Peggy Parfenoff

Executive Director, WorldChicago, Chicago, IL, 2001-present

Career Trajectory

LPC Group, Marketing Manager, Chicago, IL, 1999-2001

City of Chicago, Department of Cultural Affairs, Director of Development, Chicago, IL, 1994-99

Academic Background

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management, MBA (Marketing & Public Nonprofit Management), 1998

Central College (Pella, Iowa), BA (Communications & French), 1990

How would you define your cause?

I'm working to position our organization as a part of the citizen diplomacy movement, to make that our larger cause. We're all working as a network, an organization, and a staff to make our community and our world a better place through citizen diplomacy.

What I like about working in the nonprofit sector is that we're all motivated by this same cause, of bringing people to see Chicago and to interact with their counterparts in America and to exchange opinions. When I'm interviewing to fill positions, I look for people who are passionate about international affairs. If you tell me you're interested in international work but there's nothing on your resume that says you've ever been out of the country or that you've ever worked on projects with people from overseas . . . I need to see evidence that you've traveled or had some international experience. You need to demonstrate that you really want to be in this field and that you believe in this cause.

What drew you to this cause and your field?

I knew I wanted to work in something that was meaningful and would make a difference in the world. Earlier in my career, I got a job at a consulting firm and realized that I didn't believe in what they were doing. I realized I needed to work in something that I thought was making our world a better place.

I'd always loved things international; I loved travel. I worked in the arts for a while as well. When this opportunity at WorldChicago came up to marry internationalism to some of my other interests, I jumped at it. Coming into it, I hadn't realized how much I would enjoy being in the field and how much I value a job that is different every day.

How would you describe you career path?

It was not planned. It wasn't a strategic path to get from point A to where I am. But somehow I was always drawn to nonprofits, always drawn toward a cause and bettering our world. When I was in graduate school, I remember driving home one night with somebody and talking about my work and what I was going to do next. He looked at me and said, "Don't you want to make money?" It had never actually occurred to me to look at it that way. It is more important to be doing something interesting and meaningful.

What are the major day-to-day activities of your current position?

Every day is different with a new project or program. I spend probably 20 percent of my day on e-mail. I also meet with my staff to coordinate the projects and programs we're doing together. Then there's the administrative side: taking care of human resources, as well as budgeting and fiscal management.

For example, on Monday, I'll work on planning our trip to Brazil as part of our SportsUnited exchange program grant with the US Department of State. I'll start a grant proposal for an exchange to Indonesia. I'll study the backgrounds of the Legislative Fellows who are coming in a few months—I've got to place four of them with host organizations. I'll follow up with Chicago Public Schools to see if they'll take one, and with the City Commission on Human Relations to see if they'll host another. Then I'll check in with my Open World exchange program participants from Russia who are in town right now. That's what my Monday will look like.

How have you maintained a healthy balance between your work and personal life?

You're constantly juggling both sides, work and home, especially when you have children. You're probably never going to be as good as you want to be, but you've got to come to terms with that. I think it's maybe even more difficult to be the mother you expect yourself to be, because your expectations are based on such a high standard. Sometimes you have to be okay with buying the cookies instead of making them.

That's a continuous struggle. I try to look at it as a biweekly or monthly cycle. If I had to work three nights one week, can I be home every night the next week to put my son to bed?

What is your best advice for developing effective networking skills?

Smile, hold out your hand, and approach someone standing alone and introduce yourself. Everyone standing alone wants to talk to someone. Ask them questions about their work. And in this field, if you don't know what to say, ask where they've traveled lately, or what international project they're working on. Those are my go-to questions.

Even if you don't get a job from that person, you might need that person later to meet with your visitors, to help you on a project, or to introduce you to the right person within their organization. In this regard, networking is key.

Do you have a mentor? How has he or she affected your life and career?

When I was working for the city of Chicago for seven years, there was a woman who took me under her wing; gave me more responsibility than I thought I could handle; pushed me to take on larger roles. She was someone I could always connect with. I would sit down with her once a week and review challenging issues. Watching how she approached tasks and how she analyzed the challenges was enormously helpful. She served on the board of the International Visitors Center of Chicago (the former name of WorldChicago) and suggested that I submit my application for the executive director position. I owe this job to her.

Are you involved in community service?

I'm joining the board of the National Council for International Visitors (see chapter 9). I've served on a lot of school committees and boards and organized fundraisers. We actually made a lot of changes to our preschool fundraiser because of what I learned from my work. You can take your skills from work and really make a difference at other organizations. I'm also starting to do volunteer activities with my son, so that he has hands-on volunteer experience. He is very engaged with the international visitors I bring home as well.

What lessons have you learned as your career has evolved?

Working for nonprofits requires a certain amount of patience. We can be nimble and flexible because we're a small organization and not trying to turn a big ship. But some decisions—when you're getting a consensus from the whole board of directors, for example—can take months. You need patience to let that roll out.

Don't burn your bridges because you're going to have to work with that person again.

Good writing skills are essential in every job, regardless of what you do. You need to sound professional in your e-mails, in your letters, even in your tweets.

Get as much diverse experience as you can. Go outside your comfort zone and take on a new project because it's going to build new skills.

I've found that many of the benefits of my work are not financial but rather come from the interaction with people, from being out in the community, from people recognizing our organization and wanting to be a part of it. Also, interacting with people from around the world and sharing cultures—revealing first how we are different, but then, in so many ways very much the same—is really gratifying. Those are very satisfying things that give me compensation in a nonmonetary way. That's the best part of my job.

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