Updated March 26 at 12:25pm

Five Questions With: Jill Pfitzenmayer


Jill Pfitzenmayer of Portsmouth is the vice president of the Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence at The Rhode Island Foundation. The goal of the INE is to strengthen the nonprofit organizations in Rhode Island by offering technical assistance, workshops and capacity-building grants. Pfitzenmayer has more than 25 years of experience working in university, hospital, and agency settings. She has taught in a master’s degree counseling lab at New York University; was a clinical supervisor for Antioch University, where she taught research design; and taught a doctoral seminar on family and community engagement in the education department at Johnson and Wales University. A licensed psychologist, she also has a part-time private practice.

PBN: A licensed psychologist with a part-time practice, you have logged more than 25 years working in university, hospital, and agency settings. What about those experiences prepared you for your role at the Rhode Island Foundation?

PFITZENMAYER: My background has been in management and leadership roles at both large and small organizations. In every position I’ve had leading up to my current one, I have had to lead staff, balance a budget and make sure that those served are the organization’s top priority, roles I also have at the foundation.

My training as a psychologist also has helped me develop a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the challenges of executive directors, senior staff and board members. The INE was established to provide nonprofits with a space where they can learn and get guidance to be more effective in the work. I try to bring strong listening skills and genuine empathy to my work in order to be more effective in strengthening nonprofits.

PBN: Since 2008, the Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence has been developing leadership and organizational systems within the nonprofit sector to drive growth. How does it do this effectively?

PFITZENMAYER: There is a rich body of literature on nonprofit capacity-building, and the INE programs are based largely on a review of best practices and an analysis of our own work to determine best fit. We rely on formal and informal feedback about the quality and impact of our programs so if something is not going as well as we would like, we are able to course correct easily. In every major program, there has been an independent evaluation conducted by an outside firm so program participants can freely discuss what works and what needs a change. Those reports have been invaluable in keeping our programs relevant and useful to nonprofit leaders.

I also keep an eye on the work of other capacity-building programs across the country to see if there are content areas that the INE should incorporate. INE programs are both proactive and responsive—we try to bring cutting edge information to nonprofits while also meeting the needs expressed by our participants.

PBN: Give an example of a nonprofit that has excelled within the initiative's framework, whether with leadership, funding, or internal governance. How did the INE help, and at what point does it "get out of the way" and let the nonprofit chart its own destiny?

PFITZENMAYER: This is a great question because it hits on one of the key elements for success in building capacity – knowing when to “get out of the way.” Several of the organizations in our first multi-year, capacity-building program have excelled in the areas of leadership development, funding and governance. For example, the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH) developed a structure for their staff and board to become a learning organization. This allows them to ask difficult but salient questions and use learning as a tool for effecting social change. The Providence After-School Alliance (PASA) undertook a complete review of their governance structure and created a system for bringing in new board members. The INE helped these and other nonprofits by providing workshops and seminars to introduce best practices and then organizational leaders can decide if they need to apply the information.

The work of the INE is really to help organizations move from “good” to “great.” We are not a “rescue mission” for nonprofits that are on a downward trajectory. We hope to be a catalyst for growth and change, but capacity-building requires time and attention from board and staff, and not all organizations have the patience to undertake this work.

PBN: Capacity-building is a key ingredient for success. What is it, how is it achieved and how is success measured?

PFITZENMAYER: We define it as the focus on infrastructure: human resources, funding, governance, financial literacy, etc. The INE does not provide workshops or assistance around service delivery, which entails a specific knowledge and/or expertise that most nonprofit leaders already have in place. We focus our programs on the structural issues that can make or break any nonprofit, such as having an engaged and robust governing body, working with a strategic plan or developing a plan to attain and keep funders and individual donors.

Successful capacity-building requires the willingness to undergo a thorough and honest assessment of organizational strengths and challenges. Staff and board leaders then have to make the commitment to spend time and resources to address infrastructure challenges. This is difficult for many executive directors and boards, because they would much rather direct their attention and funding towards programs. I understand the pull to do so, but unless the organizational machine is humming along smoothly, programs won’t be as effective as they could be.

PBN: What is the most important new development in the nonprofit field, and how should nonprofits prepare to deal with it?

PFITZENMAYER: From conversations at the local and national levels, there are several developments that nonprofits should be tracking. It comes as no surprise that federal, state and local funding for nonprofits has been declining and there are likely no new dollars to support current and new work. The landscape for services is changing, with funders wanting more data that supports organizational impact. There also is an increasing demand for cross-sector solutions to complex issues. Organizations are not easily pegged as “educational” or “environmental”—many organizations do work in more than one domain.

With each of these developments there are opportunities. Nonprofits can get savvy about how they can expand their donor base and retain existing donors. They can work together to solve complex issues and use cross-fertilization of ideas to try new approaches.

I am very optimistic about the future of the sector in Rhode Island. We are fortunate to have very talented executive directors and board members and energetic emerging leaders. The nonprofit sector in the state is vital and thriving, and I have no doubt that whatever the challenge before them, our state’s nonprofit leaders will roll up their sleeves and do what it takes to meet that challenge.


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