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Nancy Yao Maasbach ’99: Rebalancing the Nonprofit Model

Hannah Stonebraker ’19 reflects on a Yale Women Innovators series lecture by Nancy Yao Maasbach ’99, hosted by Tsai CITY.

“Who are we, and what are we trying to do?”

When she started as president of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in 2015, Nancy Yao Maasbach focused on this question. An alumna of the Yale School of Management who previously worked at the Council of Foreign Relations and in investment banking at Goldman Sachs, Maasbach held tight to this question while leading the museum through unprecedented growth and equally large hurdles.

When she stepped into the role as president, Maasbach requested the list of the paying members of MOCA, seeking to understand her constituents. She discovered that they could not open their own membership database without crashing their system. Undeterred, Maasbach spent 20 months building a membership increase of 600%, and built a new database to track them.

Aiming to convey the untold story of the Chinese in America, the museum’s content remains its core feature. Ultimately, MOCA aims to tell a centuries-long immigration story, one that Maasbach notes is even more central given the debates over immigration today.

At the same time, Maasbach has focused on driving growth and development. She drew new visitors to the museum and expanded its reach while deepening the content and messages of the exhibits, rather than minimizing them for mass appeal, providing a blueprint for social entrepreneurs on how to remain true to one’s mission while still growing profits.

Maasbach’s approach to MOCA is indicative of her approach to the nonprofit model more generally. For those who want to work in nonprofits, who Maasbach explains are “driven by workhorses,” she has three key pieces of advice:

1)      Don’t perpetuate the narrative given to you—challenge it.

In her own career development, she’s found ways to grow and define herself in extremely varied contexts, while helping MOCA do the same for her community.

2)      Identify the need in your organization.

As a leader, identify the gaps in your organization and seek to fill them. Identify the needs in your community, and shape your organization to better serve them.

3)      Tell your story—Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

Know your own story. Wash it to understand its core, rinse it to present it thoughtfully, and repeat it. Know your story inside and out and share it with others.

Maasbach is honest about the hard work involved in running a successful nonprofit. Investment banking is much easier, she says, adding: “This is so much more challenging than working where the resources don’t let you fail.” But with an unwavering commitment to her community and their story, Massbach creates a compelling vision of a future model of nonprofit success.