NPT Power & Influence Top 50 (2021)
NPT Power & Influence Top 50 (2021)

The Pandemic Didn’t Social-Distance These Executives From Mission

You’d excuse a nonprofit executive for looking to the sky and expecting frogs to be raining down. There are words to describe the past year but they either fall short of comprehensiveness or you simply can’t print them in a professional publication.

The year was a showcase of frontline heroes, many of whom were tied to nonprofits, and leaders who with their staffs found a way to adapt and overcome the hardship of a 100-year pandemic.

There has been voluminous coverage of the hardships but little mention of the reality that the sector’s response was years in the making. The evolution of thinking, planning and implementation of 360-degree services focusing on shelter, food and healthcare is what held a nation together. Executives in some cases risked their lives – staring down threats to personal safety – to ensure those who needed help got as much as could be mustered.

The year quite possibly launched a new era in philanthropy, with major donors and foundations eliminating the red tape and strings attached to funding. Infrastructure is finally receiving deserved respect.

The leaders highlighted in this 24th annual NPT Power & Influence Top 50 have distinguished themselves as initiators, innovators and leaders. An important criteria of the list is that the honoree must be a working day-in, day-out executive. In many cases this year day-in, day-out was 24/7/365 and still going.

The 2021 honorees were selected from a group of roughly 300 top executives. A committee of The NPT editorial staff, contributors and a few executives plugged in to executive movement were involved in the selection process. This is not a lifetime achievement award. The executives must have had an impact during the previous 12 months.

There is quite a bit of turnover in this year’s roll call. There are 16 new honorees on the 2021 honor roll and four executives returning to the list after a hiatus.

The fine china will be rolled out for honorees and their guests as they are feted in Washington, D.C., next month during the annual NPT Power & Influence Top 50 Gala at The National Press Club. Event sponsors include Mitch-Stuart, Inc., Moore, Grant Thornton, EveryAction, JMT Consulting, and data axle. One of the honorees will receive the NPT Innovator of the Year award. — Paul Clolery, NPT vice president & editorial director

Judy Beck

Ana Marie Argilagos

President, Hispanics In Philanthropy (Oakland, Calif.)
MacKenzie Scott’s team found 15 million reasons why Argilagos and HiP are innovatively moving philanthropy, mobilizing resources for Latinx communities. They are connecting and advocating for community organizations to collectively transform institutional resources across the Americas. Civic participation is the foundation.
Lucy Bernholz

Fred Blackwell

Chief Executive Officer, San Francisco Foundation (San Francisco, Calif.)
The Bay Area is Blackwell’s home. He was preaching social justice through an equity agenda focused on racial and economic inclusion long before the national awakening. He embodies what he preaches, taking bold steps to deal with complex problems. You can’t have equity without community and he’s funding with a 360-degree view of support for every element of community.
Nancy Brown

Nancy Brown

President & CEO, American Heart Association (Dallas, Texas)
Brown always takes the long view, but often acts quickly and innovatively. She has influence as a board member or executive committee member in the neighborhood of a dozen health organizations. There’s also AHA’s Innovation Think Tank, from which critical, entrepreneurial, new mission-aligned and revenue business enterprises have been launched.
Fred Blackwell

Phil Buchanan

President, Center For Effective Philanthropy (Cambridge, Mass.)
Challenging the words of extremists in the sector is all in a day’s work for Buchanan. You watch for the amusement and then realize he’s correct. Opinions (strong) are nice but Buchanan is backed by data, like when he questioned 85,000 students about barriers to learning and translated it for funders.

Jeffrey L. Bradach

James Canales

President & Trustee, The Barr Foundation (Boston, Mass.)
Canales understands that structure is important but it’s about trusting the people. As the pandemic was laying waste to everything in its path, Canales changed methods to prioritize trust and relationships instead of transactions and oversight. He also refocused the work to racial equity. His is a model of need, not pushing foundation mandates that stifle creativity.
Michael Brown

Daniel Cardinali

President & CEO, Independent Sector (Washington, D.C.)
Cardinali has become more of a convener on national issues impacting the sector, now seizing on the opportunity of a friendlier White House and Congress. The past few years of needing to find other avenues of advocacy has fed his organizing on the local level. Independent Sector has the chance to again be a formidable force for the sector.
Judy Beck

Yolanda Coentro

President & CEO, Institute For Nonprofit Practice (Needham, Mass.)
Coentro is correct when she writes that board members must abandon the notion that there is a shortage of talented, ready, social change executives of color to meet the sector’s leadership needs. She should know since she’s helping to train them. During the past five years, Coentro developed a strategy and is sharing organizational learning agendas for instilling equity.
John Hope Bryant

Asha Curran

Co-founder & CEO, GivingTuesday (New York, N.Y.)
#GivingTuesday was a nice idea that became a worldwide fundraising and volunteerism phenomena. Add #GivingTuesdayNow and events in 75 countries and you have a global generosity movement, just as was planned but looked upon skeptically nine years ago. She’s looking to change everyday actions, decisions and behavior for “radical generosity.”

