SSL Program, Part 1: Why a Master's Degree in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management?

By Nicole Marwell and Evelyn Diaz

News Type
Nicole Marwell (l), Crown Family School podcast logo w/soundwaves, and Evelyn Diaz (r)

Associate Professor Nicole Marwell and alumna Evelyn Diaz, AM '98, President of the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, discuss the Crown Family School’s Master's Degree in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management. They also explore Diaz’s experiences in the social sector, what skills are needed for a person to succeed as a leader in the social sector, and how a degree from the Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management program can help develop those skills.

We'd like to thank Augusta Read Thomas, University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music and the College, who composed the music.

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Announcer:  Welcome to the UChicago Crown Family School Podcast. This is part one of a two-part episode where Associate Professor Nicole Marwell discusses the new Master's of Arts Program in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management with two alumnae, one a leader in the field, and another, a recent graduate of the program.

Nicole: Hi. I’m Nicole Marwell. I’m an associate professor at the University of Chicago's Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice. I’m here today to talk about our newest master’s program, the Master’s Degree in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management which we call the SSL. And I’m going to talk about the SSL today with my honored guest, Evelyn Diaz. Evelyn, could you introduce yourself to the audience, please?

Evelyn: Of course. Hi, everybody. I’m Evelyn Diaz. I am the president of Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, and I am also an alumna of the Crown Family School, and I’m really excited to be here.

Nicole: So before we start our conversation, I just want to say a few words about the Crown Family School and the SSL Program. The Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice is dedicated to working toward a more just and humane society through research, teaching and service to the community. As one of the oldest and most highly regarded graduate schools of social work, the Crown Family School prepares professionals to handle society’s most difficult problems by developing new knowledge, promoting a deeper understanding of the causes and human costs of social inequities, and building bridges between rigorous research and the practice of helping individuals, families and communities to achieve a better quality of life.

The Crown Family School offers graduate work leading to both the AM and PhD degrees, including a Master’s in Social Work, Social Policy and Social Administration, and the Master’s in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management, which we will discuss today. The degree in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management, which we call the SSL, educates leaders focused on creating a more inclusive and just society. Our program provides students a deep understanding of the organizational and policy environments shaping social sector action alongside the most up-to-date skills in organizational management, leadership, analysis, and strategy.

Our program is unique in its ability to provide students with knowledge about how mission-driven organizations and their programs operate in their communities, as well as deep conceptual thinking about how these organizations can respond to complex social problems. Our program’s foundational social justice perspective distinguishes us from similar programs located in other kinds of schools. The SSL is a flexible program with both a full-time 12-month option and a part-time 21-month option. Day, evening, and weekend classes are available. Both options include 12 courses plus a summer practicum. This in person program allows ample opportunities to spend time with professors and to learn from colleagues in an intimate setting.

So Evelyn, thank you so much for joining me today. I wanted to ask you what are the skills you see that are needed for a person to succeed as a leader in the social sector, and in particular, how can a degree from the SSL program help develop those skills?

Evelyn: Well, thanks for having me, first and foremost. It is always good to come back to my grad school alma mater and contribute in any way that I can. Over the past several years most of my assessment of leaders has been at the executive level, so I hire executive level leaders, people who have chief in their title or executive director or VP in their title. And so that’s the level I’m kind of most deeply steeped in.

And when we think about whether we’re looking inside the organization or searching outside the organization, obviously some experience in the specific area of expertise, so if we’re looking for a chief human resources officer obviously we want somebody who has some experience in human resources.

But really what we are interested in is the kind of leader that they are. And we kind of put them through the wringer when we’re asking them to think about, or to tell us about the kind of leader they are. We’re looking for things like do they have the ability to inspire a team to achieve organizational goals, do they inspire teams to work collaboratively. And we ask for examples of that.

