Toni Pergolin

Nonprofit Leadership Isn’t for Everyone

Too Important to Fail shares a real life story of the internal operations of a large nonprofit on the edge of bankruptcy. It outlines challenge after challenge that we had to overcome at Bancroft to move forward day by day, and the many skills, strategies and leadership styles that had to be brought to bear. It shows how imperative it is to have business-minded leaders in the nonprofit sector, who are also innovative, resourceful and committed to the mission — in every way possible.

When I first came to Bancroft 15 years ago as CFO, I was stunned to see that so many people thought that nonprofits don’t have to make money. There were times when I felt like people thought I ran a lemonade stand when I told them I ran a nonprofit. Even my Board members were not business-minded. One even asked me what the brackets around the numbers meant. And, yet we were running a large business, with 2,000 staff and were responsible for 800 people’s lives.

Nonprofits are businesses that must generate a margin to survive. However, nonprofit leaders must balance that requirement with the need to fulfill their mission in the best way possible. They must have a deeply rooted passion for the mission so that every business decision is balanced by the impact it will have on the people served or the issues for which it advocates. This requires a unique set of skills.

Imagine being the leader of a large nonprofit that was responsible for the day to day care of 800 children and adults with significant disabilities, and facing the prospect of having to close. Could the families take their child home if we couldn’t make payroll? Could the funders find other service providers in an emergency? Do we have enough time to find a merger partner? What would happen if we failed? I just couldn’t let that happen and worked night and day to prevent it.

I had my corporate experience to guide me through the many, many decisions that had to be made during the turnaround. I knew I needed to keep an eye on the indicators and plan well ahead. Time becomes your best friend, or your worst enemy. The time it takes to see results after a decision is made can be lengthy, so that needs to be taken into consideration. You cannot do everything at once and so you need to prioritize the things that can make an immediate impact. And, there are so many variables, and unintended consequences. An experienced leader is needed to really understand what is happening and make quick and effective decisions.

Nonprofits exist in every community, are closest to the problems, and understand the issues. However, they often operate without adequate resources. Nonprofits — even the smallest ones — that have important missions, deserve the same tried and true business practices and effective leadership as for-profit corporations. Experienced business leaders can truly make an impact in our community, our region or our world through nonprofit organizations — both volunteer and paid positions. Fifteen years ago, I found my passion at Bancroft, and have made a difference. You can, too!

Share This