Nonprofit Management: Tips of the Trade

In 1996, I wrapped up 14 years of Federal service in a variety of military and civilian roles. I had already established a solid freelance writing business at the time, but I wanted a “day job” to provide healthcare coverage for my family and a stable salary base atop which my I could write what, when, and as I wanted. Most of my colleagues from Navy days facing similar transitions at the time went into the for-profit sector, but I decided that public service meant too much as a guiding principle for me to walk into a world where shareholder profits were at all a governing interest in my day-to-day work.

So I made a conscious decision to enter the nonprofit sector, where I’ve remained ever since. I had to essentially start my career over that year, since my acquired skills of negotiating complex, high-value, confidential contracts for submarine and aircraft carrier components didn’t exactly translate into the cultural, educational, and social service sectors. But I’m a quick learner, and it didn’t take long before I earned the first of four nonprofit chief executive positions that I have held to date.

As that phase of my professional life now winds down with my retirement from TREE Fund this month, I wanted to share ten frank thoughts that I think might be useful to the next generation of up-and-coming nonprofit executives. I would have appreciated having someone tell me some or all of these things in 1996, so hopefully others may find them useful. (Note: in the few cases where I’ve already written more on some of these topics elsewhere, I link to those articles, rather than simply repeating them here).

1. Understand the differences between governance and management: Nonprofit boards are tasked with governance, nonprofit executives are tasked with management. I developed this grid to explain the key differences between those roles. When boards manage and executives govern, nonprofits fail. As the chief executive of a nonprofit organization, you sit as the single crossover point person looking upward to a multi-person board that supervises you, and downward at a multi-person staff that you supervise. No one is in a better position than you are to monitor roles in both directions, to set appropriate boundaries, and to formulate and implement corrective action when the governance vs management relationships get out of alignment.

2. Serve on nonprofit boards: You will never fully understand or appreciate the challenges that your boards face in fulfilling their governance and fiduciary roles unless you yourself sit on that side of the table at some point too. But don’t just serve on a board as checklist item on your resume, or for the cache of having your name on the letterhead of a prominent charity. Board service involves a lot of challenging volunteer work, and there are specific duties and responsibilities expected of all nonprofit board members. I developed this summary of those roles and responsibilities, and you should be prepared and committed to live, work and deliver within such a rubric before you join any nonprofit board.

3. Understand nonprofit accounting standards and auditing practices: On some plane, I’d almost say this is the most important of the ten tips provided here, as an adept skill with your budgets and financials will allow you to work most closely and effectively with your board’s treasurer and your own staff financial professionals. You want to have the best people possible in those roles, sure, but you don’t want to turn them into the de facto financial decision-makers for your organization because you don’t have a complete, timely and accurate understanding of the reports they produce, review and approve. Some years ago, I wrote a (hopefully) amusing introduction to this somewhat dry topic called Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers. While I mostly developed these skills in a hands-on fashion over a lot of years, if you’re at that transition point between being a development or other nonprofit middle manager and serving as your organization’s executive, I would most emphatically recommend that you find a training or certificate course in nonprofit accounting. It will set you apart, and it will serve you well.

4. Develop a thick skin: I often use a sports analogy when I discuss the life of a nonprofit fundraiser, noting that a really good professional baseball player will hit at or above .300 over the course of a season, meaning that 70% of his at-bats result in failure. Well, guess what? A really good fund development or institutional advancement professional has about the same success rate in a given year, and if being told “no” hurts your feelings, then you’re in the wrong business. Some nonprofit executives think they can get around this by having their development directors and/or board members make all of the hard asks, but that’s a recipe for failure over the long haul. Peer-to-peer asks are crucial, and many times you are the right person to make such asks, and many times you will receive a negative reply after you make them. They key to enduring that is to recognize that most “no” answers are actually “not now” answers, and to practice your swings and hone your skills until the next at-bat comes around, with a smile on your face while you do it.

5. Understand and practice the donor development cycle: Related to the point above, if you step up to the plate having done none of the necessary training and practice, the likelihood of a big swing and a whiff increases exponentially. The donor development cycle involves prospect identification, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship, and it takes time, research, and talent. If you ask someone for a big gift the first time you meet them, you can pretty much plan on a “no” response. If you do not understand what motivates a prospect before you ask them for a gift, you’re even more likely to get a “no” from them. And some of those “no” answers will really mean that, for good, with no invitations to come back around again for another try. The one part of the donor development cycle that most often goes neglected by nonprofit executives is the stewardship phase, or what happens after you actually get the gift. If a major donor does not hear from you again until you want more money, he or she is less likely to feel the love and write the check. But if you carefully, judiciously, and personally steward those donors, your next gift is more likely to come in, and hopefully be bigger than the one before it. People want to feel connected to their charitable causes, and they want to know that their gifts make a difference. You are one of the most important players in making sure that’s the case.

