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Sasha Terris-Maes: Helping Nonprofits Weather the Storm

After working in the nonprofit industry for ten years, Sasha Terris-Maes started in the Nonprofit Management program at Columbia University. She found an interest in helping nonprofits re-structure organizationally and financially to be sustainable, especially with crises on the horizon. 

What drew you to Columbia's Nonprofit Management program? What did you enjoy most about the experience? 

It was not an easy decision for me to go back to graduate school. My passion lies in strengthening nonprofit operations, but the degrees in one subject area, such as Higher Education or Environmental Science, didn’t fit my interests or goals. Other degrees, such as the MBA or the MPA, did not focus on the unique problems of the nonprofit model. The program at Columbia spoke to me as it centered solely on 501(c)(3) best practices and featured faculty who are practitioners in the field.

What type of skills did you learn? Are you applying them in your career?

One of the benefits of the program is that I was immersed in the nonprofit sector in a way I could not have accomplished on my own by subscribing to industry papers, attending conferences, or joining affiliated groups. This was a more subtle and cumulative outcome. With each class, I heard about the problems and solutions at my peers’ organizations, and was assigned readings and case studies highlighting pressing issues in the field. I am convinced that this immersion allowed me to speak the language of nonprofits with authority, which was key to landing my current job.

A nonprofit is like the human body. Each system’s strength affects the whole, so even though I now focus on financial management, I consistently call upon knowledge gained from our other courses to serve my clients—Communications, Governance, Fundraising, Legal Landscape, and Ethics to name a few. While I already had over a decade of experience before my degree, the Columbia program helped me discern what is best practice versus what is just common practice.

Tell us about your career path and your exciting new role. What impact have you made with your experience in fundraising, program management, and financial management? 

I remember writing in my Columbia application about the pressing need in our industry for people whose cause and passion is improving nonprofit operations. The consultants at Fiscal Management Associates (FMA)* are those people. Many organizations evolve organically, and then perpetuate processes that may not be working ideally but the staff don’t have the capacity, funding, or luxury to think about how to do things differently. It’s been extremely fulfilling to address that gap and apply my experience to help clients think through how to prioritize and communicate changes.

This year really highlighted the impact of financial planning on an organization’s ability to weather a crisis, and it has made me proud to consult in this area. I learned how funders shape the landscape from Professors John Tyler and Leah Heister and was initially drawn to FMA’s model of partnering with foundations to provide free services to their grantees. After joining FMA in the midst of the pandemic, I had the opportunity to contribute to a new initiative that mobilized funders to cover the cost of research, creation of tools, and free coaching on applying for the PPP Loan as many organizations that had never pursued financing attempted to secure emergency funds. In January, FMA combined with national accounting and advisory firm BDO to become BDO FMA and we are continuing our work supporting nonprofits and funders.

What advice would you give future students in the program? 

I would encourage students to take electives outside of their current area of specialization, and be open to exploring how their individual strengths fit with the many roles available. It’s important as future leaders in the field to understand the different areas and how they work together to create impact. I did not plan to specialize in financial management, but seeing how financial scenario planning has helped my clients manage the uncertainty of this crisis has made me glad I was open to the opportunity.

*Effective January 16, 2021 FMA combined with BDO and is now BDO FMA.


Learn more about Columbia's M.S. in Nonprofit Management.