When you work in operations at a nonprofit, most of your effort happens behind the scenes. It’s the type of work we often end up deemphasizing in the nonprofit sector, because we fear it will seem like we’re not focusing enough on our missions. We all too often act like the befuddled Wizard of Oz, pleading with those around us to “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” I think it’s time we actually pay more attention to the people behind the curtain. Our organizations depend on it.
Building things is in my blood. For years, my grandfather and his brothers ran a print shop in Ithaca, New York. He spent all day working with and maintaining large machines. When I spent summers with my grandparents as a kid, my grandfather was constantly building things and fixing things around the house. While I’m not particularly handy around my own house (as my wife and two kids will attest) I did inherit the knack for building and fixing things in whatever nonprofit organization I happen to be in. Whether it was constructing a database to handle conference registrations for Title I educators in Massachusetts, writing direct mail appeals to fund prostate cancer advocacy work, drawing process maps for the Red Cross National HQ or filing IRS paperwork to set up a nonprofit in my community, I have always been there behind the scenes, tinkering and shaping and building.
James Garner’s character in The Great Escape, nicknamed “The Scrounger,” is responsible for procuring impossible to find items from within a World War II POW camp – a camera to make fake identity cards, metal to craft a pickaxe, disguises for soldiers to wear after the escape. Those of us in behind-the-scenes jobs are the Scroungers of the nonprofit sector. We make sure people have the stuff they need to do their jobs. For more than a decade I have had the privilege of spending my days at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, whose purpose is to help nonprofits be more effective. Because my job is to focus on GEO’s own internal effectiveness, I sometimes refer to my work as a play within a play. I joined GEO in 2003 during its early startup years, working out of the basement of a row home in Dupont Circle. My colleagues and I have taken GEO from startup to adolescence to young adulthood, from 4 to 25 staff and from a budget of a half million dollars to five million dollars. Along the way, my team and I have continually honed the organization’s core – financial management, budgeting, strategy, information technology, human resources, talent development, internal learning and, yes, even fundraising.
One day, I aspire to master the craft – to become a true wizard of operations. In the meantime, I’m on a journey. Every day I try to learn from the best. I look forward to sharing my perspective, and to hearing what you’ve learned, about what it takes to build an effective nonprofit.