6. Respect the sector and its people: There’s a sadly common trope in the business world that “people work in the nonprofit sector because they can’t cut it in the for-profit sector.” From a strictly monetary standpoint, this might seem to make sense, since salaries in the nonprofit sector are generally lower when compared to comparable positions in the for-profit sector, and if people can get paid more for doing the same job in the for-profit sector, then their continued presence in the nonprofit sector must be indicative of their second-tier talents, right? But this is very wrong, offering a shallow and reductive view of the nonprofit sector that fails to recognize fundamental elements of the charitable experience: altruism, belief in a mission, philanthropy, a desire to serve others, a sense of deeper meaning, wanting to make a difference, etc. Some of the most talented individuals that any of us are ever likely to encounter have forged their entire careers and reputations working for and with nonprofits, to the tremendous benefit of their communities. The nonprofit workforce isn’t less effective or less valuable than the for-profit sector is, it’s just driven by a very different set of motivations and inspirations. I believe those of us in leadership positions within the nonprofit sector have a clear responsibility to educate those outside the sector on this front, and we should never denigrate, by action or by inaction, our colleagues and their organizations in the eyes of those who would judge our staffs that way.

7. Understand and manage the power dynamics of our sector: This is a subtle one, somewhat related to stewardship, somewhat related to developing a thick skin, somewhat related to respecting the sector and its people, but it’s a common facet of the nonprofit world experience, so I think it needs to stand on its own. At bottom line, you need money for your organization, and your donors have the money you need, which means that your donors have a profound power to greatly enhance your success, or to deeply undermine it, as they see fit. Some of your biggest donors will be clearly aware of this fact, and they’re not going to be bashful about letting you know what they want and expect from you, when they want and expect it. Sometimes, those wants and expectations are going to cross lines of professionalism and propriety and you will have to stand firm on principles in such cases, and (hopefully) do so in a way that does not produce negative outcomes for your organization. But other times, sorry to say, you’re going to have to suck it up and go along with what they want, when they want it, on their terms. This can be a real prick to the pride when you’re feeling particularly powerful and accomplished as the CEO of your nonprofit corporation, and I’ll admit that accepting this reality has always been a challenge for me. I’m a seasoned professional and a major donor for some organizations in my own right, so being treated like “the help” can really sting sometimes, e.g. going to a gala event with a lot of heavy-hitting donors in your community, where their interactions with their peers, and then with you, make it very clear that in their minds, you are not one of them. But that’s, sadly, the macro nature of a world where there are those who give, and those who need their gifts. Many major donors are truly gracious and would never treat you this way. But a surprising number of them will, and you should know that going in.

8. Foster a strategic culture: Strategic planning is crucial to the success of any good nonprofit organization. It may be broadly viewed as an iterative, two-part undertaking. In the first part of the process, an organization defines a vision for the future that is consonant with its mission. In the second part of the process, the organization then allocates financial, capital and human resources toward achieving this vision. The two parts of the process must be linked with regular feedback mechanisms that allow both the vision and the allocation of resources to evolve, together, to meet emergent opportunities and challenges. Strategic planners must recognize a principle most eloquently elucidated by General Dwight D. Eisenhower during planning for the invasion of Normandy: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Planning is a dynamic, ongoing enterprise, not an occasional activity resulting in a static, printed plan that becomes obsolete soon after it is created because it is placed on a shelf to gather dust. Planning is a process, while plans are tools—and no tool should ever be held in greater reverence than the process it supports. As your organization’s executive, you sit smack in the middle of this crucial process: you must encourage and empower your board to think and act strategically, and you must manage your staff to implement the plan to fulfill the board’s vision, not your own personal preferences and projects. I wrote a bit more on this topic here.

