Alumni Spotlight: Paula Fitzgerald, Ayuda

Paula Fitzgerald

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Ayuda is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on serving vulnerable immigrants in the greater D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas. Founded in 1973, Ayuda uses its expertise to provide social, language, and legal services to help immigrants navigate their adjustment and transition to the U.S. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with alumna Paula Fitzgerald, Ayuda’s Executive Director, about her experiences working in the nonprofit sector and her time in CPNL’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL): Why did you want to work in the nonprofit sector? 

Paula Fitzgerald: I wanted to devote my career to serving others and to making a positive difference in our world. I think that kind of desire came from my parents – my dad was a psychologist who worked with the mentally ill and my mother was a school social worker and she worked primarily with immigrant students. I was influenced by my parents’ work and I wanted to devote my efforts to something that would also serve others.

CPNL: How did you get your current job?             

Paula Fitzgerald: I have worked at Ayuda for more than 10 years. I started as a staff attorney in 2008 in our new Virginia office and eventually became the managing attorney in Virginia. When our executive director left in 2016, I assumed the role of interim executive director and then was selected for the executive director role.

CPNL: What is the most fulfilling part of your current role?

Paula Fitzgerald: I started as a staff attorney at Ayuda and I found doing the individual cases and serving individual clients to be very fulfilling. The work I did as an immigration attorney was able to transform people’s lives and make such a difference in what they were able to achieve and do. So now, as an executive director, I am not doing that directly but indirectly. I am working to expand our capacity to do more of the life changing work by finding funding for and hiring more attorneys, social services staff and language access staff. Even though I’m not working directly with clients any more, I know that the attorneys, the social workers, the case managers, the language access staff – all of them – are making a really huge difference in the lives of many immigrant families in the area. I find a lot of fulfillment there.

CPNL: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Paula Fitzgerald: There’s one case in particular that I remember as a lawyer. I represented an African woman who had schizophrenia and she had been a victim of violent assault. It was a really challenging case because she was in and out of institutions and I had to approach the case differently than most. I was very proud to be able to gain immigration status for her as it is difficult to represent a client who is mentally ill but so important that we find ways to do this successfully. As Ayuda’s Executive Director, I think what I am most proud of is being able to take this organization that I’ve always cared about to make it stronger, to make it more secure and stable, and to grow it and expand the services we provide to the community.

CPNL: You mentioned capacity. How do you manage that tension between expanding capacity while being sustainable and stable?

Paula Fitzgerald: When I started at Ayuda as Interim Executive Director, it was all about stability. I spent my first year working to create a strong foundation for the organization. One thing I did is create and fund a reserve policy – we hadn’t had one before – and now we’ve had it for a couple of years and we’re building this strong reserve to make sure that we can weather difficult financial times. The organization has been around now for 45 years, so I take our obligation very seriously to make sure the organization is around for another 45 years. From a stronger foundation we were able to grow. That’s where we are right now, we are growing and we’re building capacity to serve more clients in DC, Maryland and Virginia.

CPNL: What was your biggest takeaway from the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate program?

Paula Fitzgerald: I really got a lot from the finance part of it and I was really interested in that. When you’re in these trainings you add many items to your to-do list but also acquire some resources to help achieve your goals. I learned a lot about how to create better financial stability and structures – the reserve policy, and a stronger organizational budget. I also got a lot from my classmates in the program. I learned a lot from them, they are also experts in their fields. I learned a lot about what they have done at their organizations and what has worked. I had never had training in all the elements that go into non-profit management, so that was amazingly helpful. From the fundraising training to the overview of the nonprofit sector and different strategies and philosophies on how to successfully manage nonprofits – I found that all helpful and interesting.

CPNL: How did the certificate program challenge you?

Paula Fitzgerald: It challenged me to look at what we were currently doing at Ayuda or how we had done things in the past and thinking about how we might do it differently. I really tried to go in with a very open mind and not assume that any of the ways we were doing things were the best way. It really did challenge me to consider what we had been doing in the past at Ayuda and what really should be changed and what was strong and could stay the same. As I was taking the training, I would write different to-do notes and ideas that I had on where we could improve. Sometimes after the class I was able to reach out to the faculty and ask follow up questions as I took on those different tasks that I had written down.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Paula Fitzgerald: For me, the timing was perfect because I was interim Executive Director and I was applying to the Executive Director role and I kind of got to come into my position having learned the background of nonprofit management and focusing on specific aspects including finance, development, communications, human resources, the full gamut.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Paula Fitzgerald: I think it’s very helpful training, but I know people get intimated by the time commitment, but it is time well spent. It’s very important to carve out that time to develop the expertise and receive that training. Furthermore, it is important to really give it the extra time not just in the class but to do the readings and to take time to meet with classmates because the connections are invaluable.