Category: CauseKit


The State of the Nonprofit Sector in 2017

20CauseKit, Nonprofit TrendsTags: , , , July, 17

By Erin M. Connell, Consultant at Cause Strategy Partners, LLC

Those who work in the nonprofit sector know there have been major shifts recently within the field. Economic hurdles, dramatic political shifts, and innovative technologies have all changed the face of the nonprofit world. At Cause Strategy Partners, we serve as witness and counsel to many organizations facing these challenges; through consulting engagements and customized programs, our team works to leverage nonprofit Boards of Directors and ensure organizational successes.

There are four major shifts that we see the nonprofit sector experiencing, and affected organizations can benefit from understanding and responding appropriately.


1. Changing sources of funding

Given shifts along political party lines, many communities around the U.S. may be at risk of losing federal and state funding; the risk for sanctuary cities like New York is yet unknown. Per the Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management, the stagnant economy has stalled expansions in private sector funding of public sector work. Though government budget cuts and public sector financing reductions have had – and will continue to have – a negative impact on the nonprofit sector, there is hope. For example, the corporate sector is engaging more public sector financing initiatives, such as corporate social responsibility initiatives and employee gift matching programs.

At Cause Strategy Partners, we match high-performing professionals from Fortune 500 companies to the Boards of nonprofits in New York and Chicago, a great way to reenergize a nonprofit’s funding sources. As we expand to San Francisco, we are excited to extend our successes across the U.S. by empowering more not-for-profits through great board leadership.


2. Responsive business models

Nonprofits are responding to these changes in funding sources by augmenting their business and fundraising models. Nonprofits are inherently mission-driven, not driven by the bottom line. However, as the number of nonprofits in the public sector increases and the amount of available funding decreases, nonprofits are forced to engage more competitively for resources. The nonprofit sector is increasingly engaging in more for-profit business models.


Baker in Training removes bread from oven Source: Hot Bread Kitchen,

Take Hot Bread Kitchen, a New York-based hybrid nonprofit and for-profit organization that combines “social welfare and revenue generation models” by teaching skills to employees while selling the fruits (or baked goods, as it were) of their labor. This hybrid business model increases the public good while bolstering the organization’s bottom-line.


3. Increased use of data and technology

The nonprofit sector is engaging in measuring impact and outcomes like never before. Foundations and funders more frequently require detailed explanations of the impact intended by a program, a clear method for measuring that impact, and careful reporting on success compared to stated goals. Business models are integral to this trend towards impact evaluation: fundraising successes can flow from these evaluative methods ensuring program effectiveness, and the data points themselves are often measured in monetary values an untraditional approach for the nonprofit field.

Foundations and funders more frequently require detailed explanations of the impact intended by a program, a clear method for measuring that impact, and careful reporting on success compared to stated goals.

Unsurprisingly, this data-oriented trend has also meant a more tech-oriented nonprofit sector. Having recently completed an MPA at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, I have seen this change reflected in the material taught to students looking to work in the public sector. Courses such as Nonprofit Accountability or Program Analysis & Evaluation teach graduate students to ensure programs are results-oriented and gather data during implementation, to ensure program successes are measured against program goals and activities. Additionally, classes like Design Thinking have become increasingly popular, as the next generation of nonprofit leadership is trained to solve community needs through creative technological solutions.

With increasing frequency, the public sector is employing new technologies and social media to measure data and enhance mission achievement. Of course, not all nonprofits possess the capacity to support such efforts, but the need for data around impact and partnering these tools with new technologies is increasing. In a word, evidenced-based programs are increasingly popular, though they are often expensive and require additional staff time and resources to measure successes. Regardless, the move towards rigorous program measurement and impact evaluation is an important one and is here to stay.


4. Changing demographics

The nonprofit sector is led by, staffed by, and serves the diverse spectrum of individuals that exists across the country. Nonprofits, in serving the public good, must position themselves to account for and support these individuals. Below is a selected list of some of the ways demographics across the U.S. are changing – changes to which the sector must adjust.

  • Race: More diverse population in terms of race/minorities
  • Age: Millennials engaging in social sector, Baby boomers retiring
  • Gender: More women working, Greater gender diversity and representation
  • Education: More individuals graduating from four-year colleges and universities
  • Class: Shrinking middle class

As communities change, diversify, and grow, the demographics of those who nonprofits aim to support will similarly change. Nonprofits must ensure that they are appropriately meeting the needs of their clients through their missions and programs. Equally important, nonprofits must also ensure their Boards and staff reflect the clients their organization serves. At Cause Strategy Partners, we were excited to partner with The New York Community Trust to design and launch BoardLead Arts NYC in Fall 2016. Through this program, we matched over one-dozen talented professionals from Google, Goldman Sachs, and MasterCard to arts-oriented NYC-based nonprofits looking to diversify their Boards of Directors. We encourage such initiatives, and hope to see more movement to similarly embrace social change within the social sector.


What nonprofit leaders should do

Nonprofits do essential work to provide services and build community across the U.S., and it should be every nonprofit’s top priority to remain mission-aligned and to best meet community needs. In order for nonprofits to continue serving their communities, we advise that you creatively rethink your funding sources, business models, and program measurement tools, all while being responsive to the changing face of program and service recipients.

Specifically, nonprofit leaders should

  1. Strategically employ new technologies and social media platforms,
  2. Reexamine revenue streams and hybrid business options,
  3. Employ data-driven impact evaluations for programs, and
  4. Include more underrepresented individuals and groups at all levels of your organization.

Through these practices, nonprofits will be better positioned to shape the future of our communities and act as thought leaders in our changing world.


Erin Connell
Erin M. Connell, MPA is a Consultant and Project Manager at Cause Strategy Partners. She has over five years of professional experience working in both the public and private sectors, and is deeply passionate about public service. At Cause Strategy Partners, Erin collaborates on matters of non-profit management, corporate social responsibility, and board governance. Erin serves on the Alumni Board at City Year New York. She earned her M.P.A. from New York University (2017), and her B.A. from Columbia University (2013).
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The Future of Arts Nonprofits in a New Political Landscape

30CauseKit, Nonprofit TrendsTags: , , , June, 17

By Meryl Friedman, Graduate Fellow at Cause Strategy Partners, LLC

As part of a collaboration with New York Community Trust (NYCT), our team at Cause Strategy Partners launched our first issue-focused BoardLead program in NYC last Fall called BoardLead Arts NYC. We set out to strengthen nonprofit arts organizations by training and placing diverse, talented, and driven professionals on their boards. In partnership with NYCT, Google, Goldman Sachs, and Mastercard, we placed 12 BoardLeaders on the boards of 11 nonprofits working in the arts!

But just as we dove into the incredible world of nonprofits who democratize the arts in NYC, the political landscape changed.  

During my first week as a Graduate Fellow at Cause Strategy Partners, I attended the first BoardLead Arts Learning Session where our new BoardLeaders get a crash course in board service. As our Principal & Founder, Robert Acton, discussed the responsibilities of board members, one BoardLeader raised a very thoughtful concern:

Will my nonprofit be affected by the new administration? Could my role as a board member change?

These are important questions, and unfortunately, we do not have clear answers. Nevertheless, I instantly wanted to dive into the topic to see what may lie ahead, and what — if anything– nonprofits  can do now to brace for change.

What I found? There is good news and bad news. Let’s get to work:

Decline in government funding for the cultural sector

Although funding for the arts has always been a hurdle, nonprofits may hit a new roadblock this year. Proposed budget cuts from the current federal administration would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.