9. Don’t start your own nonprofit as a hobby or on a whim: I will admit that this is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve seen more people than I care to consider over the years say “I see a very niche need not being met in my community, so the best thing for me to do is to establish a new nonprofit corporation to address that need.” And then they do it. And more often than not, it fails, but only after wasting a lot of donated money. Maybe some of those folks are correct in taking that first step to organize and establish, sometimes, but not very often, and a nonprofit organization shouldn’t be established as a hobby, especially if it needs to suck funds from a finite pool of community resources. You also should never establish a nonprofit corporation to give yourself a paying job as its executive. That’s just bad form. While changes in tax codes and economic uncertainty are resulting in shortages in individual funding for the nonprofit sector these days, there is no shortage of nonprofits themselves: the National Center for Charitable Statistics reports that there are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in existence in the United States today, of which about 1.2 million are 501(c)3 charities. (Don’t make the amateur mistake of saying “501(c)3” interchangeably with “nonprofit;” they are not, necessarily). The Balkanization of the nonprofit sector caused by a growing number of tiny niche mission nonprofits ultimately hurts the overall effectiveness of our sector. If you see a charitable need unfulfilled in your community, your best, first bet is to figure out which existing service provider may have a mission that could allow it to meet the need within its established operational and fundraising infrastructure, and commit to helping it do so. Setting up competing, small nonprofit corporations without the ability to actually pay for such provision will generally make it very difficult for any funds raised to have any significant, long-term impact. Again, this is not to discourage you from volunteering your time, talents and treasures in a visionary fashion, but you’re going to be a lot more useful to a lot more people if you don’t reinvent the wheel by starting a new nonprofit from scratch on a personal whim.

10. Keep charity charitable: There’s been a lot of (needed) discussion over the past couple of years about tax code changes making it financially beneficial for donors to use the increased standard deduction in lieu of itemizing deductions (including charitable giving), thereby reducing the strictly financial tax return benefit donors receive from their charitable giving. But I think we make a mistake in our communications when we put too much focus on tax benefits, because the charitable good that donors do is actually independent of any quid pro quo tax benefit they receive as a result of their philanthropy. Charity is, by its very definition, the voluntary giving of help, typically via money, to those in need — and nonprofit organizations need to demonstrate, at bottom line, that they remain worthy of support for the good work they do, and for the benefits that they deliver to their clients and communities. After all of my years in the nonprofit sector, I know that when push comes to shove, the sense of doing something righteous, and making a difference through one’s gifts, is the truly fundamental motivator for individual donors, one that resonates deeply in ways that simple monetary benefit from tax-deductions does not. As your organization’s leader and spokesperson, it’s your job to keep the sense of awe that comes from doing the right thing front and center in everything you say and do.

Bonus Tip #11: Learn how to calculate and build a donor campaign pyramid. It should not look like this one.

PRESS RELEASE: TREE Fund Names New President and Chief Executive Officer

Note: My successor as President/CEO of TREE Fund begins his tenure this morning. I will be remaining with the organization in an advisory/emeritus status through November 15 to help, as needed and requested, with transition, then onward. I’m really excited about TREE Fund’s next chapter and leader, and I hope that all of you who have been a part of my story there will continue to support Russell and the organization in the years ahead. It was an amazing four-plus years for me, and I thank everyone who played a part in that. Excelsior!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: TREE Fund names Russell King as its new President and Chief Executive Officer

Naperville, IL, October 28, 2019: Tree Research and Education Endowment Fund (TREE Fund) is pleased to welcome its new President and CEO, Russell King, who is taking the reins at the Naperville, Illinois-based nonprofit organization on October 28. King’s hire followed an extensive national search to replace J. Eric Smith, who is retiring as President and CEO after four years’ service to the organization.

King is a seasoned nonprofit executive with over 25 years’ experience in the public sector, including multiple chief executive roles. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from San Diego State University, an MBA from LaSalle University, and is a graduate of the University of Delaware’s Institute for Organization Management. He is the author of four books, a long-time contributor to numerous online and traditional print media outlets, and has an extensive community service resume, including election to the Verona (Wisconsin) Area Board of Education.

“We are truly delighted to have hired Russell to serve as our new President and CEO,” says TREE Fund Board Chair Steven D. Geist, BCMA, RCA. “He is a deeply experienced nonprofit executive, with formidable leadership, development, communications and financial skills. Russell has a proven track record of leading growth and transformation in the nonprofit sector, and the Search Committee truly admired his deep hands-on, mission-driven, servant leadership experiences throughout his career. We are confident that he will sustain and build on our recent successes under Eric’s administration, and we look forward to working together to benefit our urban and community forests and the skilled professionals who care for them.”

“Communication, collaboration, diversity, and servant leadership have been, and remain, the keys to my success with those I serve, whether staff, board members, donors, or the communities we support,” says King. “Although the depth and breadth of my experience and education may have uniquely qualified me for this role, what most defines me is the passion with which I immerse myself in a worthy cause. When I take on a mission, it becomes my driving force, my raison d’être. I now look forward to putting my abilities to work on behalf of TREE Fund.”

About TREE Fund: TREE Fund is a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge in urban forestry and arboriculture. Since 2002, TREE Fund has distributed over $4.4 million in research grants, scholarships and funding for environmental education to advance the science, practice and safety of tree care and engage the next generation of tree stewards. For more information, visit treefund.org.

Happy trails . . .

