[How I Work] Keeping her eyes on the ball

Written by: Marc Schultz
Published on: Sep 29, 2016

A full-time staffer since 2009, Michelle Landwehr has been Chief Operations Officer at The Samfund for a year, helping the Boston nonprofit to better carry out its mission: supporting young adults who have beaten cancer recover from the financial impact of treatment. We spoke to her from the organization’s offices, located just around the corner from the city’s iconic South Station.


My un-official title: Big Picture Person.

My role, the short version: Keeping my eyes on the ball.

My role, the long version: Program planning and implementation, data management and evaluation, working on the strategic plan and general operations. The CEO and I spend a lot of time together on big-picture stuff, but also on the day-to-day details—it’s a balance of the two.

Because we’re a small shop, the implications for any one role are wide. I handle a lot of operations considerations for our team of five, but we work collaboratively on many issues. We all do some writing in terms of grant proposals, but we’ve also begun a foray into academic writing, and just had our first paper published, in the journal Cancer Medicine.


Most challenging part of my job: Like most staff at a small nonprofit, I’d say the most challenging aspect is time. There are never enough hours in the day to achieve everything we want to.

Most rewarding part of my job: Seeing the impact among young adult cancer survivors. Our funds go directly to individuals who need financial support following cancer treatment, and it’s incredible to see what they can accomplish with just a little bit of help. And it goes beyond the immediate impact, like people getting to stay in their homes: with an 11-year history of distributing grants, we get to see what people go on to do years after being funded.



What the role requires: Experience in the nonprofit world. Experience managing and evaluating programs. Because of the type of organization we are, the role also requires a sense of humor, compassion, and empathy. Someone who can keep a lot of balls in the air at once, but also the humane characteristics to connect with the mission.

How I got here: I’ve been friends with CEO Samantha Watson since college, and we worked together briefly after college for another nonprofit. She started The Samfund in 2003, and I was involved from the beginning as a volunteer. A few years in, while living in New York, I started working part-time as a consultant, helping out with the grants program. When we agreed to make it full time, I moved back to Boston and I’ve been working here since.

Before I got here, I was doing public health work in the nonprofit sector in a very different capacity—including researching family court data and conducting reproductive health research, but the skills I picked up transferred well. It made a lot of sense for me to end up here.



At the top of my to-do list: I’m always trying to improve our grant application process, in terms of applicants and reviewers. For the first time this year, we’re offering grants twice a year, and we’re trying to hone that process to make it as scalable as possible.

My top goal for the year: It would be fantastic to publish another paper, and to collaborate with another organization or researcher for it. We have one in the works about family-building among cancer patients.

Why I’d recommend my job to others: The exciting thing about being part of a small organization, and growing into a new position, is the flexibility and opportunity to learn—to make of it what you’d like to see.

samfund logoThe Samfund helps young adult cancer survivors across the U.S. overcome the financial impact of treatment and achieve their goals, providing direct financial assistance and free online support and education. Since 2005, they’ve awarded over $1.6 million in grants, helping beneficiaries keep their homes, pay off medical debt, build families, and more. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.



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