What could this mean?

In the short term, we will see an increase in competition for grants and donations. It is unclear what the long-term implications of this will be. But with 40% of NEA grants funding projects in high-poverty neighborhoods, and 36% of grants supporting underserved populations, we can only guess that access to the arts will dramatically shrink for those who need it the most.  


The Johnson Amendment

In 1954, Lyndon B. Johnson championed the Johnson Amendment to prevent tax-exempt religious institutions and nonprofits from intervening and participating in political campaigns. The amendment takes politics out of the nonprofit purview so that change makers can focus on addressing community needs rather than the next election. The amendment preserves the non-partisanship that fuel the nonprofit sector.

Why is this relevant now?

The current federal administration looks to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a decision that has the potential to completely alter the nonprofit landscape. Without the Johnson Amendment, donors could, for example, give anonymous and unlimited tax-free donations to support political candidates through their church. Many tax-exempt donations would no longer support a compassionate mission, but instead a political candidate.

A repeal of the Johnson Amendment would threaten the nonpartisanship that is so crucial to the nonprofit sector. President of the National Council of Nonprofits, Tim Delaney, said,

Nonpartisanship is vital to the work of charitable nonprofits. It enables organizations to address community challenges, and invites the problem-solving skills of all residents, without the distractions of party labels and the caustic partisanship that is bedeviling our country

There is good news!

Philanthropy is on the Rise

In 2016, philanthropic giving to all nine nonprofit sub-sectors increased to $390 billion in the U.S.! Individuals, foundations, and corporations seem galvanized to give to important causes. The arts and culture nonprofit subsector is the second-fastest growing and saw a 5% increase in donations. With $18 billion in donations last year, the arts sector might be able to diversify funding as government funding declines.

New York City is Allocating More Towards the Arts

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio is considering a shake-up to the $178 million municipal arts budget. With an eye on diversifying arts funding and supporting smaller organizations, New York’s nonprofit sector may see an increase in arts funding for underserved communities.


What Can You Do?

We don’t know exactly what local and federal policies and budgets will look like over the next 4 years, but we do know the power of nonprofit missions and the potential of their passionate leaders. We have been blown away by the impact of our nonprofit partners in New York City and Chicago. So what can you do in light of these new trends?

SHARE your mission every chance you get.

ASK for help: support doesn’t have to be financial. Ask friends to share your mission.

SPEAK UP for your mission and the voices of those who can’t speak up for themselves.

EDUCATE yourself and others on the potential impact of policy changes, then call your congressperson.

BUILD a strong, diverse, and resilient Board of Directors to expand your network and toolbox!

At Cause Strategy Partners, we get to meet amazing nonprofits and BoardLeaders who turn up every day to advocate for social change. We are constantly wowed by their courage and compassion. We are committed to placing driven and talented individual on nonprofit boards to support organizations through these changing times. We honor their grit, resilience, and heart. To learn more about our programs, follow us at @WeAreBoardLead.



Meryl Friedman
Meryl Friedman is a Graduate Fellow at Cause Strategy Partners. She is a graduate student at NYU Wagner focusing on Social Impact, Innovation, and Investment. Prior to graduate school, Meryl worked as an Operations Manager at the New Media Advocacy Project, an NYC nonprofit that tells the stories of human rights advocates through media.

BoardLeaders Talk Tips for High-Impact Nonprofit Board Service

50Board Service, CauseKit, Leadership February, 17

By Erin Connell, Consultant at Cause Strategy Partners, LLC

Our BoardLeaders have proven their capabilities and drive in sheer numbers, with 56 BoardLeaders serving as high-impact nonprofit board members on 120 boards in New York and Chicago. As we prepare to launch our next round of BoardLead in both cities, our team wondered: what qualitative impact and growth have our BoardLeaders experienced through their nonprofit board service?

I was determined to find out. I spoke with 14 BoardLeaders from the NYC Spring 2015 cohort to learn more. My conclusion? Listen up, because these individuals have some serious knowledge to drop! The BoardLeaders I spoke with blew me away with their insights, their knowledge, and their confidence. Our BoardLeaders know nonprofit board service, and here’s what they had to say.



1. Be passionate

To excel as a nonprofit board member, you must passionately and honestly support the mission. First, for the nonprofit’s sake and yours, make sure you believe in their work! Your time (and money) is important, so seek service opportunities that invigorate your interests and passions. Second, be honest when seeking board opportunities; be true to yourself and true to your passions when seeking out service. This should be a cause you can get behind for a while, not just for the purpose of padding your resume. If you do this and are pure in your passions, you will set yourself up for the ideal board position – one that doesn’t feel like a job!


2. Be clear about your motives

It is important to be clear and honest with yourself, and with the nonprofit, about what you look to get out of board service – and about what they hope to gain from board members. All board members should contribute with their time, treasure and talent, though the degree to which you add to each will depend largely on your motives. Looking to build your strategic management skills? Hoping to contribute to the financial success of an organization? Aiming to commit your free time to a good cause? Understand and express your motives; you and the nonprofit both want a board situation where all parties bring and receive what they can, are comfortable with, and have agreed to.


3. Be honest with and about yourself

Understand what skills you can feasibly add to the board, as well as what their needs are. In particular, do your research and honestly look at the commitment. Then be up-front about what time and monetary support you can contribute. 



4. Make a friend through thoughtful and engaged listening

Before you commit to board service, take time to meet with the board chair, the board members, and the chief executive. Listen to their experiences and stories to fully understand the culture, the needs, and the expectations of the board and the organization. Once you are serving on a board, take advantage of learning from others. Take your fellow board members out for coffee to learn from them what engaged board service looks like. Go to board meetings and events, schedule informational interviews, and foster relationships with your fellow board members – and with the organization’s staff.


Be-Vocal-you-have-something-to-give-to-every-organization-and-people-will appreciate-your-participation

5. Be vocal

You have skills and a perspective that can add value – people will appreciate your participation and engagement!


Our BoardLeaders don’t just show their value in numbers: they prove to us everyday that strong nonprofit board service is possible through passionate, self-aware, and engaged commitment to service. At Cause Strategy Partners, we envision a world where we’re asked not where we work, but what causes we support. Engaging in high-impact, committed board service is a great way to put your passions to work. Our BoardLeaders have proven this potential; we hope their tips for how to approach and excel in board service will inspire others to do the same.

Erin Connell
Erin M. Connell, MPA is a Consultant and Project Manager at Cause Strategy Partners. She has over five years of professional experience working in both the public and private sectors, and is deeply passionate about public service. At Cause Strategy Partners, Erin collaborates on matters of non-profit management, corporate social responsibility, and board governance. Erin serves on the Alumni Board at City Year New York. She earned her M.P.A. from New York University (2017), and her B.A. from Columbia University (2013).

BoardLeader Spotlight | Katarzyna Bednarowicz, NYC Spring 2016 Cohort

10BoardLeader Spotlight, CauseKit February, 17

By Jessica Riegel, Associate at Cause Strategy Partners, LLC

Cause Strategy Partners is thrilled to launch BoardLeader Spotlight, where we highlight the incredible work our BoardLeaders are doing with our nonprofit partners.  BoardLead strengthens social good organizations by recruiting, placing, training and supporting talented professionals from top companies for high-impact board service.