Credidero #10: Authority

Back in the mid-’90s, when I was writing for an alternative newsweekly, the features team was occasionally given a summer gang project called “How To.” Each of us were tasked with writing a piece explaining, somewhat obviously enough, how to do something at which we were (nominally) experienced and knowledgeable. Being a quirky and contrarian crew, most of us chose to explain how to do things that were of a marginal degree of usefulness to our readers, producing articles that were probably intended to be entertaining (to the authors, anyway, if not the readers) more than they were educational.

Over the course of a few years, I explained How To Write A Record Review, How To Get a Grant, How To Keep a Secret, How To Talk To a Sleeping Rock Star, and How To Be An Expert. The grant-writing one was nominally useful, objectively speaking, if you were a fundraising professional, and the record review one has long been used by a journalism professor in Texas as part of her syllabus, so I suppose that one was legitimately of some value, too. The Sleeping Rock Star one was me making lemonade out of lemons after I was given a “phoner” appointment to interview then-trending singer-songwriter Abra Moore (who was asleep when I called her), and the secrets one was a result of me leading a weird double life where I was a music critic by night and a contracting officer for a highly classified military program by day.

Of those five pieces, How To Be An Expert was the one that hewed most meaningfully to my own real experiences and beliefs, and I have returned to or referenced it regularly over the past 25+ years as a basic operating tenet in my professional life. It stems from some of the best professional advice I was ever given, very early in my post-college career, after a simple conversation with a supervisor/mentor that went like this:

“If you want to succeed here, or in any other job,” he said, “then you have to become an expert.”

I asked the obvious question: “An expert in what, sir?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just make yourself an expert in something, and when you’ve done that, you’ll be indispensable.”

 

I used the word “expert” in that article, because that’s what my boss said, but I just as easily could have used the word “authority,” because that’s the gist of what he was communicating to me: if people perceive you as an authority on any particular subject, then you are useful to them, and you’ll always have a place in the organization, so long as you maintain your position as the organization’s authority of record on that particular topic, or maybe on a variety of topics, if you’re really good at exploiting this concept.

When I first started contemplating this month’s Credidero article, this “be an expert” narrative sat the center of my reflections on “authority.” I’ve spent most of my professional career in positions where I’ve been held up as an (or even the) authority on an evolving and branching stream of topics, as my work has taken me through a somewhat dizzying array of professional disciplines. I am self-aware enough, though, to know that in each and every case where I’ve been accepted as an authority on a particular topic, it was very much an act of me claiming that role, more than it was an act of others bestowing it on me — because if you say something long enough, often enough, and confidently enough, then it becomes reality, or at least is perceived as reality, and there’s really no difference between those outcomes.

My skills at self-marketing have always played into this paradigm, on top of the cultural cues and biases that benefit me by virtue of who I am and what I look like: a tall, white, older male with a degree from a “big name” college, who’s a glib speaker and solid writer, and with the ability to quickly process, retain and regurgitate a dazzling stream of facts and opinions. As such, most people are culturally conditioned to accept whatever I write, say, or do, if I offer my words of expertise confidently and with, yes, authority. There have been many times in my career when I have not been the most-trained, or most-knowledgeable, or most-experienced person in a given room or sphere on a specific topic, but people have still turned to me as “the authority,” simply because I’ve carried and presented myself as such more effectively than those around me, using the cultural privileges that are bestowed upon people like me as part and parcel of our society.

Is that fair? No, not really. But I have used it to my advantage anyway, and (more importantly, I think) to the advantage of my employers and their causes. I do not believe that I have ever used perceptions of my own authority for negative or negligent purposes, or to advance a crooked or conflicted agenda, or to denigrate, demean or disempower others who might, in fact, have more expertise than I do. I’m good at sharing credit when it’s due and when I can. That ability to advance the causes of my organizations in an authoritative way that makes people feel like they are invested in and connected to those causes is high among the traits that I believe have most contributed to my professional success over the years.

While I may claim to be an authority or an expert earlier and more forcefully than others might under similar circumstances, I also believe that I have managed those positions in ways where most people are willing to accept and reflect that authority back at me, confident that I will use it wisely, even if it is still nascent. And I say “most people” most purposefully, because I know that there are certainly a subset of my work colleagues over the years who just thought that I was a really good bullshit artist. That’s okay, I guess. I probably was. And probably still am. It’s hard to tell the difference between being a doctor and playing the role of a doctor on television sometimes, as long as you’re not performing brain surgery. I know my limits.

