Business & Tech

Five things you should know about Yolanda Coentro

Yolanda Coentro is president and chief executive of the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, formerly the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Yolanda Coentro is president and chief executive of the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, formerly the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership.

In July, Yolanda Coentro, 38, became president and chief executive of the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, which recently had a name change; it used to be the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership. Based in Needham and affiliated with Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, it offers skills training and leadership development for executives and managers at nonprofits. Coentro spoke about the organization’s mission and her career path in the nonprofit sector.

1. According to a study by McKinsey & Co., only 1 percent of grants to nonprofits by charitable foundations goes to leadership development within the nonprofit sector. That’s a reflection of how little managerial training is available for nonprofit executives, a deficit the Institute for Nonprofit Practice aims to address.

“The challenges in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors are the same, but the for-profit world invests 20 times more money in developing its leaders because they have the resources to do it. And they know when you build up human capital, it makes a company more effective and productive and profitable. But in nonprofits, when you have to make decisions about whether resources should go to the communities you’re serving or be spent internally, it’s really difficult. So the nonprofit sector hasn’t had that internal investment, and we’re trying to close that gap.”

2. One of the institute’s offerings is a year-long training program in how to run a nonprofit, from fund-raising to marketing to hiring to managing a board. Upon completion, participants receive a certificate in nonprofit management and leadership. Coentro completed the program in 2011 and calls the experience “transformational.”

“Many nonprofit leaders rise to these positions because they’re incredibly effective people, but they didn’t necessarily get an MBA or didn’t get their education at a time when they were grappling with leadership challenges. At my job, I was so busy putting out fires that I could hardly think, and strategy was always put on the back burner. But the program forced me to carve out time to go to class, study business management, and think about how those practices could be implemented on the job. It was an incredible opportunity that I didn’t even know I needed until I was there.”

3. A licensed social worker, Coentro has spent her career in the local nonprofit sector, including at Horizons for Homeless Children, YWCA Boston, and Home for Little Wanderers, although that isn’t the career path she originally envisioned.

“I wanted to be a social change agent, and I thought it would be through the law, and civil rights law in particular. Then I took a sociology class and fell in love with the idea of looking at social issues broadly and working on them both on the ground and through system-level change, which is essentially what I thought a law degree would help with. But I quickly realized there would be many avenues in the nonprofit sector to do that, so I decided to go into social work. I haven’t canceled out the option of going back to school for a law degree, but so far I haven’t needed one to in order to create system change.”


4. Coentro says the biggest problem facing the nonprofit sector is a shortage of resources. Another major challenge, in her view, is a lack of diversity in executive positions. It concerns her that while many nonprofits and charitable foundations are trying to solve problems in minority communities, relatively few of those organizations have minorities in leadership roles.

“More ideas at the table mean more innovation and opportunity for us to get closer to answers, and we need to be diverse to do that. When I look at what’s happened in Ferguson and elsewhere in the country, and I look at the [mostly white] leaders in public office in Ferguson and its police force — yet the community is primarily people of color — it calls into question how this might have played out if there was more representation of black and African-American people throughout those levels of leadership.”

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5. After buying a home that needed to be deleaded — Massachusetts law requires houses to be deleaded if they’re occupied by children under 6 years old — Coentro decided to do it herself. So she enrolled in a deleading training program and is now certified to delead low- and moderate-risk properties.

“I was in class with a bunch of construction workers, and I’ve always felt it’s important for women to do things they wouldn’t necessarily tackle on their own, demonstrate they can do it, and be really successful. Working on our house with my own hands was a very personal experience in my own self-empowerment. And it’s concrete: You build something, you fix something.”

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SachaPfeiffer.