To kick off its accelerated, five-day version of Executive Director Academy, JVA convened a group of the best and brightest local nonprofit leaders to discuss timely nonprofit issues. The Genius Bar, as we like to call it, was made up of some of our favorite movers and shakers—Nita Gonzales, president and CEO of Escuela Tlatelolco, Grant Jones, executive director for the Center for African-American Health, Christiano Sosa, program officer at The Denver Foundation, Merrick Weaver, executive director of Partnerships for Healthy Communities and Laura Gabbay, executive director of Project Wise.
The Genius Bar panelists were asked a variety of questions, ranging from how the recession had affected nonprofits to tips for building relationships with funders. Keep reading to hear what they had to say.
To kick off the Genius Bar, panelists were asked if the recession and its lingering effects has lead to a “new normal” for nonprofits. Both Nita and Grant said that they didn’t feel that the term “new normal” really applied to their organizations as those that work with underserved populations have always had to struggle to stay afloat. Nita stressed the constant need to make sure that Escuela’s “base knows what we are doing and that we are involved in advocacy.” Grant pointed out the need to keep a laser-focus on your mission at the same time that you stay on top of current events, pointing out that he recently attended an event at the White House to learn more about health policy that could affect his organization. Similar to Grant, Laura talked about the need to stay mission-focused in order to fundraise in the “new normal,” saying that organizations need to be “brave” in making the ask and that the wealthy generally realize that the economy is cyclical.
Merrick put a positive spin on the “new normal,” pointing out initiatives, such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s pregnancy and obesity prevention initiatives that will benefit many nonprofits working toward similar goals.
While Christiano pointed out that the recession of the early 1980s lead to about 20 percent of local nonprofits closing their doors, and that the fate might not be avoidable in this recession, he discussed some positives that may come out of the current recession, such as increased transparency.
The panelists also shared some thoughts on approaching foundations, with Grant stressing the importance of building relationships with funders that you are not seeking funding from, saying, “have a cup of coffee or a glass of Merlot” with the funder and share your work with them. Just because they may not be a potential funder does not mean that they won’t share your work with a funder who is a better fit: “Program officers talk about interesting and passionate people they have met in the community.”
Merrick talked about the importance of goal-setting in your approach to seeking out new funding and building relationships with funders, saying, “Make a list of 10 people, they may be other executive directors and funders where you want to build relationships. Be strategic. It’s an investment to get to know people.”
Laura, making a point that JVA often stresses in its fundraising trainings, said to make sure you engage your board by asking them to examine their own networks and see who they know at foundations or in the community. Similarly, Christiano pointed out the need for a team approach, saying, “Your fundraising is only as strong as your team. The more people who are asking, the more success you are going to have. It can be a lonely world as an executive director unless you have that team. The average shelf life of an executive director is three years. If relationships are only on you, then your organization will suffer.”