Alumni Spotlight: Cristina Gutierrez de Piñeres, United Way Colombia

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Cristina Gutierrez de Piñeres is currently the Executive Director of United Way Colombia, which works to ensure that children receive a better-quality education and stay in school to improve their educational trajectories. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Cristina about her experience merging two nonprofits and her experience in the Center’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with so many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?

Gutierrez de Piñeres: Well, since I was little, I was very sensitive to inequality in Colombia. I grew up in a family that had a lot of opportunities, especially in education and I strongly believe education is the best tool to reduce inequality in a country like Colombia. During school, I did a lot of social work. When I attended college, I decided to study psychology. I then pursued my master’s degree in Developmental Psychology at Teachers College. Since then, I have been working with vulnerable communities using a comprehensive approach, where education is always present. At the beginning of my career I worked directly with community intervention programs, but later I started working with nonprofits and understanding the role of the various actors in the sector. I have always worked with disadvantaged families and children and led the work of the Genesis Foundation for fifteen years. So, I guess that this sensitivity that I have for the differences among people, whether that be in Colombia or, in New York, is what motivates the work I do every day.

CPNL: You successfully led a merger between the Genesis Foundation and another organization to form United Way Colombia. What was the process of that merger and what advice would you give to other leaders in this field looking to do something similar?

Gutierrez de Piñeres: It’s funny because when I was at Georgetown, I remember my papers during the Certificate Program were about me finishing a professional cycle, and how I was feeling that Genesis was getting to a point where we were ready to move on to another stage. But we were facing sustainability issues as well as challenges on how to achieve a higher impact, so I remember saying – okay, either I leave Genesis, or I direct Genesis into the next stage. And that’s when I started to think, if we do partnerships all the time with other foundations, why is it that we cannot diverge from our traditional partnerships and become just one, stronger organization? So, I started a due-diligence process, talking to lawyers and getting responses like  “no that’s not a good idea, foundations do not merge, don’t try to merge.” Finally, I found some lawyers that said it was possible and who trusted this project.

You have to approach this as a commercial merger between two companies by ensuring they have similarities and the opportunity to become stronger by working as one organization. So, I started to do some research about foundations that were very similar to Genesis that had the potential to align with our interests, but were also facing similar sustainability and impact issues. It was a challenge because I wanted to continue working and I had put a lot of heart into what Genesis had achieved up to that point. When you go through the merging process where there are two CEOs, you have to choose between them. But things went well. I not only found an organization that was interested in the process, with all the conditions I was looking for, but also with a Director who was interested in pursuing a personal project. So, it was not a fight between the two of us for who was going to stay, and this was a gain especially for me because Genesis was my lifetime project for the last fifteen years.

Everything aligned, and it was an amazing process. When we did the matrix analysis between the different variables – the mission, social impact, the financial statements, the partners, operating model – everything came together. We did the due diligence process and talked to all the board members, and they all agreed to the merger. It happened in record time – five months with a lot of work! We started as a sole organization in January 2020, United Way Colombia – the name acquisition was natural as Dividendo por Colombia, the other organization that participated in the merger, was already a member of United Way Worldwide and being a part of this global network is very beneficial.

CPNL: United Way Colombia has a commitment to “formalize social responsibility” and assist those who are the most vulnerable. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, how has your organization adapted to fulfill this commitment? Are there any specific projects or initiatives your organization has led to combat COVID-19 in Colombia?

Gutierrez de Piñeres: We had to reinvent ourselves in terms of how we get to the communities. We have programs that are directed to reduce dropout rates from early childhood education to high school education. And today, due to these unexpected circumstances, what we used to do in the field in person is now 100% virtual. This has created a lot of work during the past months shifting to a virtual model, and redesigning our interventions while maintaining our focus in a world full of new needs. Currently we are executing at 60-70% from our initial goal. We are reaching a lot of teachers in Colombia with our training and support programs, and hopefully, helping many kids to stay in school although they are studying from home. I would say that our impact has been concentrated in childhood programs because most of those centers are closed and teachers are having more challenges working with kids and families.

We are doing a lot of work, and redirecting a lot of the funds from the companies that are part of our network. Many of the companies have said they want their funds to be invested in something entirely different, due to COVID-19. So now we are also providing additional support like educational and health kits, which is something we didn’t do before. We are also working with a lot of different secretaries of education to launch campaigns to donate computers to children who cannot do online learning because they do not have a device at home, which could create a higher risk of dropping out of school. We are currently working as a private partner for five different secretaries in regions of Colombia. This means, we are still accomplishing most of our initial goals for this year, but we are also learning how to do new things. There are not only challenges at the programmatic levels, there are also organizational challenges. Our Board decided that the first objective was to completely take care of the staff members, so we haven’t reduced any salaries or cut down on staff. But this has forced us to do additional work by reorganizing and projecting a new perspective until the end of the year in terms of our income from different sources, and expenses

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?

Gutierrez de Piñeres: Human resources. This morning I had lunch with my two girls, and one asked me “what’s wrong, mom?”. And I said this morning I had operational problems. But truly, thinking right now, it is a human resource challenge, as you have to evaluate all the time if you have the right people in the right place, and who are the people who really can accomplish your goals. When you merge with an organization, as a result of the merger, you are putting together people from two teams who are used to working in different ways. You are creating a new organizational structure according to what the new needs of the organization are. You start to adjust things according to the type of leader that you are, and this is not always easy. So, the main challenge for me has been building my correct team and sometimes, like this morning, I feel it takes a lot of energy.

CPNL: How has the certificate program helped you in your career?

Gutierrez de Piñeres: It was a great time for me to do it. I was in a time of personal reflection and professional change. A lot of the things were not new to me, but being able to sit there for a week and think of all the things systematically, hear from other people, write the papers, it all gave me the final push to come back to Colombia and say “this is it.” I need to do something to really change. The program was in June, and I did the merger in December. It was the push I needed, and then I did it. Some of the cases that were brought into the classes made me realize, “oh that is what I’m going through and I need to do something”. I became so aware of the importance of human resources in a larger organization, and today I am experiencing these challenges first hand.  Before the program, I didn’t have a human talent staffer in my organization. But now I do and she is  an integral part of my organization and is critical in helping accomplish all the structural changes that I want. So, putting that all together is something new for me in my role.

CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the certificate program?

Gutierrez de Piñeres: Don’t wait too long to do it. I think I waited too long. To tell you the truth, I was going to do it four years ago and, for personal reasons, I couldn’t. But when I finally was given the opportunity to do it, I thought I waited too long. As soon as you get to a stage where things are challenging, go for the knowledge, and the course. It will be so much more useful, rather than after you have all the experience. That’s the only thing, do it as soon as you can.