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Conference Speaker Shares Five Lessons for  Nonprofit CFOs

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Feb 1, 2024


Luz Liebeskind, the chief financial officer at the UJA-Federation of New York, spoke about her career path and offered five lessons for CFOs at the Foundation for Accounting Education ’s 46th Annual Nonprofit Conference on Jan. 25. Her presentation was titled "How Modern CFOs Lead Nonprofits Through Change."

Liebeskind, who became UJA-Federation’s CFO in January 2023, traced her path to the position, in which she is responsible for financial management and operations, including overseeing an annual operating budget of approximately $225 million, an endowment of over $1 billion, and a pension plan serving UJA-Federation and nonprofit network employees. She also oversees the accounting and Finance, Investments, Administrative Services, and Facilities and Real Estate departments. 

“Every day is different,” she said. “I may spend the day preparing for a board meeting, to present the financial statements or present the budget while, the next day, I [may] spend the whole day visiting one of our camp sites all over New York.”

Liebeskind's journey started in the Dominican Republic, where she was born. She migrated to the United States at the age of 16, speaking no English. Despite the language barrier, she was determined to become a CPA, studying accounting at Baruch College.

“My journey was shaped by learning agility, always being curious and staying human centric,” she said. “As a woman navigating through male dominated fields, traits like empathy, collaboration and emotional intelligence became my allies. English not being my first language presented challenges, but I turned them into opportunities to listen actively and understand.”

Calling herself  “a Jew of color,” she converted to Judaism before she got married and has raised her children Jewish. “One of the concepts that have guided my journey is the concept of "tikkun olam," which refers to various forms of action intended to repair and improve the world,” she said.

Her nonprofit journey, as she put it, started “organically.”

At the beginning of her career, she was surprised to find that “being a CPA and accountant was going to tally up to be more than just numbers,” she said. “It was really about helping people.”

Going to work as an internal auditor at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey after graduation, her dream was to work for one of the Bight Eight accounting firms. After passing the CPA exam, she went back to Baruch’s College Development Center for help with her résumé and cover letter to send to all the major firms. As it happened, Ernst & Young was looking for staff accountants with government experience, and she got her first opportunity.

Her first mentor was her senior manager, who introduced her to the partner in charge of the Entrepreneurial Services group. Within a few months, she transferred to that group, serving clients in industries ranging from real estate and manufacturing to nonprofit.

“My largest client at the time was the Leukemia Society of America,” she said. “So, when it became time to decide on a specialty, nonprofit became the clear winner.” When the not-for-profit group became part of the health care practice, she continued to expand her knowledge of the sector and eventually joined her former mentor at Montefiore Medical Center.

“I [had been] thinking about leaving public accounting,[and] felt that health care was a growing field, and [so] I took the leap,” she explained. “This proved to be an amazing learning experience,” she added, as she worked on tax-exempt bonds for the construction of the children's hospital and implemented new financial reporting standards.

That was the first lesson that she imparted to the attendees: “Brand yourself,” she said. "Build a specialty, be intellectually curious, know your brand and always add value.”

After giving birth to her second daughter, she was recruited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she stayed for nine years.

“It was my first experience working for an organization with a large endowment,” she said. “I again saw this as an opportunity to learn a new area that I had not experienced before, namely endowment management. She worked on the tax-exempt bond for the construction of the Greek and Roman galleries and, more importantly, “was able to see first hand the effectiveness of a world class board governance structure.”

Liebeskind worked closely with the museum's development department on complex structures and attended meetings with rating agencies, coordinating the preparation of an offering statement, resulting in an AAA rating on the bond issue. Throughout her tenure, she developed a mentoring relationship with the Met’s general counsel, leading her to offer her second lesson: “Lift as you climb, be a mentor. Have a mentor. This is what executives do. They surround themselves with a personal board of advisers.”

This experience sparked her interest in finance and investments. After she completed an executive master’s degree in finance program at Baruch, in preparation for an eventual role as a CFO, her Montefiore mentor introduced her to a recruiter who placed her in the CFO position at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale.

Though hesitant to return to health care, she felt aligned with the organization’s mission and “hit it off with the CEO right away.”

That became lesson #3:  “Long life learning,” she said. “Find the thread that [propels your] unique career trajectory.”

“When I started at the Hebrew home, the organizations were was at a crossroads and needed someone with the right financial acumen to partner with the board and the CEO to execute its strategic plan, which involved starting a new Medicaid managed long-term care plan,” she said. “I used all of my previous experience to improve financial reporting at the Hebrew Home over the spring, implemented better governance, and [grew] the organization's endowment.”

The organization expanded, opening offices in Brooklyn and Queens, causing her to implement appropriate information technology (IT) security controls that were needed to protect information protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) for the organization’s 15,000 members.

Liebeskind's lesson #4, which grew from that experience, is “Gain visibility and insights across the operating functions. This provides strategic oversight and the ability to see a bigger picture and implement investments and initiatives that are relevant for the organization now.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, all employees were considered essential—“the housekeeper and nurse’s aide all the way to the CFO and CEO,” working six or seven days a week, she said. The staff held daily briefings to discuss the status of residents and to figure out how to deal with the latest mandate from the Department of Health, sharing their experiences. They also learned to make quick, unexpected adaptations, such as converting a vacant nursing home building into a special unit to treat COVID-positive older adults who were being released from overwhelmed hospitals.

That brought her to Lesson #5: “Be compassionate with everyone,” she said. "Over the years, I have developed relationships with certain residents through friends or through my weekend administration duties, or simply because I was able to speak their language. One of those became particularly important during the pandemic. I became the lifeline for a friend who was not able to visit her 94-year-old mom.”

All of her experiences came full circle when she joined the UJA, she said, then delved into the world of modern CFOs.

Modern CFOs, she said, need to focus on "leading nonprofits through change and what it will take for continued success.” She advised the attendees to concentrate on “your career success and the success of the financials, health, brand and legacy of your organization. Now we expand the roles of the strategic partner influencing finance, but also shaping the organization's direction. My journey reflects this evolution from improving financial reporting to implementing governance reforms and contributing to strategic plans.”

“The success factors of modern CFOs extend beyond financial acumen,” she said. They include "fostering relationships with key stakeholders; the treasurer; the chair of the audit, investment and finance committees; bankers; and auditors. These relationships help with effective communication and preparation [and] contribute to organizational success.”

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