You Got #Served

working in non profit


Name: Sehee Chung

Age: 33

College & major: Smith College, Studio Art

Graduate school & concentration: NYU Wagner, Master of Public and Nonprofit Administration, International focus

Past jobs: First job was at Honey Baked Ham Company when I was 15. Then worked at Victoria’s Secret, which I hated. I ended up working at the Smith College Museum of Art during college, which I loved and had the best boss ever. It funneled me into the art world.

I later worked at MoMA in NYC in the Prints & Illustrated Books department as my first job out of college – it was very glamorous from the outside but not what I wanted to pursue. Curatorial life was much more academic and scholarly than was suited for my personality.

That led me to the Peace Corps, something I had always been interested in, where I taught for two years in a rural Bulgarian village and also where I met my husband. Subsequent jobs included Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, and a slew of internships in between, at various arts or international development- related nonprofits and projects.    

Current occupation: Community Investment Officer at Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice/Sarasota, Florida

How did you get involved in Public Service? I’ve always volunteered, through high school or through church. Public service wasn’t something I seriously considered until college when I volunteered with America Reads, tutoring kids in low-income neighborhoods. I volunteered heavily through different nonprofit organizations where I felt like I was making more of a difference, say being an arts mentor with FreeArts NYC for example, than working in the contemporary art world. The more I volunteered the more I realized the pure art field wasn’t for me – it started to feel superficial. That’s was led me to the Peace Corps and that just cinched it. 

How did your college major influence your career field? Art was something I was always interested in as a child but never really pursued seriously until college. My father was an artist as a young adult but gave it up to feed his family. While I was directed towards museums early on in my career, I’ve ever since been trying to figure out ways to combine my love for art with public service. That included volunteering as an arts mentor, researching and studying public art, interning with Art Works Projects – a human rights/arts advocacy group, and working with arts funders like the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and currently, Gulf Coast. Sometimes art is taken less seriously in the public service and especially international development fields, but art reminds us that we’re human, it shows us the beauty of our world and humanity from a different lens, which I feel is important.

You served in the Peace Corp; what did you do during this time, and how did it influence the course of your career? I taught English as a second language for pre-k through 8th grades. I have to say 13-year old boys are the worst! They made me want to cry all the time. It was a tough situation for them though, they were very rural kids with dim futures. Very few of them went to university or had to move abroad to find work. I tried to support them in other ways too by encouraging them to apply for various summer projects. I also did some community development work, started a yoga/wellness class for women, assisted the local municipality with European Union grants. You become a jack of all trades in the Peace Corps. It’s demanding and draining, and at the same time, life alteringly amazing. The experience led me to apply for grad school in public service. I knew I couldn’t go back to working at museums after that.

What do you love most about a career in public service? The people and the impact. People in public service are just good people, whether you’re working for a nonprofit or government, most times their hearts are in the right place. My brother and sister-in-law are both in the business/finance world in NYC – my brother works in investment research and his wife in private equity, and the stories I hear! Seriously, people can be downright awful. I’ve never worked at an organization with people I despised – they’ve all been quite lovely.

And of course, the impact- when your career is public service your life is public service. I do sort of hate it when people in the private sector respond to what I do with “oh that must be so rewarding! I want to do that in retirement.” It’s patronizing and you’re dreaming if you think public service is for “retirement” or “easy.” It’s anything but. You do this because you love making a difference every day, not just on the weekends. But yes, it is rewarding knowing that I’m assisting in some small way to improve people’s lives, not just make money for corporations. 

What is your day-to-day like? Does this type of career vary depending on where you work and who you work for? A private funder works very differently from a community funder, as well as a government funder. You’re beholden to different stakeholders and the incentives are different for each. I’ve worked for all three and I love the community foundation model, though they say when you meet one community foundation, you’ve met only one community foundation- they vary widely. Private foundation staff report to a board that can have original founders and sometimes the programs and organizations they support are based on those founders’ interests and whims. In that sense, from the grantees point of view, it can be very much a black box. Government funders are the total opposite since usually it’s tax payer funds that pay for the programs and grants that go out. There is an immense amount of reporting and tracking, which causes bureaucratic holdups and makes the agency less nimble and responsive to change. Community foundations seems like a nice balance in-between. They know what’s going on locally within the community and have flexibility to pivot if a project needs improvement. As Community Investment officer, I work with a team that focuses on making grants to different organizations in the community. I also manage foundation-led initiatives, that are developed based on the needs we determine as a community.   

Do you feel women are underrepresented in your field? No, women are over represented in the nonprofit world, unfortunately. However, I’ve definitely seen some places where men hold the higher, management positions, and women the more customer-facing and administrative positions. That needs to change.

Also, because nonprofits tend to be smaller and more cash-strapped compared with for-profit companies because of their business model, I’ve noticed they can be less flexible when it comes to schedules and parental leave issues (from my personal experience and from what I’ve heard). You always hear about these large tech companies or I hear about larger, private corporations that are starting to implement more generous parental leave policies and schedules. That has not been my experience in my line of work and I’ve had to fight for better policies, and not always successfully. There’s still a lot of push-back unfortunately.

What advice would you give to girls considering joining the peace corp and engaging in public service? Do it! you won’t regret it. It changed my life in numerous ways. Also, immersing yourself in a different culture in a different part of the world is just eye-opening. Americans can be in such a bubble sometimes. My time in Bulgaria impacted me immensely. I still have friends (and now family) there. We hope some day we can move back there.

What would you wear to a job interview? A skirt suit probably or a dress and a jacket. I tend not to like the traditional black, pants-suit. Color can be good.

Any favorite websites particular to your field (or ones that inspire you in every day life?) is the best place for job-searching in this area. The peace corps website is also very informative and has job listings not only for volunteers but also for paid positions with the agency in DC. The Foundation Center is a good place to find out more about foundation-work in general, as well as Council on Foundations. My favorite blog is Nonprofits with Balls – hilarious and so true.

Looking back, what general life advice would you give to your former high-school self? Do you! Be more adventurous and take risks. And don’t worry so much. You’ll figure it out.

Any other relevant info or words of wisdom? Take things a step at a time and try not to plan every single moment of your life. And put down the phone. Look up and enjoy the view.

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