University at Albany

Leading Strategically:

Q & A with Natasha Pernicka, MPA '08
Executive Director, Food Pantries for the Capital District, Inc.

What are your responsibilities as executive director?

Natasha: I am responsible for the development, execution and management of the policies, programs and initiatives of the Food Pantries as directed by our board of directors. I assume management responsibility for all services and activities, develop and monitor the budget and finances, prepare grants, and provide technical assistance to member pantries in fund development. Since joining the organization in November 2011, I've developed new tools to strengthen the sense of community and communication within the 53 local food pantry coalition members, have increased funding for food by over 20%, and am leading strategic planning and action efforts to increase fundraising and enhance and develop programs and partnerships.

Why did you decide to enter the nonprofit field?

Natasha: After teaching English in Japan for a year, I genuinely wanted to help people when I returned to the States, but I just wasn't exactly sure how to do it. A friend of mine knew of a program coordinator job opening in a small suicide prevention organization and it was a perfect match. I was able to learn all about nonprofit management, from working with the board of directors and doing public speaking to developing programs and raising money. I loved being able to use my skills and creativity to touch people's lives in a positive way. The executive director — my boss — was a true mentor to me and inspired me to become an executive director myself.

What's been the greatest challenge for your organization?

Natasha: The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that more than 13.3% of the New York State population does not always have enough money to meet their basic nutritional needs. Since the economic downturn, we have seen an increase in the number of people seeking assistance through our local food pantries; service levels have increased by 52.5%. In 2008, there were 158,676 visits to food pantries. In 2012, that number was 242,035. There are single mothers working on their college degrees in hopes of being able to provide for their children one day, senior citizens who have to choose between filling their medical prescriptions or buying groceries, and adults sacrificing their work performance by skipping meals during the workday just to make it through each week. These are the people our food pantries help. We continue to reach out for support to the community for donations and food drives to keep up with the increased needs.

What's next on your agenda?

Natasha: I am working on strategically growing the Food Pantries for the Capital District to increase fundraising revenues, enhance our services and improve public understanding of the work we do. I'm working hard to engage more community members and professional groups in our mission to feed the hungry. We have collaborative projects being developed to bring more fresh produce into communities without access to nutritious food and to teach community members how to cook healthy on an extremely tight budget. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as food stamps, provides on average $4.50 a day for groceries. When SNAP benefits were cut the first week of November, I took the "Food Stamp Challenge" to see how difficult it would be to eat a balanced diet on so little. It was an eye-opening experience. I invite you to read more about my experience on our Facebook page at I want to share what it was like with as many people as possible and show how vital our food pantries are in helping to fill the gap in resources.

How did Rockefeller prepare you to take on the challenges of your current position?

Natasha: I was able to fast-track my experience by taking a range of classes that complemented my day-to-day experience at work. I worked full-time as an assistant executive director during grad school and I was able to use my class projects to improve my management of human resources and fund development. From financial management to social network analysis, I
developed a greater understanding in areas that help me do my job today. Having a framework for looking at organizations and understanding that there is not just one way to do things is important. I think out of the box and use varying leadership skills that were introduced to me at Rockefeller to address challenges and strive for success in a strategic way.

What advice would you offer students pursuing a career in nonprofit management?

Natasha: It can be hard to step right into a management position. Volunteering for nonprofits in leadership roles can help students build their experience. Chairing a committee can give a student experience managing projects and volunteer staff. Serving on a board can teach students about leadership, politics, decision making, and the governance role a board plays. By volunteering, students learn about the different types of nonprofits. Organizational culture, sources of funding and mission vary greatly in the nonprofit sector. If you find an organization that you feel is a good fit, see if there are any volunteer or internship positions available. Ask for an informational interview. Even if they don't have an internship posted, they might create one for you if you have skills and time available to help them meet their goals.

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2013 Rockefeller College News Magazine.