We want to see that they’re forward and strategic thinking so they’re not just seeing what’s immediately in front of them, but they can back out and take a much more holistic view and say even though I’m responsible for this certain area, I see the bigger organization that I’m a part of, I see what that organization is trying to achieve, and how would my area fit into that.

And so we want to see them taking a holistic view, thinking forward into the future, and thinking strategically, where can we make the biggest impact, what could we stop doing. I like to talk about strategy as what we’re not gonna do, right? So strategic plans are strategic for what they leave out. And that’s…we have to learn that and kind of practice the skill of leaving things out so that we can get really focused on our mission and where we can have the biggest impact.

There are a few other things that I think are really important that we look for: integrity and authenticity—and I want to say something about that in a second—cultural humility, interpersonal awareness. And then—this is especially true in Heartland Alliance—is resilience and stress tolerance.

Heartland Alliance is the kind of organization that purposely takes on work that is high risk in nature. We work with some of the most marginalized populations on earth in some of the most dangerous places on earth. There’s an elevated risk in the organization, and so we have to be able to manage lots of different crises or potential crises coming up, and so we need to know that people have the ability to manage that intensity and bounce back from it.

All right, so let me just say one thing about integrity and authenticity. One of the things I ask If you were applying for an executive level position at Heartland Alliance you would find yourself meeting with me three or four times. And that’s highly unorthodox, but there’s a method to my madness, and it’s just…there’s a lot we have to cover.

We want to tell you about the organization. That might be a meeting. Then we really want to hear from you about all of your skills and what you bring to the table. And then I like to talk to them about some of the realities in the organization, where we are, where we’re, like what’s hard that they might encounter, and just kind of sense where is your energy level to take these kinds of things on.

And then I have a conversation with them about them as a person, and are they a learning and growing person, are they somebody who’s really committed to doing their own work. Because I have a philosophy that means that we’ve dealt with our own traumas, that we know our story, that we know ourselves deeply, that we know what our strengths and weaknesses are and we’re willing to say what those are, and then build teams around us that compensate for where we’re not strong, but that we’re always seeking to get better.

And I, to this day, I just realized that in two years I will have been in working in this sector for 30 years, so 28 years of this work. And I am still working on being a better leader. And I want to know that all of the people around me on my leadership team are also striving to be better leaders. So that’s a quality that I want to see in a person. I want to see that they are interested in growing as a leader and developing themselves as a person, and just being their best self, and bringing that to the mission of the organization.

I think the marginalized populations that we work with and for, that they deserve the very best of us, and so it’s our job to work on that, to make sure that we are coming through the door every day with the best of what we’ve got, that we’ve dealt with our stuff so that we can be a clearing and a safe space for them to open up what’s on their plate.

Nicole: Yeah, that’s a really interesting and important piece of what I think having the SSL located in a school of social work, that it really matters for that.

Evelyn: Yeah.

Nicole: I wonder if you can reflect on a couple of things. One is how do you know when you’re looking at someone’s application or their portfolio or in an interview, how do you know if you think that they are a person who has these qualities that you’re talking about, the willingness to grow, the willingness to keep working on themselves? What flags that for you?

Evelyn: I ask it directly because I don’t think it’s hard for that stuff to kind of eke out of other interview questions where you’re asking, show me an example of a time that you dealt with something, challenging, or had a difficult conversation, kind of your typical interview questions.

So if by the time a candidate makes it into the very final round, and we’re really seriously considering them, I’ll usually have lunch or coffee, and it’ll be just the two of us. And we’ll have a real straight conversation, just very personal. I share some things about myself and the ways that I’ve grown, and the things that I do to make sure that I’m constantly in a conversation about my leadership skills.

And then I ask them, straight up, what is it that you’ve worked on, what kind of work have you done on yourself, and are you open to those kinds of things. And so we just kind of have a very direct conversation just about that topic. And it helps me see the person a little bit more clearly. It’s, I think, one of the hallmarks of inclusive leadership—and I know you all touch on this in the program—is I want to see all of my leaders, right?

