Aina Gutierrez

We engage youth successfully in academic, social and emotional learning, a part of which is building relationships with responsible and caring adults.I’m so lucky to be able to do this for a living. It’s inspiring to connect with youth with such potential for a successful future.

Location: Evanston, Illinois

Twitter: @AinaGIWJ

Profession: Chief Operations Officer at Y.O.U., Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U)

What is your first memory of giving back?

​My first memory of giving back was selling cookies for my Girl Scout troop. Our cookie sales went to support nonprofit causes in our community as well as the troop itself. The curriculum behind cookie sales​ is brilliant!  Girls get motivated around how their sales can benefit the community. And they learn great skills in the process – public speaking, sales, counting money. It gives girls self-confidence and leadership in a supportive environment. As a child, I felt great about my contributions to the troop. We had so much fun together. ​Now as a mom, it’s been rewarding to watch my daughter grow and learn through the process.

Tell us about your professional role:

I’m the Chief Operations Officer of Youth and Opportunity United, a youth development nonprofit based in Evanston, Illinois.  We provide services and leadership development to 1,500 youth per year to help them acquire the skills, self-confidence, and opportunity to be full and responsible members in the community.  My team and I support the 70 person staff and run an efficient, supportive, and community-based workplace.

​Just as we provide opportunities for youth to succeed​, internally, we have to do the same thing for our staff. ​ I live in Evanston so this role has been very rewarding because I’m able to raise my family and work in my community. ​I enjoy being part of a community organization. My office is right across from Nichols Middle School so I hear the students running and playing outside every day. I’m able to visit youth in our programs whenever I can. Our board members and donors live locally so it’s powerful to be able to share the impact of our work in person and through the stories of the youth themselves.

​Can you share a meaningful story of your organization’s impact?:

​​Recently, I was able to visit a program at one of our elementary school sites. I love elementary age kids because they try to be tough and closed off, but they really they want attention and support. There was a young man in 4th grade who didn’t want to talk with anyone. He didn’t want to do his homework and sat quietly. I continued to reach out to him and ask if he needed help – sitting with him, asking about his day, wondering about his worksheets.

Within 15 minutes, he started to open up to me and share small parts of his day and life. Later that day, we had a science group that built boats out of aluminum foil. The same young man was sitting at a table and saved a seat for me. Together, we spent time learning about weight and density in the water. He was so engaged and didn’t want the day to end (and neither did I!)

This is one tiny example, a snapshot into what youth in our out of school programs receive from our free services every day. We engage youth successfully in academic, social and emotional learning, a part of which is building relationships with responsible and caring adults. I’m so lucky to be able to do this for a living. It’s inspiring to connect with youth with such potential for a successful future.

​How else have you contributed to the nonprofit field?:

Before joining Youth and Opportunity United this spring, I spent 13 years on staff at Interfaith Worker Justice, a national nonprofit that engages people of diverse faiths to support worker rights.

Two years ago, I was able to take a sabbatical and wrote a book on how to build a small nonprofit based on values, titled Walking the Walk: A values-centered approach to building a strong nonprofit.  It’s a practical resource to support nonprofits with less than 10 employees and offers the point of view that we should reflect ​​values we hold internally to the world we want to build externally.​ ​(It’s on Amazon and can be purchased through Interfaith Worker Justice at

​How do you give back personally?:

My family and I support a number of causes, whether through financial support, volunteering, or board service. We are passionate about causes that treat people with the dignity and respect they deserve. We volunteer making lunches for hungry people in our church, support human rights causes and food pantries, as well as advocacy groups fighting for a more just world.

​What advice do you have for others who are considering working in nonprofit?​:

My advice is two-fold. The first step is to find causes that you care about and figure out who is doing work that you want to do. There are so many valuable causes, but find those that give you energy. The second step is to find your strengths and match those strengths to a role that mission-based nonprofits offer. There are so many ways to contribute to something. I realized my strengths are managing projects and teams of staff to support an excellent workplace.

When I was younger, I didn’t realize that a career could be built around that. But it can. If you see an organization you love, call them up and see about volunteer, intern, or paid opportunities.  Work hard and show how your work can strengthen the organization. You need experience (not necessarily fancy degrees) to advance. With any luck, you will find a role you are good at and a career that nurtures you and contributes to the organization.


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Julia Levy, Founder, has a decade of development experience, including working for a philanthropist, a small nonprofit and now a large nonprofit. She has raised significant dollars for numerous causes, from education to religion and from donors of all ages. Julia holds a Certificate in Fundraising from NYU’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and an undergraduate degree from Cornell University. Julia has taught fundraising workshops, most recently at Brooklyn Brainery and coached development professionals.

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Why We Give tells stories of ordinary philanthropists, making a difference, dollar by dollar and hour by hour.  

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