Meet BoardLeader Katarzyna Bednarowicz

Or you can call her Kasia for short. Kasia is an Account Executive at Google and BoardLeader at PowerPlay, which is a New York City nonprofit dedicated to inspiring and educating girls through sports and academic enrichment programs. While great board members can make an impact in many different ways, Kasia specifically sees her value as a “connector” with her company and is excited about jumpstarting a new volunteer effort that turns Google colleagues into PowerPlay mentors. Below is my exciting interview with her!

Kasia sees her value as a “connector” with her company and is excited about jumpstarting a new volunteer effort that turns Google colleagues into PowerPlay mentors.


Before learning about BoardLead, had you considered serving on a nonprofit board? Why did you choose to do so through BoardLead?

Kasia: I had been thinking of getting involved with a non-profit for a while, but as a full-time professional, I found it difficult to research the opportunities available. It is not always clear whether organizations actually need expertise and guidance from experienced professionals. It is not like these opportunities are growing on trees.

BoardLead bridges this gap by bringing corporate and nonprofit worlds together, highlighting the right opportunities for candidates. The application process is well-managed, which saves time and energy for both sides: resource-constrained nonprofits and busy professionals from the private sector. The matching system provided was very convenient and enabled me to find a strong fit. PowerPlay NYC represents all I believe in: “ambitious goals, persistence, dedication and passion for what you do, go a long way!”


Out of the 20 BoardLead partner organizations you could select, what about PowerPlay stood out to you? 

Kasia: PowerPlay is a unique organization with a mission statement that truly represents my personal beliefs. It empowers young females of NYC to grow physically and emotionally through sports and prepares them for their future careers. As a former athlete and a passionate runner and mountaineer, sports have always played an important role in my life. I believe in stretching myself outside of the comfort zone in order to grow. Sports helps girls learn how to set goals, deal with the setbacks and shapes persistence to follow through. PowerPlay teaches all these things to nearly 2,000 underprivileged girls across the five boroughs.

I love the responsibility that comes with the board membership. It’s extremely encouraging to have the direct impact on so many lives and to see how these girls develop over time with PowerPlay’s support. Throughout their journey, they grow their self-esteem, learn to stand up for themselves, develop strong leadership skills, and feel empowered to continue their education and achieve the career of their dreams.




Can you describe your first interaction with the PowerPlay staff, board and/or participants?

Kasia: It was a series of telephone interviews with the PowerPlay board members and the board chair. The best part of the interview process was the opportunity to see how the organization operates by visiting one of the workshops of the flagship program, called “SuperStar Leadership Academy,” this summer.

I met the girls at the rowing workshop in Queens. It was great to see them learning a new skill and talk to them about what this organization means to them. This gave me first-hand experience of what PowerPlay NYC does for these girls. I could also meet some of the PowerPlay employees.


Can you tell me about the initiatives you’ve worked on so far as a BoardLeader?

Kasia: I believe that I maximize my impact by connecting PowerPlay NYC with Google resources, inspiring my coworkers and friends to get involved too. The first initiative launched since I joined the board was a mentorship program supporting girls in their final year before the college. We paired them up with Googlers. They meet monthly to exchange ideas, get career advice, and have some fun. Mentees become more strategic about their future and Googlers learn and improve their mentorship skills. This is a true win-win. The demand exceeded my expectations with over 30 active mentors today. Another project is a half-day event at Google for 50 girls from Brooklyn. We want to inspire them to get involved in computer science.

It’s great to be part of this board and share the steering wheel with these passionate people to create a better future for so many girls. I see myself as a connector between Google and PowerPlay. I want to create as many long-term projects between these organizations as possible, as there is a huge value of this collaboration for both sides.

I see myself as a connector between Google and PowerPlay. I want to create as many long-term projects between these organizations as possible, as there is a huge value of this collaboration for both sides.


How has your board service experience so far impacted other areas of your life, work, or otherwise?

Kasia: Launching the Mentors Program has already had some positive outcomes. I am astonished by how much impact I have had since joining PowerPlay and by how my ideas create positive change in local communities. Mentorship program impacts positively lives of mentees and their mentors and we hear so much positive feedback from both sides.

Through board service, I have expanded my network within Google and met like-minded colleagues. I connected with people who want to get involved and gained lots of inspiration for the future projects. I truly believe the more I lean into this opportunity, the more I can get out of it.

I have some Googlers who recently approached me to do another project with PowerPlay. Google cares deeply about diversity and works hard to increase the number of females in the technology industry. When you start serving on a board, you become so much more aware and smarter about the possibilities around you and how to seize them best to create the most value for both organizations. I was able to expand my network within Google and meet like-minded colleagues. I connected with people who want to get involved and gained lots of inspiration for future projects. I truly believe the more I lean into this opportunity, the more I can get out of it.

I truly believe the more I lean into this opportunity, the more I can get out of it.


You are just starting your board service journey. Where do you see it headed in the next few years?

Kasia: I try not to plan all too far in advance and enjoy the current experience. I have been in sales for about 8 years, so I have started to think about my next steps. I feel that at some point I would like to leave the corporate world and try to have more impact in the nonprofit space, either by joining, the philanthropic arm of Google, or get involved in some nonprofit. Joining the board of PowerPlay NYC gives me a first-hand experience and helps me to test the waters and see if this is something I could imagine doing full-time.


What advice would you give to other young professionals considering nonprofit board service? 

Kasia: Think about what is important to you and what kind of cause you really feel passionate about and just try it! Thinking about the causes that matters to you will help you pick the right organization. I met many people in the last year to get informal advice from different nonprofits, just to understand what the role is and what are the daily responsibilities. However, there is nothing better and more insightful than hands-on experience. That’s why I’m so glad I came across BoardLead, and so grateful for what your organization is doing. Your matching system, bringing the professionals together with nonprofits, together truly changed my life!


Want to learn more about BoardLead?

Are you inspired to explore board service like Kasia? Or simply curious about what great service looks like? Visit our website to learn more about BoardLead and our other programs. Be sure to check out The CauseKit, our blog, for news, advice and insights from the social good space. You can also stay in the loop about our partners and see what other BoardLeaders are up to by following us @WeAreBoardLead and @CauseStrategy.


Jessica Riegel
Jessica Riegel is an Associate at Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting

BoardLead 2016: Look How Far We’ve Come in Just Two Years

21Board Service, BoardLead Update, CauseKit January, 17

By Alexandra Hallock, Consultant at Cause Strategy Partners, LLC

Cause Strategy Partners, LLC is approaching its two-year anniversary this February 2017. As we reflect on 2016 and look to 2017, we have a lot to celebrate! Join us as we review this year’s highlights and read on to see what’s coming.

We designed, built, and launched our signature BoardLead Program in collaboration with Heckscher Foundation for Children, Google, Barclays, and PwC in 2015. BoardLead recruits, places, trains, and supports earlier-career professionals from top companies for board service at high-impact nonprofits.  

We are consulting with other Fortune 500 companies, as well, helping them build out in-house board placement and philanthropic programs. Most importantly, we are privileged to work with a great group of national, regional, and local foundations and nonprofit organizations, helping them build and professionalize their board leadership and governance.

In less than two years, we’ve run our 10-month BoardLead program 5 times, in 2 cities, with 10 corporate and 56 nonprofit partners.

