On May 19, JVA Consulting convened a panel of local nonprofit experts in Denver for the opening session of its fourth Executive Director Academy. Panel members were Alyssa Kopf of Community Shares, Mary Hanewall of the Colorado “I have a Dream” Foundation, Jamie Van Leeuwen of Denver’s Road Home and Lorez Meinhold of the Colorado Health Foundation.
Topics covered ranged from collaboration, fundraising, advocacy and trends in the sector. The group’s insight for each topic follows.
The panel was asked: How do you ensure that partnerships and collaborations don’t steer your organization down the wrong path?
All of the panel members stressed the need for collaboration, but with some parameters. Van Leeuwan said despite what might seem like the added time of bringing collaborators to the table, it’s always better to collaborate. Although a project or decision may take you a few weeks longer in the end, “through genuine, hardworking collaborations, you do create sustainability in and of itself.”
Meinhold, speaking from experience in her position as senior program officer at the Colorado Health Foundation, said showing evidence of real collaboration is key in securing funding. “When you are a coalition, you get more done,” she said. “Effective partnerships is what government, funders look for.”
But she also added that as part of a collaboration, you have to be willing to share in the successes and failures. Meinhold also stressed that it’s OK, and often necessary, to put an expiration date on the partnership—hammer out with partners/collaborators what the partnership’s purpose is, and how long it will last.
The panel was asked about the changing role of nonprofit boards. Hanewall stressed that the idea of needing heavyweights on your board for it to be effective was outdated.
“You cannot attract people to a product that is broken,” she said, meaning that you will not attract good board members to an organization that is not healthy. She also said it is the executive director’s responsibility to get to know board members as individuals by taking the time to meet with them one-on-one and figure out what they need to be successful. Quickly getting new board members engaged is key, Hanewall said. “If board members aren’t doing something within four to six months, you’ve lost them.”
Kopf stressed the need for diversity on boards and also pointed out that there will soon be a generational shift on boards as boomers begin to be replaced by millenials.
Meinhold added that boards need to shift to keep up with changes in the organization. She also cautioned against the tendency of some executive directors to look to friends to fill holes in the board. It may sometimes be the easy thing to do, but that doesn’t always mean it’s right for the organization.
The panel was asked: How do generational differences affect fundraising?
Kopf said the days of nonprofits “looking for another John Elway”—a large donor to keep their organization afloat—are over. At Colorado Shares, where Kopf is the CEO, it tries to make donating financially accessible, and incremental, giving donors options such as having monthly donations taken out of their paychecks $10 at a time. Kopf also mentioned the growing importance of social marketing and the ability it gives nonprofits to reach out to the younger generation with very little effort. Additionally, by getting many of your donations in small amounts, you can keep your fundraising grassroots and ensure that you do no have to play to the whims of several large donors. With a long list of small donors, an organization can stay nimble.
Hanewall said her organization is also trying to find ways to attract millennial donors and that it is trying to attract more small donations.
Van Leeuwan agreed that millenials give in different way than the boomer generation, saying that millenials do not give in as targeted a way as the boomer generation does—they do not give to the same organizations over and over. Instead of looking at a person for how much he or she is going to give, Van Leeuwan suggested that groups start to look at how to engage donors in different ways.
Meinhold added that fundraising is all about relationships, and reminded the audience that they should not “look at people as checkbooks. What do people need, and what do you need from them?” According to Meinhold, donors need you just as much as you need them.
Kopf also suggested looking at what motivates people. Boomers are motivated by praise and recognition, while millenials want to feel that they are changing the world. Technology has radically changed the peer-to-peer ask, which up until recently was the preferred way for a nonprofit to solicit donations.
Trends in the Sector
The influx of social marketing tools also came up again when participants were asked to identify trends in the nonprofit sector. Kopf said many nonprofits don’t yet understand these changes and need to start learning more about how to incorporate social media into their overall branding strategy. She made the observation that the nonprofit sector is not set up to encourage innovation, but that nonprofits really need to consider new ideas such as L3C (low-profit, limited-liability corporations, a hybrid of a nonprofit and for-profit company).
Hanewall and Meinhold identified the changing role of the executive leader as a trend. Hanewall said “it’s all about leadership, but it’s not about the ED,” adding that the day-to-day, “not sexy” issues of how the organization is running are what should be the most important duty of the executive director. She said creating an environment where your “staff can soar” is also paramount to success. Meinhold said nonprofit leaders need to think about “who is going to replace you?” He stressed that it is important that the executive director does not become more well-known than the organization itself.
Van Leeuwan added that in this economic downturn, nonprofits will become more resource-driven, saying that in order to be sustainable, nonprofits must maintain relationships with funders and build solid partnerships.