The word “authority” has several subtle definitional aspects to it, and I’ve only been focusing thus far on one of them: “the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something.” This form involves being an authority (where I am the subject noun) on a given subject, which is somewhat different from having authority, where the subject noun is a standalone external right, and not me personally. That form of authority is defined as: “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” When it comes to that form, there’s no “be an expert” bullshit or cultural bias at play, because you either have it, or you do not, typically as a result of your position within an organization.

As the CEO of a variety of nonprofits over the years, I’ve had all sorts of authority when it comes to this second definition of the term. I have had the ability to negotiate and sign contracts, take out loans, pay bills, sign checks, hire people, fire people, award grants, buy things, sell things, and a myriad of other rights that are integral and essential to the positions I’ve held. In the nonprofit sector, the ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the corporation resides in the board of directors, who are also tasked with governance and with hiring and supervising their chief executive. After that, it falls on the chief executive to manage the organization within the mission and vision established by the board of directors and ideally embodied in a strategic plan. That means I’ve had a lot of latitude to do what I thought was the right thing to do for each of my organizations, and I had the authority to implement whatever ethical and legal tactics I deemed best to getting the job done effectively and efficiently.

My understanding and living of this form of authority is also highly influenced by some of my early professional training, in this case while still at the Naval Academy, where we learned the differences and distinctions between authority, responsibility, and accountability as part of the Leadership and Management Education and Training (LMET) curriculum. At the simplest level, authority is the ability to make a decision, responsibility is the  job we are tasked to do, and accountability is the way in which we answer for the work we’ve done. The balance between these three factors has an immense impact on how effectively one can function in the work environment.

For example, if an employee has a high level of responsibility, but little authority, then he or she will likely be heavily frustrated by having to seek continual approvals elsewhere while trying to achieve necessary tasks. If an employee has both high authority and high responsibility, but no accountability, then it becomes easy for him or her to just coast, knowing that there are no likely repercussions for not fulfilling expectations, and the organization will suffer as a result. On the flip side, if the accountability function is ratcheted up too high, then it becomes difficult for an employee to achieve his or her responsibilities, even with clear authority, because of the constant micro-managing attention to activities that should be free from continual oversight and evaluation. I’ve always used my LMET training in evaluating potential work situations, and then once engaged, I’ve done my best to create the proper balance between those three facets of management, for myself and for those entrusted to my supervision.

I’ve been fortunate in most of my professional roles to have identified or developed nonprofit boards that allowed me to build and maintain appropriate balance between professional authority, responsibility and accountability. But with my pending retirement from the salaried work world in a few weeks, this will change for me, as I will no longer possess authority (nor responsibility, nor accountability) as a function of the position that I hold within an organization, for the first time in well over 35 years. In most typical freelance or consulting roles, I’ll likely have defined responsibilities and accountability, sure, but not much positional authority. Which means that I will have to fall back more heavily on that first form of authority, which I can claim for myself as a function of what I know, what I can do, and how well I can communicate it. I’m okay with that, I think. I’ve proven over the years that I’m pretty good at positioning myself as an expert, and I’m also fairly adept at being accountable to myself when I need to be. (Pro tip: I’ve found that it’s helpful to publicly state intentions on this front, e.g. telling all of my readers here that I was going to write a 12-part series called “Credidero” last January made me more likely to actually do it this year. Ten down, two to go!)

A few other facets of meaning and belief emerged for me as I considered the concept of authority over the past month. The first came when I did my usual research into the etymology and history of the word to be studied for the month. “Authority” has its roots in the Latin auctor, meaning “originator” or “promoter,” and that root also produced the modern English word “author.” I like the concept that developing and claiming authority is an act undertaken by an author, in that we write our own narratives, and then (using another element of the ancient word), we must promote those narratives in order to bring them to meaningful fruition. I do this continually, in so many places and so many ways, here on this website and in my “real world” personal and professional lives. All we are is all we’ve been, so in theory, I should get ever better at this as I age, so long as I don’t ever lose the rampant curiosity that’s often the motive force and lubricant of my learning and communicating processes. We’ll see how that goes.

There was another interesting intermediate evolutionary meaning in the etymological history of this month’s Credidero word. In 13th/14th Century Old French, between the Latin auctor and the English authority, we find autorite, which was an “authoritative passage or statement, book or quotation that settles an argument, passage from Scripture; authoritative book; authoritative doctrine.” In this usage, authority wasn’t a particular person, nor a power held by said person, but rather an inhuman physical artifact that was deemed to embody decisive decision-making power. This reminds me of the most beautiful of the Gospels, which John the Evangelist opened by simply explaining that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” While we read this metaphorically, obviously, the idea that written and spoken words may carry the purest essence of the divine within them has always been highly appealing to me.

