Learning from Leaders

Learning from Leaders

June 23, 2015

As critical service providers for the state, New York nonprofit leaders are often focused on helping others, while issues like the internal structure of their organizations, risk management, insurance and data collection often get shelved. New York Nonprofit Media (NYN) decided to help the leaders who are always helping others by convening industry experts to offer insight on how to best run a nonprofit organization at its inaugural Nonprofit Operations Conference (OPCON) – NYN’s first event since its relaunch.

On June 2, NYN gathered over 250 nonprofit leaders, government officials, academics and service providers at Nonprofit OPCON: Streamlining Operations for Nonprofits. The full-day conference featured over 20 panelists, including Gov. Cuomo’s InterAgency Coordinator for Nonprofit Services Fran Barrett  and NYC Service’s Chief Service Officer Paula Gavin who keynoted the event.  The conference featured discussions that ranged from financial strategies to technology tips to real estate insights.

“Our goal at NYN is to serve those who serve,” said Publisher Lissa Blake. “The overwhelming response and feedback we received in response to OPCON shows just how needed these events are for the nonprofit industry and NYN is proud to be able to fill this void.”

Pressures, Management and Leadership

Jack Krauskopf, Director of the Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management at Baruch College, led the first panel of the conference with a spirited discussion that focused on the broad challenges that nonprofit leaders face in the current environment. 

One panelist, Jeremy Kohomban, President and CEO of The Children’s Village, pinpointed archaic regulations as the biggest obstacle facing his organization. 

“The big challenge that all of us face is that the regulatory environment is stuck in the 1970s,” Kohomban said. “We work in an environment that’s highly regulated, that’s costly, that’s redundant, that’s not focused, and that talks a lot about outcomes, but does not incentivize outcomes financially or otherwise.”

Fellow panelist Nancy Wackstein, Executive Director of United Neighborhood Houses, enumerated further challenges she has encountered during her work with human services nonprofits. 

“One issue is that government contracts—which fund a lot of the services that (nonprofits) provide—don’t fully fund the cost of delivering services, and certainly don’t fund the cost of delivering quality services,” she explained.

“A second issue is with philanthropy: Foundations are reluctant to provide support for general operating costs,” Wackstein continued. “It’s kind of an irony that everyone demands excellence and accountability and metrics from nonprofits, but nobody wants to pay for it. … There’s a real mismatch between agency priorities and what agencies really need.”

The Government Viewpoint

On hand to frame the discussion from a statewide perspective was Fran Barrett, Nonprofit Services Coordinator for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Barrett, who has a long history in the nonprofit sector as Founder and Executive Director of Community Resource Exchange, described her unique ability to advocate on behalf of the sector from within the Cuomo administration.

“The task at hand—which is rather timely—is trying to get contracts to pay on time,” she said. “The Governor said to me when he hired me, ‘Get the contracts paid on time.’ It’s three years later, and I’m sure many of you are still not being paid on time, but we can report progress on that front.”

In light of the concerns raised in the previous panel, Barrett sought to express solidarity with the conference attendees. 

“At the highest levels of state government, the recognition of the issues raised today is there,” she explained. “The reality is moving government itself—the people working in agencies, the people writing the RFPs, the people actually monitoring your contract. There is a huge gap between where I am and where they are.” 

Barrett expressed a willingness to have her feet held to the fire. With the ink barely dry on state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s report showing that 77 percent of government contracts were late in 2014, Barrett conceded that much work remained to be done, and called on attendees to drive her to action. 

“I want you to make me make these changes,” Barrett said.

Managing Risk, Overhead and Failure

Following Barrett’s remarks, Gordon Campbell, Professor of Practice at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, led a panel inspired by the widely discussed fallout from FEGS’ bankruptcy, exploring the delicate relationship between executives of nonprofits and their boards, and the difficult, yet necessary, business of making nonprofits more profitable. 

Neil Pollack, CEO and Executive Director of the Anderson Center for Autism, advocated approaching nonprofit management from a business perspective, citing the center’s successful turnaround. 

“When I looked at Anderson, I did not look at it as a social service,” Pollack said. “I looked at it as a place of business that would be providing supports for people just like any retail establishment. … As we evolved, we became a very lean, streamlined operation where we keep our management to 10 percent of our operation. That means 90 cents on the dollar goes to programs.” 

However, Wayne Ho, Chief Program and Policy Officer for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, pushed back on philosophical grounds, arguing that a for-profit mentality raises fundamental questions about nonprofit organizations’ role in society.   

“I think it’s easy to attack FEGS because it is the most common story right now, but there is a nonprofit industry, and I would argue that a nonprofit that sees itself as a business profits from poverty, racism, discrimination and lack of opportunity,” Ho said. “We often say that we want to work ourselves out of jobs, but I would argue that in many ways, there’s a lot of perpetuation of inequality in society because government likes funding direct services as opposed to taking care of root causes, and there are so many nonprofits that take government funding and simply perpetuate this.” 

Reporting Outcome, Not Output

An afternoon panel, “Efficiently Reporting Outcome Instead of Output,” revisited the challenges nonprofits face in measuring and reporting their progress, taking into consideration the pressures and expectations of foundations and government agencies. 

One panelist, Michael Clark, president of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York, posited that nonprofits often lose sight of the most important reason to optimize their measurement capabilities: to harness data for self-improvement. 

“The real reason to do it is to up your own game, it’s to improve the way you run your own organization,” he said. “We see outcomes primarily as a management tool.” 

Katie Leonberger, president and CEO of Community Resource Exchange, joined Clark in emphasizing the importance of effectively using data. 

“For me, thinking about outcomes and outputs is understanding if you’re achieving the change that you hope to achieve in the world, and in the case of outputs, if you’re on track to achieving that change,” Leonberger said. 

However, the panelists were also eager to pinpoint some of the biggest obstacles nonprofits face in outcomes measurement.

Peter York, Founder and CEO of Algorhythm, claimed there is a disconnect between the measurements funders want and those that accurately capture the experience of clients. 

“A big barrier is that the proxy buyers—which are the charitable givers, donors and funders—are getting to choose the metrics, not the beneficiaries,” York said. 

Bonnie Stone, president and CEO of Women In Need, agreed, saying funders should rethink the all-too-common approach of coveting uniqueness instead of efficacy. 

“There’s a disease on the funder side to be unique, special, clever and different,” she said. “I have thousands of people [who are] stuck in the same place, looking for programs and improvement, but on the grant-maker side, there is an incredible urge to find the magic pill.”

York argued that the entire industry—nonprofits and funders alike—could benefit by harnessing the constant influx of research from the academic community.

“There are a lot of researchers who are learning, studying, and doing massive-scale evaluation work, where we’re learning things like: When parents read to their children three times a week, they are statistically significantly more likely to be ready for kindergarten,” York said.

York advocated using these correlative and sometimes causal phenomena to craft benchmarks, using the example of kindergarten preparedness to draw a crucial distinction. 

“We should be leveraging those studies rather than trying to hold your program accountable to school readiness,” York said. “You’re accountable if you’re a program that’s trying to help parents read to their children every day, and you can measure if the parents are, in fact, reading to their children more. That’s your contribution.”


To view the full conference video, visit www.NYNmedia.com/events. Stay tuned for information about NYN’s Marketing Conference!

Jeff Stein