To date, BoardLead has placed over 120 professionals onto the boards of 56 nonprofits in New York City and Chicago! In less than two years, we’ve run our 10-month BoardLead program 5 times, in 2 cities, with 10 corporate and 56 nonprofit partners. Our Fall 2016 program is currently underway, and this spring we launch two additional BoardLead cohorts in New York and Chicago.


Let’s look at some highlights from 2016!

The Cause Strategy Team celebrating after our 2nd BoardLead learning session at our corporate partner, Google

2016 BoardLead Elections

This past year, 92 BoardLeaders were elected onto the Board of Directors of 39 nonprofits. Do the quick math and that’s an average of 2.4 BoardLeaders elected per organization! In fact, we’ve seen some of our nonprofit partners take as many as 4 BoardLeaders at once from the program and praise the benefits a new class of professionals brings to their existing Board of Directors.

Important Initiatives  – Diversity in the Arts

This year, for the first time in BoardLead history, we brought a specific focus to our program. That focus is to foster diversity for the boards of arts organizations in New York City. According to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, while 64% of New Yorkers are from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds, just 22% of board members represent diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds. Mayor Bill De Blasio has called for us to “find ways to foster a creative sector that opens doors for every New Yorker, regardless of their background.”1 So, Cause Strategy Partners is joining the effort by increasing diversity for 20 New York City-based arts organizations and their boards in partnership with The New York Community Trust, Goldman Sachs, Google, and MasterCard.


Rob and Erin with the team at the Nerdery in Chicago to discuss the new BoardLead website

We launched a new BoardLead website!

We designed and built a brand new website for BoardLead. This online platform will allow us to track and manage the program efficiently, bringing huge potential for scale. We’ve already seen this investment in technology improve our day to day.

Welcoming New Staff

This past year our staff grew significantly with the introduction of two new Consultants at Cause Strategy Partners, LLC. Welcome Alexandra Hallock and Erin Connell!


Continued Success of New BoardLeaders

What makes BoardLeaders successful?

BoardLeaders are passionate about the nonprofits they serve. Mission passion is our number one most important criteria when facilitating board matches between professionals and nonprofits through BoardLead.

BoardLeaders bring needed skills to their nonprofit boards. Professionals in 2016 came from top companies Barclays, BlackRock, Cushman & Wakefield, Google, LinkedIn, Macquarie, Motorola Solutions, and PwC. They brought with them expertise in finance, accounting, marketing, human resources, technology, and so on.

BoardLeaders are active fundraisers for their organizations. The average give/get commitment from BoardLeaders for 2016 was $6,247. It is an expectation of any professional placed through BoardLead to give at a personally significant amount and meet the giving requirements of their nonprofit.

Professionals in 2016 came from top companies Barclays, BlackRock, Cushman & Wakefield, Google, LinkedIn, Macquarie, Motorola Solutions, and PwC.


Looking Ahead

The fun continues in 2017. Most of our corporate partners from 2016 have jumped on board to continue in the program this spring, and some new partners as well. There’s a lot of potential in New York City and Chicago, and we continue to find new ways to work with our nonprofit, foundation, and corporate partners.


1 Report: Diversity in the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Community (January 28, 2016); 2010 U.S. Census.


Alexandra Hallock
Alexandra Hallock is a Consultant of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting
01.12.17_Blog_Rob_5 Archetypes Image

5 Archetypes of Great Board Members

20Board Service, CauseKit, Leadership January, 17

By Robert B. Acton, Principal & Founder at Cause Strategy Partners, LLC

What makes a great nonprofit board member?

We spend a lot of time mulling over this question at Cause Strategy Partners – a consulting social enterprise that recruits, places, trains, and supports board members from top companies for the Boards of Directors of nonprofits in NYC, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area.  Our nonprofit partners look to us to identify committed, passionate, talented professionals who will demonstrate in their board service the same high performance they bring to their day job.  

Because this question is central to the success of our work, I regularly reflect on the many years of my own board involvements.  As a nonprofit chief executive, what board member characteristics proved to be most important in performing governance work and ensuring that we accomplish mission?  As a board member, which of my board colleagues demonstrate a standard of full engagement?  What do they do that sets them apart as high-impact board leaders?

“What board member characteristics proved to be most important?”

Great board service drives mission impact.  There is a direct correlation between how a board member engages week in and week out and his or her overall contribution to mission achievement.  Because of this, BoardLead – our signature program that has placed more than 120 high-performing professionals from top companies on to the boards of 56 nonprofit organizations – culminates with a four-part governance learning series by defining 5 Archetypes of Great Board Members.  We encourage our newly minted BoardLeaders to find the archetype that uniquely fits them and commit to model those behaviors in their service.  


The Pensive Sage:  Reflective.  Thoughtful.  Respected.

In board meetings, Dan Wilkening – a senior executive at a major financial institution in Chicago – would sit quietly for the lion’s share of the meeting.  He would listen carefully, take notes and nod occasionally, but rarely speak.  Yet when we were at the crossroads of a contentious discussion on an important strategic issue, Dan would lean forward in his chair, put his elbows on the table, lift an index finger, and wait to be invited by the Chair to jump into the conversation.  When he did, we listened.  Experienced, committed and wise, upon sharing his perspective, invariably the conversation would begin to move in the direction of Dan’s contribution.

The Pensive Sage actively listens more than he speaks.  He looks for ways to think about issues differently.  He asks good questions to ensure thoughtful debate.  And when he makes a point, it counts.  


The Trusted Advisor:  Available.  Honest.  Reliable.  

You know the saying:  leadership is lonely.  It’s true.  It really is.

The Trusted Advisor, usually an accomplished leader in her own right, understands this and forms a special relationship with the chief executive.  She invests significant time with the CEO outside the boardroom, building trust.  She serves as a sounding board, providing a safe space for the CEO to express frustrations, share concerns, or test ideas.  She provides encouragement, of course, but also artfully provides private and candid feedback when the chief executive has missed the mark.  

The Trusted Advisor “invests significant time with the CEO outside the boardroom, building trust.”


The Opportunity Seeker:  Enterprising.  Creative.  Solutions-Oriented.

After listening to the Executive Director’s report at a board meeting and learning that staff morale was particularly low, board member Adam Stanley spoke up.  Looking around the room at his colleagues, he said, “There is something we can do to help.”  Adam spent the next month organizing board members to hold a Staff Appreciation Day for the dedicated staff team.  He gathered gifts from each board member (tickets to sporting events and concerts, airline miles, art work), organized a celebratory party, and asked board members to personally prepare words of praise for each staff member.  On the day of the event, a chartered bus picked the staff up for a tour of the city while the board transitioned the drab office space into a party setting.  When the bus returned, staff members entered the office to a New Orleans style band playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” as board members stood on both sides of a rolled out red carpet, cheering and applauding the team.  Thanks to one board member, a dispirited staff had the opportunity to feel valued in a tangible way by their Board of Directors.  

The Opportunity Seeker looks for problems to solve, and acts.  He is eager to apply his time, talent and treasure to advance the organization.  He lifts burdens off of the Chief Executive and makes them his own.  The Opportunity Seeker often contributes more outside the boardroom than in it.


The Technical Expert:  Skilled.  Willing.  Accessible.

Lisa Dietlin is an expert in fundraising who years earlier launched her own consultancy, The Institute of Transformational Philanthropy.  As a board member, she delivered her expertise to the nonprofit she served, chairing the Development Committee, helping shape fundraising strategy, and serving as a critical thought partner to the Executive Director.  Lisa delivered tens of thousands of dollars in expertise from her seat on the board, all pro bono.  She knew her sweet spot and stepped in as a board leader to drive impact.

