Advice from the pros

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors |

Been there, done that. In any endeavor, experience goes a long way. In the Indianapolis’ nonprofit world, wisdom is in no short supply, particularly from longtime executives. Many have seen changes in the field over the course of their careers.

Recently, at the request of Charitable Advisors, five retired nonprofit high-profile executives participated in a roundtable discussion about their careers and shared advice for new nonprofit executives. Participants were:

  • Ellen Annala, former Central Indiana United Way president, spent 23 years with the organization and retired in 2013 after 15 years as president. Her career was spent working for Indianapolis nonprofits.
  • Betsy Bikoff spent the first 25 years of her career working for-profits and then was the first employee of the Fairbanks Foundation. She was its chief grantmaking officer and vice president until the end of last year. Early this year, she launched Betsy Bikoff Consulting.
  • Willis Bright spent 25 years at Lilly Endowment as director of youth programming before retiring in 2012. Currently, he is president of Bright Visions.
  • Hoagland Elliott, CEO for Raphael Health Center for the past decade, also served as chair of Indiana Primary Health Care Association.
  • Jim McClelland retired in April after 41 years at the helm of Goodwill.

Habitat for Humanities of Greater Indianapolis hosted the hour-and-a-half roundtable conversation. The executives’ insights will be featured in a series of stories in the next month. This week, we feature these former leaders’ advice for new nonprofit executives. These are the highlights:

WILLIS BRIGHT: I think my advice to an executive director is first of all, know thyself and be passionate about wanting to be an executive director and be clear about the kind of staff you and your board need to achieve the impact that you want in the community.

HOAGLAND ELLIOTT: My advice would be to really believe in your mission and act on it. I think many times it gets left in the drawer. Treat your clients with respect. People who are disadvantaged need more respect than others.

JIM McCLELLAND: I would add understanding your context, understanding where you fit in the communities you’re operating in, where you fit in the fields you’re engaged in and how what you’re doing relates to what others around you are doing. Don’t develop tunnel vision.

ELLEN ANNALA: I’d probably just underscore again the importance of getting it right with your board. Figuring out how to make that work so that’s it’s working for your mission.

Another piece of advice is actually something I learned from watching Goodwill. I remember when I was at Big Sisters thinking when you’re smaller you’re more nimble, and you can turn on a dime. Well, you can’t, because when you’re smaller, it’s real easy to get consumed by survival. I watched you (McClelland) be the nimble one that was able to turn on a dime.

I remember when a contract got pulled, and Goodwill turned right, and part of it was it had the resources to do that.

McCLELLAND: I so agree with you on the nimbleness. If you want to succeed over time, you’ve got to have impact and you have got to know what that impact is. You’ve got to be sustainable; if you’re constantly struggling to keep your head above water, you cannot do a good job of accomplishing your mission. You need a certain level of financial strength if you are going to do the job. The third is the adaptability. You’ve got to be able to adapt quickly and effectively as new needs and opportunities arise, and as the external environment changes. All three of those are absolutely essential over time.

BRIGHT: Jim, you said something earlier that I think is so critical. You talked about your engagement with your colleagues around the country, and finding out what they’re doing, maybe bringing some things back. Part of the tunnel vision that folks get into is just thinking about what they are doing — never even asking folks across town, executives across the street. They especially need those ideas from folks who are doing what you are doing somewhere else. Call somebody else.

BETSY BIKOFF: That’s what my advice was going to be. Go to school on other people, whether it’s next door, across the city. There is always somebody else like your nonprofit somewhere. There are other foundations, other nonprofits, other leaders whom you can ask. Somebody else has probably already invented what you are doing.

McCLELLAND: But not necessarily only in your field. There’s a quote in one of Gary Hamel’s books that says most people in an industry are blind in the same way. They’re all paying attention to the same things, and not paying attention to the same things. You have got to broaden your perspective. Learn, learn, learn, where you can. You’ve got to get outside your own arena, if you’re really going to grow and learn.

BIKOFF: Talk with people outside your age group. If you only talk with people in your own age band, you’re not going to get the other kinds of thinking.

McCLELLAND: And that’s older and younger.

BRIGHT: Borrow freely.