July 2009


At the end of church last Sunday, my 6-year-old handed me the bulletin insert on which he and his 2-year -old brother TC FoundationCroppedhad been drawing and said “Dad, if we can’t have sports careers, Teddy and I are going to run a school called the TC Foundation.”  Their logo is already designed; it’s T for Teddy, C for Charlie, by the way.  He later elaborated his plan, saying that that the school would be preK to 12 and that it would be a “different color skin school; so if you have different color skin, you can go to this school.”

After the post from our intern, Laura Rentler, earlier this month about choosing the nonprofit sector for her career, it makes me think about how people wind up in the nonprofit sector.

Laura’s aspiration and Charlie’s school-founding plan have some things in common:

1. They come from a place in the heart.  As the nonprofit sector has moved from leisure/charity for the wealthy to a  professional and credentialed domain over the last several decades, one important focus has been helping nonprofits act in a business-like manner.  That goal would make a not-bad elevator speech for the Bayer Center, in fact.  At its root, though, most people who find their way into nonprofits get here through a passion.  Generally, that passion gets expressed as making a difference in people’s lives.

2. They are Plan Bs.  Laura told her mother she wanted to be an accountant before the nonprofit notion arose unexpectedly.  Charlie is only planning to open his school if he and his brother “can’t have sports careers”.  Based on his hitting ability and his brother’s strong, accurate arm, the TC Foundation might have to wait until they retire from baseball (oops, is this my work blog or my proud father blog?).  In my experience, nonprofit careers have appeared in a surprising fashion as an option.  Sadly, I recall the cluelessness of the college career counselor who responded to my now-wife’s statement that she wanted to work in nonprofits with the ga-ga question “and do you need to get paid?”  Despite the advent of nonprofit management masters programs and the undergraduate certificate programs like Laura is earning, most of the entry points into nonprofit work come via a zig zag path.  For me, the nonprofit IT consultant gig followed ill-fitting goals in the advertising industry and as a literature professor and a masters degree in public policy.

3. They are clear visions. The way Laura describes it, it sounds like a switch flipped for her.  Charlie’s notion came right out of thin air but got specific quickly.  It seems like one need not set out to do nonprofit work to end up focused and driven to make a difference.

A key difference is that Laura is actually wrestling with the question of how she will be dependably paid to work in a job that feeds her passion.  Charlie hasn’t figured out that he needs to worry about that.  Maybe he’ll turn his attention to that when he hangs up his spikes and starts looking at a building to renovate for his school.

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I have the blessing of going through a kitchen renovation right now.  I have to wash dishes in the slop sink in the basement, and microwave food on the window seat in my entry way.  I have to search for 10 minutes just to find my salt.   I have to wade through boxes of kitchen stuff in the guest room just to get a book off the bookshelf. 

 And… I had to empty my junk closet to let the contractors re-route a heating duct.  I’ve lived in my house 9 years and have added 3 children over those years.  So there was a lot of opportunity to stuff it full.  As I emptied it, I was embarassed to see what I had been “saving” for that perfect moment.  I had saved a ripped inexpensive raincoat that I thought I might need if I went caving again; the bridesmaid dress from my sister’s wedding that I would never wear again.  Throwing things out or putting them in a giveaway bin was painful, but once I got started, it was freeing.

This afternoon, I also met with a leader of an organization going through a strategic planning process.  We talked about the SWOT analysis and a MacMillan Matrix–a process to determine which programs fit the mission, have opportunity to grow (what needs to be done, and has funding to get done), what his organization already does well, and if there is passion or energy to get it done.  It gives him an opportunity to ask his board and community leaders–what is most important to them, and what is worth investing in.

I realize that although there isn’t much of a silver lining to these economic trials that families and nonprofits are going through, there is an opportunity.  It gives us the “pain” needed to make difficult decisions–to get rid of the less needed/past their prime/not working very well programs that a nonprofit may have. A chance to realize that your resources could be spent better in other ways. 

In the end, I will have a renovated kitchen. But an unintended benefit will be the newly organized,  half-empty closet– full of opportunity.

Those of you who know me, know that I get really excited about TechNow, our annual nonprofit technology conference.  TechNow energizes me in a way that only one other event in the year really does (and that would be NTEN’s tech conference).

Hence and therefore, please don’t be shocked if I’m spouting TechNow from here until October.  When I get excited about something, I tell people.  This is no exception.  🙂

So….mark your calendar, tell your fellow techies, co-workers, and friends!  TechNow, the annual conference devoted exclusively to nonprofit technology, will be held on Thursday, October 29, 2009.

