Ten Questions for the CFO: Sarah Gillman (Children’s Aid Society)
You’ve held a variety of positions, including CFO, at several nonprofits. Are there commonalities among them? Large, complex organizations are like a puzzle. But there is one thing that I think is most important among all, which is communication.
Is there a particular class during your education that has stuck with you through the years, that’s left you saying something like, I’m so glad I took that? One of my mentors at Columbia Business School, Ray Horton, helped me really think hard about the role of nonprofits in city budgeting. It really taught me how to forecast and how political philosophy impacts organizational design for nonprofits.
What’s your ideal weekend look like? I’d wake up Saturday and make challah French toast for my sons. The weekend would include a hike on a local trail with a friend in the morning and a trip to my local farmer’s market. In the late afternoon, it would be a quick trip to the Whitney Museum to see the latest exhibition and have a bite to eat in lower Manhattan, before heading to an edgy performance at St. Ann’s Ware house in Brooklyn. I also really enjoy physical activity – so Sun day might include reading The New York Times and sailing on Long Island Sound in a small boat. There’d be lots of cooking on Sunday, too, for an evening feast with family and friends.
What does 2017 hold for nonprofits? I think a lot of nonprofits are concerned about the increasing need for our services and decreased funding to provide those services. Nonprofits have already cut costs in the face of decreasing government dollars and we have raised – and will continue to raise – private dollars to cover funding gaps. However, private dollars cannot replace government funds, and many nonprofits will have to reduce services just when people need them the most.
Who was your favorite superhero growing up? Wonder Woman – I love the outfits. She also had the magic lasso that made people tell the truth.
What do you think about Form 990? Does it have to be changed, and if so, why? It is an amazingly comprehensive disclosure requirement and tracks important information about finances, governance, and operational best practices. Over time it has stimulated rich discussion in the nonprofit community about requirements and pushes us forward as an industry. It can create misunderstandings. Data alone does not tell the full story. It’s really important that the organization’s story is mirrored in the narrative.
If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be? Communicate, communicate, communicate. Inbound, outbound, expressive, and receptive. In all ways, communication is key to success.
What attracted you to the nonprofit sector? What has made you stay? My first job out of college was in advertising. One day I realized I was selling pots and pans and dog food. I wanted to be creative and also give something back to the world in the areas I am most passionate about: children, arts, and the environment.
Where are you from and what’s something people might not know about it? I’m from the suburbs of New York, but I have always loved to masquerade as a cool city kid. I love New York. I love the vibrancy, the people, the culture, the children. My favorite borough is the Bronx – the vast variety of people – from the Caribbean, Italy, Ireland, Albania, Ghana, the beautiful parks and open space and determination of the people who live there.
Is there a book you’re looking forward to reading? I am looking forward to reading Tracy Kidder’s A Truck Full of Money. It’s nonfiction about the Internet age and start-up culture that led to some meteoric rises and even bigger falls.