Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, Paul Birtel is a professional nonprofit executive. He earned a Master’s degree in Recreation Services Management and a Master’s level certificate in Nonprofit Administration, all the while working part time with the YMCA as a member engagement specialist in Rochester, New York. During this period of his life, Paul found that he really enjoyed working with the YMCA and realized that nonprofit work was his professional calling. He worked his way up the hierarchy within the YMCA, eventually being promoted to the director of a chapter that had a lot of elderly members. He engaged with them, and created a roster of new programs and clubs that fit their distinctive needs. For Paul’s trouble, he was offered a promotion overseeing every YMCA branch in Delaware.
After a stint working for the Children’s Museum of Philadelphia, Paul Birtel was recruited by the city of Philadelphia to become the General Manager of the outdoor ice rink in front of City Hall. He then landed his dream job at Music and Gaming Festival (MAGfest), which was one of his favorite nonprofit organizations. The main function of MAGfest is to hold events that combine music festivals with video game conventions. These events are almost wholly organized by volunteers. MAGfest has over 2,500 volunteers within its organization, but only six employees.
Just as Paul Birtel moved to Baltimore to assume his new role at MAGfest, Baltimore went into shutdown due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, Paul’s very first project as Executive Director was shutting down the nonprofit’s offices and figuring out how to cancel all the events for the year. His next projects were brainstorming how to go a year without revenue and how to furlough all employees. MAGfest has yet to return to its pre-pandemic operations. In the meantime, Paul is enjoying spending time with his new baby and looking for another nonprofit he would like to lead.
What do you love most about the industry you are in?
Recreation and nonprofits are the industries that I am mostly associated with, and I love them both because I really like making people happy. Bringing a smile to people’s faces, being involved in an organization that allows people to enjoy an experience is what I live for. For instance, people really look forward to going to the YMCA, being with their family there, working out, watching them play in a soccer game or what-have-you. MAGfest is another example of an organization that holds events people might have been saving up all winter to attend with their friends. However, I will say that working at such organizations is extremely demanding. It’s a lot of work. You don’t get paid a lot for it, but when you’re actually there, arranging the events, conducting the programs, helping people—when you see their happiness and see them light up, that’s really meaningful.
What keeps you motivated?
That’s changed since my daughter was born. Currently, it’s my daughter that keeps me motivated. I want to create a better world for her and the rest of her generation. That’s why I like working with nonprofits and working with communities. I want to set a good example for her, and I want to make sure I leave her a world that’s better and more fun and more supportive and more engaged than the one I grew up in.
How do you motivate others?
I try to motivate others by being sincere. I try to make sure they know that I’m listening to them and I’m fully contemplating their points, their processes, and understanding the root of the conversation. What are they trying to express? Is there something deeper bothering them, or maybe something they’re really excited about, or something they’re embarrassed to share? So, I like asking open-ended questions. I like digging a little bit deeper into things because I think it means a lot to people. Being able to connect on that deeper level is important. Taking some extra time to ask genuine questions and then responding thoughtfully is more impactful than most people realize.
Who has been a role model to you and why?
My dad’s been a pretty big role model. He has always been very intelligent, very observant, very perceptive, but he’s also been very proud. Pride can definitely be a negative thing, but it can also be a positive thing when it means you are holding yourself to a higher standard. Say a bad course of action looks like the easy path, and simply siding with the majority is less work and less dangerous—then standing up for what you think is right, defending others, and taking pride in the stances you make is the honorable thing to do. If it makes you stand out or puts you in the crosshairs for some blowback, it is all the more admirable. That is a quality I look up to and I saw a lot of that in my dad.
How do you maintain a solid work life balance?
I handle this by assessing my priorities. I recommend everyone do that. Take a step back, list out your priorities, and be very honest with yourself. Don’t be embarrassed if something seems silly. In my case, shutting off my brain and playing some video games to relax is something I need every day, or every few days, just to unwind. Otherwise, I’m always either in dad mode or work mode.
One of the reasons I’m in the recreation field is because recreation is essential for human beings. Relaxing and recreating is very important for people to be successful, to think of good ideas, to be efficient, and to have the energy and the creativity necessary to live their lives properly and build something lasting. Prioritizing, creating a schedule, and making sure recreation is actually one of those priorities is essential in making sure that anyone has a good work/life balance.
What traits do you possess that make a successful leader?
One of the traits that I have that makes me a successful leader is being honest about myself. If you’re a leader or a manager and you make a mistake, it’s very easy to blame the people you manage. If you oversee the people who are in charge of a project that fails, it’s very easy to point the finger. “This person is in charge of this project and that is why it failed.” But in such a case, if a project fails, everybody fails, including the top person. Honestly, no matter who’s fault it actually was, as their manager, you also share in that. Maybe you didn’t provide support, or you did not provide enough oversight, or you didn’t communicate enough, or you didn’t see problems coming early enough. It could be any number of factors. Being honest and admitting fault to your employees or to other managers is very challenging for some managers to do, but I think goes a long way in building respect amongst your peers and the people you manage.
What is your biggest accomplishment?
My biggest accomplishment was with MAGfest. I was able to take on an organization that was in its most challenging year. The spread of COVID-19 and the accompanying shutdown meant a year without any scheduled events and a year without revenue, but I still transformed the entire organization. I created new departments. I was able to generate revenue without events. I overhauled the entire board of directors. I made some ethical decisions to defend volunteers and to protect volunteer safety. I made some challenging decisions with regard to employee furloughs to ensure that the organization would survive for another year. Then, ultimately, I resigned. Not just for my own work/life balance, but also to help the organization as well, because they had to go into volunteer mode. I valued the organization’s health over my own career at that point, and I’m proud I made that decision.
Outside of work, what defines you as a person?
My code of honor, my honesty, my desire to always be sincere with people, to be vulnerable, and also to be appreciative are some major things that define me as a person. I’m willing to sacrifice for others and to be there for others, and I respect people enough to know that they deserve honesty and appreciation.
Where do you see you and your company in 5 years?
I’d like to be a successful father and I’d also like to uplift another non-profit. I’m really excited to get back and be an executive leader for another nonprofit. I hope to set down roots in some town or a city and grow my family. In the past, I have taken a lot of leaps in my career. I’ve taken on a lot of new and difficult challenges and roles heavy in responsibility. At this point, though, I want to settle down a little bit and find that next leadership role where I can spend a few years engaging with a community and just honing my work/life balance.