Photo of Michelle Zych from Today's Omaha Woman magazine.

Michelle Zych

Michelle Passes the Torch

By Melanie Morrissey Clark
Photo by Ben Semisch

When Michelle Zych was hired as Executive Director of the Women’s Fund of Omaha in 2013, the organization was awarding around $134,000 in grant funds each year, focusing on the areas of domestic violence, economic self-sufficiency, leadership development and sexual literacy. After an application and vetting process, grant funds go to nonprofits working to address these issues through programming.

Eight years later, when Zych left to take a position with The Sherwood Foundation, the Women’s Fund awards grants totaling more than $10 million annually.

But it wasn’t all about funding solutions.

The organization also released nine major research reports during Zych’s tenure, on topics such as Human Trafficking, the Cliff Effect, Leadership and Domestic Violence. Zych also led the Women’s Fund to embrace the policy world, with the help of a dedicated committee and fulltime staff member, allowing the organization to better advocate for effective policies in the areas of payday lending reform, paid family leave and equal pay. Under her leadership, the Women’s Fund staff and Board of Directors took stands against white supremacy, advocated for paid leave, formalized the organization’s values and became the fiscal partner to I Be Black Girl, a new nonprofit just getting started.

All of these things are remarkable accomplishments for any executive director’s 8-year tenure. But consider the fact that Zych was just 29 years old when she took the position, and you can fully appreciate the courage and vision required to achieve these goals.

The average age of a nonprofit executive director in the U.S. is 48.

Back when the position was posted, Zych was development director at Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.

“I applied because I felt I had benefitted from the work of the Women’s Fund for many years— from the grants it had invested, from its research reports and from its education on issues. It felt like a dream job and I thought, ‘Why not?’”

Zych says it wasn’t so much an abundance of confidence that propelled her as it was curiosity. “I’m one of those people who isn’t afraid to ask what might be a dumb question in order to understand a situation and see how it can be improved,” she says, adding she also loves a challenge.

Still, she was surprised when she was offered the position. “I kind of felt like I had no business being handed this beautiful gift, because so many women, including previous Executive Directors and Board members, had built this incredible organization. I had peers who had walked into organizations that were on shaky ground financially and they couldn’t make payroll, yet all I had to do was go out and talk to people and build on the solid foundation that was already there.”

She also had the benefit of a wide network of supporters. “I found out later that the search committee had called key donors and community leaders before they hired me, and they all committed to helping me be successful. I think that really speaks to the strength of our community.”

We asked Zych a few questions about her tenure with the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

Today’s Omaha Woman (TOW): What are you most proud of from your time at the Women’s Fund (WF)?

Michelle Zych (MZ): I’m most proud of the team that we built at the Women’s Fund. Brilliant and bold professionals who took our work to improve the lives of all women and girls seriously while finding joy and caring for and about each other. This foundation made it possible for us to increase the level of grant funding, convene partners for tough conversations and center the lived experiences of women and girls as we resourced solutions to complex issues.

TOW: Where do you think the WF made the most impact while you were there? Policy? Grants? Advocacy?

MZ: Can I say all of the above?! I hope that our impact was felt in our authentic partnerships and our willingness to make and learn from mistakes along the way. Being based in research has always been a critical component to the Women’s Fund and I appreciate that we took the time to center lived experience as we consider how best to invest resources of both time and funding while pivoting when necessary. I also feel like the Women’s Fund provides our community with information and language to better advocate for their needs when it comes to issues facing women and girls.

TOW: How would you describe your leadership style, and why do you think it fit for the moment you were in—those particular eight years in the Women’s Fund history?

MZ: I’m really comfortable with gray, with uncertainty. I think that helped as the last eight years have been tough for so many. Being able to lean into uncertainty helped us continue to pivot and meet the moment for women and girls in our community. I also surrounded myself with people who are much smarter than me and then gave them the space and resources to do their thing while also taking care of themselves.

TOW: Why did you feel it was time for you to leave?

MZ: Serving as the Executive Director for the Women’s Fund was a dream job and I don’t know that I could have left for just anything. I get why Executive Directors sometimes stay too long. That said, I always told the Board and team that it would be important for the organization to have new leadership, and that we owed it to the mission and vision to be prepared for that. Luckily, the stars aligned and I was able to move into an incredible role, and the Women’s Fund now has Jo Giles to lead them into the future.

TOW: What do you hope for the Women’s Fund of the future?

MZ: The Women’s Fund will continue to lead the way in improving the lives of women and girls in our community. My dream for the future would be that they wouldn’t have to work so hard year after year to make that happen due to policies that continue to create barriers for women and girls to reach their full potential.

TOW: What advice do you have for Jo Giles in leading the WF?

MZ: I’ve told Jo to remember to breathe and trust her gut. This work will always be there, so it is important to pace and take care of yourself. Wine and good friends also worked really well for me.

TOW: How do you think the pandemic has changed things for women in the workplace, and how do you think this could impact the Women’s Fund’s work?

MZ: The pandemic laid bare how incredibly important the work of the Women’s Fund continues to be. The good news is they have already been working to convene partners to act on issues like economic security, access to sexual and reproductive health care and education, and freedom from violence. I know that they will continue to do the research and provide our community with opportunities to act on these critical issues.

TOW: What are you loving most about your work at Sherwood?

MZ: Having the opportunity to work with another fantastic team to invest resources into our community on a broader scale is a bit surreal. I’m incredibly grateful for the values of The Sherwood Foundation and the commitment to lead with social justice. Reaching out to grantee partners and learning more about their needs and where I can best advocate and support them has been great. Every day is a bit different, so I am definitely keeping on my toes and learning a ton in the process.