June 2009


My name is Laura Rentler and I am interning at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management this summer.  Currently, I am a junior at Robert Morris University where I am majoring in Marketing and Hospitality and Tourism.  I will also be receiving a certificate in nonprofit management through American Humanics.  To receive this certificate, students must complete a 300-hour internship with a nonprofit, attend a conference, and take two courses on basic nonprofit information.  A few of the BCNM staff members were in charge of teaching the class at Robert Morris University, which is how I got this great opportunity of working here for the summer. 

I remember in my junior year of high school I told my Mom that I wanted to be an accountant.  She was shocked and knew that I had a different calling in life.  Well, she was right.  My senior year of high school, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a luncheon for the Highmark Caring Place.  My family and I attended the Caring Place in 1998 after my father passed away.  The Caring Place helped me grow as a person, so I was honored that they would ask me to speak in honor of them.  After I delivered my speech, one young high school student came up to me and said, “I know how you feel.  I lost my father and I haven’t gotten help for it.” You could tell this particular audience member was really touched by my story and could relate in some way.   After that moment, I instantly knew that I wanted to be working in an environment where I could make a difference in people’s lives.   I can’t tell you what came over me that day that possessed me to choose the nonprofit field, but I knew that this was my calling. 

When I got home from the luncheon, I told my Mom that I wanted to work for nonprofits the rest of my life, and she was thrilled.  I told other family members and friends and kept getting the same comments and questions:  “Why would you want to work for a nonprofit; you are not going to make any money.” To this, I would always say that I want to make money to pay the bills and provide for myself, but I also want a job that I love doing. I want to be one of those people that comes home from work and says, “I love my job!”  Let’s just say that I didn’t get the reaction out of them as I did from my mom, but then I do come from a family of financially oriented people.

Overall, I feel happy with the direction I’m taking, but I still have questions:

  • Will I find a job after I graduate?
    • I know Pittsburgh has a large amount of nonprofit organizations, but many agencies it seems have small staffs that tend to be loyal.
  • Is there opportunity for career growth in the sector?
    • It seems like it is more difficult to progress into a higher position since many organizations are small and folks seldom leave. Of course, I realize that most sector professionals had to start somewhere, but I don’t want to put in years of energy to realize there was a glass ceiling all along.
  • Will I have a salary even if the organization is struggling?
  • What happens to an agency if it raises less and less money every year?

I don’t think my concerns and questions are any different than other college students as they near graduation.

When I was thinking about some of our nonprofit clients recently, it led me to muse yet again about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle225px-Bundesarchiv_Bild183-R57262,_Werner_HeisenbergI mean, doesn’t everyone ponder subatomic particles when they think about nonprofits?  Or is it just me?

Anyway, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is one of the core tenets of quantum physics.  Most simply, what it tells us is that you can’t know both the precise location and the precise velocity of a particle at the same time.  You can know one; you can know the other.  But you can’t know both.  So I ask you, are you letting the principles of quantum physics get in the way of your organization?

Do you know your precise location and your precise velocity?  Too many nonprofits subscribe to the uncertainty principle and just know one or the other – they know where they are, but they’re not sure where they’re going, or else, they have a definite destination in mind, but they don’t really know where they’re starting from.

In the first case, they might monitor their activities in great detail day to day.  They may thoroughly understand who they serve, how they serve them, and what it costs them to do that.  But if they haven’t taken the time to look externally and really figure out how the world is changing and where they need/want to be in three years, they’re merely adrift on the wings of uncertainty.  They know where they are, but not where they’re going.

On the other hand, some organizations have a strong vision in mind.  Their goal is clear, they know what they want to accomplish, and they think they see a path to getting there.  But they haven’t bothered to look at where they are right now.  What is each program costing?  How does the Board assess its own performance?  Why is turnover 150%?  They’re hurtling into the future on a spaceship whose engine is fueled by uncertainty.

The good newsparticles is that quantum physics only applies (so far as we know) to the microscopic world of muons, leptons, and tauon neutrinos.  So, since you’re a bit bigger than they are, you actually can know where you are and where you’re going.  And if you want to be a strategic nonprofit, you must. Knowing both your location and velocity (i.e., assessment and vision) is the key to making sure that your nonprofit survives and thrives to fulfill its mission.

Now, as for the famous quantum physics puzzle of Schrodinger’s Cat cat2and the notion that it’s both alive and dead until you look at it, I haven’t figured out yet how to relate that paradox to nonprofits….

Maybe next week.

My colleague Jeff Forster and I teach a number of day-long technology classes in the summer months that we call “camps.”  Not that tech classes at the Bayer Center aren’t always fun :P, but we especially try to promote a casual, summer fun feeling during these classes.

To this end, Jeff (a former camp counselor) wrote a pretty funny summer camp song for our classes.  Our marketing manager didn’t think it would fit the style of our course catalog, so the song was nixed.