I want to see their humanity, I want to see them deeply, and I want a team that knows each other that way and respects each other that way. And I see that as part of inclusive leadership, is just starting out of the gate by saying, you know, we welcome everybody wherever they are in their own personal development. We just want to see that you’re thinking about it and you’re curious about it and you have an orientation toward personal improvement, professional improvement.

Nicole: So when you learned about the SSL program, what stood out for you that was different from other programs whose graduates you may see?

Evelyn: It really does seem like it’s filling a niche, this program, that I haven’t seen certainly in our region. I know that lots of professionals in our sector will do leadership development courses, and those run typically about a year, and they are cohort based…my understanding about those programs, they introduce them to each other. It’s networking and it’s also learning about civic life in Chicago, that kind of thing. And people say those are really rewarding.

But this is different in that it has eight courses. It’s very specific about developing organizational and sector leaders specifically, and then with skills built into that. So it’s more than just network and exposure, it’s…it’s we’re gonna talk to you about what it means to manage strategically. Here’s what you need to know about financial management. And so this is true if I’m looking at somebody inside the organization—and we’re increasingly trying to create more and more career ladders inside the organization—I know that I could be looking at somebody who seems to be a really great leader, but who doesn’t understand the financial management part of the organization, or might not understand the management essentials. And these are all things that SSL covers in the program. And so that’s distinctive.

And then, of course, the cohort model I think is really, really cool, where the cohort takes two-thirds of their classes together and moves through that in a sequence. And that then achieves what I think some of these other leadership development courses try to do, which is create this community feeling, this network that you might always tap into for the rest of your career. I think that’s incredibly cool.

Nicole: Yeah, that’s great. You know, you talked earlier about the importance of strategic thinking, about being able to pull out and see the bigger picture of the organization, the organization in its environment and all the things that you have to do to really understand where your organization sits in a set of opportunities as well as constraints. That’s something that I think is really important to the SSL approach, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that kind of analytical thinking is important to leadership.

Evelyn: Yeah, so the ability to pull out, if you think about it, the folks who are doing direct service work or field, the field staff, every kind of layer in hierarchical structure in an organization, kind of every layer of management from that point forward is taking a broader and broader look on the organization.

And I have found that sometimes people will get promoted into a supervisor position or a manager position because they were doing a really good job in their current role. But nobody ever tells them that now what’s required of you is not just to be good in the job that you did—that was very focused, that was awesome, you did great—but now we’re asking you to see a bigger chunk of the organization. And then when you move up again you’re taking even a…even a larger chunk. And as I was saying, I hire really at the executive level, so I’m asking my team to see the entire picture, and inside the organization, and outside the organization.

I want them to see what I see and then just be part of my team. I’m reminded when I started at Heartland Alliance, and it was about six and a half years ago, I was coming from the City of Chicago. I was heading up the Department of Family and Support Services there. It was a different animal. It was a big, big budget, big kind of department in the city, but it was different. I didn’t have to raise money, the mayor set the vision.

So when I came to Heartland Alliance I realized like oh, I better have a point of view on how I want to lead this behemoth organization. That was really important to me to have a point of view on what is the ultimate thing I’m trying to build here, and then to ask everyone to see that as well and then locate themselves as an important actor in getting there.

I haven’t sat in on one of the SSL courses, but just kind of based on, what I’ve read about them, I have the sense that that is exactly what you’re trying to do, is you’re trying to like pull folks who’ve been working in the sector, pull them out to help them see the bigger, more holistic picture so that they can, wherever they’re going, whatever the next move is for them, they know that one of the most important things they can do is see themselves as part of a much broader organism that has a broader purpose and really understand to be my strongest leader in my area, I’m supporting this bigger thing, like how do I do that really effectively, how do I collaborate with other leaders in the organization.

SSL is a welcome addition at the Crown Family School as a master’s program. I can see it as being really helpful for people in my own organization.

