Sara Milstein: Leading the Y to Serve the Greater Good

“I’m a firm believer in following what makes you happy and the rest will come. Follow your heart and your instincts,” advises Sara Milstein, chief marketing and advancement officer at the Y in Central Maryland. She feels her career has come full circle. “It was purely by accident, but all of my previous experience came together into what I do now,” which is directing the marketing and fundraising for the Y to expand the non-profit’s reach and ensure that it can continue its mission of strengthening communities. Currently, the organization serves 300,000 people via 13 locations in central Maryland, through camps, preschools and youth, family and adult programming.

Milstein began her career in public service, working with programs serving at-risk youth in Baltimore City. She transitioned to the advertising agency business, spending many years at Eisner Communications managing campaigns for clients in the health care, non-profit and retail sectors, which she calls “a phenomenal experience.” After Eisner’s demise, she returned to the non-profit world to her current position at the Y.

A Holistic Approach

“It was the marketing opportunity of a lifetime,” she says. “There is no typical day, and that’s what makes it fun.” Her marketing team of six manages all aspects of print and digital marketing and communications, developing the strategy for building, and maintaining the Y’s brand. “We are a charitable, mission-driven organization that operates in many spaces, and we take a holistic view of the people and communities we serve. We want to bring people in, regardless of their ability to pay, and once they are there, we focus on their total well-being – spirit, mind, body. The Y creates spaces and activities for people to bond as a community, to give them a sense of belonging and to combat loneliness (which she notes has become a public health crisis) and that is built into the DNA of all of our marketing and messaging.

While the Y’s marketing approach utilizes both print and digital channels – “As a marketer, I believe a mix is important,” says Milstein – she acknowledges a growing emphasis on digital strategy. To target (and retarget) their core audience of seniors and families, they run banner ads and also utilize Facebook and email marketing, as well as cable television and other broadcast channels. Milstein explains they target segments based not only on demographics but also on alignment with the Y’s values: people involved in community associations, PTA and other school groups and community-focused activities such as recycling.

Business With a Higher Purpose

“Our work is intellectually stimulating – business-driven with a higher purpose,” Milstein notes enthusiastically. She advises non-profit organizations to embrace marketing and be bold about promoting their services and mission. “Marketing a non-profit gives you an even bigger obligation to get results and apply best business practices. Smart non-profits have an ego,” says Milstein.

Leading Your Team

Milstein advises fellow marketing leaders to “surround yourself with good people who are smarter than you are” when putting together their team. “Have fun and laugh a lot, respect team members’ expertise, set high standards and let them do their thing.” Central to her leadership approach is honesty and making sure her team knows it’s OK to make mistakes. “Admit it and we’ll work together to figure out how to fix it.” Milstein also encourages team leaders to recognize their staff’s outside commitments: “When people know they can take care of themselves, they’ll be a better worker.”



Photo Credit: Coyle Studios