In the process of writing an article about these summer tech camps in my TechNotes e-newsletter yesterday, I recalled the camp song.  I ran the videocam while Jeff sang and I thought you all might enjoy this:

(He may not dance like Britney Spears, but I have no doubt he’s got a really great voice when he’s not goofing around.)

If you normally don’t enjoy technology classes, you haven’t taken one here at the Bayer Center.  Learn more and register at http://www.rmu.edu/bcnm.


If you cannot see the YouTube video above – watch it here.

Over the last six months, Scott Leff and I have observed a greater proportion of nonprofit Boards seeking clarification of their agencies’ finances – distilling the important and necessary financial information into a condensed report – and financial health. With that in mind, the Bayer Center recently unveiled a set of diagnostic tools that we are calling our “Financial Wellness Package.” To borrow a little medical parlance, we liken it to a “financial check-up” with your friendly Bayer Center consultant.

One piece of our “Wellness Package” consists of looking at your agency’s financial performance relative to organizations of similar mission and (budget) size. As a part of this analysis, we analyzed close to 240,000 nonprofit organizations that filed 990 information and calculated numerous financial performance ratios as one approach towards answering the Board question: “How financially healthy is my organization?” We refer to these figures as our “Financial Benchmarks.”

Originally, we had just planned to use the benchmark results as one component in our Wellness Package, and thought nothing of the broader sector implications that could be gleamed from our analysis. However, after further review and discussion, we’d like to share with you some of the broader takeaways we discovered that may influence how you think about your agency’s finances and where you stand relative to peer organizations of mission and size.

We look forward to sharing some of these findings with you as we all continue to seek and share industry best practices. Stay tuned…

puzzle crossword

words

My father, my brother and I spent a lot of evenings when I was in high school driving from park to park looking for a pickup basketball game.  Dad kept a map in his head of all of the places where people gathered to play, and we would go from one to the other until we found a critical mass to join and play.  Although many will tell you that the joy is in the journey, the joy really was in finding some competition.

Turns out that when I go out to look for a hoop game to join with my boys, we  may not need to drive so many places.  The wizardsPickupaloozashirtatdeeplocal have created pickupalooza, a site that allows would-be pickup soccer players, ultimate frisbee players and even Carrie Richards and her kickball player friends to find each other and set up games.

The efficiency of this solution appeals to me.  Also, as deeplocal’s CEO Nathan Martin (a speaker at our 2006 TechNow conference) told the Post-Gazette, online pickup game connections are “a fun way to meet people outside of your social network, which is someteimes a challenge here in Pittsburgh”.

On Saturday May 30th, sometime around 10 pm, someone decided that they no longer wanted their dog. So, they dumped her over a 6 foot fence into the backyard of an apartment building at the corner of Davis and California Avenue in Brighton Heights. Luckily for this nameless dog, she couldn’t have landed in a better place.

This apartment building (a beautiful old home with turrets that we refer to as “the castle”) belongs to my friend Jeff. Among the castle’s tenants are my friends Matt and Traci (along with their daughter Annan), who noticed a dog in the backyard on Saturday night and called Jeff. That night was a long one – the dog was howling, so Matt and Jeff threw some food over the fence and tried to give her words of encouragement from a safe distance.

Kitty WThe next day, Jeff came to investigate the dog (a black pit-bull), carrying an air horn in one hand, and a can of pepper spray in the other. In the daylight, it was discovered that neither were needed to fend off this dog. The pit-bull was a female who had just had pups, and was an extremely submissive and docile dog who adored people, especially when they rubbed her belly.

More neighbors came to help – Shayne and Lisa, who lived next door to the castle, came armed with dog food, and volunteered to take the dog to Animal Friends to see if she was chipped. (They did, and she was not – there’s no way of ever finding out who dumped her or why.) By the time my husband Brad and I got caught wind of this dog on Monday, the small team of neighbors had already made her a shelter out of an old futon mattress and tarp, and she had unofficially been dubbed the new neighborhood mascot.

Brad and I decided to bring “Kitty” home with us (she seemed like a classy lady so we named after Ms. Kitty Wells, queen of country music) where she has been ever since. She has a clean bill of health from the vet, and will be staying with us at least through the end of the month until she is fully recovered from her spaying surgery thanks to the wonderful folks at Hello Bully. She dines on food and plays with toys donated by Shayne and Lisa, is walked regularly by Jeff (who refers to her as his “step-dog”), and is doted upon by the whole gang of neighbors who found her.

Kitty babushkaJPG

Whenever I walk her, I’m usually stopped by someone and asks something like, “Hey…is that the dog that was abandoned in Jeff’s yard?” (Word travels fast!) When I reply that she is, it’s always followed up with something like, “What a great dog! Wonder why her owner got rid of her?” Good question. I have no idea why Kitty was dumped, but as I said before, she couldn’t have been abandoned in a better place. I have a feeling that the love she has been given in the last 2 weeks by our small gang of neighbors is more than she had ever received in her life. Way to go, Brighton Heights!

Next Page »