Leadership: The Nonprofit Life
Imagine having the power to impact thousands of lives with the decisions you make everyday--such is the gravitas of being an executive of a nonprofit organization. Their decisions impact not only their own institution, but also its stakeholders and the broader community that they’re part of as well. How did leaders get to their current positions? Were their original professional aspirations always in the nonprofit sector? Through interviewing two non-profit executives, Michael Feinman, Executive Director of the Jewish National Fund--Greater New York Region, and Dr. Alisa Rubin Kurshan, Senior Vice President of the UJA--Federation of New York, I was able to see the unique paths that led them to their respective leadership roles.
Michael Feinman woke up to a career that wasn’t what he had envisioned for himself. After working in sales for ten years, he realized that this was not the life he had wanted. “I was in a field that I wasn’t happy or satisfied with,” he remarked. Feinman went back to the drawing board, and through discussions with friends and role models, he decided that a Master’s degree in social work would be the perfect window into a meaningful career. So that’s exactly what he did, receiving his master’s degree from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
After completing his master’s degree, Feinman started at the very bottom as an intern at the UJA – Federation of New York, but through hard work and high aspirations, he “worked his way up the ladder” until he became the Executive Director of the Jewish National Fund - Greater New York Region (JNF). When asked what advice he would offer to those interested in the nonprofit sector, Feinman emphasized the importance of making your career your own. “What is your ‘fill in the blank story,” Feinman would challenge those interested in the nonprofit sector. “My JNF story is mine – it takes time to develop but I can talk about what JNF means to me and it’s real.”
Feinman came to the realization that there was something missing in his life, something in his regular job that was lacking. A job simply paying the bills just wasn’t enough anymore. That all changed when he started his career working in a nonprofit organization. To Feinman, “Working in the nonprofit sector, especially focusing on Israel, is totally fulfilling for me. I am proud of the work and I am proud of the organization.”
Dr. Alisa Rubin Kurshan has her own unique story of how she ended up as the Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning and Organizational Resources at the UJA. Kurshan described how she was a “mathematician who loved to teach math.” Motivated to help struggling students, she felt that she could change the way students viewed math, and help them feel confident when faced with difficult equations. She believed that “every high school student needed one great math teacher and then there would be no fear of math anymore.” Kurshan wanted to be that teacher.
Eventually though, this wasn’t enough. The “black and white of mathematics that had once brought [her] so much satisfaction, no longer did.” In pursuit of something more, Kurshan became invested in furthering Jewish education. She felt that it was critically important to address the “nuances, the challenges of the grays of life” to improve Jewish education. Kurshan saw an unaddressed need in the community as a calling for her to make a difference.
With the help of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Alisa Rubin Kurshan, was able to return to school at age thirty-five to earn her Ph.D. in Jewish Education. After completing her advanced education and getting a job in the UJA, Kurshan, enthusiastic about improving Jewish education, continued to progress in her professional career. Eventually, she advanced to become the Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning and Organizational Resources, where she “oversees the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars to nonprofits in New York, Israel, and around the world.” She spends a good portion of her time connecting with the community that she serves, “making sure that each program is having the maximum impact and fulfilling priorities.” Whether trying to lift Jews out of poverty, improve the quality of Jewish educational experiences, or strengthen the connection of North American Jewry with Israel, she makes sure that every dollar is used to its fullest potential.
Neither Michael Feinman nor Alisa Rubin Kurshan started their careers with a desire to work in the nonprofit sector, and neither of them even had career paths that necessarily would have lead them to executive positions. But what they both had was the desire for something more from their lives; in Kurshan’s case, you can practically hear her sense of fulfillment when she describes working for a non-profit: “I love my job. I believe I have the best job in Jewish life.”
College gives us the impression that there is one direct path to our ideal career. There is a mindset that if we want to be successful, we need this internship, or that job. But at the end of the day, there are so many unique career paths and options. The truth is that there isn’t one route to becoming a leader of a nonprofit, or of any organization for that matter. Far more important than the path you choose is finding a career path that adds meaning to your life.