Are you the kind of person who likes to clean the kitchen before you cook a masterpiece? I am. Even though I know I’m going to make a complete mess, I like to start with a clean slate. Maybe it’s because I am trained as a chemist, but I like to do all my prep work in advance and have it organized and ready to go. My family makes fun of me.
I guess I take a similar approach to business. When taking on a new leadership position, I feel the need to get organized fast so that the main course can be prepared. OK, this analogy is going to get me in trouble down the road, but suffice it to say that doing the necessary and sometimes “dirty work” ahead of time can really pay off in the long run. This backroom infrastructure may not be the usual first place to turn for an incoming team that needs to make an impact right out of the gates, but when done with vigor and enthusiasm, it can actually be fun and satisfying for everyone.
It's easy and understandable for a 48-year old, very successful nonprofit organization to get a little complacent and resistant to change, especially when we are talking about the very systems that form the bedrock of the operations. To borrow the school bus analogy, once you have the right people on the bus and in the right seats, you better make sure the engine is in good shape, the tires have tread and there is gas in the tank.
At the Foundation Fighting Blindness, we were faced with the need to create a new website from scratch, modernize our database and systems, integrate new analytical tools, become mobile-friendly, create incentives and targets, rework our brand and messaging, and be world-class in accessibility. It’s painful to switch platforms. But it’s even more painful when your platforms don’t work well with each other.
Upon arrival, I found that we had nice looking graphs in our board books that charted our annual metrics against prespecified targets. They looked nice because they were made by hand by a graphic artist — took tons of time and were not easily modified. No wonder board meetings were like fire drills — all the data on progress was curated by hand, not hardwired back to a sophisticated spreadsheet. The systems were too heterogeneous for this to even be possible.
Want to know the giving history from a major gift prospect? Or something a little more complex? Submit your request to the database team, and you’ll get an answer in a couple days. Hopefully, new code doesn’t need to be written. This is an exaggeration, but not really. Now our major gifts team has access at their fingertips via their smartphones. But to get there, it took a lot of work, a lot of meetings on really complex technical IT, database, finance, etc. issues that make your mind numb.
To our delight, we found that many new systems and tools were out there, that, if sequenced properly, could deliver a seamless workflow. And even better, some of the new systems were actually cheaper to bring in than to renew current ones!
We had to do some myth-busting as well. We had a logo that, ironically, was hard to read… When we brought up the idea of changing the logo for the foundation, we were met with many furrowed brows and change-resistant statements such as, “Be very careful with that. The founders and largest benefactors love the logo and hired a personal friend to develop it!” So, we developed a completely new look for the foundation that emphasizes FIGHTING BLINDNESS, engaged the board in the process and when we asked our founders about what they thought, we got: “Meh, I never really liked the old logo much anyway.” Myth busted. New brand launching!
In my upcoming talk at the NonProfit PRO Peer to Peer Advanced Conference, I’ll talk more about this journey from stage. Hope to see you in Philly on November 4-5.
As CEO, Dr. Yerxa is responsible for the overall management of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, the world’s leading private funder of research on potential treatments and cures for inherited retinal degenerative diseases, including age-related macular degeneration. He also serves as CEO of the Retinal Degeneration Fund, a wholly owned, not-for-profit subsidiary focused on making venture philanthropy investments to further the foundation’s mission.
Dr. Yerxa has more than 25 years of experience in biotechnology, drug development and in translating promising research discoveries into clinical milestones and treatments. His experience, from drug discovery through product launches and in leadership positions, is in the pulmonary, oral health, cardiovascular, HIV and ophthalmology fields.
Just before joining the foundation, Dr. Yerxa was president and co-founder of Envisia Therapeutics, a company focused on developing novel ocular sustained delivery therapies for the front and back of the eye.
Dr. Yerxa holds 60 U.S. patents. An inventor of DIQUAS™, an innovative treatment for dry eye approved in Japan, he has been involved in the discovery and development of investigational new drugs, Phase 3 clinical programs, new drug applications and drug approvals.
Dr. Yerxa earned his PhD in organic chemistry from the University of California, Irvine, and his BA in chemistry from the University of California, San Diego.