Nonprofit Chief Executives are asked to be all things to all people.  Want evidence?  Visit and look at an Executive Director job posting.  The list of desired competencies is extensive: shape strategy, supervise staff, oversee and evaluate programs and services, raise funds, guide the work of the board, advocate with governmental leaders, etc.  The list goes on and on.

The Technical Expert “acts as an issue spotter, quality assurance provider and sounding board on areas within her expertise.”

Board members generally bring deep expertise in one or more professional skill sets that they can contribute to the organization in meaningful ways.  The Technical Expert leverages her professional skills to bring about results.  She acts as an issue spotter, quality assurance provider and sounding board on areas within her expertise.  She takes a leadership role on topics in her wheelhouse.  She envisions pro bono engagements, helps develop a scope of work, and taps her professional network to source the project.  Always maintaining appropriate divisions in board-staff responsibilities, The Technical Expert helps the organization understand and accomplish gains in her area of core competency whether that is strategy, HR, marketing, legal, real estate, technology or any other professional capability.


The Pace Setter:  Fully-Engaged.  Driven.  Leader.

Political leaders use the phrase “A rising tide lifts all boats” to describe how a growing economy will benefit all participants in that economy.  The aphorism is also helpful to understand the effect of fully engaged board members serving a nonprofit board.  I’ve seen it over and over again:  a couple new high-performing board members take their commitment to drive impact from a governance seat seriously and, before long, other board members are responding to the upward pressure to be more meaningful contributors.  Why?  Sometimes it’s because leaders don’t like to be outpaced.  Sometimes it’s out of respect for the individual’s impressive level of involvement.  Maybe it’s because effective board leadership just needed to be modeled.  Occasionally it’s good old-fashioned guilt:  “If he’s doing that much, I’m embarrassed to do so little.”

The Pace Setter – perhaps the most desirable of the five archetypes – raises the performance of other board members through excellent board service.  He shapes the culture of the board by modeling a high standard of contribution.  The Pace Setter makes it uncomfortable to be disengaged and, in doing so, positively influences the overall contribution of his colleagues around the boardroom.  


Which Board Member Are You?

Every nonprofit board member should be fully-engaged.  Effective board service is marked by what we at Cause Strategy Partners describe as The BoardLeader Way:

  • A perfect or near perfect meeting attendance record
  • Robust participation in board meetings
  • Service on at least one board committee
  • A personally meaningful and sacrificial annual contribution
  • Active participation in all fundraising efforts
  • Leveraging your skills and network to drive impact
  • Completion of each elected term

Fully engaged board service like this should be the norm, not the exception.  Beyond that, each board member should find his or her path.  Uncover ways to uniquely contribute as a member of the organization’s governing body.

Reflection:  Consider a few questions as you reflect on your board service

  • Which of the 5 Archetypes of Great Board Members fits you best?
  • How do you currently model these behaviors in and outside the boardroom?  
  • Jot down three specific ways you can drive impact by doubling down on your approach to great board service.


Robert Acton
Rob Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting
fish lead

Be the Leader They Need You To Be: The 5 Leadership Essentials

90CauseKit, Leadership October, 15

“The greatness of an organization will be directly proportional to the greatness of its leader.”
– Henry Blackaby

Leadership — as authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner point out — is the art of mobilizing others “to want to get extraordinary things done” in an organization. Great leadership starts with the personal attributes of the person at the helm and cascades from there.

So what matters most? What leadership characteristics does your team need to see in you in order to enthusiastically choose to follow? Since you can’t be all things to all people, what must you be in order to ensure that your team is well-led?

More of an art form than a science, great leaders are recognizable by an admirable collection of personal traits and professional abilities that compel us to follow. For example, check out the YouTube video of Admiral William H. McCraven’s 2014 Commencement speech at the University of Texas which (to date) has been viewed by more than 3 million people. Most would agree that there is “something about him” that forms the immediate impression that he is a great leader. Yet agreeing on a formal definition of leadership is tricky. It’s a bit like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s awkward attempt to articulate a concrete definition for what qualifies as lewd material under the 1st Amendment: “I know it when I see it.”

My firm, Cause Strategy Partners, recently tackled this challenge by asking a wide network of LinkedIn members a simple question: What one quality or characteristic do you most need to see in your boss? A whopping 14,301 professionals have responded to date, sharing the most important characteristic that they expect to see in their leader. We have received responses from individuals across professions, across ethnicities, and across the globe. This research provides an eye-opening insight into what it takes to be the leader they need you to be.

Of the 300+ unique words offered in response to the question, 90% fit into 18 core leadership qualities. Even more notable, nearly two-thirds of the responses fall into the top five leadership qualities. We call these The Five Leadership Essentials:

Integrity / Honesty 27% of all responses
Support 12%
Leadership 11%
Visionary 5%
Inspiring 5%

If you ask a member of your team what they hope to see in you, more likely than not the response will be one of these attributes. These are the traits that compel people to choose to follow. These are the characteristics that inspire others to believe in their boss. They are leadership essentials.

Interestingly, we saw gender-based correlations among the top 18 responses. A significantly higher percentage of women chose Communication and Appreciation as their selected characteristic. Men were more likely to choose Fair and Humble over their female counterparts. Of The Five Leadership Essentials, there was gender parity with the exception of Visionary which was a more common response for males (65%) than females (35%).

Taken as a whole, the top five leadership characteristics are even more striking when we consider the laudable qualities they beat out, in many cases by substantial margins: characteristics like Transparent, Open-Minded, Determined, Courageous, and Loyal.

The Five Leadership Essentials are mission critical for a leader. More important than the meetings you will attend, the emails you will return, or the plans you will devise, these are the things you must both be and do.

Lead with integrity and honesty in every word and deed, every day.

Support your team. Invest personally in each one, helping them optimize their performance and potential.

Provide leadership with a point of view. Show your grit and be courageous.

Be visionary. Paint the picture of a better tomorrow that you’ll reach together. Show them how to get there.

Inspire. Let your passion for the mission be an irrepressible, contagious force for good.

Real Talk. How are you doing on The Five Leadership Essentials? Are you the leader they need you to be? Take a personal audit.

  • If someone were to ask your team members to score you A through F on each trait, how would you fare?
  • Which leadership essential comes easy for you? Which is the least natural?
  • Are there one or two that need your personal attention right away?
  • Robert B. Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting practice that partners with foundations and corporations to help social good organizations achieve their missions fueled by great leadership, great strategy and, most importantly, great results. Visit us at

    Robert Acton
    Rob Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting
    white smile woman

    4 Keys to Engaging Millennials in Board Service

    20Board Service, CauseKit, Millennials October, 15

    I’m always leery to paint an entire people group – for example, Millennials born between 1980 and 2000 – with a broad-brush stroke. I look at my four nieces and nephews, for example, all of whom fall into the Millennial generation, and often see more differences than similarities. Yet it’s clear that generational commonalities have emerged. I’m confident we could fill the three buildings of the Library of Congress with the management, human resources, and “how to” books written about this force within the workforce.