A self-professed and self-proclaimed right of authority has more heft if the very words that anchor it are right, and true, and inspired as outward manifestations of inner truths, or local observations of universal realities. In this sense, standing as a personal authority, even without positional authority, may be a path along which or a vehicle through which legitimate and pure societal good may be promulgated and promoted. Words have immense power to foster change, if you use them wisely. I like to think this is what I’ve done in my work over the past three-plus decades, and I am hopeful that I will be able to continue to do so in the years that remain ahead of me.

But the dark flip side of this paradigm is embodied by another modern English word that derives from the Latin auctor: Authoritarian. It’s tragic and troubling to consider how relevant this word has become again in modern political practice and parlance, as weak and insecure national leaders at home and abroad expect unquestioned obedience, and act tyrannically when they do not receive it. I read an interesting interpretation of the etymology of this word, which likened it less to “authority” and more to “author,” as authoritarian leaders seek to be the masters of the fictional worlds that they create. Unfortunately, almost all of them also have positional authority, which allows them to leverage vast monetary, legislative and military machines toward their own nefarious ends. That way evil lies. And madness.

This tendency toward authoritarianism becomes all the more dismaying and tragic when leaders are propped up by corporate propaganda machines and other weak and insecure legislators who use their own positional authority to propagate their leaders’ hateful messages and paper over their childish and/or criminal behaviors, lest they rock the status quo that’s elevated them, Peter Principle style, to positions well above their apparent capabilities and capacities. I think most folks my age in the United States grew up perceiving authoritarianism as a dead or dying political system. I doubt that many of us would have imagined that we’d be close to living in it as we eyeballed our retirement years, and that the centuries-old system of checks and balances designed to protect us from it would fail for nakedly partisan political reasons. Here’s hoping that enough of us wake up and exercise the authority constitutionally bestowed upon us as voters in 2020 to turn this tide, before it sweeps us away into the type of future that dystopian science fiction writers favor.

While there’s no question that authoritarianism is a bad thing, and must be resisted by sane citizens of any state, I find it interesting how often people look through that same lens when considering any form of authority. If you go search Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or any other similar online quote banks for the word “authority,” the vast majority of the quotes that search returns will be focused on questioning, disobeying, challenging, or dismantling authority. Now, this may be a function of the fact that the types of writers and thinkers whose quotes end up in Bartlett’s are more apt to be anti-establishment types than the average citizen, or it may just be that these sorts of “Fight the Power” epigrams are more memorable and inspirational than the “He loved Big Brother” ones are, hence their appearances in such anthologies and encyclopedias.

But I have mixed feelings about blindly conflating authoritarianism with authority, as I loathe the former, but am more than willing to accept the latter, if it’s properly earned or bestowed. To some extent, that may be a function of the fact that I’ve counted on my own authority time and time again in my professional life as a key tool to achieve the things I want to achieve, and I don’t feel that every act and every decision I’ve taken with the authority vested in, or claimed by, me should be subject to scrutiny, question or rebuttal. I give other authorities the same benefit of the doubt that I expect from other people in considering my own actions and activities. I hope that as I move into a phase of my life where my authority stems from who I am and what I do, rather than from what position I hold, that I’ll be able to still leverage such authority to achieve my desired ends. Which, hopefully, will not be authoritarian in tone or tactics.

As I read back over what I’ve written this month, I note that there are more subtle semantic dances than usual, as I seek to shoehorn “authority” into the “what I will have believed” rubric behind this Credidero series of articles. But I think that was a necessary approach to wrestling with a concept that has so many significant variables operating within closely-aligned, but not exact, definitional distinctions. When I look at the authorities around me, I value those who bring earned or acquired expertise more than I value those who are granted authority by their positions, but I still value those positional authorities, so long as they don’t become authoritarian. There’s a need for vigilance, surely, as we evaluate the various authorities that govern and shape our lives, but when all is said and done, there’s also a need for those authorities themselves, and I hope that I am able to continue authoring my own life story in a fashion that encourages others to look my way and say “Now there’s an expert. Let’s see where he’s going to take us . . . ”

When an eagle explains stuff to you, you listen . . .

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this tenth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Three: “Mortality.” Since there’s only one topic left after that, I also know that December will be dedicated to Topic Number Two: “Possibility.” I guess those are two heady concepts with which to wrap the project! 

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

 

Re-Shingled

Astute regular readers here may have noticed that two tabs were recently restored to my front page after a several-year absence: Freelance Writing and Consulting. Why so? Why now?