Nicole: What could you say about why the Crown Family School is a unique place to study and a unique place to have the SSL degree located?

Evelyn: Well, and this is not comparing. I don’t know the other schools of graduate social work or social administration as well, so this is not comparing when I say this. But I have observed that graduates of the Crown Family School are—and this was true when I was there, too, like even in the classroom—that students are really serious, and they’re really curious, and they’re really smart.

And so you find yourself sitting in a classroom of people who, they’re as serious as you about achieving social change and social justice, and it’s fascinating to see kind of all of the different ways that you can express that mission in yourself. You can do it through direct service, or you can do it through policy work, or administration, and you can do it in the schools, or you can do it in healthcare settings. And just it’s so broad, and you’re in there with people who are all equally serious. Like they know their track or they know where they want to go, and that’s really neat.

The faculty are not just experts, obviously, in their fields, but they’re also incredibly accessible. It just feels like a…it feels like a family there, like a community, where you’re…it’s not too big. It just feels really accessible. I love that you get a well-rounded education there.

When I started at the Crown School was in the late '90s, I was doing direct service at the time. And I wanted to learn everything. I wanted, it’s like just teach me about the social sector because I’m in love with this work and at the individual and group level, and I had no idea. And so the fact that, you go to the Crown Family School and you just kind of get this…this huge overview of the field, the theoretical underpinnings, the concepts, the landscape.

You get to dive in on specific areas and hear the history of those areas, and what we’ve learned and it was just fantastic. So that well-rounded education where you just get a really broad view of the field, practice side, administration side, it’s super cool.

And then of course there is this incredible alumni work…network. And certainly if you’re going be working in the Chicagoland region, there are just a ton of folks in the field who have graduated from the Crown Family School, and they are kind of in every corner, and they are at just every level of leadership you can imagine. And there’s this kind of unspoken, you know, like when you know somebody is also a graduate you’re like oh, uh-huh, I got your number, you’re really smart and curious and serious.

And so yeah, I think that makes it a unique place to study. Of course it’s based in the University of Chicago, where it’s just incredible. Schools of graduate study, and the undergraduate program, and this gorgeous campus, and the resources of the university also make it kind of unique among other programs across the country.

Nicole: What do you think that the alumni of the SSL program would be able to offer an organization like yours or to other organizations in the social sector?

Evelyn: Well, one thing that I was intrigued by was that there would be this capstone practicum as part of the program that it gives students an opportunity to take a senior level executive challenge and consult on that in a specific organization. And I have nothing but senior level executive challenges in my organization. I have so many. And so I was like oh, maybe we’ll take one of the SSL interns or during their capstone practicum.

Right now, Heartland Alliance is kind of doing a lot of really exciting work in the organization to integrate more and collaborate more, and we’re doing work, like very intensive work on antiracism.

We’ve got all kinds of culture building stuff going on in the organization. And we’ve got some real challenges. We have five companies under the Heartland Alliance umbrella, and so there are some challenges inside each of the companies.

And so it feels to me like Heartland Alliance would be fertile ground for, partnering up with one of our chief executives on a particular business challenge that they’re working on and again take this broad view and understand what it is we’re trying to solve, and why we’re trying to solve for it, and how you work with others to create these solutions and implement them. I think it would be great for that practicum, and then of course we have openings all the time. I would love to see some resumes cross our desk from some of the graduates of the program.

Nicole: So the SSL offers both a full-time and a part-time option. Both the full-time and the part-time consists of 12 courses plus the practicum, which is done in the summer. If you go for the full-time option it’s a degree in 12 months. If you go for the part-time option it’s a degree in 21 months. And it’s the same curriculum whether you are part-time or full-time.

Announcer: The Crown Family School thanks Nicole Marwell and Evelyn Diaz for this conversation and Augusta Read Thomas, UChicago University Professor in the Department of Music, who composed the music. If you would like to learn more about the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, please visit us at crownschool dot uchicago dot edu slash ssl.

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