    You’ve heard it all before, right? But let’s recap. According to Lydia Abbott, Millennials are:

    • Connected: they stay actively engaged with a vast network of friends
    • Purpose-Seekers: they need to work on important things
    • Collaborators: they are team-oriented and enjoy building friendships with colleagues
    • Opinionated: they have a point of view and believe it should be valued
    • Tech-Savvy: they taught their fathers and grandmothers how to use social media
    • Cause-Oriented: they believe in institutions that demonstrate a cause orientation

    Sounds like a good profile for a nonprofit board member, doesn’t it? Most nonprofit CEOs I know would pursue candidates who offered even four out of the six.

    In my last post, I attempted to make the case that earlier-career professionals are a potent, though largely untapped, pool of talent for nonprofit boards. I described how our firm, Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, is recruiting and placing next generation board candidates on to nonprofit boards in collaboration with three top companies in New York City. Through this work, we’ve learned a good deal about what motivates an earlier-career professional to engage in board governance and what makes it stick. Here are four key insights:

    1. Be Strategic with the Ask

    A key tenant of fundraising applies to board development, as well: send the right person to make “the ask.” Who is the ideal person to recruit a high-performing Millennial? There is a good chance that it’s not Chair of the Governance Committee or Board. Who in your organization can best relate to and connect with the individual you are recruiting? Who on your board is from a similar station in life and can candidly respond when asked the question, “What does this really involve?” What leader in your organization can paint a compelling picture of how board service will be personally meaningful to the candidate at this stage of life?

    As a part of this first conversation, help the candidate assess personal readiness. It does nobody a favor to downplay the responsibilities of board service, at this stage or any other. When we recruit earlier-career professionals at Cause Strategy Partners, we double down on the tougher topics, candidly discussing in great detail the commitment required in time, talent and treasure. Your mantra should be this: no surprises down the road. Make sure candidates understand in great detail the expectations – most especially, the financial and fundraising commitments. Like in a marriage, money matters are a common issue that transforms a fulfilling board experience into a sour one.

    2. Give Them a Meaty Challenge

    Millennials have no interest in downsizing their service to just a few board meetings a year. They want to work on important things. Give board recruits a specific challenge that directly relates to their core skill set and experience. Tell them you need them on the board, in part, to help fix this pervasive problem. Give them a sense of how they will make meaningful impact from their board seat.

    I recently introduced a highly successful television producer to an organization in NYC that I support. This nonprofit does critical life-saving work, but I’ve often heard board members refer to the organization as “the best kept secret in the city.” During the introductory meeting that I brokered between the candidate and board leadership, I sensed my producer friend wasn’t feeling moved by the opportunity. The mission fit his general interests to be sure, but I sensed he was struggling with the idea of signing up for six meetings a year, plus committee meetings, plus a financial commitment, in light of his uber-busy professional life.

    Eventually I interrupted the conversation, sharing the “best kept secret” problem that I’d heard mentioned over the years. I shared my perspective that there was a clear opportunity for this organization to be the nation’s leading voice on the issues we address. Based in our country’s media capital, I wondered aloud why we don’t regularly see our CEO on cable news shows when incidents occur that are at the center of our impact area. My producer friend’s face visibly lit up. He quickly moved from a passive listener to a problem-solver. Now we were talking his language. He began to list a number of strategies that he would pursue as a board member to elevate the profile of the organization. In short, he’d found his meaty challenge.

    3. Broaden the Definition of the Word “Give”

    Giving to a nonprofit involves more than cash, checks or credit card numbers. Immense value can be delivered to an organization through in-kind contributions, pro bono projects, board-led initiatives, and the like.

    I had the good fortune of meeting Adam Stanley while I was running a Chicago legal aid organization many years ago. A mutual friend insisted that we become acquainted, and within 45 minutes over morning coffee at his office, I knew why: although earlier in his career at the time, Adam had the background, skills, values, and characteristics we needed on our board. Thankfully, when asked to serve, he said “yes.”

    During one particularly difficult period in our organization’s history, staff morale was very low. Seeing an opportunity, Adam raised his hand in a board meeting, offering to organize and lead a Staff Appreciation Day. He said to his colleagues around the boardroom, “We’ll do it together.” For weeks, Adam worked with each board member to gather a dizzying array of gift cards, airline miles, sporting event tickets, pieces of art, special experiences, and the like. When Staff Appreciation Day arrived, a charter bus pulled up outside our office to take the team on a short drive around the city. When we returned, the members of our board were lined up alongside a rolled out red carpet. A marching band – yes, marching band! – was playing as the staff walked in to the thunderous applause of the entire board. We ate together, opened gifts, received individual awards, and socialized as a full board-staff team. The value of that effort – entirely led by one earlier-career professional on our board – went far beyond the size of any contribution he could have made that fiscal year.

    4. Ask Your Corporate Partners for Candidates

    Cause Strategy Partners works closely with corporate social responsibility (CSR) and HR/talent development teams at top companies, and one thing is very clear: earlier-career professionals are asking their employers to help them find a seat on a nonprofit board. While the CSR team is inundated with requests for their c-suite leaders, few nonprofits are strategically asking for earlier-career professionals who can fill skill gaps, enhance diversity, and strengthen ties to the corporate partner. Moreover, many Fortune 200 companies have board support programs in place that include governance training for employees, access to best-in-class BoardSource resources, matching gift opportunities, and dollars-for-doers giving programs.

    Have you asked your corporate partners about high-talent, high-potential professionals who might be interested in serving on your board?

    One Last Thought: Post, Like, Share

    I sometimes joke, “If it’s not on my Facebook timeline or Twitter feed, it didn’t happen.” And I’m old.

    Play into the prominence of social media among earlier-career professionals by sharing their significant contributions as members of your board. Ask permission to do so, of course, but think of the goodwill you can generate by tagging your next generation board members in posts like this:

  • Thanks board member Adam Stanley for spending weeks on today’s staff appreciation day. We’re refocused as a team & ready to go.
  • Board member extraordinaire Jill Johns invested her day today building a marketing plan for our organization. She’s a pro bono champ!
  • You get the idea. Public recognition and appreciation like this – especially when posted in a board member’s network – has the power to generate even deeper engagement, many times over.

    Robert B. Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting social enterprise that partners with foundations, corporations and social good organizations to help nonprofits achieve their missions fueled by great leadership, great strategy and, most importantly, great results. Visit us at

    Citation: A special thanks to Lydia Abbott for her terrific post, “8 Millennials’ Traits You Should Know About Before Hiring Them.” It was reassuring to read a Millennials’ take on her own generation. I sourced from Lydia’s piece at the beginning of this post.

    Robert Acton
    Rob Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting

    NextGen Board Members: An Untapped (But Potent) Resource

    20Board Service, CauseKit, Millennials September, 15

    Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be  written the history of this generation. – Robert F. Kennedy

    According to a 2015 national survey of nonprofit boards conducted byBoardSource, board chairs across the country assign, on average, a C+ to their board’s overall composition. Perhaps more concerning, just 20% of nonprofit chief executives indicate they have the right board members in place to accomplish mission. The majority of chief executives (58%) indicate that it is difficult to find new board members.

    The picture seems bleak, doesn’t it? Nonprofits lack the governing boards they need to accomplish mission while, at the same time, nonprofit leaders feel stymied in their effort to recruit talented, fresh, energized new board members.

    Despite facing these very real challenges in board development, the nonprofit sector is overlooking an important pool of talent: namely, earlier-career professionals. BoardSource found that 84% of elected board members sitting in boardrooms across the country are over the age of 40, as are 91% of nonprofit CEOs. Essentially, a generation of talented professionals is currently sitting on the governance sidelines, left warming the bench.

