RapidChat: Ellen Carpenter on breaking glass ceilings within a women-led industry

When Ellen Carpenter first left the corporate world for nonprofit, she was overwhelmingly struck by the diversity within the workforce. "Employees are demanding a workplace that is tolerant and progressive and one that addresses inequalities head-on," Ellen elaborates. Because unlike the corporate world, nonprofits are overwhelmingly led by women. 
Rapid Growth: What encouraged you to apply for your first role within the nonprofit sector?

Ellen Carpenter: I had been with Heart of West Michigan United Way for almost seven years and really love the nonprofit sector. A leadership role at Ronald McDonald House of Western Michigan allows me to collaborate and work with the team to fundraise and deliver a mission every day to families who want to stay close to their sick children. It is very rewarding and purposeful work.

RG: What professional considerations did you make before transitioning into your new role with the RMHWM?

EC: After being the board chair and a board member, I had a very good understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the organization and felt my background in both business and nonprofit was a strong combination. My professional background in sales and marketing is a plus in a crowded nonprofit market where awareness is critical.

RG: How about personal?

EC: Leading a nonprofit always starts with the mission and I wanted to be passionate about the mission and the work. I believe in the mission of the Ronald McDonald House to help families stay near to their critically ill child when they live more than 30 miles away. Delivering on this mission is a 24/7/365 proposition and I needed to be sure I could give it all the energy I have to be successful. I was also lucky that I knew the team here and had so much confidence in their abilities and their commitment to the mission.

RG: In what unexpected ways did your corporate-world experience help prepare you for this?

EC: The corporate world trains you to make fact-based decisions, run the organization efficiently, and to be accountable for your deliverables. Nonprofits are no different. In fact, leading a well-managed nonprofit uses these same principles with even more focus since most nonprofits have slim resources, forcing even more discerning decisions.

RG: Are there similar professional ceilings within the nonprofit world?

EC: Actually, unlike the corporate world, nonprofits are overwhelmingly led by women. I think that employees are demanding a workplace that is tolerant and progressive and one that addresses inequalities head-on, and nonprofits are great role models in this pursuit.

RG: Can you elaborate more on that?

EC: When I first left the corporate world for nonprofit, I was struck by the diversity within the workforce. We had people of all ages, races and experience levels. Some were just starting their work life and others were retired from their first career and starting a second. Some were from nonprofit with a social work background and others from business or teaching. I felt that dynamic provided so much more richness in our discussions and decisions because we considered a variety of perspectives. As millennials begin to take over the workforce, this diversity of people and thought will be part of the success equation for the future.

RG: What’s a common misconception people have when considering a move from the for-profit to nonprofit sector?

EC: I think a common misperception is that the efficiency of a nonprofit is based solely on low overhead. In reality, operating costs such as bills, rent, utilities, salaries, and investing in the future are critical for delivering on a nonprofit’s mission. Just like a business, overhead costs are the way you deliver services and are essential for advancing the mission.

RG: What nonprofit leaders do you look up to?

EC: There are so many amazing women leaders in the nonprofit sector that I admire! Some of my top picks are Cheryl Schuch of Family Promise, Kristen Gietzen of Arbor Circle, Bridget Clark-Whitney of Kids Food Basket, Charisse Mitchell of YWCA, Tasha Blackmon of Cherry Health, and Michelle Van Dyke of Heart of West Michigan United Way.

RG: What other nonprofits are you enthusiastic about?

EC: I have a great appreciation for all the hard work that goes into a nonprofit and there are so many with great missions and amazing people. The family homeless situation in Grand Rapids is dire and I have been involved with those organizations who serve this population, especially Family Promise. I have also been a long time volunteer at God’s Kitchen and Degage Ministries.

RG: Under your new leadership, what does 2020 have in store for the RMHWM?

EC: We are celebrating our 30th Anniversary! We estimate we have provided housing for thousands of families (close to 15K) with critically ill children in the hospital and are ready to serve for the next 30 years and more! We are going to be upgrading our rooms to make them even more comfortable for our guests. We have loads of great events and special ways to celebrate the House, our donors, volunteers, staff and families this year and our team is already getting ready for them!

Jenna K. Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
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