Former leaders reflect on change, progress

progress concept

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors |

Nonprofit careers can start in a variety of ways.

— Willis Bright initially was a social worker, which developed his listening skills.

— Ellen Annala worked for multiple nonprofits, which helped shape her understanding of community.

— Jim McClelland was trained as an engineer but made the transition after a tutoring gig.

— Betsy Bikoff worked in the for-profit sector, but served on nonprofit boards.

— Hoagland Elliott had a lengthy for-profit care before taking on the challenge of leading a neighborhood health clinic.

All five retired from prominent nonprofit careers in the Indianapolis area. Combined, they spent over 150 years in the field.

During their careers, there were changes in the economy, technology, laws and regulations, competition and American culture. The number of nonprofits grew to over 1.5 million nationally, and between 1977 and 1997, increased 115 percent, or about 23,000 organizations per year.

This summer, these longtime leaders sat down with Charitable Advisors to share their know-how, discuss changes they have seen and offer input on what still needs to be changed in the nonprofit world. This is the second story from the conversation.

Two former leaders noted an evolution of executive titles. In the ’60s and ’70s, leaders at both Goodwill and United Way were called executive secretaries. The original titles, according to Annala, made it clear that the executive worked for the board. They have also witnessed a shift in executives’ roles in the community.

“While the executive is still hired by the board, I think over the years, the role, too, has evolved, not just within an organization, but in the city and in the community,” said Annala, who retired in 2012 after 23 years in leadership at United Way of Central Indiana.

In the 1970s and 1980s, nonprofit leaders were casual players in civic projects and in the transformation of Indianapolis. The movers and shakers, mostly from the corporate world, were called the city committee, and generated the ideas that would change the city’s future.

Today, nonprofit leaders have been asked to sit at that table.

Annala thinks that happened because corporate leaders could no longer spend 25 percent of their time in civic leadership roles.

Today’s nonprofit leaders deserve a lot of credit, said Bikoff.

“It takes real talent to be an executive director or CEO of a nonprofit when you think about it. The board chair changes every couple of years, sometimes every year,” she said.

“It’s quite a feat to be excellent, and fortunately, we have some excellent, excellent CEOs and executive directors of nonprofits in our community and we have for a number of years,” said the former Fairbanks Foundation vice president and chief grant-making officer who retired in January.

Another area that has changed during their careers is the boards’ responsibilities. As the numbers of nonprofits increased, so has regulatory scrutiny. In the 1960s, there were concerns about the growing universe of charitable, tax-exempt organizations. By the 1980s, nonprofits supported by grants, contracts and earned income were governed by insider boards. The governance structure of nonprofits has become more professionalized, and the level of expectations for leaders has changed, too.

“There are boards that I have observed that the nonprofit’s leadership was trusted so much, nobody asked any questions,” said Bright who retired in 2012 after spending 25 years at Lilly Endowment.

“When there was an implosion, everyone was scurrying around trying to figure out how to save this organization where a few questions along the way might have enabled the organization to have not only a real purpose that it was serving in the community and adding value, but it would not have gotten into the difficulty it was experiencing at the time,” he said. “There has to be trust with accountability.”

McClelland, too, thinks questions from board members are critical. Earlier this year, McClelland completed 41 years as president of Goodwill of Central Indiana.

“I would tell people on our board, many times the best thing you can do for us, is to ask us the right hard questions. That is hugely valuable. Make sure that we’re thinking things through, that we’re not missing something,” said McClelland.

All five leaders worked through difficult financial times. During their watch, there were a half dozen recessions, including the major recession of 2008. The bursting of an $8 trillion housing bubble and the financial market chaos led to a downturn in nonprofit contributions and return on investments.

But not all the changes that resulted were bad.

“In the nonprofit sector, you don’t have those same market forces and some nonprofits can hang on long beyond their usefulness and, quite frankly, beyond their demand,” said Annala. With the recession she saw clarity and in some nonprofits’ cases, a nimbleness or willingness to change.

