8 Things I Wish I Had Known . . .
. . . before becoming executive director of a nonprofit.
July 1 marks my four-year anniversary as executive director of Care Ring.
It’s been a thrilling run, mostly cheerful, sometimes heartbreaking, full of equal doses of optimism and anxiety.
We’ve been growing these last few years, doubling our employees (20 to more than 40 today), enhancing our annual budget (from $2 million four years ago to $3.5 million in our upcoming fiscal year), increasing our impact (going from 4 nurse home visitors to very soon 10), and measurably improving more lives (including hundreds of Charlotteans now under our care in a rapidly expanding chronic disease management program).
I am wired for growth, and have enjoyed seeing us start to realize our potential. I recall a mentor, Novant CEO Carl Armato, once remarking that if you aren’t growing you are dying. (I will be happy to share with Carl next time I see him that Care Ring is definitely full of life!)
Seeing the early returns from the hard work of the staff and the confidence of the board in our recent growth is gratifying.
But as much as I would like to say I could see this coming all along, that I had a perfectly calibrated vision for the future and our place in it, the truth is I didn’t come into this with the skills and insights in place to make this happen.
I had to learn it, and re-learn it, every day.
I still do.
I had to figure my way forward from the beginning, and still four years later feel very much like a rookie every day (nod to the remarkable Andi Stevenson for her recent excellent TedXCharlotte talk on the importance of experiencing life with the eyes and openness of a rookie).
I came into this role with a variety of experiences that I (and presumably the board that hired me) assumed would serve well in this role, including a background in fundraising, grantmaking, and an appreciation of how public policy impacts individuals with limited resources.
Looking back now, there are countless things I wish I had known about leading this agency before jumping into this adventure. Here are eight lessons I have learned during these first few years of running Care Ring, observations that I wish I had known more about when I first started, and that I think are applicable to anyone stepping in to lead a nonprofit agency:
1. Know your agency DNA
Quickly internalize how the agency got to where it is – who were its trailblazers and community life changers? For Care Ring, all roads lead to its founder, a visionary nurse, Maribelle Connerat, who more than 60 years ago embarked on a mission to provide excellent, dignified, preventative, accessible and affordable care to ALL who needed it, regardless of their situation.
2. Know yourself
I have developed a pretty good eye for many of the emerging issues in the nonprofit world, and yet, even four years in, not a week goes by that I am not confronted with and often bewildered by some new HR ruling, tax implication, financing wrinkle, promising health care intervention or some other issue that lands on my desk for a decision. To succeed I have to be surrounded by excellence – highly capable individuals with unique skills must be at my side, as there are large gaps in knowledge and experience where I will have to lean on teammates for assistance. I also have to work to improve my blind spots, and must take every opportunity to enhance skills and improve my leadership. (The Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Leadership Academy, which we were fortunate to participate in last year, is just the kind of opportunity executive directors should embrace when presented with a chance to participate.)
3. Chief Storyteller
Perhaps the most important role of an executive director is serving as chief storyteller, primary spokesperson, the essential voice describing the agency and its value. Board members are excellent at extending the agency’s message to the community, and staff can help in countless ways to share the good news about your work, but the executive director is THE voice, and you must get your pitch down and get your best suit cleaned, and be ready each day to testify. You are on call, 24-7, and when something big breaks, good or bad, you will be the one talking. So get ready.
4. To solve the problem you have to understand the problem
Care Ring is in the business of healing the sick. We do this, caring for thousands of our neighbors in need every year. But our even bigger job is to help make Charlotte great for everybody, regardless of their station in life. We do our work through health and wellness services to those with limited resources. We provide health care to those who are hurting at our shop uptown, in one of the clinics of one of the hundreds of doctors and dentists who give their time and talent to volunteer with us, or in the home of a young mother just starting her family. We are a health care agency, but the real problem we are trying to solve is poverty and the distressing lack of economic mobility for those with limited resources in our community. This causes far too many of our neighbors to live unhealthy lives, in unhealthy environments, so they need groups like Care Ring to be their advocate, provider, and place for hope.
5. In the nonprofit world, never go it alone.
Nonprofits play an essential role in neighborhood building and creating vibrant places – they are a community’s connective tissue, linking folks who care to problem solving opportunities. Nonprofits play an important role --- but to do our work we have to partner with others to achieve lasting success. We rely on public funding and public agencies to accomplish our goals. Private philanthropy is a primary fuel our business needs to hum. We rely on nonprofit partners across the spectrum of services – housing, after school programming, children’s rights and advocacy, food security, and so much more – to do any of our work. We cannot achieve anything by ourselves. We can make miracles happen when we work in partnership with others.
6. Just like your personal investment portfolio, relentlessly, aggressively DIVERSIFY your funding
Just like the danger of putting all of your investments in a single stock, nonprofits can become overly dependent – and potentially at great risk – if they rely too heavily on a single source for funding. When I first arrived, our nurse home visiting program was funded almost entirely by a single, incredibly generous, long-term commitment from a highly-respected major private donor. We had to find multiple, new significant sources of support to sustain and grow this remarkable intervention. Today the private donor represents less than half of the support for this program, as multiple alternative sources (the United Way, Mecklenburg County, Smart Start, the State of North Carolina and many others) have stepped forward to help us diversify our funding sources and no longer rely solely on a single very benevolent donor.
7. Nonprofit ≠ Non-business
Some may envision day-to-day life in a nonprofit as easy going and immune to changes in the market. Lacking the rewards (and penalties) of a private business having to slug it out with competitors every day, some may imagine a stress-free nonprofit life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nonprofits do not exist to make a profit or please shareholders, but every nonprofit is a business, and to be successful they have to be eternally aware of their environment and constantly assess their business plans and strategies for the near and long term. Health care in particular – with ever evolving rules for Medicaid and dramatic changes in health care delivery and care management as just a few examples – requires savvy analysis of opportunities and threats to operations.
8. Bang your drum…twice as hard and every chance you get
Nonprofits can do extraordinary things to change lives, improve the environment, make communities better. We are dreamers and believers in a better world. And yet almost all nonprofits are seriously hamstrung in sharing their amazing stories with the public. Lacking hefty marketing budgets and running shoe-string, pick-up-that-paperclip-cause-we-don’t-have-money-for-another-one operations, nonprofits are often greatly challenged in getting their message out to the folks that so desperately need to learn about their power. Donors and potential donors need to hear about the cool, amazing, jaw-dropping stuff nonprofits do. Nonprofits can’t just assume folks will figure out our awesomeness through some magical fairy dust. We have to tell them, and tell them again, and tell them in new and emerging ways how we are doing remarkable work. And we have to do this at the risk of looking like we are overly patting ourselves on our back. We’ve got to take advantage of social media and any other free media to get our mission message out to as many folks as possible. As an example, I started this blog after a year as executive director, and in the last three years it has attracted over 110,000 visitors interested in learning about how we are improving health and well-being for those with limited resources in Charlotte. This is a start, but I need to do more to get the Care Ring message of empowerment and hope for those with limited resources out to more people.
So there is much I didn’t realize I was jumping into four years ago – including leading-edge board and staff management practices, how to improve the budgeting process, the critical importance of building peer support groups, and much more. Perhaps the most important thing I didn’t realize is that while many days will be tough, and most days will be exhausting, every day will be meaningful.
It is a blessing and great privilege to do this work serving others.
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