Phil Buchanan

Pamela Davis

President & CEO, Nonprofits Insurance Alliance (Santa Cruz, Calif.)
You simply don’t expect insurance to shake up the charitable sector. The pandemic impacted people and finances. Davis has been around nonprofits her entire career and saw a blind spot — elements of communicable disease should be covered. While limited, protecting against COVID liability is sure to force the hand of for-profit insurers. She covers civil justice NPOs others won’t touch.
Antony Bugg-Levine

Tim Delaney

President & CEO, National Council of Nonprofits (Washington, D.C.)
When he and his team pause for a minute from picking apart federal legislation and its impact on the sector, he’s crafting strategy on everything from local advocacy on COVID and how to leverage federal laws during the pandemic to organizing impact efforts. Just one point of the organization’s six-point public policy agenda would overwhelm even the most effective leaders.
James Canales

Abigail Dillen

President, Earthjustice (San Francisco, Calif.)
The earth’s lawyer is a change agent. She protects forests, air and water and pushes climate solutions. But it’s really about healthy communities and ecosystems. She is at the forefront of how litigation is being changed by environmental science. The former summer intern and her team use every law on the books, often applying them so uniquely that they are, well, roadless and perfect.
Daniel Cardinali

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot

Chief Executive Officer, Feeding America (Chicago, Ill.)
The supply chain constructed to combat miles-long food lines should be the envy of logistics geeks. That’s only part of her plan. Babineaux-Fontenot is pushing for greater access to federal programs through regular channels with electronic benefit transfers, making use of food banks episodic. There’s plenty of food and she wants to ensure it isn’t wasted because it’s cheaper to throw it out than to feed someone.

Jean Case

Helene D. Gayle

Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Community Trust (Chicago, Ill.)
Gayle has been funding global, national and local public health issues, poverty alleviation, gender equality, and social justice before it came into the national discussion. It’s called Chicago’s Moon Shot and now she’s added The 5/25 Move to Action which at this writing has a coalition of two dozen Chicago businesses, philanthropies, and academia working for collective action.
Tim Delaney

Jonathan Greenblatt

National Director & CEO, Anti-Defamation League (New York, N.Y.)
This guy is fearless, taking on everyone from hate groups to social media platforms. An entrepreneur at heart, he has launched at least a half-dozen initiatives within ADL that bind disparate elements of the sector. For example, Stop Hate For Profit has enlisted more than 1,200 corporations and nonprofits to take on social media platforms and win.
Susan Desmond-Hellmann

Brian Greene

President & CEO, Houston Food Bank (Houston, Texas)
We’ve all seen the photos. Greene led the nonprofit to provide 159 million meals through a network of 1,500 partners. That’s not nearly the innovation. Volunteers were stretched so he hired COVID-unemployed hospitality and restaurant workers, YMCA employees, and Harris County employees. Then there’s the drive-through program that was developed and neighborhood super sites; it’s a national model.
Susan Dreyfus

Alix Guerrier

President & CEO, GlobalGiving (Washington, D.C.)
Crowdfunding has become relatively routine, except for Guerrier, who raises the conversation with his thinking and writing on the “Neutrality Paradox” for platforms working in the charitable sector. It’s the concept of having an ethos to work with those with whom you don’t agree via shared behaviors, not shared values. (Can someone please alert Congress?)