Ami DarThis year, we have another fabulous and relevant keynote speaker for you!  We will be joined by Mr. Ami Dar, the founder and executive director of Idealist.org.  Built in 1996 with $3,500, Idealist has become one of the most popular nonprofit resources on the web, with information provided by 90,000 organizations around the world, 70,000 visitors every day, and a staff of 60 in New York, Buenos Aires, and Portland.  Ami plans to speak about how nonprofits can successfully collaborate, accomplishing more with fewer resources.

This year, we are delighted to be hosted by Robert Morris University at its very own Sewall Center, located on RMU’s Moon Township campus.  The Moon Township campus is near the Pittsburgh International Airport and is easily reached via car or Port Authority bus.

If you would like to be notified when TechNow conference registration opens on the Bayer Center’s website, email me at leonard@rmu.edu.  Look for more TechNow updates in the upcoming months, including a re-vamped conference website!

Hooray for Technovians everywhere!

I am a very social person, so when I was given the task of interviewing nonprofit leaders in the Pittsburgh area, I was ecstatic!  Before I was given any proper guidance, I knew who I wanted to interview.  If you remember from my very first blog entry, I wrote about how I attended the Caring Place as a youth and the love I have for that organization.  Not too long ago, I gave a speech for the Caring Place at the opening of their new facility in Warrendale, PA, where I had the privilege of meeting the Board Chair.  We talked for a while before all of the guests arrived and I learned so much about him.  In fact, I think he is one of the nicest people I have ever met.  So, who is the nonprofit leader that I am talking about?  Merril Hoge!

Merril, Me, and the CEO of Highmark

Merril, Me, and the CEO of Highmark

Many of you probably know him from his years as the starting fullback with the Pittsburgh Steelers or from his show on ESPN where he analyzes football.  However, I know Merril because of the excellent work he has done for the Caring Place, which is why I choose to interview him first.

1. What was your dream job when you were a child?

At the age of 8, I saw football for the first time on TV and I was instantly hooked.  From then on I knew that I wanted to play football in the NFL when I grew up.

2. When did you start volunteering?

I did some activities with my church when I was younger, but I’m not sure I really understood the impact of my efforts then.  I guess I would say that I didn’t really start volunteering, or “understanding it,” until college, when I helped out with the “Just Say No!” campaign.  I was asked to be the spokesperson and also had to commit to using no drugs or alcohol.  I have never touched a drug in my life and thought that if I was going to preach about using no drugs or alcohol then I had to live by the message as well.  I wanted to stay true to the message and committed to the campaign.

3. How did you get involved in the nonprofit sector?

Walter Payton was one of my idols not only because of how he played on the field, but also how he conducted himself off the field.  Payton gave back so much by volunteering, and I wanted to do the same.  So, when I was approached by the Rooney Family and the Caring Place, and was asked if I would help out by being a spokesperson, I learned all I could about the organization, liked their mission, and got involved.

4. What other organizations do you work with and what are your positions?

I am the Chair of the Board at the Caring Place, but I also help out with friends’ nonprofit causes.  Further, I have helped out with the local and national chapters of the Leukemia Society.

5. Why the Caring Place?

I’ve been involved with other organizations and didn’t think they were run very well, but then I was approached by the Caring Place and liked what I saw and how well it was run.  The Caring Place adheres to its mission and everyone that works there loves what they do and works hard.  I feel blessed to be working with an organization that is so giving and incredible.  The Caring Place is very near and dear to my heart because it helps children grieve for the loss of their loved ones.  I really like what the Caring Place stands for and how it has grown into a grieving center.  I can also personally relate to the mission, because I lost my mother when I was a teen.

6. How long have you been with the Caring Place?

I have been volunteering with the Caring Place for about 22 years now and I have been Chair of the Board for approximately 10 years.

7. What is it like to be the Chair of the Board for the Caring Place?

I relate it to football; the head coach, or Chair, is only as good as the board members and staff who are executing the plays.  For me, I have a team of passionate, intelligent, and experienced hard workers who are all great people to work with.

8. What have you done as a board member to help the Caring Place grow?

I am very please that we have not changed how the Caring Place’s mission and how it’s managed.  The Caring Place is very successful due to mission-focus, passionate staff, and volunteers.  As a board, we have expanded the Caring Place reach by opening our 4th center.  Further, the Board has done a good job of reaching out and making relationships with funeral homes, hospitals, schools, etc., so that anyone who needs help has a better chance of finding out about the Caring Place.

9. How does working in the nonprofit sector relate to playing football for the Steelers?

Football relates to the nonprofit world a lot.  Running a nonprofit is a lot like running a team, in that you need many people, collectively working together, to make it successful.  Still, every individual has a specific job, but it takes a whole team working together to be successful.

