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 that fourth nonprofit CEO position 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.

Head Shot for Press/Media

Portrait by Coleman Camp, 2019, https://colemancampstudio.com/

Portrait by Coleman Camp, 2019, https://colemancampstudio.com/

Tour des Trees 2019, Tennessee and Kentucky: Biked!

With a breakfast ceremony this past Saturday, the 2019 Tour des Trees 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 been involved, while 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 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. 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 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!

Lessons I’ve Learned From the Tour des Trees

As I was getting my final training rides in this week, I was thinking about the things that make the Tour des Trees special to so many people, me included. Here’s the list I came up with upon arriving home and jotting down my notes. I’d welcome any of your own lessons learned in the comments!

1. When life gives you free lunch, you eat it.

2. When everybody stinks, nobody stinks.

3. Love every single glorious descent, because you will be punished for each one later.

4. No matter how many gears you have, life will always throw something at you where none of them are quite right, and you just have to grit your teeth and grind it out.

5. There’s nothing wrong with being able to recognize your friends by their butts.

6. Knowing you have support in front of you, behind you, and alongside you makes everything achievable.

7. No matter how nice your bike is, somebody else always has a nicer one.

8. A ride with no trees makes it most clear why we ride for the trees.

9. You’ll never have nicer conversations than the ones you share on a journey with fellow travelers.

10. What happens on the Tour does not stay on the Tour: it ripples outward, over space and time, and makes the world a better place.

Ride on! See you soon in Tennessee and Kentucky!

Move On . . .

I am writing this column on July 29, 2019, which is my father’s 80th birthday. He was a career Marine Corps officer, serving with distinction for 28 years, including arduous combat tours in Vietnam and Lebanon. After his final active duty military assignment as Chief of Staff at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, he worked on for another decade as the general manager of WAGP, a radio station operated by his church in South Carolina’s Low Country. In August 2002, he finally decided to retire for good, ready to enjoy many well-deserved years of rest and relaxation with my mother. One month later, he was driving on one of the Low Country’s narrow causeways when an elderly driver inexplicably lost control of his car and hit him head on. He died from his injuries three days later, in the same hospital where I was born. He was 63 years old.

dadmemorial

We ran this memorial in the Beaufort Gazette on the 10th anniversary of my Dad’s death. Time flies, and it doesn’t ever move backward in this universe . . .

As a “gentleman of a certain age,” I have found myself reflecting on my father’s story in recent years, as my work life has often involved long separations from my family, as his did. Those reflections were part of the mental arithmetic that led me to recently announce my retirement from full-time nonprofit work in October 2019. My wife and I have both worked hard, lived simply, and saved well for a long time, so I’m blessed to have the ability to take that next step into retirement now. Sure, I could hang on and just keep working the “nine to five” to put some more money in the savings account, as my father did, bless him, working diligently toward a retirement which he never got to enjoy. But I learned a lesson from that: it’s okay to let go and leave when you can — so I am.

I plan to stay engaged with and supportive of the amazing global network of folks who have taught me so much and been so generous and welcoming to me over the years. I had a robust freelance writing practice earlier in my career, and I plan to get back to that in the years ahead, so if you ever need a hired pen, we should talk. I’ve also got some book-length manuscripts that have been begging for my time and attention, so I’ll be glad to return to those personal projects soon.

I want to close simply by expressing my deepest gratitude to anyone and everyone who shaped my nonprofit career in years both distant and recent. I am proud to have supported your collective success in my own small ways. Your work, your gifts, and your faith in the organizations I have led inspires me. Thank you!

Moving On

Note: You should play this song while reading this post.

Last night, I went back up to our condo at 340 East Randolph in Chicago for one last peek at the amazing views that have been such an integral part of our daily experience since 2015. It was nice to see a little bit of green in the palette, after a particularly brutal winter . . .

Farewell, Glass Box in the Sky!! We will miss you!

Marcia and I pretty much decided that “view” is not going to be a primary determinant in choosing housing from this point forward, since nothing is ever going to live up to what we’ve experienced here on that front. That said, our new home in Des Moines does have a very pleasant vista of the heart of the city, so we’re thankful for and glad about that . . .

The arched bridge at the right-hand side of that photo provides us quick access on foot to the human habitrail that links the entirety of Des Moines’ downtown, so we can easily get anywhere in the heart of the city without a car, regardless of the season. Our neighborhood, the East Village, is also the hopping/happening part of town these days, so there are a lot more credible restaurants and retail outlets there now than there were when we last lived here. We’re not intending to get another car, and I’m going to be a foot, bike, public transit and ride share guy for the foreseeable future, so that density of destinations is helpful. Katelin and John (daughter and boyfriend) live across the street from us, so that’s a wonderful benefit. The Bumble also lives there, so I’ve been getting what passes for regular quality time (three pets, then a bop, hiss, and scratch) with her. Just like old times.