James Firman

Lisa Hamilton

President & CEO, Annie E. Casey Foundation (Baltimore, Md.)
There is some youthful leadership percolation happening in Baltimore and Hamilton is key to it. Her economic strategies for children and neighborhoods are having an impact in the city. She realizes it will be a long haul and she’s planning for it. It’s all about funding and while the check isn’t blank, the money is being targeted to change-making programs and people.
Brian Gallagher

Eileen R. Heisman

President & CEO, National Philanthropic Trust (Jenkintown, Pa.)
Donor-advised funds (DAFs) have become a flashpoint for federal tax policy. While others battle back and forth, Heisman goes about educating charity leaders about the billions of dollars of potential impact of DAFs and has been lecturing abroad to spread the concept. Early data indicates that DAFs were essential “rainy day” funds that were unleashed during the pandemic.
Helene D. Gayle

Melanie L. Herman

Executive Director, Nonprofit Risk Management Center (Leesburg, Va.)
Herman’s days are webinar after webinar, speaking gig after speaking gig. She’s a prolific writer and teaches executives how to mitigate the risk of running a nonprofit. Herman is also the architect of programs at nonprofits with some of the most challenging and complex risk profiles. She breaks it down so regular people can understand.
Maria S. Gomez

Pia Infante

Co-Executive Director, The Whitman Institute (San Francisco, Calif.)
This has been interesting to watch. Infante is a leader of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project as the foundation spends down sometime next year. It’s a peer-to-peer funder initiative to address power imbalances between foundations and nonprofits, a concept embraced by MacKenzie Scott and other big donors who write checks that include multi-year unrestricted funding.

John H. Graham IV

Ben Jealous

President, People For The American Way (Washington, D.C.)
That TV provocateur Norman Lear co-founded the nonprofit and Jealous now runs it means that something went as planned. Never one to shy away from a fight and always ready to extend a hand to build relationships, the “kid” who ran the NAACP is now middle-aged and central to the broader social justice infrastructure. His plan is a modern day follow the money to reform today’s inequities.
Jonathan Greenblatt

Jo Ann Jenkins

Chief Executive Officer, AARP (Washington, D.C.)
AARP stopped being about just travel and insurance discounts for folks 50 and older when Jenkins showed up. It’s become a social change movement. It’s a lobbying force, change agent and innovation laboratory. She was among the first to point out inequities in COVID vaccine distribution. Long before the pandemic kept people home, she was thinking and writing about the future of work and its impact.
Vanita Gupta

Nicole Lamoureux

President & Chief Executive Officer, National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (Alexandria, Va.)
Lamoureux doesn’t back down, even in the face of threats that require security for simply trying to deliver healthcare to people who need it. It is remarkable that she must battle the politicization of basic health screenings and dental care. In the middle of a pandemic, she led 1,400 clinics and pharmacies to provide a range of services to 2 million medically underserved people.
Jacob Harold

Ray Madoff

Professor, Boston College Law School (Newton Centre, Mass)
Madoff has been a thorn in the side of proponents of donor-advised funds for many years. She believes – and has veraciously written about – getting the money out of neutral and working at charities. Prominent members of the U.S. Senate now think she is correct and writing legislation to force faster payouts. It will change the fundraising landscape and many purveyors of these accounts are not happy.

Eileen R. Heisman

Sr. Donna Markham

President & CEO, Catholic Charities USA (Alexandria, Va.)
Markham is one of the few nonprofit CEOs who went to the border on more than a photo-op tour. She and her network are showing how to care for detained immigrants. Her words: “Without compassion, I fear we are complicit.” She’s funding innovation challenges in the network with affiliates in Omaha, Neb., Wheeling, W. Va., and Cleveland, sharing $1 million for ideas on microbusiness and healthcare.
Melanie L. Herman

Suzanne McCormick

U.S. President, United Way Worldwide (Alexandria, Va.)
McCormick leads the U.S. network, is a member of the global management team, and represents United Way on the Independent Sector board. She is effectively leading during an important time of transition for UWW. She continues to champion a shift to a more digital business model while bringing the essential local United Ways into a more inclusive decision-making framework.
Mark Horvath

Gail McGovern

President & CEO, American Red Cross (Washington, D.C.)
With all due respect to Clara Barton, McGovern has been doing the job longer in a world where even something simple is often complex. She has been a change agent at what is arguably the most important national emergency preparation and response nonprofit. Literally every metric has improved on her watch and her thoughts on management practice are shared with executives outside the ARC.
JoAann Jenkins

Brian Mittendorf

Fisher Designated Professor of Accounting, Fisher College Of Business/The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio)
What does Mittendorf do for fun? He picks apart the Form 990s of the NRA and the Gates Foundation line-by-line. Mittendorf doesn’t pull punches and is a clarion for financial transparency. His Twitter feed @CountingCharity is very popular with nonprofit financial executives who enjoy watching him smack around asleep-at-the-switch boards.