For most of my years living and working in/around Albany (1993-2011), those were key parts of my professional portfolio, and in many cases were among the most gratifying and enjoyable jobs I did. But when I took over a struggling museum in early 2012 after our move to Iowa, that job had such a crushing 24-hour “on call” aspect that I just didn’t have it in me to maintain existing freelance clients or establish new ones. Then my job at TREE Fund had me on the road around the country about half of the time, plus the complicating factor that Marcia and I were splitting time between Des Moines and Chicago for three years, so that era also didn’t lend itself to doing the types of writing and value-added consulting work that I so enjoy.

But that’s going to change in the months ahead with my pending retirement as President and CEO of TREE Fund. We’ll be announcing my replacement there in a couple of weeks, and my last day of employment with TREE Fund will be November 15. I have one more trip planned from Des Moines to our offices in Naperville for turnover, then Marcia and I will be hitting the road on our own for awhile, within the States and abroad. We have some of those trips laid out already, but are really keeping the schedule fairly soft at this point for much of 2020, enjoying the opportunity to go where we want to go, when we want to do so. I am also looking into some writers’ workshops, fellowships, and conferences in the months ahead to reconnect in that professional circle and have the opportunity to hone and market some of my personal projects that have been back-burnered in recent years.

So those factors all lead me to conclude that it’s a good time to re-hang my professional shingle, with the simple act of adding those tabs as a first-step statement of intent. As averse as I am to getting new technology before my old technology has expired (I have had only four home PCs for all of my computing needs since 1993), Marcia and I both got fresh new laptops to take with us, to allow us to work (or play, or surf aimlessly) wherever we are.  (I’m still keeping my trusty home PC up and running, though. Loyalty to beloved and useful devices counts for karma points, you know). While our modern technological era is certainly fraught with challenges, perils, and annoyances, I think there is great joy to be found in being nimble, agile and portable, and doing what needs to be done where it needs to be done, untethered from the ties of home and office. Have computer, will write!

The two pages linked above lay out the areas of past expertise and future interest that I would like to pursue in the months and years ahead. Check ’em out. Am I missing anything? Are they compelling? Comments, critiques, complements or questions always welcome. I very much look forward to helping colleagues new and old, and I am open to conversations at any time if you think there’s something I do that might be of interest and help to you, your business, your board, your donors, or your clients. I’m also grateful for any referrals that you might direct my way. Networks count, and I know I’ve developed some good ones over the years.

At bottom line, if you’ve enjoyed working with me in the past, then there’s no reason for that to stop, at least from my end. We might even enjoy and leverage our professional relationships more fully in a new paradigm, unlocked from some of the structural constraints of the nonprofit world in which I’ve moved for most of the past 25 years. Only way one to find out, right?

Sticker purchased to decorate my new laptop. Words to live by. Bonus points if you know their source.

Island Song

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the October 2019 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE Fund. You can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here. You should be listening to this song from the greatest animated series ever as you read this article.

So here it is, my final “Leading Thoughts” column for TREE Press, three weeks before I retire as the organization’s President and CEO. As I type, we are in the final steps of the search process to find my successor, and barring something unexpected, next month’s TREE Press should feature an introduction of the new leader for our enterprise. We have outstanding candidates in the mix, and I am confident that the next President and CEO will be able to build on the successes we have experienced over the past four years. I look forward to cheering him or her on, and to continue supporting TREE Fund as a donor, Tour des Trees rider, and advocate.

I will be pleased and proud to continue my personal and professional associations with the amazing community of arborists, urban foresters, landscape architects and other green industry experts who I’ve come to know and respect during my time at TREE Fund. I’ve noted in earlier TREE Press columns that, after some travel, I intend to return to the freelance writing and consulting work that occupied much of my time and talent when I lived in Upstate New York for the better part of 20 years. If you see an opportunity where I may be able to help you, your business, your ISA Chapter, or your clients, I’d be happy to discuss that further. You can always reach me at my website for professional inquiries, to read whatever I might be writing for my own entertainment, or just to say “howdy.” The connections and friendships I’ve made over the past four years are precious to me, and I am happy to continue them!

In my final remarks at this year’s ISA International Conference in Knoxville, I noted that when I reflect on my time at TREE Fund, the thing that I am most proud of is that I believe I have shifted our organizational focus and messaging away from “What should you do for TREE Fund?” toward “What can TREE Fund do for you?” Your continued support is, of course, crucial, but we only earn it by providing you with useful scientific research and education, and by sharing those mission-based products as widely as we possibly can. I believe we have achieved that with our improved website, newsletter and social media efforts, our wildly popular and successful webinar series, and a shift in emphasis for the Tour des Trees to make the focus on community engagement just as strong as the focus on fundraising. We are also putting our money where our mouths are: this year, we expect to break $400,000 in new grant awards for the first time in our history, pushing our total awards since inception over $4.4 million. With $385,000 raised by this year’s Tour, next year’s number should build on that further. It is satisfying to me to leave that strong base behind for my successor.

