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Alumni Profile: Cindy Stern

Alumni Profile: Cindy Stern

Marketing from the Heart

By Lori M. Finkel for Spertus Institute 

Cindy Stern, an accomplished brand strategist who has spearheaded campaigns for big-name clients like Target, the U.S. Postal Service, and United Airlines, is getting ready to graduate from Spertus with a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management (MSNM).  On the morning of her birthday, Cindy, who works as the director of Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema, was kind enough to stop and chat about why she made the switch from the corporate world to working in the nonprofit sector.

Her whole life has been a gradual evolution leading up to where she is now, Cindy said. Her parents and extended family members were active in Jewish and civic groups and led by example. At 7, Cindy joined the Girl Scouts. At 11, she volunteered at a Braille Institute summer camp. Since then, she’s been heavily involved with numerous organizations including United Synagogue Youth (USY), B'nai B'rith Youth, Anshe Emet Synagogue, Stop AIDS, the Blue Planet Foundation, Dance for Life Chicago (which she chaired in 2005-2006) and Hadassah, (for which she organized and chaired the first CELLebration gala in 2011). Her concern for and interest in people manifested in her pursuit of a degree in anthropology and journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. After three years, she discovered a track at the University of Colorado at Boulder that incorporated advertising and business with journalism and transferred there. “The qualitative-quantitative mix was a good fit,” she said.

How did you make the transition from corporate life to working in the nonprofit sector?

Well, I enjoyed what I was doing, but I never worked on any account that promoted something I didn’t believe in, and on the side I contributed, as a volunteer, pro bono writer, donor or board member, to nonprofits. When the economy tanked, I told myself now's the time to do what I really love to do — I’m going to make that leap.

Has your experience in the corporate sector helped you in the nonprofit realm?

In retail, we had to really listen to what the customer needed. Nonprofits are like that too. They focus on the people they serve and the best ways to serve them. But they’re not always the best at establishing a give-and-take relationship with individuals, businesses, or other organizations that could help them in some capacity down the road. The attitude might be, it's not necessary or they can afford it more than we can, but sometimes even token gestures—complimentary tickets to an event, a lunch, a special behind-the-scenes tour—show you appreciate and value investing in what is really a dynamic partnership. That's something that's well understood in the business world, and it goes a long way.

While working in advertising, I loved creating strategic alliances between clients and corporations. How do you set a business apart? In 1994, I suggested that United Airlines serve Starbucks on flights. You do something different, something that makes people happy, and you break parity. Nonprofits, although they care deeply about the people they serve, must also work toward taking that extra step to set themselves apart.

So having the experience you have, what made you decide to pursue a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management degree at Spertus?

Actually a friend told me about it — It wasn’t even on my radar. I never realized a program existed that would teach me so much of what I needed to know about the nonprofit world—from grantwriting to ethics, budgeting and finance to governance—and that it would be affordable. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life.

Spertus' cohort model was also appealing to me. As it turned out, it truly was amazing to learn and grow with so many motivated individuals on a similar career path. When you’re in a leadership role, you always think your experience is unique. But in your cohort you find that you are not alone. You’ve got a support system, in some cases, for life.

Since you have experience in leadership roles at major corporations, do people ask why you went back to school?

I’m asked that a lot, especially from people who are also in leadership positions at nonprofits. They say, “I already know this stuff.” I tell them it’s not about what you already know. It’s about asking, “How can I/you/we be better?” No matter how long a person has been in his or her job, it's so valuable—for professional development and the good of the organization they're running—to learn new skills and hone existing ones in a structured environment. Sometimes even very familiar information, when presented in a different way, gives you that “Aha” moment that sparks The Big Idea.

Being an agent of change is tough. People don’t like change, but it is inevitable, and good leaders are the people who have the courage, vision, strength of character, depth of knowledge and drive to guide others through it. It's a huge responsibility. The MSNM prepares you for that.


Spertus is glad to be working with Cindy and the Chicago Festival of Israeli Cinema to present Mendelsohn’s Incessant Visions on October 24.

Find out how you can make the leap to do what you really love by visiting

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Faculty Profiles