10. What advice would you give the next generation of nonprofit leaders as they enter the nonprofit field?

Make sure that the organization you join is committed to: hiring good people; promoting a mission that has an established need in the community; and sound financial processes.

11. What is your favorite quote?

I would probably be a quote from Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  Basically, what I drew from this quote is that if you want to be excellent and great it doesn’t just happen overnight; it is through habit and commitment.

Merril Hoge is someone that I look up to and respect a lot, so for me this interview was exciting and informative.  Please check back soon for my next interview with another nonprofit professional.

We all have bad days.  It’s one of the universally uniting attributes of the human race.   We all take a turn.  And today it was mine.  Here is the story of my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

It got off to a good start: a beautiful morning, an early (EARLY) work-out, a quick shower and leisurely breakfast, and out the door for the Bennett Family Carpool.  As we are heading into the city, I look down at my feet and gasp in horror.  This is what I see:0715090814

Two different shoes.  I mean, completely different.  One is black, one is brown.  One is a flat, one is a wedge.  Granted, I have a lot of my mind with an impending wedding – but, really!?  I can do nothing but laugh, hysterically, for a really long time.  Then I begin the debate, “which would look less ridiculous? My running shoes (which are stashed in the trunk of my car)? Or mismatched sandals?”  The running shoes win.

As we approach the city, we are confronted by an inconceivable volume of traffic.  My dad, though I love him quite dearly, is not a patient man.  He embarks on one of his infamous “shortcuts.”  That tactic lands us in the heart of downtown-morning-rush-hour traffic.  This is when we notice smoke coming from under the hood.  “I told you I smelled anti-freeze!” he said.   Suddenly every alley is a DO NOT ENTER, ONE WAY and seemingly everyone in front of us is trying to make a left-hand turn.  It takes forever to find my beloved Honda a resting spot.  Turns out, there is a hole in the radiator.  That’s a problem!

As I am walking to my office, thinking that it can’t get much worse, I feel something hit my head.  Not a hard something, but a soft something… something like… bird poop?  Yes, a bird, with incredible aim, pooped on my head and down the front of my clothing.  I tried desperately to avoid gagging as I walked into my building, greeted the guards, and smiled sheepishly at my elevator-mates.  The bathroom on the 26th floor couldn’t save me quickly enough!   And it’s not even 9:00 in the morning.

But we can sympathize, commiserate and even laugh, because we have all been there!  Maybe not mismatched shoes, hole in the radiator, bird poop on the head, but everyone has a few good horror stories to share.

DownsidesoftheStaycation

“Well, how much cash should we have?” a client asked during a recent Board meeting. Scott and I explained that an organization should have at least a 3 month operating cash reserve (90 days of cash), and aspire to a 6 month cash reserve (180 days of cash). In keeping with statewide best practices, it was absolutely the right answer.

Still curious, our client inquired, “According to whom should we have 3 months of cash on hand?” And there you have it – the question that kicked off in each of our minds the need to move beyond conventional wisdom and arrive at an empirical explanation as to why nonprofits should maintain at least 90 days of operating reserves. Or should they?

Logically, the next step in our thinking was to obtain a national sample of nonprofit financials to begin our analysis. We turned to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) for our figures, and obtained financials for over 230,000 U.S. nonprofit agencies.

As you may have already guessed by now, our empirical findings call into question whether or not a 3 month cash reserve is a realistic guideline for all nonprofits to follow, indiscriminate of an agency’s size or mission. For starters, out of the 230,759 nonprofit organizations we examined, the median number of days cash on hand was approximately 75 days, with 25% of the upper distribution (top quartile) holding 187 days of cash or more, and the lower distribution (bottom quartile) holding 19 days of cash or less.

Further, an agency’s unique mission and size illustrate why it’s arbitrary to apply the 3 month cash operating reserve to all agencies without taking into account these important characteristics. For example, to ask that a human service organization target a cash reserve of 180 days seems unreasonable given that the median number of days cash on hand for an agency with such a mission is 62. Additionally, we can see that arts organizations should attempt to grow a cash reserve in excess of 90 days since that is the empirical “norm” finding. We encounter similar difficulties when analyzing cash operating reserves by organizational size (operating budget).

Days Cash on Hand by Mission TypeIn the final analysis, we recommend you benchmark your agency relative to organizations of comparable mission, size, and even location to assess your financial health. This is something we can do for you with our statistical data analysis as part of the Bayer Center’s Financial Wellness Package.

Only when you are fully aware of your internal financial performance (trends) and external positioning (benchmarking) can the Board and senior management truly begin to layout a realistic and informed cash reserve policy, one that is both realistic and in line with peer organizations.
Days Cash on Hand by Budget Size

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