Alumni Spotlight: Serra Sippel, CHANGE
The Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) is a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C. that promotes a comprehensive, human rights-based framework for U.S. sexual and reproductive health policies and programs by shaping public discourse, elevating women’s voices, and advocating to the federal government.
The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with alumna Serra Sippel, President of CHANGE, about her experiences working in the nonprofit sector and her time in CPNL’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program, where she completed a capstone project on racial equity in her organization.
CPNL: With so many great causes to champion within the nonprofit sector, what drew you to work at CHANGE?
Sippel: After I graduated from college, I volunteered full-time for three years with women who face homelessness in Texas. Because I was working so closely with women affected by government policies regarding their economic situations, welfare and health, I really learned to listen to women, along with anyone who is affected by the decisions the government makes on their behalf. It changed my worldview and I wanted to make a larger difference. My focus turned to improving the lives of women and girls globally, by putting forward the voices and experiences of those who face oppression. I am drawn to organizations that place an emphasis on listening to the communities they advocate for. At CHANGE, where I have been CEO for 12 years, we impact lives internationally, especially in the global south. I became drawn to advocacy work around foreign policy decisions that affect the health and human rights of women globally. I wanted to ensure that women who live in countries that receive US foreign aid are connected to the people making decisions that affect their lives, families and communities.
CPNL: CHANGE is celebrating its 25th anniversary as an organization! What does this milestone mean to you?
Sippel: Within the bigger picture of supporting global women’s rights and reproductive rights, government accountability and transparency are critical across all sectors. We need a strong, informed, empowered civil society to hold governments and policymakers accountable. The fact that CHANGE is still working diligently toward its original mission of holding the US government accountable to its commitments to women 25 years later is exciting and affirms the importance of this work.
CPNL: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned through your years of service?
Sippel: I think the greatest lessons that we’ve learned are that policy change takes time and that to build a society and community where there are accountability, justice and fairness, we need to listen to the voices of those who are experiencing inequity. It’s those of us who sit in positions of power as leaders of nonprofit organizations in the US that need to understand our power and privilege, ensuring that we’re using it to benefit those who cannot share in those same privileges.
CPNL: What is one significant success you’ve had as a leader in the nonprofit sector?
Sippel: Internally, since I joined CHANGE in 2006 and became its CEO in 2007, we have more than doubled our budget from $850,000 to $2.5 million. It was our objective to not grow quickly but smartly, and this allowed us to expand and deepen the work that we do.
One of our bigger external successes was from our years of advocacy around HIV prevention for women and girls globally. In 2014, the US government dedicated $385 million dollars for HIV prevention for young women in sub-Saharan Africa. This came after years of advocating with the Bush Administration, which made the first-ever US commitment in 2003 to combat HIV by supplying medication in the same region, where the epidemic was really taking a toll. This US initiative has literally saved lives. However, for a decade, CHANGE consistently banged on the necessary doors to ensure that the needs and rights of women and girls were not ignored, regardless of which parties were in power. Advocating for years and finally getting a substantive financial commitment from the US government was powerful.
CPNL: How has the certificate program helped your career?
Sippel: The program brought together the critical elements of running a nonprofit including board development, financial management, fundraising, philanthropy, hiring and retention. It gave me the opportunity as a nonprofit leader to spend an intensive week thinking through the essential elements that would allow a small nonprofit like CHANGE to continue to produce far-reaching results. I was able to take what I learned from the program and translate that into progressive, actionable steps for CHANGE.
CPNL: During your time in the program, you completed a capstone project on advancing Racial Equity, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in your organization. How have you applied your recommendations from this project?
Sippel: My capstone on establishing a culture of DEI and racial equity impacted how my organization functions. CHANGE launched monthly all-staff meetings where we address these issues as a team. Our staff decided that we wanted to commit to this important internal work together. We weren’t going to start a task force or working group, or bring in a consultant before we defined our goals. I would also add that the Racial Equity Working Group headed by Dr. Boyarski from the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership has been enormously helpful. Being in the same room as other nonprofit sector leaders and learning from their experiences around racial equity and DEI is beneficial.
CPNL: What did you learn about yourself and your organization by completing the Capstone Project?
Sippel: I think the DEI survey I did of our current and former staff at CHANGE taught me the most. I didn’t realize how vulnerable it can make someone feel to seek input on such important issues. As a white executive, addressing these issues exposed me to a lot of the blind spots that I didn’t realize were there. The importance of gathering data and not making assumptions can surprise you in both good and bad ways. It can be a scary prospect, because you don’t know what you’ll hear. You need to find ways to make people feel safe and secure in sharing this information so those of us in positions of power and privilege can make informed decisions to progress racial equity in our organizations.
CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the certificate program?
Sippel: Do it! I already advised the vice president at CHANGE to look into the certificate program. I think one of my initial questions, as someone who had been the leader of CHANGE for more than ten years, was whether or not I would learn anything new. Was it worth my time to do this when I could look into issue areas that I dealt with in day-to-day operations? But even with my experience running an organization and making executive decisions, I found what the program had to offer to be enormously powerful. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.