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Nonprofit Leader Sonal Shah To Head The Texas Tribune

Sonal Shah – an economist, consultant, former White House adviser, and nonprofit executive most recently working with United Way Worldwide – will leave her position there at the end of this year to become CEO of The Texas Tribune.

Shah, 54, will succeed the Austin, Texas-based nonprofit publication’s current CEO and Co-founder Evan Smith, who will shift to the role of an adviser beginning Jan. 1.

“Texas is really important to me. It’s where I grew up, and it’s an unmatched publication that is vital for informing the public and ensuring the future of democracy, which is all very much part of the work I’ve done in the past,” Shah told The NonProfit Times.

Although she’ll be overseeing a news organization, Shah herself won’t be running the newsroom but will instead oversee the publication’s growth, business and fundraising strategies – all of which she has vast experience doing from her work with other nonprofits.

“Our north star was to find an executive with a passion for the work we do here at the Trib, and a leader with both a deep understanding of the functional and financial needs of a mission-based organization and a track record of high-impact leadership. We’ve found just such a CEO,” wrote Jim Schachter, board chair of the Texas Tribune, in an announcement heralding the move.

Founded in 2009, The Texas Tribune remains one of the biggest success stories among a crop of hundreds of nonprofit newsrooms that have sprouted up during the past decade as part of a movement to create a new model of public service journalism that will be sustainable over the long run.

The Texas Tribune has raised $112 million since its launch to fund its reporting and has seen its paid membership grow to 10,000. Its newsletter currently has more than 175,000 subscribers, and its website currently attracts nearly 4 million unique visitors per month.

As of 2020, the Tribune employed 117 people and had assets on hand of $11.7 million, according to its most recently available federal Form 990 filing.

Shah – a first-generation immigrant from India who moved with her family at age 4 to Houston, where she grew up – continues to make Texas her home base and has been living there full-time since 2020. Along with her native-level familiarity with the Lone Star State, she brings to her new position a wealth of fundraising prowess and a resume that is as varied as it is impressive.

A veteran of Google, Goldman Sachs and United Way – where she has served since January as interim executive vice president – Shah also brings political experience from having served as an adviser to the Clinton and Obama administrations and to current U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign in the 2020 primary.

However, in keeping with the nonpartisan mission of the Texas Tribune, Shah emphasized that she’ll leave her politics at the door in this position just as she’s done at United Way and other nonprofits she’s led.

“It’s transparent who I am and what I’ve supported, but that does not mean I bring that to everything that I do,” she said. “And the newsroom itself will be independent of me. They will do the work that they need to do with our editor-in-chief, Sewell Chan, who will continue to run the newsroom and all the news operations. My job is to make sure they can continue to do that work.”

Shah also has held academic appointments at Harvard University, the University of Chicago and Georgetown University, whose Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation she founded in 2013, as well as with several progressive think tanks and nongovernmental organizations.

She additionally has been selected three times – in 2011, 2021, and again in 2022 – to The NonProfit Times Power & Influence Top 50, which annually honors top nonprofit executives who have most distinguished themselves as initiators, innovators and leaders during the previous 12 months. She was also selected by The NonProfit Times as the 2022 Nonprofit Influencer of the Year.

Her inclusion on this year’s list of honorees was prompted in part by her raising of more than $1 billion as president of the Asian American Foundation, which she founded last year in her hometown of Houston following an uptick of reported hate crimes against Asian-Americans.

“(Shah) has deep Texas roots,” Schachter said. “She has an extraordinary record in fundraising and strategic leadership. She has figured out how to evolve the business models of organizations she’s led to stay ahead of the times. Her commitment to the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion are evident in every aspect of her work.”

“Above all,” Schacter added, “(Shah) is a champion of a free, independent press who understands that trustworthy journalism is the bulwark of democracy. … With her combination of nonprofit, public sector and private sector experience; her deep understanding of policy and technology; and her passion for building a stronger future for Texas and our country, Sonal Shah is the ideal leader for The Texas Tribune’s next chapter.”

Shah said her salary is still being worked out. Smith – the current CEO – received total compensation of $426,596 in 2020, according to the publication’s most recent federal Form 990.

Shah said she expects Smith to continue playing an important role in helping her steer the publication forward. “Evan Smith has done incredible work building the Texas Tribune, and he deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done and will continue to do for our newsroom,” she said.