Those who know her only by her cheerfully pragmatic presentations at Annual Conference or Winter Leadership, might be surprised to learn that AJLI Chief Financial Officer Martha Ferry is an intrepid traveler to some of the world’s more remote locales (visas from Burma, Botswana, Libya, Laos, and elsewhere can be found among the stamps in her passport), an able and adventurous amateur chef who once studied at La Varenne in Paris, and a devotee of alternative theater on New York’s vibrant Off-Broadway scene.
We sat down with the Massachusetts native-turned-Greenwich-Village-transplant to find out what she does on a daily basis, how she came to be responsible for managing the collective balance sheet of an organization of 292 Leagues with 160,000 dues-paying members, what challenges we face, what she’s most proud of, and what she does for fun.
What does a day in the life of Martha Ferry entail?
As the AJLI’s senior administrator in charge of Finance, Human Resources, Office Services, and Technology, I’ve got my finger in a lot of pies in the course of a day. In the outside world, I might be negotiating the terms of a new benefits package, consulting with an attorney on a new sponsor agreement, or wrapping up the final numbers on our annual report. Within the Junior League network, I could be counseling an individual league on how it might stretch its administrative budget or re-negotiate the terms of a loan, dealing with a staff difficulty, or I could be preparing a workshop for the Leagues on some aspect of business operations. But seldom do I tell people what to do. I like to listen and then identify the nature of the underlying issue in a situation. Rarely is the problem that presents itself the actual root of the trouble.
What skills would you say have served you best in your current role?
I would say it’s my adaptability both culturally and technically that enabled me to get a handle on this job early on. I think my ability to adjust to new cultures comes from my experience working abroad in financial services in both Brussels and London (I loved every minute!), and from going from Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college, to Harvard Business School where I was one of only 14 women in my class – just two percent of the overall student population. Then, after 20 years in commercial banking, I cut my teeth in the non-profit world when I took a job at Community Service Society, one of the oldest non-profit institutions in New York City, where I was able to make the transition from the for-profit world to that of non-profit.
Also, I think I developed a facility early on for explaining highly technical things in a way that people can understand – it probably helped that I had two high-school teachers for parents.
What are the greatest challenges the Junior League faces?
From my point of view on the business side, I would say one of the biggest challenges, especially for small and mid-sized leagues, is making sure that their operation is running smoothly and to a high standard. They are often reluctant to outsource basic functions, so that they wind up over-stressing their volunteers and not maintaining a high standard of quality in reporting and bookkeeping, which makes for sticky transition between boards that turn over annually. When I think about women who are joining the Junior League today, my observation is that they are not joining to keep track of the books or membership records; they are joining to participate in projects that have an impact on their communities. So hiring freelance experts with the appropriate skill sets to perform these functions is a good investment — and it’s not that expensive or difficult.
In your work at AJLI to date, what accomplishments make you most proud?
At the League level, I think I’ve helped to raise the level of attention that is paid to administrative and operational functions through training on best practices and talking through issues. As a result, the level of questions that League members are asking these days shows a lot more sophistication and professional training.
Within AJLI I’m proud of several things I’ve been able to do, including getting us into a much stronger financial position overall and fostering teamwork across all units.
When you’re not composing emails or taking a conference call in your office on Maiden Lane, what might you be doing?
Trying out a new recipe for a bouillabaisse, attending a live music performance (I like all kinds!), or researching my next overseas trip.