“The shift in accountability and competition has forced a sense of being clearer about what you’re doing, who you’re serving, what you’re trying to accomplish and whether you’re doing it. I think there’s a new clarity,” said Annala.

According to Bikoff, planning for the future has become more the norm.

“Since the 2008 recession, more nonprofits and more nonprofit boards are taking planning more seriously, and trying to pay attention to what the organizational strength is, and are leaving behind those things that they used to do that they are no longer doing as well,” she said.

“That’s not all organizations, but a great many of them have tried to narrow their focus and many are also paying attention to their ability to implement those plans, which is almost more important than the plan itself. That is a good sign.”

Bright believes there is an incredible amount of pressure on executive directors to raise money, which has challenged program quality, because leaders have to spend so much time identifying resources.

“I’m not sure resources have increased to the same level as the number of organizations that are out there. For all the talk of sustainability, it makes it very difficult for that to occur,” Bright said.

While urban planning began in the early 20th century, strategic planning is relatively new for the nonprofit sector. Annala said even that planning has changed in order for organizations to remain competitive.

“I think there’s a role for some strategic planning or at least being clear about strategic direction. Before it was like ‘plan, do, plan, do.’ Now I think it’s a little more like plan, do, plan, do (faster). It’s like you’re going roughly west or roughly east and you may zig and zag along the way, as you try different things, but it’s not the long strategic planning that some of us used to go through.”

For Elliott, who retired after a decade as CEO at Raphael Health Center, a quality needs assessment is critical for any group thinking about starting a nonprofit.

“When Tabernacle Presbyterian Church decided to do something to help the health care in the neighborhood, they did the best needs assessment I have ever seen. When I came in a year later, I was just amazed at what a thorough job attendees of the church did. They traveled to other cities, looked at other health care sites. They did door-to-door neighborhood surveys. Right from the start, there was a need,” said Elliott.

But the economy made others take notice, too. Returns on foundations’ investments saw the same downturn.

“I think a number of the forces that you talk about were initiated by the funding community, private, public and others. I think it’s made boards of directors take their stewardship more seriously. They are not just there but try to give some direction, to do some planning and to figure with the staff how they are able to achieve outcomes and impact,” said Bright.

McClelland believes the nonprofit sector is incredibly fragmented and that over his career, there has been a proliferation of nonprofits, and an enormous increase in public spending to address major social problems. In his opinion, there are good things happening, but each one addresses one problem, issue, or one target population. They have difficulty aggregating capital or talent, replicating what works and getting it to scale.

“If you look at a lot of major social indicators, they’re worse today than they were 40 years ago,” McClelland said. “There’s a lot of data supporting the notion that these major social problems are related to poverty, low education levels, crime rate and teen pregnancy. As a society, we don’t tend to treat them as if they’re related. The public sector operates in silos. We have got to stop operating as little independent fiefdoms.

“I don’t think the answer is more money. I think the answer lies in making much more effective use of the existing resources.

“We have got to start working in a much more focused manner to leverage and combine the capabilities across the sectors. It could be within the sectors and focus. Not just collaboration for the sake of collaboration, but focused efforts to achieve something that right now is proving to be very difficult to achieve. I think this could happen. I really do. And I see some examples of it now. There needs to be a lot more of it,” said McClelland.

What is each proudest of?

  • For Annala, it is bringing a greater focus to community-level outcomes and watch as is the case with earlier childhood.
  • For Bikoff, it is helping the Fairbanks Foundation grow in the early years, and establishing strong, ongoing relationships with grantees and making a difference in the community.
  • For Bright, it is working to create a funders’ collaborative that supports high-quality summer programs for youth and influencing others around the country to do similar things.
  • For Elliott, it is building a staff from four to 15.
  • For McClelland, it is how Goodwill has adapted and improved over time.

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