CEO Corner: Michael Clark, NPCC

Since 2005, Michael Clark has led the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York, which represents approximately 1,500 member nonprofits. His previous work includes 19 years as the head of Citizens Committee for New York City, as well as teaching positions at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn College and Columbia University. He plans to step down as executive director of NPCC in October. Sharon Stapel is slated to take over. 

The following has been edited for space and clarity.

NYN: You’re stepping down from your leadership position at NPCC, which you have held for quite some time. What was your initial inspiration for getting into the nonprofit world, and what have you seen as the biggest changes in the sector over the course of your career?

MC: I came up out of the social change movements of the 1960s and 1970s. I organized migrant workers in Oklahoma. I was, at Cornell University and at the University of Tennessee before that, involved in civil rights issues. I taught at a school that was 75 miles north of where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, so it was hard not to get involved in civil rights work in Tennessee in those years and, for that matter, probably today. Those are the issues that moved me like a lot of people my age in those days. 

And then I began to get involved in some actual nonprofit organizations that were working on some of those issues. A notable one was something called the Health Policy Advisory Center, which was a shop that put out an advocacy magazine that covered health politics in New York City. I did a certain amount of muckraking, and also did a certain amount of direct advocacy trying to change the city’s health policies in what we defined as a progressive direction. That is sort of my inspiration.

Before that, I guess you could say I was inspired to a substantial degree by Pope John XXIII. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools, and I went to high school in the era of Pope John XXIII, who was my generation’s version of Pope Francis, a sort of social change, social progressive type pope. So I thought this was what any moral individual ought to be doing in those days, and so did lots of other people my age. It is not an accident that all those social movements just came popping up. 

So I got inspired from that end, and then as I got into working on some of those issues, and deeper into what it would take to create institutional change, and to move things forward in a more lasting way, I got more and more interested in nonprofit organizations. 

NYN: The NPCC is sort of a meta-nonprofit, and really gets to experience both sides of operating and serving nonprofits. Could you give us an overview of what the Coordinating Committee does?

MC: We do three basic things. We have a big government-relations committee that tracks all the potential regulations and other laws that affect the way nonprofits operate. We try to not only keep our own performance on track, so that nonprofits are accountable, transparent and effective, but we also run workshops and do a lot of education work for nonprofit organizations so that they are performing in ways that are admirable and appropriate. 

Second of all, we do a lot of what is called “capacity building.” It’s one of my least favorite terms, but it really comes down to helping nonprofits perform better—help the managers of nonprofits manage better, help the board members do a better job of governing. And, at a bit more of a granular level, we make sure that nonprofits are achieving results, not just putting some big puffy mission statement on a wall and then doing whatever they feel like, so that they have some accountability there for the results of their work. 

And then the third thing we do is we help nonprofits save money. We’re in the business of negotiating discounts on a lot of things we have. I think at the moment we have 15 discount programs for our members. We have a membership dues structure, which is a sliding scale where the bottom level is $35 per year and the top level is $1,500 for all different size budgets of nonprofits. There are organizations that have an annual budget of $5,000 and organizations that have an annual budget of $30 million to $40 million, so there is a huge range of types and our dues structure mirrors that. 

For those dues-paying members, we provide about 50 to 60 workshops every year, but we also provide all these discounts that allow them to save money on the business basics for nonprofits—everything from directors and officers insurance to the office supplies and various kinds of other things that nonprofits have to have to do their business. 

NYN: I know that a big part of what the Coordinating Committee does, in partnership with the New York Community Trust, is the Nonprofit Excellence Awards. Can you talk about the awards generally, and also how you distill and package so much information about best practices? 

MC: If you are busy running a nonprofit—and you generally are very busy—then you just do not have the time to do endless research. You need an organization like NPCC to be your sort of repository, your portal into all of that. 

We created a number of things. We do about 60 workshops for our members every year, but the Nonprofit Excellence Awards program is actually our finest hour. We looked at all the standards of excellence programs, and the principles and practices programs of all those other associations around the country that set some certification floor. 

Instead of setting a floor, we decided to be aspirational. We want to see what excellently managed nonprofits look like, because we think you learn more from excellence than you do from adequacy. So we began to study that question of what does exceptional leadership look like in eight key areas, such as tracking the results of your work at the program level. 

But there are a lot of other issues that people may not think about from a distance that are quite important: Does the board function well? Does it get along well with the executive director and do its appointed job of overseeing some parts of what the executive director and staff do? Does it manage its finances wisely? 

We work on communications. Nonprofits today have to have a very robust communications agenda, both for outgoing and incoming communications, as well as social media. We look at human resources practices. Nonprofits, of all organizations, should be treating their employees and volunteers in admirable and exemplary ways. 

In each of these areas we have basically been scanning the heavens around the country. The New York Community Trust became our title sponsor for this program about six years ago, and we’re very happy to have them, because they are the largest grant-making foundation in town to New York City nonprofits and New York City-area nonprofits. They have the same problem—they have to figure out what are the right criteria for excellence. So they joined us, and we have a number of other foundations that support the program. 

 

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