Timeless Nonprofit Lessons in Leadership From a Timeless Fundraising Leader
Last week I made a quick trip to New York City for the memorial service for fundraising legend Jerry Panas. His widow, Felicity, and business partner, Jerry Linzy, crafted a perfect evening of fellowship and poignant, moving and humorous remarks. I am sure that Jerry was smiling down on the gathering at the Century Club. Seeing Felicity, Jerry and others was heartwarming. It was a pleasure meeting new friends and learning nonprofit lessons from a fundraising leader.
One of the highlights of this trip was spending time with my friend, former boss and mentor Clark Baker. After 50 years of YMCA service, Clark retired as CEO of the Greater Houston Y a few years ago. He is what I call a Y guy—a mission-driven leader who knew (as Jerry would say) the lifesaving and life-changing impact of the organization and its ability to touch the lives of a broad cross section of people.
It was Jerry who sent me to Nashville as a consultant to work with Clark and the Y. What was to be an assignment of just a few months lasted two years. And with Jerry’s blessing I then left the firm to lead the Y’s fundraising.
Clark was—and is—a master at relationships and, therefore, fundraising. I learned a lot working with Clark, first as a consultant and then as a senior member of his team. Some of the essential lessons I experienced include:
- Create your brand. Clark was a master at branding the Y—and himself. The Y had a distinct, colorful logo as contrasted to a dated national image. Clark also branded himself by passing out Clark candy bars and little instruction books full of wisdom. You and your organization have a brand. Focus your efforts to make your organization and your personal brand the best they can be!
- Leverage resources. Whether it was hiring Bill Hudson & Associates for marketing and public relations or Jerold Panas Linzy & Partners for fundraising, Clark knew the benefits of investing in partnerships with leading service providers to meet the Y’s needs. What resources and expertise do you need to access to fulfill your potential?
- Celebrate! Clark never missed an opportunity to celebrate—from a donor’s birthday, to a gift, to a dedication. Balloons, photos of smiling children, cards signed by kids, videos—he was never at a loss for ways to mark a special occasion. Make celebrations—and having fun in fundraising—a habit!
- Put the volunteers in the spotlight. Clark always, always shined a light on volunteers, donors and staff. He lifted them up and made them feel and look successful. Another mentor of mine, Jack Turner, calls this “shadow leadership.” I love it! It truly works. YMCA legend John R. Mott called it the multiplier effect—utilizing volunteers to help accomplish more.
- Say “thank you” more than “please.” Clark’s board member, Bill Wilson, coined this phrase, but Clark was a master of it. Jerry Panas would say to thank a donor seven times. From all—the message is clear, and it is the way to build deeper relationships with committed donors and volunteers. With Clark, you knew that you were appreciated! How many notes (yes, hand written notes) do you write a day?
- Make it a team approach. Clark did not care who got credit. He didn’t let his ego get in the way of increased success. You shouldn’t either. Too often, we see this happen, and it is limiting for the leader and devastating for the organization that falls far below its potential. Clark gave me freedom to approach any donor and any board member at any time. Of course, this was coordinated carefully, as it just makes sense not to interfere in effective relationships that already exist between donors and volunteers or members of the staff. With the myriad of personalities involved, it’s crucial to match the right staff or volunteer leader to a certain donor. And guess what? When the organization is successful, who does the board give credit to for that increased bottom line? Yes, the CEO. Who can you engage—and coach—in development and beyond?
- Be sincere. Clark was sincere in his relationships and in his lofty goals for the Y. The CEO who followed Clark at one Y tried to be Clark 2.0. But because he lacked Clark’s sincerity and talents, he failed miserably. Eventually that leader was pushed out when the organization found itself in a cultural and financial crisis. Be yourself and be genuine.
- Refine your messaging and repeat. Clark is an inspiring speaker in what I would say is a very unassuming style. He has great enthusiasm and is a master at delivering consistent messaging across a wide variety of audiences and connecting with people. You want to follow Clark. Refine your messaging, continually test and refine it, and repeat it consistently.
- Always look to the future. When news of Nashville Y’s success spread, YMCAs around the country wanted to visit. Clark welcomed them with open arms and rolled out the red carpet. He felt it was the right thing to do to help the broader Y movement—and he also saw it as an opportunity to “interview” hundreds of potential staff leaders. He would end up recruiting many. Have back-up and succession plans for every spot on your team—including volunteer roles.
- Develop leaders. Clark always wanted his team to excel—at his Y and beyond. He nurtured them, challenged them, coached them, gave them freedom. And when it came time for them to go to the next level and there was not an opportunity with him, he helped and encouraged them. Clark has groomed no fewer than 21 YMCA CEOs. Help your volunteer and staff team fulfill their potential and grow. It helps you and they will be grateful.
- Be a caretaker. This is not a passive role. Clark knew that a Y leader shepherds the organization to meet the needs of the community it serves, and that proper caretaking means both looking back and looking ahead. He recognized the contributions of those before him who made his success possible, and he knew that one day it would be time for him to serve in another capacity—and for another leader to serve in his role. The Y belonged to the community, and he felt himself fortunate to serve it. As a nonprofit professional, remember the organization never belongs to you—you provide leadership as a part of a public trust.
Spending time with Clark brought back so many great memories of mission-driven success and fun. And it reminded me of just how much I learned from this great leader and friend.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.