voices, a nongovernmental organization that identifies, trains, and empowers emerging women leaders and social entrepreneurs around the world. Nelson is now president and chief executive officer of Vital Voices Global Partnership, a role she assumed in 2009. Under her leadership, Vital Voices has tripled in size and expanded its global reach to serve a network of over 14,000 women leaders in 144 countries. Nelson also served as deputy director of the Vital Voices Global Democracy Initiative at the US State Department and worked with President Obama’s interagency Council on Women and Girls.

Deborah Shore
Shore founded Sasha Bruce Youthwork (formerly known as the Washington Streetwork Project) in 1974, with a focus on helping young people on the streets reconnect with their families. With support from a donor, the organization opened the Sasha Bruce House in 1977, providing a safe haven for troubled youth. Sasha Bruce Youthwork is now one of the largest providers of youth services in Washington, DC, and has 18 professionally staffed locations. The National Network for Youth gave Shore a Lifetime Achievement Award for her achievements.

Nancy Lindborg
Lindborg has focused her career on issues including transition, democracy and civil society, and conflict and humanitarian response, serving for 14 years as president of Mercy Corps. She earned a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University and is currently USAID assistant administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. In this role, she focuses on crisis prevention, response, recovery, and transition, leading more than 500 team members.

Barbara Dwyer Gunn
Dwyer Gunn, who earned a Master of Public Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has worked for a variety of mission-driven organizations over the course of her career, including New York City government and the American Museum of Natural History, where she served as senior vice president for Operations and Government Relations. She is currently president and CEO of Seedco, an organization focusing on advancing economic opportunities for people, businesses, and communities in need through a network of community-based organizations and funders.