    What a mistake. Earlier-career professionals offer relevant expertise in skill areas of importance to any 501(c)(3) organization including technology, finance, strategy, marketing, communications, and human resources. They tend to enjoy large networks of colleagues and friends eager to make a difference and engage in their community. Many of these professionals work for top companies in our communities that support board service through volunteer time out of the office, employee matching gifts, training opportunities, and dollars-for-doers programs. They have the ability to infuse energy, enthusiasm and new points of view into the board room, perhaps even shifting board culture over time, strengthening a governing body’s overall level of engagement.

    But are they good investments? Given the amount of time it takes to find, recruit, vet, nominate, elect and onboard a new board member, will positive returns flow from an earlier-career professional? Will they be interested in serving for the right reasons? Or will their actions prove consistent with the label too easily assigned to Millennials: The Me Generation?

    Our firm, Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, recently collaborated withThe Heckscher Foundation for Children and three top companies based in New York City to recruit, place, train and support next generation board members for 16 children and youth serving nonprofit boards. What we learned through this program, called BoardLead, was heartening and reinforced what we believed going in: earlier-career professionals are a tremendous — though largely untapped — source of talent for nonprofit boards.

    Some context: We presented the opportunity to 112 professionals in their 20s and 30s at our three collaborating companies in June and July of 2015. After learning what nonprofit board service entails — the commitment, fiduciary duties, expectations, key roles and the like — 66 candidates applied for a seat on a board. The group was relatively diverse: 67% of applicants were female; 23% African American, 12% Asian, and 5% Hispanic or Latino. Almost all were under the age of 40. Through our comprehensive application process, we gathered a great deal of information about the personal backgrounds and interests of these candidates, providing a compelling glimpse into the profile of a next generation board member.

    They are Involvement-Seekers, Not Resume-Builders

    When asked to identify their top motivations for wanting to serve, BoardLead candidates overwhelming pointed to a desire to roll up their sleeves and get involved.

    • Make a positive impact on the community (74% of respondents)
    • Work on an issue I care about (73%)
    • Use my skills in a different operating environment (52%)

    Motivations that are more self-focused in nature were much less important to our earlier-career candidates:

    • Build my professional network (23%)
    • Collaborate with community leaders (18%)
    • Add a leadership experience to my resume (11%)

    They are Ready to Invest Time, But Meeting Structure Matters

    Because they are Involvement-Seekers, earlier-career professionals aren’t interested in board service solely to attend 4 or 6 meetings a year. Rather, they want to get to work. They want to make an impact. In fact, 74% of our board candidates indicate that they are prepared to dedicate 6 0r more hours per month to their organization.

    How are you engaging your board members between meetings? Are you giving them opportunities outside of the boardroom to make an impact utilizing their core strengths?

    Of course, despite their interest in a more well-rounded approach to governance, as we preach to all of our board candidates, presence matters. A highly-engaged board member must prepare for, attend and participate in all board meetings.  Yet, for this age group more than most, the day of the week and the time of the meeting is an important consideration. We discovered that 98% of our earlier-career professionals can attend board meetings on weekday evenings, but just 42% are able to attend during work hours. This makes sense. At an earlier stage in one’s career, a professional simply has less flexibility to arrive late or leave early to meet other personal and professional commitments.

    Have you structured board service in ways that will work for the full range of professionals in your community?

    They Stand Prepared to Both Give and Get

    Though their pockets may not be as deep as more senior members of the board, earlier-career professionals are prepared to make annual contributions to support the organization. Of the candidates we worked with this year through BoardLead, 86% plan to give $1000 or more as an annual contribution, half will give $2500, and an impressive one-third will give $5000 or more.

    They also stand ready to commit to a give/get expectation. Fully 97% indicated they would participate in their organization’s fundraising effort and 44% indicated they would expect to raise at least $5000 each year from their network.

    NextGen Board Members “Got Skills

    Self-aware that their highest and greatest use to a nonprofit will not rest in making $25,000 or $50,000 annual contributions, earlier-career professionals are eager to leverage their core skill set from a seat on the board. Because they are Involvement-Seekers, they see for themselves a key role in engaging their talents as much as their treasure, network and time.

    Consider the vast array of skills that are flowing into nonprofits through the next generation board members we are placing from just three companies in NYC: finance and financial management, strategy and strategy management, marketing, IT, start-up experience, executive management, human resources, communications and PR, legal, real estate, accounting, event planning and the like.  The list goes on and on.

    In my next post, I’ll share specifics about what we are doing to successfully recruit and engage earlier-career professionals for nonprofit boards. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you’ve discovered through your experiences. Join the conversation by commenting below.

    Robert B. Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting social enterprise that partners with foundations, corporations and social good organizations to help nonprofits achieve their missions fueled by great leadership, great strategy and, most importantly, great results.  Visit us at


    3 Leadership Lessons Learned Over a Latte

    60CauseKit, Leadership May, 15

    In light of my five coffees-a-day cravings, there are few things I know more about than the way dozens of Starbucks stores operate around New York City. I can tell anyone needing a Grande Americano where to expect to wait ten minutes, where your dog will and will not be welcome, where you’ll find artists sitting around chatting, where the bathrooms are particularly clean, and where there isn’t enough room to hold a comfortable conversation with a friend. In short, I would modestly submit that I am a Starbucks expert in my city.

    Because of this carefully honed expertise, when I moved to midtown and started daily visiting a new Starbucks location I immediately and instinctively knew that something was very different. From the staff’s hearty “Good Morning!” the moment a customer opened the door, to the short lines reflecting efficient service, to the authentic smiles that shaped the faces of each employee – each day’s visit was remarkably pleasant. Even the condiment bar – that scary nook in every Starbucks where it generally appears a small world war has just occurred on its granite surface – was organized and clean.

    Morning after morning refreshingly surpassed my expectations so – as a student of leadership – I began trying to figure out who was running the show. It didn’t take long to realize it was the youthful looking guy taking on every task from barista to cash register to cleaner. Everyday he would buzz around the floor wearing a Starbucks ball cap, his face most notable for his regal nose and radiant smile. He seemed to be talking constantly: greeting customers, praising his staff or offering them direction. After months of observation, I couldn’t resist. I had to know more. In an awkward exchange, I gave him my card and asked him to call me. With some degree of skepticism on his face, I promised that I was just hoping to ask him a few questions about his leadership style. I would later learn that his name was Branden Gallia, the 28-year-old store manager of the Starbucks on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan.

    Gallia’s first management job was as an electronics department manager at a Walmart store in Texas. He left there to take an assistant store manager position at Starbucks before moving to New York City. Branden is one of the most impressive team leaders I have ever witnessed in action.

    I was anxious to understand Branden’s leadership approach, so after hounding him for weeks he finally invited me to meet with him in the backroom of his store. We sat down at a relatively unruly desk positioned amidst a dizzying array of shelves holding rows of paper binders, mountains of empty cups, and countless boxes of product. An hour and a half passed as though it were ten minutes.

    Peppering Gallia with dozens of questions that morning, three themes emerged that capture his leadership philosophy. Each serves as guiding principles that inform Branden’s day to day approach. Let’s call it The Branden Way.

    First, understand what your customers need and then build a team to deliver it to them.

    When Gallia took over the store two years ago, he fired the staff he inherited in its entirety. After giving them all a chance, not one employee survived. I asked why.

    “They couldn’t give me what I needed.”