And with that, I doff my cap to you all, grateful for our time together. Your work makes a difference, and it moves me. Thank you for the opportunity to have served.

Come along with me, and the butterflies and bees. We can wander through the forest, and do so as we please . . .

Tour des Trees 2019, Tennessee and Kentucky: Biked!

With a breakfast ceremony this past Saturday, the 2019 Tour des Trees to Benefit TREE Fund came to a close, with the top fundraising team (ISA Southern Chapter) presenting the “big check” for over $371,000 to our Community Engagement Manager, Maggie Harthoorn, who served as staff lead for the event this year.

This year’s Tour was a resounding success, and I can’t praise the work that Maggie, Tour Director Paul Wood, and the rest of our planning committee and support team did to make it so. First and foremost, our ~80 riders and ~20 support team members all made it to the finish line with no accidents, injuries, or incidents of note, barring one over-aggressive truck forcing a rider off the road onto a (fortunately) grassy shoulder, and a few cases of drivers feeling the need to yell at cyclists sharing the roads that we’re wholly entitled to share. The fundraising tally is the highest of the five years that I have served as TREE Fund’s CEO, and it’s still creeping up; as I type, it stands at $376,473. (We will still be accepting Tour donations here through September 30, if you want to make an after-the-fact contribution in honor of this year’s team). Our education ambassador, Professor Pricklethorn, offered 11 school programs for ~500 elementary school children, and we met with a variety of municipal leaders, businesses, and community groups along the way to spread the good word about professional urban forestry and arboriculture, and the scientific research that underpins those practices.

Those successes were all the more remarkable given the conditions under which we rode: ~450 miles over five days, in sweltering heat wave conditions with absolute temperatures in the 90s and heat indices pushing 110 degrees. I had ridden further and done more hill work this summer than I had in any of my prior Tour training seasons (moving to Iowa helped a lot in that regard), but despite that prep, I struggled physically on this Tour more than I had in any other, with the heat just sucking the energy out of me as the days went on, and with recurring cramping problems slowing me down throughout the week. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling that way, and I know that my gratitude for our support team couldn’t be higher, as they pressed along with us, offering encouragement, hydration, nutrition and care to a line of riders that could be stretched out over ~25 miles by the time the day was done. Just amazing, and inspiring.

As I’ve written before, this will be my last Tour des Trees as President and CEO of TREE Fund. The whole team was incredibly kind, understanding and generous toward me this year as I prepare for that personal and professional transition. I am grateful to them in so many ways.  I do intend to stay actively involved with TREE Fund and its mission — as a Tour rider, as a donor, as a volunteer, or however else I can be useful — in the years ahead, and I encourage you to do the same. It’s an important organization doing vital work, and the Tour des Trees is the strong beating heart that powers it.

As is often the case, it’s hard for words to capture the Tour experience well, so I’m going to let pictures give you a sense of my week in Tennessee and Kentucky instead. We have an incredible photographer, Coleman Camp, who rides and shoots with us, often at the same time; I’d be cranking up a hill sometimes and hear a “whoosh” go by me, looking over to see Coleman carrying two large cameras on his back, and still out-climbing most of us to get to the summit for the snaps he wanted. He’s an amazing human being and an inspirational artist: check out his professional work here, and his gallery of this year’s Tour (he’s still adding to it as I type) here. Ride On!

This year’s Tour featured a great variety of riding environments, from shady woodlands with punchy hills to wide open Iowa-esque agricultural regions.

It’s amazing how helpful it is to be cheered on from the roadside as one summits a nasty hill.

Words of encouragement from Paul Wood, our most outstanding Tour Director.

An icy cold towel from the support van hits the spot too.

Our friend Sam from Vermeer organized a trivia event at dinner one night. The winners received Kentucky and Tennessee appropriate cycling jerseys.

Having a route map on our sleeves makes it easy to explain our travels to visiting dignitaries.

We ended the week with an amazing event at Hull-Jackson Montessori Magnet School in Nashville. It was amazing to have a couple of hundred kids running out to greet the riders as they rolled in.

The full team in Clarksville, Tennessee. Where’s J. Waldo? (Hint: Throw the horns!)

Closing remarks on Saturday morning. Quite emotional!

The Big Check!!

The team gave me a TREE Fund jersey autographed by this year’s riders and support crew. I wore it while Coleman used me as an art shot model, with the Nashville skyline behind me.

And thanks once again to Paul Wood and Maggie Harthoorn for their tireless work in coordinating this year’s Tour. TREE Fund’s next CEO will be incredibly fortunate to have them on the team, as I have been.