Running a nonprofit brought its own unique challenges even before the pandemic struck. Kim O’Brien, executive director of the Nonprofit Leadership Initiative, says in the face of in-person event cancellations, organizations must now look to new ways to share their message and raise funds, all while continuing their missions.
The NPLI is there to help. The organization, which runs under the umbrella of the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, works with nonprofit leaders and boards to build stronger organizations. Its areas of focus include leadership and board effectiveness and recruitment. O’Brien talked with Insight about the importance of collaboration, recruiting a strong board of directors and telling a compelling story whenit comes to raising funds.
Insight: How and why did the organization get started?
Kim O’Brien: Conversations go back to 2006 at the Community Foundation with some of their funders saying, we would like to build stronger nonprofits; we would like to build stronger nonprofit leaders. The Community Foundation was approached with, how can you help that happen? In 2014, they found a resource called NonprofitNext that offers a dropdown of tips, tools and templates for nonprofits.
Two years into it, the funders kept saying, that’s not enough; we need more. They came up with the programming portals that we have right now (Leadership Institute, Board Effectiveness, Board Connect and NonprofitNext Fox Cities). Community First Credit Union, Thrivent Financial, the United Way and the Community Foundation each said (they would) pledge money for three years to get this up and running.
What kinds of challenges and circumstances are unique to nonprofit leaders?
Part of it is that you have to do the fundraising. Any business has to do a service, and that’s not different in how you get your revenue, but nonprofits have the ability to have a revenue stream that is donations and grants. The challenge comes when the leaders, and board members as well, are not treating it as a business. We’re running a business here, with a big heart, but we’re running a business.
A lot of businesses that I know, there are dollars in there for professional development, but I don’t think nonprofits think about that. You want this person as an executive director to be all things because most of them that we work with don’t have a CFO. They don’t have a CIO. They have one person who does … all of the things that need to get done, and they’re supposed to be experts in all of it.
It’s putting the dollars into professional development and I think also into infrastructure. As we’ve learned through COVID, if you don’t have the right technology, you may need to close your doors. The ones that we worked with that were able to just switch on a dime were the ones that had already put the money into infrastructure. I’ll say this in my training sometimes to the board members. If any of you have computer problems, do you get to just go and find a 10-year-old donated computer or do you get to go buy a new one? Why do you expect less of the nonprofit that you’re on the board of than what you put up with within your work environment?
Talk about the importance of boards and recruiting the right board members.
You need (all types of people) to join a board. Recruiting board members is another one of our portals. We’re working on a new rollout of our BoardConnect software, which will be easier for people to manage. Anyone in the community can look to see what nonprofit opportunities are available. We always like to tell people, start on a committee first. You don’t want to get on a board, be married to that role for one to two years and then find out what that’s like.
We’re working with nonprofits on how to sell themselves and what their needs are — things like lay out job descriptions for board members. A lot of board members will say, I can be on your board, but I don’t like to fundraise. That’s your No. 1 job. That means advocating too. It doesn’t mean you need to pick up the phone and call people for money, but you need to talk about what you do. I would like your LinkedIn profile to say that you’re on this board. You need to give financially.
We start with, you have to find your passion. I don’t want someone on our board that’s not passionate about the work we do, just to check a box. We meet with people quite often, one on one, to tell them they’ll add so much value, they don’t even realize. I need more of the 23-year-olds right out of college as well who have a different perspective.
How does the Leadership Institute program foster collaboration among participants?
It’s about sharing ideas and your experience because each module is topical. One is on finance. One is on human resources. Some people don’t have any staff. Some have maybe four staff members, and some have maybe 25 to 40. We just assume that everybody has that infrastructure, and they don’t. We want to provide them with as many resources for infrastructure that we can.
What happens organically in the room is, people will say, “We used this one form and it really worked.” Everybody shares that way. Most people say when they get into a new executive director role that they feel like they’re an island. This offers an opportunity to share your pain and your successes and you can share with others what worked and what didn’t work.
What are nonprofits seeing in terms of giving throughout the pandemic?
Since March, giving has been up 20 percent. It goes back to people are being asked to give more often. There are certainly people who still have their full-time jobs, still making their same income. That’s part of our message: You need to ask.
If (people) were passionate about giving $10 a month before to any one of their favorite charities, and the charity sent the message saying, we’re pivoting, we’re seeing more of a need because unemployment is so high. That’s going to pull on heartstrings and increase donations. I’m not saying that will continue forever. But it’s an opportunity for nonprofits to be able to tell their stories in a different way to gain new donors who didn’t know they were there or increase other donations they had. It’s important to tell your story and be an advocate for yourself.