Chairman's Corner

Chairman’s Corner: October 2004

October 08, 2004

Finding the Right Fit

by Mario Morino, Co-founder of VPP

I’ve come across a number of CEOs, business executives, and budding entrepreneurs who tell me that they’d like to get more involved with nonprofits but don’t have the time or really know how best to engage in what represents a new and different terrain for them. These folks are often deluged with requests for their time and money—from sponsoring galas to supporting causes their close friends support. What adds to this frustration is the sense that the ask is sometimes a shallow one; they are approached to go on boards, their advice is sought, their name is wanted for a host committee, and a score of other reasons, with the real purpose being to get at their wallets. I urge them to look past what is an essential dance most nonprofit leaders are forced to do to get critical funding and instead find something they can really relate to, that will align to the time they can make available, and that will be effective and meaningful. After all, balancing the priorities of their own family and professional responsibilities, particularly executive roles requiring significant travel, makes engagement in local efforts even more daunting. But, the right selection can add a lot to the person’s life, family, and career.

Over the past three to five years, I find myself meeting with more executives facing this challenge who simply want to discuss their options, hopefully to benefit from the path I’ve traveled in the nonprofit world and from the lessons I and others like me have learned. Here are some of the points I generally share.

Get involved with something you really care about. The first thing to think about is what kinds of issues and causes really matter to you and your own family. It is so important that you really care about and are engaged in the mission of a particular organization. If not, your involvement won’t endure. A good friend, Gregg Petersmeyer, who led the Points of Light effort in the first Bush administration, took the time to study 250 Points of Light awardees. He reached what appears to be an obvious but important conclusion: in almost all programs, the real benefit lay in the volunteer relationship that was developed and those who were most successful were so because they were tied to something they loved or cared dearly about—ideally, the true passion of their life. Recently I met with a prominent media person who wanted advice on what she could do and where to focus her time. The more she spoke, it became obvious that her passion was tied to an issue one of her children had faced. I finally said, “I think you’re very clear about what you want to be involved in. Just think about how many times you mentioned your child and how your passion jumps out as you talk about doing something about what your child faced for others.”

Find efforts that don’t involve large amounts of time. There are lots of ways to help a nonprofit without having to make major time commitments. It may, however, require a little time upfront to learn about the leader, the organization, and its board—which I can assure you will be a worthwhile use of your time. Perhaps you can be an informal advisor, being available to the leader or board via phone or email, not only for advice, but to use your network to open up doors, make introductions, and other simple ways to broker value. Never underestimate how much one or two hours a month can help a nonprofit as you offer expertise and advice, make an introduction, write a letter of support, or send some emails to help them raise some funding.

Think carefully about what you can best offer an organization. It is vital that when get involved, you use what you do best—capitalize on your strengths. What kinds of skills do you have? If you’re a CFO, help the CFO; if it’s marketing, see how you can leverage their communications efforts; and so forth. Your efforts will be more effective when you draw on your strengths and experience. Be sure your talents and time are used where your expertise aligns—the nonprofit will gain more, you’ll be happier and gain a greater sense of gratification, and the relationship will have a better chance to be a lasting one.

Make sure the nonprofit WANTS and CAN USE what you can offer. You may be an expert in government affairs, but if the organization you are contemplating working with is having trouble keeping its lights on, they probably aren’t ready for what you have to bring to the table. You’ll have to assess the ability of the organization to benefit from your skills as well as the readiness of its team to absorb what you have to offer. Even more to the point, be sure that the organization’s leader really wants to use what you can do and is not just accepting your help for the sake of your funding.   I guarantee this will be obvious within a few interactions.

It’s important to understand where an organization is in its “life cycle”—start-up, emerging, established, growth-driven, etc. This is particularly important to understanding where you can best add value, as there are clear inflexion points, and your role either as a board member, advisor, or simply a “sounding board” to the leader can be transformative to the organization. However, an organization has to be ready for that kind of engagement and open to the often difficult change such growth or transformation entails. One thing is critical: you will have to be patient in helping the organization implement and absorb such change. The fact is, change has never come easy to any of us.

Do your homework about the organization. Take a hard look at organizations you are considering—as I said earlier, some upfront time to look “under the hood” and learn about the organization will serve you well. What is compelling about the organization beyond the fact that it is doing good? What do their stakeholders say about them? Is there strong leadership? Is there demonstrated performance? Do they have a model that is achieving outcomes? Are they working in a community that few are working in? And, are they financially healthy?

How do you do this without taking a two-week leave of absence and not costing an arm and a leg? Find folks you can talk with who know the organization, just as if you were trying to learn about a firm or person in your own industry. Talk to lead funders, “clients,” competitors, government officials, and, of course, talk with them directly. And, once you connect with the right people, their candid insights will be more effective than all of the so-called “ formal” research about such nonprofits.

Think about what kind of involvement you’d like to have. Do you want to have direct contact with the clients a particular nonprofit serves? If so, then you might want to find opportunities to tutor adults in reading or mentor a young person—like being a “reading buddy” via In2Books, a mentor via Big Brothers/Big Sisters, volunteering through Greater DC Cares, or you might want to look at your church, mosque, or synagogue to see if it has established any mentoring programs.

If direct involvement is not what you are looking for, then providing some pro bono management or financial help might be a better avenue. Organizations like CompassPoint bring professionals together for six to nine months to work on a specific project on behalf of a nonprofit. But one thing I’ve learned that will also help you be more effective is to take the time to understand and learn the venue and avoid being the type who is ready to provide the answer before the questions are even posed.

And remember that leveraging your own network of contacts can be invaluable to an organization. Perhaps you can introduce the executive director to others who might be interested in helping to fund projects or strike up partnerships. Don’t underestimate the value of your network and contacts.

Take a hard look at yourself and where you want to be. Depending on where you are in your own career, you might want to consider a bigger involvement. Bob Buford, a cable industry executive, noted philanthropist, and author, observes that many people in the 45- to 60-year-old brackets reach a point where they are seeking greater satisfaction in their lives. Bob refers to this as “the transition from financial success to life significance.” A huge issue facing the nonprofit sector is the flow of management and board talent into the sector to help the great individuals who are leading highly worthwhile nonprofits, as there is a great need for senior management for growing nonprofits. In addition, the sector is facing a challenge in succession because a high percentage of nonprofit leaders are expected to retire over the next five to ten years. When considering your own future, look at the nonprofit sector as a possibility. It might not pay as much financially, but the “life compensation” may be worth it.

Getting involved in something you care greatly about and that can help others pays big dividends both personally and civically. Thinking carefully about what you have to give and how to give it will ensure that you and the nonprofit you serve reap the benefits.