Sue Daniels, American Red Cross

CFO at southeastern Michigan chapter of relief agency talks about life at a not-for-profit -- and life after 9/11.
Jennifer CaplanNovember 2, 2001

Sue Daniels is grappling with a challenge many finance managers don’t particularly have to worry about at the moment: an unprecedented spike in cash coming in. As CFO at the Southeastern Michigan chapter of the American Red Cross (the fifth-largest chapter in the country), Daniels’s biggest concern recently has been processing the millions of dollars that have poured into the disaster relief organization since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Daniels must also make sure the flood of contributions is funneled to the parent organization in Washington in a timely fashion.

Following the September attacks, the Red Cross received an unprecedented $450 million in donations. Although the responsibility and pressure of managing the sudden influx of funds has been great, Daniels says she is now reaping the rewards of working in the non-profit sector. Indeed, Sue Daniels is a rare breed. She decided early on in her career that personal fulfillment was more important than financial compensation. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Daniels joined Ernst & Ernst (now Ernst & Young) where she spent three years working in both the audit and tax departments. She then became accounting manager at Beznos, a real-estate development and management company. Four years later, she made the decision to go into the non-profit sector and became vice president of finance at the Credit Counseling Centers, a credit advisory organization based in Michigan. Daniels spent seven years at Credit Counseling before landing the top finance job at the American Red Cross Southeastern Michigan Chapter in February of 1995. recently caught up with Daniels, who shared her thoughts about working in the not-for-profit sector, the glass ceiling for women CFOs, and the financial challenges she’s faced in the aftermath of 9/11.

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You’ve been in the non-profit sector now for almost 13 years. What do you see as some of the pros and cons of being a CFO at a non-profit organization such as the Red Cross?

For me it has always been very important to feel that I’m giving something back to the community. Working for an organization that helps other people has been a very important part of my decision-making process. I think there is truly a great sense of that when you work for a non-profit organization.

The downside is that, typically, you’re just not going to make as much money as you would in the for-profit sector. That’s just a conscious trade-off you make. But I think there is great opportunity for finance executives in the non- profit sector right now.

The Red Cross is one of the forerunners in the sector, and I think we are ahead of a lot of other non-profits in terms of operating like a business. Non-profits — especially the smaller ones — typically operate on a shoestring, have few staff, and try to do a lot with very little. Over the years the public has gotten more knowledgeable about non-profits, which I think has made them more accountable and more businesslike. I think this is a great time for people in the accounting field to truly make a difference in the non-profit sectors and really help those organizations have better business strategies and operate more efficiently.

Do you think there is a different skill set required to go the non-profit route?

I think having C.P.A. experience is extremely beneficial whether you are going into the non-profit or for-profit sectors. Those basic underpinnings are going to benefit someone regardless of where they go. But beyond that I think the non-profit sector requires more developed people and interpersonal skills. Although those are always important, they are more essential in the non- profit sector because it is so much more people-oriented. The Red Cross is a humanitarian organization, and the fact that we are so volunteer-driven makes how we work with our volunteers and our committees crucial. I need to be able to really work with and take direction from volunteers and be involved in the community. I think that’s an important difference.

It’s been said that CFOs are only as good as the people they hire. When you sift through resumes looking to hire people on your financial team, what do you look for?

The most important thing is that the person meets the basic qualifications required to do the job. But in the non-profit sector there is more of a need for people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and sit down and do the work. Most non-profits are very thinly staffed, and you don’t have the ability to delegate responsibilities. You don’t have layers of people as you do in the for- profit sector.

Also, the ability to change priorities easily and to be flexible is important. Just take September 11 as an example. Our whole focus changed on that day, and so the ability for people to shift gears very quickly and be able to do that on a daily basis as we respond to disasters is key. It is also very important to me that people are personally committed to the mission of our organization. Are they applying just because they want a job, or because there is something more there and it is important for them to be involved with our mission?

What have been some of the challenges that you’ve faced in the wake of 9/11?

There have been both challenges and rewards. At the Red Cross, we’ve been able to see the huge outpouring of response from the community to this terrible disaster. We have seen all the good things — people who have sent their tax rebate checks over to us and given up vacations to do that, schools that have organized fund raisers, kids who set up Kool-Aid stands on roadsides. We’ve been able to witness that amazing response first-hand.

On the flip side, the difficulty has been dealing with an unprecedented volume of checks coming through the mail. With that comes the responsibility of continuing to be very good stewards of the funds and making sure that the appropriate procedures are in place to do that. Those are big challenges — but our staff and volunteers have risen to the occasion and done an outstanding job.

Bernadine Healy, the CEO of the Red Cross, resigned abruptly a few weeks ago. As you know, there has been some controversy over the allocation of the funds raised by the Red Cross for 9/11 relief. How will her departure affect you and the way you do your job?

The effect of her departure on me, and my role as CFO of a local chapter, will really be minimal. I report and work most closely with the CEO of my chapter. My job is really not affected at all by the departure at the top.

The CFO world is still very much male-driven. Have you found that to be a challenge to your own career development, and do you think things are improving for women in financial positions?

In my experience, I have not found that to be a barrier. I haven’t experienced those types of difficulties anywhere I’ve been. But I’ve worked at relatively small organizations where gender inequalities may not be as pronounced. I certainly have heard many stories of women in finance who have had difficulties because they are female. But I do think that’s changing and getting better as women continue to prove that they are just as capable and qualified in the workplace. You do still see considerable inequity in terms of pay and promotions, however.