    As we explored this further, it struck me that Branden has perfect clarity on what his customers need and, in turn, what he needs out of his team.

    “In New York City, I hire for three things: speed, the ability for me to show you how to do something once and you’ve got it, and then friendliness. At my store in Texas, what mattered most was how employees would engage with people. That’s de-prioritized in this store because 90 out of 100 of our customers here don’t care if you smile at them. They just want to get in and out in less than two minutes. They don’t want their routines messed with. Unlike in Texas, they don’t come in for experiences. They find those on their personal time.”

    So personality doesn’t matter in your hiring?

    “Well, we try to give our customers speed and personality. But speed matters most.”

    With clarity around the competencies he hires for, I asked Gallia how he identifies these characteristics out of a batch of job seekers. The short answer is that Branden essentially throws out the script. “Starbucks has a set of behavioral questions we are supposed to ask. Honestly, I don’t use them. Instead, I start with a conversation. I get to know them. ‘Hey, I’m just a regular guy and we are having a chat, so don’t be nervous.’”

    But a chat can only go so far. How do you identify strong applicants who will be able to deliver what you need for your customers?

    “That’s easy. I ask, ‘Why are you here?’ If they communicate that they want a job, they need x amount per hour, etc., they’re wrong for my store. If they make me feel like they appreciate people, they’re in.” Branden continued, “Look, the pool of applicants we get is the same one as those applying for fast food restaurants. We have to develop our team into people who care about our customers.”

    Pushing a bit further, I asked, “If forced to narrow it down to the one most important characteristic you look for in a hiring decision, what would it be? “

    Branden paused – smirking a bit out of the side of his mouth – and then responded, “All of my peer store managers think I’m crazy. They say I hire the misfits.” He then went off the record, sharing his very personal story and the difficult challenges he has individually confronted. “Look, I know what it’s like to struggle in life. I like to help people get their lives on the right track.”

    Branden shared the story of one team member who came into the store looking for a job while she was homeless, literally sleeping on a bench. The applicant caught Branden’s attention because she was smiling and seemed really eager. “I made her jump through hoops.” He continued, “Look, everyone will say, ‘I really want this job.’ That’s a line. I made her prove it to me, coming back multiple times before offering her the job despite a very long commute from her neighborhood.”

    Branden then added, “But Mark is my biggest claim to fame. I hired him before I opened the store and trained him myself: from barista, to barista trainer, to shift supervisor, to assistant store manager. He’ll be a store manager within a year. He was a misfit too. I look at him now and think, ‘Wow, he’s just like me.'”

    Second, develop passion in your employees. Help them tap into a deeper motivation.

    In the social good sector where I’ve spent most of my career, passion for the work is largely built-in. Even when performing the most mundane of tasks, employees can reflect for a moment on the question, “Why am I here?” and quickly tap into the motivation behind their work.

    The same is not always true in the for-profit sector. The linkage to purpose is often much less clear. As my good friend (and former boss) Aaron Hurst argues in his book The Purpose Economy, in the new economic era “value lies in establishing purpose for employees…through serving needs greater than their own. It is driven by connecting people to their purpose.”

    Gallia inherently gets Hurst’s point. Branden explained, “I have always been able to get loyalty out of people who work for me because I build in a sense of pride. You get loyalty by creating passion within your employees.”

    I asked, “What does passion at work look like for a barista?”

    “If it’s just about that cup of coffee you won’t get your people excited, so I tell them, ‘I need you to make somebody’s day today.’ If I can help them make a connection with our customers, it will give them a sense of pride in their work.”

    Branden’s core instructive to his team: “We’re going to help people today. We’re not just going to serve them a cup of coffee.”

    While that is clearly Gallia’s clarion call to his team, I believe Branden’s motivating passion – his imperative, as Hurst would call it – is different. For Gallia, it’s about helping people get their lives on the right track and then growing them into their fully actualized selves.

    Third, model for your employees what you need them to be.

    “As a leader,” I asked, “what do you consider your secret sauce?”

    Branden’s response reflected what I had observed day after day from the other side of the counter at his store. “It’s got to be about people and modeling what I want to see in them. Everything I ask them to do, I do and show them myself.”

    The idea of training a new employee through onboarding materials, instructional videos, or a training department would be foreign to Gallia. He believes in an up-close-and-personal approach. “My boss once asked me to go to other stores in the district. He wanted me to talk to their employees to help them elevate. But that just doesn’t work. They can’t do what they’re told. They have to see it.”

    When I asked Branden to tell me his biggest moment of pride as a leader, without hesitating he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “Actually, I think that just happened yesterday. One of the guys at my last store called while I was working and left me a voice message.” He pushed play:

    “Hey B. I just wanted you to know I got assistant manager. I wouldn’t have got itwithout you, man. Every day you coached me to do the right thing, play by the book, be the best I can. You’re one of the main reasons I got that job and I wanted to say thanks.”

    I asked Branden to tell me more. “Oh, he was a barista – very shy but very talented. His mom was one of our regular customers and asked me one day if I’d hire her son. I sat down with him and decided to give it a try. Obviously he was a good bet.”

    At that moment – perhaps with a bit of serendipity hovering in the air – Mark, the assistant manager who Branden reference as his claim-to-fame earlier, walked in:

    “What’s up, Mark?”

    “Just got a $40 tip.”


    “Yeah, the customer gave it to me but I put it in the tip jar.”

    “Was the tip for you or the team?” Branden asked.

    “He said it was for me, but I put it in the jar.”

    “That’s awesome. You’re a good man!”

    As Mark walked out, Gallia continued his thought, “My ultimate goal is to effect change in people. It gives me a sense of pride. If I’m a worker bee, I won’t feel a sense of contentment at the end of the night. Filing the right paperwork just doesn’t do it for me. But if I can help someone get to another level, my job is completely fulfilling.”

    Final Insight

    With time having run out 30 minutes earlier, I fired off one last question. “In your view, what makes your Starbucks different from every other Starbucks in New York City?”

    Then — silence. Branden sat quietly thinking about the question. The phone rang and he ignored it. The stillness went on for at least 90 full seconds. He even chuckled to himself at one point, but said nothing. It dawned on me that he wanted to get his answer just right.

    At that moment – mercifully breaking the silence – another one of his team members walked in. He shot the question to her: “Asia, what makes us different from every other Starbucks in the city?”

    Without hesitation, Asia fired back, “We’re fast.”

    He replied, “There aren’t other fast stores in the city?”

    “They’re fast, but we’re faster. Plus, we’re more friendly. We’re pulling customers from other coffee shops in the neighborhood. They come over and complain about the other stores: not fast, not friendly, don’t smile.”

    Building on Asia’s comments, Branden was finally ready to offer his own. “It’s bigger than that. There are other stores that have some of those things. Here we have a level of commitment to doing our best, even when we fall short of it. We have intrinsic motivation behind our service. The training is the other big difference.”

    Asia nodded in agreement and headed back to the front to make the day of yet another busy New Yorker.

    Robert B. Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting practice headquartered in Manhattan.

    Robert Acton
    Rob Acton is Principal & Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, a purpose-driven social enterprise that believes in harnessing the power of business for social good. We are proud to be a Certified B Corporation. BoardLead is our signature board recruitment, placement, training and support program. In 2016, Cause Strategy Partners was named an inaugural honoree of the Best for NYC Award for demonstrated outstanding commitment to the community where we live and work. Learn more by visiting

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