For Raissa Allaire, Executive Director at Chicago’s Tree House Humane Society, evolving into a non-profit leadership role has been a process of self-discovery. Armed with two degrees from the University of Chicago, Allaire started her professional journey in public relations which led to her true passion.
“I started my career in PR for a midsize firm, and they had a lot of non-profit clientele,” Allaire explains. “I look at my trajectory as a skills progression, so each job has allowed me to pivot more into the position that I would ultimately want. So, I started my career working for non-profits and I thought it would be really cool to work at a non-profit.”
Allaire’s first non-profit role was at Chicago’s Field Museum. From there, she started building on her interest in non-profit leadership, accepting a role as Vice President/Chief of Staff at the city’s Museum of Broadcast Communications. Then she changed her focus, working as COO for a non-profit service organization.
Allaire learned her way up by accepting stretch assignments, which advanced her skills and enriched her experience. She explains that her approach is to “Always try to learn something new, and not to be complacent in the position or in the job description. Whenever my boss asked ‘do you want to take this on?’ I was like ‘Yes, sure.’ Even if I had no idea what to do.”
Allaire’s tenacity prepared her for her current role, where she and her staff’s mission is to help cats thrive and to empower their caregivers.
Targeting that right-fit organization
As Allaire grew into her professional self, she refined what qualities she was targeting in a future employer. She explains: “I didn’t want to work for too large or too small of an organization. I think my sweet spot is a midsize organization because I like to fix things, and I like to build.”
Allaire was also focused on finding an organization with a sound leadership structure. “Because I’m looking for jobs at the top, it’s really important for me to understand the board and the executive director dynamic . . . I found that when non-profits run into issues, it’s usually a dysfunction between the ED and the board chair. So, it was important for me to meet the board of directors and to get a sense of them as people.”
Inviting the search
Allaire felt a bit daunted at the start of her search. “My challenge was that my resume was four pages long because I tried to put everything in there and I didn’t really have a LinkedIn profile. . . I took the job search and just broke it down into digestible steps. The LinkedIn stuff was new to me. I started with two connections. It wasn’t updated. I didn’t even have a picture. So, I tried to set goals: by this date, I’m going to have 500 connections. Every week I’m going to do something to get some testimonials and to set achievable goals.”
When it came to writing her resume, Allaire called for backup: “It was good to have an external person review everything. I also sent my resume to a couple of my references to see if it made sense and to get their feedback. Then I started having conversations with people I trust about what I wanted and what I was looking for, which helped me to get a little more organized.”
Allaire’s mother was also a helpful resource: “She’s a great writer. She looked at my stuff and would comment. Then when I got offers, she was my sounding board.”
“If you’re in a leadership position, you get to influence culture and play a huge role in the staff’s happiness and productivity,” Allaire explains. While she was on the hunt, she used Glassdoor to take a cultural pulse of the organizations where she was interviewing. “I always look at Glassdoor to kind of see what’s going on. I’m not looking for the perfect culture, but I’m trying to see patterns-what do the employees say that’s a pattern. And is it possible that I can make things better?”
Allaire describes how she’s enhancing the culture at Tree House: “We did a compensation study and found that animal welfare is lower than other non-profits. So that’s something we’re focused on. We’re not fully there yet, but that’s a goal that we have. We want to get more competitive.”
Allaire, a working parent with two boys in junior high, recognizes the importance of flexibility and extends that to staff when possible. She explains that a central goal as ED has been “adjusting policies to ensure they’re flexible and to promote a workplace where people want to come.”
A significant change for Allaire in her role at Tree House is that she’s gained a hefty commute for which she’s had to buy a car: “I try to use the commute in a way that helps me decompress. I’ve also been listening to non-profit podcasts” she shares. “I like the neighborhood where we’re situated. . . It’s a whole new part of Chicago for me.”
Another important dimension of refining the culture at Tree House has been in clarifying and championing the organization’s values. “I do a monthly communication with staff and promote values. I talk about stories when I’ve seen values in action. We’re going to be revising our performance reviews to reflect our values. Then we’ve created an orientation that talks about the history of the organization and really goes into our values.”
When you know, you know
A key benefit of working as a non-profit leader is that it enables Allaire to teach her sons important lessons about community and responsibility. “For me, there is a personal and professional marriage because I have two cats of my own who I love. It’s kind of nice to do something for animals that have given me and my family a lot of joy and to help the people who care for the animals.”