We took custody of our new place on February 1st, and I have been back and forth from Chicago to there numerous times since then, usually bringing a full load of household goods with me. This week, I’m staying in Chicago in a hotel, under my new work paradigm, where I spent one week each month at our office in Naperville, and work remotely from my home office the other three weeks. When I get back to Des Moines next weekend, we have one more small furniture delivery to receive, and one last room in which to hang art and decorate, and then the new nest will be pretty much complete and ready to serve as home for however many years this chapter in our story is going to last. That will feel really, really good after three years of maintaining two residences, and enduring regular long-term separations.

There are some things in life that get easier as you get older and wiser, but moving is not one of them. When I was a kid, we moved regularly with my Dad’s Marine Corps careers. In the early years of our time together, Marcia and I moved twice in Northern Virginia, twice in Idaho Falls, and twice in New York, before settling in for a nice 12-year stint at Cord Drive in Latham — the longest I have ever lived in one place. I used to be really good at moving, both in terms of the physical aspects (Young Strong Man Can Lift All Furniture, Huttah!), and the psychological ones, which in some ways were eased by living most of the time in either military or academic cultures, where everybody was a n00b every year, and nobody was immediately obvious as the “one of these things is not like the other” cast member.

But somewhere along the line, likely after that long spell in Latham, I turned into a grouchy set-in-my-ways old man with a body that feels the effects of every heavy box that I lift for days after I schlep it. Get of my lawn, you kids!! And where are my back pills?!

By virtue of the way that we’ve had our lives set up over the past three years (one apartment and one storage unit in Des Moines, one condo with a storage cage in Chicago), it has taken multiple little moves between those destinations over a two-month period to get us to the point of almost being settled in our new place, so that’s even harder than the usual rip-the-Bandaid approach of quickly hauling a single household to a new place in one fell swoop. So I’m ready to sit. I’m ready to settle. Bring me some tea and my slippers and point me to my comfy chair. I’m good.

Over the next few months, Marcia and I have trips to Florida, the Carolinas and Greece (30th Anniversary!) lined up, and I’m very much looking forward to traveling that does not involve hauling heavy loads, and that has us leaving from and returning to a single destination: Home. I know that this is not our final one of those (we’ll be going somewhere warmer when retirement time rolls around, guaranteed), so that also means that we’ll need to move on at least one more time, and I’ll be older, grouchier, and stiffer when we do it . . . but once it’s done, we’ll have a new base of operations for new adventures, just as we do now, and that’s a comfort and a blessing, all things considered.

The Trees That Move Us

Those of us who count ourselves as “tree people” generally don’t leave our interest in trees at our work sites but are also awed and moved by them in our personal lives as well. We look for and admire great trees in the cities, fields and forests where we work, live and travel, and then we also seek out opportunities to celebrate trees in books, art, music, and in all of the other myriad of creative arts.

On one of our recent snow days, I bundled up and walked over to the Art Institute of Chicago – my favorite place in my favorite city, hands down – and wandered around the various galleries there as I often do. In the 19th Century European Art collection, I saw a wonderful painting that I’d not noticed before by Albert Bierstadt, depicting a glorious stand of birches around a rocky waterfall.

And then I decided to have a full tree day at the museum, walking through every gallery, seeking out great trees in the collection. It was a wonderful way to re-experience galleries that I’ve seen more times than I can count, looking through a different lens at paintings, decorative arts, sculptures, and more. I found abstract trees, photographic trees, and impressionist trees. I was awed by the ways that artists were inspired by trees over centuries and around the world. I shared my findings on social media, and they were widely liked, commented on, and retweeted.

A couple of weeks later, I was home again and the song “The Trees” by the BritPop band Pulp came up on my stereo. Once again, thinking about trees, I decided to have a tree music day, going through the 14,000+ songs that I have on my computer, looking for great ones about trees, woods, forests, and more. I posted my 25 favorite tree songs on my personal website and once again got loads of comments, feedback, and response from others about their favorite tree songs. People just love tree art, in all of its forms.

I recommend you have your own museum tree day, or make a tree song playlist, or look at some other creative idiom through tree lenses. It’s truly rewarding to actively consider how the trees we care for professionally enhance our lives beyond their scientific and landscape value.

The Albert Bierstadt painting that inspired my Tree Day at the Art Institute.

St. Kitts

Updated February 16, 2019: We got home last night at around 1 AM after a long day on planes and in airports. I completed our photo album from the trip this morning. You can click on the beach horse (Marcia’s photo) below to be taken to the full gallery:

Marcia and I are in the Caribbean island nation of St Kitts and Nevis this week. We had a fantastic island tour from Barry Wyatt, who met us at the airport and then spent four hours a couple of days later showing us his home nation, with knowledge, perspective, wisdom and pride. We have also had two brilliant dinners at Tiranga, an excellent Indian restaurant right across the street from the Marriott Resort where we are staying. If you visit St Kitts, I heartily recommend you give Tiranga a shot for one of your remaining meals, and then call Barry for a great tour, too. You will not be disappointed! As always, I’m constantly snapping photos, and will do my usual Flickr album when I get home, but here are a sampling of the sights we’ve seen so far (obviously if I’m them, then those are Marcia’s snaps), with a few days yet to go before we return to the frozen north. Enjoying it while we can, life is good!