Harry Johns

Marc H. Morial

President & CEO, National Urban League (New York, N.Y.)
There is always a vivid illustration when Morial explains why the nation and charitable sector need to go one way or the other. His new book “The Gumbo Coalition” is a nod to his New Orleans roots and a road map for adjusting leadership. It has always been about unity toward a common goal which is why he is effective at building coalitions.
Neal Keny-Guyer

Cynthia Muller

Director, Mission Investments, W.K. Kellogg Foundation (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
Muller was an impact investing player in the private sector before landing at Kellogg. Her focus has been on addressing systemic barriers that create vulnerable conditions for historically marginalized communities and children. It’s all about investing in social change that’s backed by research, data, multi-sector partnerships and investment returns.
Robert Lynch

Michelle Nunn

President & CEO, CARE (Atlanta, Ga.)
Digital currency, micro-savings programs, financial and business training for women – it’s a long way from just getting a bowl of nutrition into the hands of kids. Nunn is driving this evolution with her own entrepreneurial spirit. Those relationships are going to help get the developing world vaccinated. The basic health infrastructure she’s been building is going to be vital.
Ray Madoff

Una Osili

Associate Dean For Research and International Programs, Lilly Family School Of Philathropy/IUPUI (Indianapolis, Ind.)
Osili is now the unchallenged voice for academic donor research. She can also explain economics in the tax-exempt sector at a level anyone can understand. It’s a talent to make the complex accessible. If there’s a Zoom call or virtual conference, she’s a panelist. Not having to travel during the pandemic has allowed her to be in more places — good news for delivering the sector’s finance and donor behaviors.

Judy Beck

Hilary Pennington

Executive Vice-President Of Programs, Ford Foundation (New York, N.Y.)
Pennington is at the center of many initiatives within organized philanthropy to get more money working, with fewer restrictions, and less red tape. Her series “Social Justice Leaders On What Matters” is brilliant, cutting to the chase on moments of learning and convergence for impact. She is a leader in championing funder-grantee relationships. Her words: “Strong policies require strong movements.”
Michael Marsicano

Jonathan Reckford

Chief Executive Officer Habitat For Humanity International (Atlanta, Ga.)
The housing crisis in the U.S. is causing economic segregation. Reckford leads the world’s largest home builder but understands the global nature of community and how a place to live is just a start. He’s a serial networker and collaborator in acquiring financing, land, and down payment assistance and is working to change zoning laws. He proves that being smart, humble and nice is actual leadership.
Wes Moore

Douglas Rutzen

President & CEO, International Center For Not-For-Profit Law (Washington, D.C.)
Rutzen has been warning about and leading the resistance in the global war against NGOs. He quietly (until he has to amplify an issue) and successfully works to coordinate nonprofits in dealing with authoritarian governments – many of which are using COVID as a tool for repression. Like he says: “It’s really easy to construct emergency powers. It’s really difficult to deconstruct them.”
Donna Murray-Brown

Edgar Sandoval, Sr.

President & CEO, World Vision U.S. (Federal Way, Wash.)
Sandoval made some gutsy calls to move more resources to the hardest places in the world in which to work and did an interesting flip of World Vision’s child sponsorship model where instead of the sponsor choosing the child, the children choose the sponsor. He’s making a big bet that WV can raise $1 billion to support seven key areas of multi-year program development in more than 50 countries.

Michelle Nunn

Doug Sauer

CEO, New York Council Of Nonprofits (Albany, N.Y.)
Sauer is one of the most creative state association executives in the nation. NYCON has three successful affiliates that offer services in New York and beyond: a licensed insurance brokerage, a fiscal sponsorship and employee administration group, and a comprehensive board building solution. State association executives across the nation rely on him and seek his counsel.
Tracy Palandjian

MacKenzie Scott

Philanthropist & Author (Seattle, Wash.)
How dare she grant so many billions of dollars with no strings attached! It is unusual someone not tied to a specific charity or foundation makes this roster but Scott has turned the sector on its ear. She and her team find organizations doing the job and provide transformative support. It might be revenge and it’s easy for her to say it’s not about the donor, but it sure would be interesting if her methods took hold.
Jonathan Reckford

Barron Segar

President & CEO, World Food Program USA (Washington, D.C.)
You don’t need a breakthrough vaccine to cure hunger and more people will die of starvation than COVID during 2020. Segar is making the case and fundraising in the U.S. has more than doubled. He’s politically incorrectly going after the COVID billionaires to step up. He is absolutely correct when he says: “Hunger causes conflict. Conflict causes hunger.” It looks like he’s done being polite.
Douglas Rutzen

Sonal Shah

President, The Asian American Foundation (New York, N.Y.)
So, your new organization needs to raise a few bucks and get some ink. If you’re Sonal Shah, you get $1.1 billion in commitments in a few weeks and a meeting with the President of the United States. She is one of the foremost global leaders on social impact and innovation, traversing academia, government, the private and philanthropic sectors. It is impossible to be more respected or plugged in than Shah.

