Money with a Mission: An Interview with Denise Howell, VolunteerMatch’s CFO Extraordinaire

Our CFO, Denise Howell, is a trendsetter in more ways than one. It’s not just that she’s often spotted sporting a great pair of shoes. Through her experience in the world of banking, she brings a unique perspective to VolunteerMatch that helps us work more efficiently towards our goals.

I sat down with Denise last week to talk about her financial expertise in the nonprofit world, and how her passion influences her day-to-day activities that keep the VolunteerMatch office running like a well-oiled machine.

When did you initially become interested in nonprofit work?

When I was working in banking, I began volunteering. My passion for community service grew and later included serving on a committee to open doors to meaningful job opportunities for people with moderate to severe disabilities.

To be a part of that and see the change in people’s lives was so wonderful – incredibly talented people who hadn’t thought they were welcome in many career paths because of a disability. Our effort was to make sure they were welcome and their talents celebrated. These experiences stay with you in a way that your other business successes don’t.

How has your experience with VolunteerMatch broadened your outlook on nonprofit work?

I was initially introduced to social entrepreneurship… The approach pioneered in that case was impact investing – not just giving money, but investing in people and businesses that will lift them out of poverty through and with their own involvement.

On a broader level, I began to see how the direction of philanthropy was – is – changing. People are more engaged, we want to be a part of the process of creating change, solving problems, making a difference in the lives of those around us. This can be much more satisfying than to passively write a check once a year.

When it comes to financial contributions, many are left out. But our contributions can be huge when we participate as volunteers and engage with the people and causes/organizations we care about. We need the traditional philanthropy too, as it is deeply powerful, personal and meaningful to many people, but we need a bigger, more inclusive approach.

How does your perspective and experience help foster more sustainable nonprofits?

Sustainability is always the key question for any business – but more acutely for nonprofits. Many nonprofits have revenue sources that are limited in duration, too small in scope, or restricted as to their use, leaving them to constantly struggle with how to finance their mission.

My experience working with donors and nonprofits/foundations in planned giving has helped tremendously in structuring the sustainability of their missions. Building relationships which lead to funding endowments and charitable trusts, combined with prudent investing allow organizations to fund their operations for many years.

I also support building program services as an important element in sustainability. VolunteerMatch started its operations with major names in philanthropy and has become sustainable through its program services, which continue to grow each year.

What have you found that nonprofits generally struggle with in terms of making enough money to stay afloat? How do you suggest that nonprofit organizations deal with these problems?

In terms of helping nonprofits deal with the problems, the nonprofit needs to integrate their mission with why it is in the best interest of their community to support it – whether through philanthropy, a program service, etc. That must be the key question: Not what is this doing for us – but what is it doing for you. And building sources of revenue that support your organization for the long term, not just next quarter. This takes patience and careful planning.

How can nonprofits maximize their effectiveness and efficiency in dividing their funds?

Careful planning and budgeting, always keeping in mind what it is that you are here to do. Being efficient and effective requires thinking about the details and the big picture. 

What is the most enjoyable part of working at VolunteerMatch?

Working with such a dynamic, amazing group of people. When you work in an environment in which you are proud of what you contribute, while constantly learning from your colleagues, you grow personally and professionally. This is what I have here and I feel truly blessed.

Where do you see VolunteerMatch in ten years?

Definitely continuing to grow and serve more individuals and organizations in our current and also additional capacities. The vision that started our organization 12 years ago has led to a powerful community. I have no doubt that will continue!  I am excited and honored to be a part of the work!

Laura Weiss is an intern at VolunteerMatch. You can reach her at lweiss@volunteermatch.org.

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