First Person Nonprofit

Focusing on the individual.
Real people experiencing and reporting on real life.


Through the Valley of the Shadow of Failure

Cate Steane is the executive director of Family Emergency Shelter Coalition (FESCO), a nonprofit for families between homelessness and a home. With 60 people -- most of them children -- in its care every night, she went through a harrowing organizational crisis and lived to tell her First Person Nonprofit story about it:

Exactly a year ago, I told my board that we were on a path to end the fiscal year with a loss of $137,115, or 11% of the budget. Cuts in our government contracts for services had been brutal; foundations were retrenching in response to their investment losses, and individual donors were bowled over by the recession. Not good news, but we had some reserves and we would somehow muddle through.

But two months later . . .

A Tiger Escaped Today . . . and I'm on the Zoo Board

It made international headlines: tiger attacks three visitors and kills one after escaping her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo. What was it like to be on the Zoo board at that time? We are grateful to our friend for sharing his First Person Nonprofit experience and what he learned about boards:

How did you first hear about the attack?

It was Christmas night. It happened about 5:00 pm on Christmas Day. I was at home and it came across in an email about 5:30. Everyone started exchanging messages. My first reaction was sadness, deep sadness . . .

From Black Panther to Nonprofit CFO

Norma Mtume is my hero. As a college student she joined the Black Panther Party and went on to serve as director of the Alprentice Bunchy Carter and the George Jackson People's Free Medical Clinics. She also co-founded a nonprofit in a broken-down trailer in Los Angeles -- SHIELDS for Families -- and as CFO/COO for 24 years helped grow it into a $28 million, multi-service nonprofit rooted in an African American and Latino community of South Los Angeles. We are very lucky that she has shared her inspiring history and story with all of us:

Norma, how did you wind your way towards becoming a nonprofit CFO?

Well, just a week after I graduated from high school I started at Cal State LA as a physical education major with a minor in mathematics, and was working on a teaching credential. As a South Central L.A. girl, I was going to pull myself up by my bootstraps, and didn't realize until later that I didn't have any boots! I attended classes there for two years before I dropped out, got married and had kids, and, later, decided I wanted to be a revolutionary . . .

Crawling Out of the Psychological Depths

Most of us have had moments of despair. Marilyn Neece very generously shares her story with us:

It's hard to say this out loud. I lost my edge. I went from sharp-minded and insightful consultant to a tired and nearly burnt out executive director in just three short years.
I know the board is wondering if I'm all right. It's humiliating. They hired me to make the great turnaround. We started with such energy and focus. But then . . . life is very different from those case studies in Harvard Business Review.

It started out great

My organization is a small mental health counseling center that was founded 35 years ago by several churches. It's a neighborhood place. We still have Christian counseling for those who want it, but we are mainly secular, and we offer counseling in a number of languages.

I've been a successful executive director in the past. I know about boards, strategic plans. I was . . .

Following a Founder or Long-Timer Requires a Hard Head

When Blue Avocado asked for potential interviewees who had followed a founder or a long-time executive, we didn't expect 58 people to respond. We interviewed 18 executive directors who followed founders, and another 10 who followed long-time execs. Last issue's First Person Nonprofit and this article are also ramp-ups to the national survey of nonprofit leaders in similar positions. CompassPoint Nonprofit Services has conducted a study of such executives among grantees of the Packard Foundation, with the data so interesting that we are pleased to partner with them on the expansion of the study to a national audience. Nonprofit executives: please! Click here to take the survey!

If founding a nonprofit takes strong self-confidence and a soaring vision, following such a leader takes hard-headed management skills and just plain hard work, according to 28 "followers" -- let's call them "successors" because they succeeded long-timers. They work at organizations that range from 2 to 300 staff.

Here's a story that combines several themes: "I replaced the founder of 35 years. Plus, she was my mother! I'll have been in this job for 10 years come July, and nine of them have been a financial struggle. I'd be putting on this warrior clothing to go out and battle and find money and keep this vision solid. And then my mother would come in and say . . .

I Followed A Founder: a First Person Nonprofit Tale

Too often the focus on nonprofit executive transitions is about the departing executive. We're in the middle of interviewing 58 executives who followed founders or long-time leaders. Here's just one of their stories; we'll call her "Amanda":

The job was a dream come true. I had become executive director of a organization where my love and loyalty had lain for years. I had started out there as a volunteer there right out of college. After working at other nonprofits I had come back to this organization -- I'll call it CW -- as an employee, and had risen to the job of program director.

Less than a year after I became the executive director, the co-founders -- who had never fully left the picture -- fired me. They had brought in a consultant to "coach" me, and they hired him as the new ED. A year after that this wonderful organization crashed and burned.

This is my story:

First Person Nonprofit: A Day in the Life of a Major Gifts Officer

So exactly how do you lead someone up to a $1 million ask? The director of major gifts at a large regional environmental organization agreed to tell us everything . . . as long as we didn't reveal her name or organization.

And best of all: post your questions to her in the Comments section and she'll answer them there at the end of the week!

Major gifts aren't the right strategy for every organization, but we can still appreciate how this fundraiser talks about her job:

Q: Can you walk us through a major gift ask?

A: Well, here's an example. We sent our board members a list of new members, and one of them knew one of the people on the list, although not very well at all. But he knew that this person had a large capacity to give. So he sent that person an email saying

In the Swirling Dust of Change, Life Still Goes On for an ED

It just makes sense that the founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling would tell his own story in a remarkably compelling way. Here's Joe Lambert with a thoughtful First Person Nonprofit account of how organizational problems can bring out the creativity and best in people and how, through it all, life goes on, though it's your choice how to embrace its everchanging moods:

My friend Daniel recently shared this Margaret Atwood quote:

"When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story . . .

A Gay Activist is Conflicted about the Marriage Equality Campaign

What if you got a chance to chat over coffee with a deeply experienced, witty, and smart gay leader about the movement for marriage equality? He might say something you haven't seen elsewhere about the campaign. Listen in on a conversation with Matt Foreman (left, with Francisco De Leon to right):

Matt, isn't the Freedom to Marry movement a huge, unexpected, and unqualified success?

Well, yes. But frankly, I'm also a little conflicted about the issue. Fifteen years ago, when activists started pushing marriage equality in New York and I was lobbying for pro-gay legislation, I said "Folks, stay the hell out of Albany -- we can't even get a hate crimes bill passed because it would include the dreaded words 'sexual orientation' and you want us to put marriage on the table? No way, no how!"

I was convinced that marriage would have stalled and derailed . . .

Stuck Between a Financial Crisis Wrought by the Founder and a Hard Place

A deputy director describes the crisis that befell her organization as the founding executive director left, how that organization almost closed down, and what she's learned from it for her new job as an executive director in another state and another field.

When I started with this Brooklyn organization as the deputy director, there was an understanding that the executive director, who had been there 20+ years, was going to retire in 3 to 5 years. She was the founder. The organization was trying to be thoughtful about the founder leaving, trying to be proactive.

We went through a major strategic planning process, worked on executive transition, and brought in a transition consultant. We did all the right things: we had the right committees and the ED announced her retirement fully a year ahead of time.

I didn't see any problems coming

They hired someone, but then after this candidate accepted the job, she pulled out at the last minute.

It was then the outgoing director began acting out.

We were just at the end . . .