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Keeping the nonprofit heart beating

Between the Lines



Trudy Strewler Hodges has been sharing a few somewhat dated — but still ominous — statistics recently inside the Colorado Springs nonprofit scene.

Strewler Hodges, the longtime executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of the Pikes Peak Region, wants everyone to know that being a nonprofit executive — while uplifting and fulfilling in so many ways — does not automatically translate into a career-defining position. If anything, it's often the opposite, more like a fast track to frustration and burnout.

The "Daring to Lead" study, organized by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation, isn't new; in fact, it came out in 2006 and was updated in 2011. But that makes it worse — what it means is that even before the recession, and all the negative consequences it's had on giving and charity work, 75 percent of 2,000 nonprofit executives surveyed in eight U.S. cities said they didn't plan on being in their current job more than five years. Similarly, in a study of Colorado nonprofit leaders from 2004, the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation found that most executives felt overseeing a nonprofit would be "a one-time event" in their lives.

So as the Independent launches its fifth annual year-ending Give! campaign to help nonprofits in our midst, with every expectation of surpassing $1 million in donations for the first time, we want to highlight reasons why those front-line leaders so legitimately need your support.

Over and under

Michael Hannigan, head of the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, which shares in coordinating Give!, says he sees "a huge level of stress in our nonprofit leadership, and one of the things we have started looking at is developing a support group for these people." He describes looking out at a recent gathering of 60 executives from participating Give! organizations, and realizing that probably 40 of them looked overwhelmed and/or unsure of what to do next.

"I'm convinced that our nonprofits need a different business model," says Hannigan, who readily admits he's not totally certain of what that would entail (and will happily take suggestions at "The old-style model just doesn't work, with all the pressure."

Some statistics have indicated that local nonprofit executives are well-paid, but Hannigan says the truth is that many are underpaid and underappreciated, with insufficient staff under them.

"That data is skewed by about five to 10 outliers," Hannigan says, referring to the likes of the U.S. Olympic Committee, El Pomar Foundation, Compassion International, The Navigators, Young Life and Focus on the Family as "huge organizations that are nonprofits, so their salaries raise the average."

Hannigan sees two problems facing many of the area's small and medium-sized nonprofits, which he estimates number about 1,000.

One is that executive directors "feel they have to do everything and be everywhere, and they're expected to run every phase of the organization. Lots of those CEOs don't have time for professional development, can't empower others, don't have money to hire more people, and their passion for the organization overpowers reason in their decision-making."

The other issue is needing more support from board members, which dovetails with one of Give!'s indirect goals: cultivating more people to become involved.

"Board members should be as oriented as a brand-new staff person," Hannigan says. "They need to be front-loaded with deep understanding. Lots of boards don't realize that they really are the owners of the organization, not the public. They have to act like owners, not like limited partners. They should be working with and helping the CEO and staff.

"Your nonprofit is only as strong as your governing board. If you have a powerful, dynamic, engaged governing board, the more likely you are to have a strong CEO who lasts a long time. If not, the CEO soon is burned out and ready to bail."

Rising up

Aside from qualified staff and a strong board, the third leg of a strong nonprofit stool, according to Hannigan, is finding volunteers with expertise to do work and fill committees. As a case in point, Hannigan points to the local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"Just a few years ago, [the Community Foundation] gave them a grant to develop a strategic plan," Hannigan recalls. "At that point, their board was from families of people dealing with mental illness, and they were worn out just from all that. But they have made so much progress, realizing they had the ability to participate in Give!, building visibility, and now they have a breakfast with 600 people and they can raise close to $100,000. Give! was one domino in that, and it fell in a very positive way."

Starting this week, NAMI, CASA and 57 other agencies will be putting an immense effort into a new Give! campaign, hoping to build the kind of stability they need to continue on the right path — with staff leaders who want to stay for the long term.

It has worked for Trudy Strewler Hodges and CASA, as she's gone from being its first local employee in 1989 to a 24-year success story. From its meager beginnings, CASA now has a staff of 32 people plus about 300 volunteers, who serve about a thousand children annually. It's stable enough that as she nears retirement, Strewler Hodges is advising other strong nonprofits on succession plans such as the one she's implementing herself with CASA's board.

That's the role model, proof that it can be done by nonprofits of any size. And with Give! there as a helpful tool, the highest goals can become even more possible.

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