The Grass Ain’t Always Greener

Think you have it tough in the corporate world? So do these executives of nonprofit organizations. That is why they’re going back to school to learn about the basics of business

May, 2003

For Jerry Ford, every day at work is a tribute to close friends who died of AIDS in San Francisco in the 1980s and a melancholy reminder of his former partner, who died of AIDS in Honolulu. Ford is executive director of Gregory House, an Oahu-based nonprofit agency that provides services and rental assistance to homeless, HIV-positive people, including their children born with the virus.

Being at the top of the nonprofit group is rewarding. It also can be lonely and frustrating. Not only must Ford operate the agency as a charity, but he also must run it like an efficient business. A business based on two controversial issues: AIDS and homelessness.

“When you combine AIDS and homelessness, then on top of that, various things, such as substance abuse and illness … these are things that people don’t like to talk about,” says Ford, who has worked at Gregory House since 1989. “Fund-raising around these issues and getting people to understand the importance is hard.”

Even harder is convincing donors to support indirect services, such as office supplies. Says Ford, “It’s easy to say ‘Help us feed someone.’ It’s very hard to convince someone to pay your rent. You can’t operate out of the trunk of your car. You have to have an address.” Over the past year, the organization raised $217,000 in donations, received $436,000 from the Department of Health and more than $4 million in total grants. Ford and his team hope to continue that momentum.

That is why he has been attending nonprofit management classes at Kapiolani Community College. The new, weekend program offers training in financial management, community relations, legal issues, human resources and marketing. Each two-day course is $125; the full eight-week program is $800. Thanks to a full-ride scholarship from Bank of Hawaii, the tuition was waived for Ford and three selected students.

Over the past few years, local groups (such as KCC, the Volunteer Legal Services of Hawaii and the Mediation Center of the Pacific and many others) have upped their selection of nonprofit management classes. The Hawaii Community Services Council, one of 64 agencies operated by the Aloha United Way, offers grant-writing workshops about six times a year. “That is the most highly demanded workshop, and we typically have a wait list,” says Lily Bloom Domingo, director of training and technical assistance for the council.

Nationwide, more than 242 colleges and universities offer nonprofit management classes, according to a study by Seton Hall University and the Kellogg Foundation. Sixty of the colleges have noncredit courses.

When the eight-week class at KCC ends in October, 20 students, all upper-level managers of local nonprofit agencies, will have earned an official nonprofit management certificate. The timing could not be better for Ford at Gregory House. This year, the agency is scheduled to double its 10-person staff and open a second Oahu shelter called “Michael’s House,” in an undisclosed (for confidentiality) location in Waikiki. “We get volunteers that help out with fund-raising for a limited period of time, but ongoing volunteer work is a challenge for all nonprofits,” Ford says.

Once upon a time, many nonprofit-agency managers were volunteers themselves. “They go into nonprofits, because they want to help people,” says Holly Henderson, an instructor for KCC’s program and an owner of consulting firm Integrative Outcomes. “They do very well, and, over time, they keep getting promoted, until they’re in a spot where they’re running the show and no longer have the luxury of doing the hands-on work, the grunt work.” Suddenly, these former volunteers must be experts in finance, marketing, human resources, boardroom behavior, mantras that define the corporate world, not nonprofit agencies.

The truth is, that figurative fence separating the grass on both sides never really existed. The playing field was always level.

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Cathy S. Cruz