Amy Sample-Ward

Mark Suzman

Chief Executive Officer, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Seattle, Wash.)
Suzman holds a doctorate from Oxford University but probably could have used a few courses at ring master school given the circus surrounding the foundation. He’s central to a management transformation spurred on by the Gates’ impending divorce. Every morsel of his international diplomatic experience will be required both internally and externally.
Jennifer Sampson

Nicole Taylor

President & CEO, Silicon Valley Community Foundation (Mountain View, Calif.)
Taylor has rejuvenated a bellwether organization, being a national leader by focusing locally. After a short vacation in Arizona at the ASU Foundation, she returned to the Bay Area to a damaged funder, putting it back on its feet. She led a $50-million campaign in the early stages of the pandemic to meet needs across 10 counties in the Bay Area.
Brad Smith

David L. Thompson

Vice President of Public Policy, National Council Of Nonprofits (Washington, D.C.)
It can be argued (successfully) that Thompson was at the center of the nonprofit community’s policy victories this past year. He’s kept insomniac wonks company and engaged with his nearly nightly policy updates. He has encyclopedic knowledge of legislative history and process — federal, state and local — who can’t be ignored.
Julia Stasch

Thomas Tighe

President & CEO, Direct Relief (Santa Barbara, Calif.)
Tighe warned early on that getting COVID vaccines around the globe was going to be daunting due to a lack of universal access to healthcare. He is a thought leader and a problem solver. Whether it is providing items during a natural disaster or addressing a funding need or bringing for-profits and nonprofits together in new and exciting ways, Tighe more often than not is the innovative and primary connector.

Henry Timms

Henry Timms

President & CEO, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (New York, N.Y.)
His speaker’s bureau bio reads, in part, “Timms is a leading global expert in building digital movements and transforming organizations.” It’s rare these blurbs are so accurate. Co-founder of #GivingTuesday, he transformed the 92Y in Manhattan into a world-class center and is using new power concepts to work his magic at Lincoln Center. His counsel is sought by, well, everyone.
Amanda Tyler

Edgar Villanueva

Founder & Principal, Decolonizing Wealth Project (New York, N.Y.)
If the pandemic and the attack on racial equity during 2020 has a legacy, it’s that grassroots activism works but is wildly under-funded. Villanueva’s book Decolonizing Wealth, is a blueprint for rebuilding power structures that marginalize millions. Yes, there is a difference between racial equity and racial justice.
Luz Vega-Marquis

Darren Walker

President, Ford Foundation (New York, N.Y.)
Deep pockets allow for constructing your own path and Walker does exactly that. He’s funding everything that you’d never imagine, from cybersecurity to DEI to $1 billion in social bonds when COVID hit. He’s a globalist who also acts locally and a model of modern interdependent thinking.
Judy Vredenburgh

Anne Wallestad

President & CEO, BoardSource (Washington, D.C.)
It’s hard for an untrained observer to quantify Wallestad’s impact. But look around and see how many boards are quickly changing direction and you know it’s because of her and not-so-subtle pressure from BoardSource. She’s written about purpose before organization and is correct it isn’t semantics. It’s a couple of years old but “Leading With Intent” (https://bit.ly/3fNoI4V) was ahead of its time.

Anne Wallestad

Laura Walling

Senior Director Of Governmental Affairs, Goodwill Industries International (Bethesda, Md.)
Walling was instrumental in herding a large, national coalition of nonprofit lobbyists, keeping tabs on the many spinning plates and pulling disparate voices together. She plays at the federal and state levels, which is key because state ideas and examples flow up, while federal decisions flow downhill. Unlike some in the field, her word is her bond when a deal is done.
Kevin Washington

Ridgway White

President & CEO, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation (Flint, Mich.)
There are hometown activist foundation heads and then there is White. His backing of development and restoration in Flint, a town that had been the poster city for urban decay and fighting back, is a national model. He has backed big ideas, from the basics of clean water to a health and wellness district to a free educational app for Flint’s kids to rebuilding the city’s education system from the ground up.