What Our CFO Did at the White House

Guest post by Denise Howell, VolunteerMatch CFO

White House Forum on Nonprofit LeadershipI recently attended the White House Forum on Nonprofit Leadership. The focus of the day was how those of us charged with leadership in America’s nonprofits can build sustainability and ensure our success in solving compelling social issues by investing in our “people infrastructure” – our human capital. More importantly, how can we build partnerships across sectors to achieve our goals? The gathering included government, foundation and nonprofit leaders throughout the country. [pullquote]The role of a leader is to define reality and give hope.[/pullquote]

It was an intense, content-packed day, with several addresses and panel sessions leading into 3-hour working sessions. Among others, the White House partnered with American Express, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Aspen Institute Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, the Independent Sector and additional partners including the American Red Cross, Network for Good and Reimagining Service.

So why is the White House involved? Melody Barnes, the President’s top domestic policy advisor, addressed this question. Ms. Barnes reaffirmed the President’s strong support of the nonprofit sector as well as his deep personal involvement. She also emphasized that, as the largest investor of nonprofits nationwide, the federal government has a vested interest in our sector’s success. She cited the success of YouthBuild, whose Founder and President, Dorothy Stoneman, was participating in the day’s events.

Ms. Barnes’ words resonated for me personally, too. As the former Director of Contracts with Catholic Charities CYO in San Francisco, I was charged with programmatic and financial oversight of $25-$30 million annually in federal grants, which represented 60-65% of our funding. Even with major philanthropic support and program service fees, many organizations depend on the federal government to support the societal needs met by our programs.

Dr. William Spriggs, the Assistant Secretary for Policy with the U.S. Department of Labor, spoke to the nonprofit sector’s importance – nonprofits are the 3rd largest employment sector in the United States. We need to think about what makes us different as an employer. One factor is that the customers of our services aren’t usually the ones paying for the service. So how do we measure and effectively communicate that we are meeting the demands of our constituents and make that information accessible to the public?

Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, voiced concern that nonprofits are often marginalized and dismissed because we are not involved in the creation of wealth generating opportunities. This frustrates me because it’s the antithesis of what our sector is about: solving compelling social problems with innovative approaches and empowering individuals and communities. While nonprofits don’t generate direct wealth, the services are part of the economic underpinnings of our nation. To define “wealth” as direct dollar in/dollar out misses the point of true wealth.

Some critical questions we tackled throughout the day’s discussions:

  • How do we build a generational leadership pipeline? Helping young people with passion for their community (both local and global) develop the skills to step into critical roles and become our peers and colleagues is a major challenge for the nonprofit sector.
  • How do we build a cultural bridge between generations who share passion, immediacy, and accountability but are not aligned in their approach?
  • How do we build a powerful infrastructure that supports career trajectories? AmeriCorps, whose presence was strong at the Forum, was identified as being particularly successful in meeting this challenge.
  • How do we become more data savvy and use proven strategies to leverage our passion and commitment to justice and public good?
  • How do we maintain alignment and build sustainability in our services by attracting, developing and retaining the best talent across private, government and nonprofit sectors?

During the 3-hour long working group session I attended the Scaling Social Innovations section, facilitated by Commongood Careers CEO James Weinberg. James made it clear early on that there would be no lunch until he was satisfied that we were well on our way toward critical thinking about what leadership means to us personally, organizationally and with those outside of our organizations but clearly vested in our success.

With that in mind, we shared our ideas for scaling what small, innovative, entrepreneurial nonprofits (like VolunteerMatch!) have achieved and how to overcome barriers to success. For goals and strategies developed in our session, as well as the other 4 working sessions click here.

In the afternoon, we shared our group goals and listened as American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault addressed the group on how corporate philanthropy can help us maximize our social impact. In selecting their signature philanthropic focus – leadership academies involving their executives – they believe strongly that they are meeting a deep societal need by helping America’s nonprofit sector strengthen its leadership and leadership potential in future years. Their investment in the past four years is $25 million and they plan to continue.

Mr. Chenault also serves on the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. He spoke about the complexity of defining leadership – but shared with us his preferred definition of a leader, along with critical leadership qualities:

The role of a leader is to define reality and give hope.


  1. Strong individual brand – emotional connection to your work.
  2. Integrity and COURAGE – Speak your convictions, take a stand.
  3. Authenticity – You must be yourself, not an idea of what someone in your role “should” be.
  4. Accountability and execution.
  5. Decisiveness AND compassion. Genuine concern and compassion for people – realize the effect that your decisions have on their lives.
  6. Adaptability. The only constant is change.
  7. It’s good to be emotional – no one does or should expect a leader to be perfect. Just don’t hide in your office. Maintain your composure, but don’t be afraid to show emotion.
  8. Don’t be quick to view “team players” as leaders. The “team player” gets along with people and doesn’t ruffle feathers. This is not a leadership quality. The better questions regarding team players vs. team leaders: Does your team win?  What do YOU sacrifice to ensure your team’s success?  If someone needs your help, where are you?

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, closed the day. She emphasized that leadership lies in execution. If we don’t execute, we are experts at best, but not leaders. She thanked us for our hard work during the day, for coming together and for being committed to take what we learned with us back to our organizations and build upon the ideas discussed.

I left the Forum excited to share the content with my team at VolunteerMatch (and all of you) and I’m certainly looking forward to following up on the important work begun there.

Do you have ideas for how to overcome the challenges presented at the Forum? Share them below!

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