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Friday, 04 December 2015 13:31

West Michigan nonprofit executives share insights into creating entrepreneurial organizations

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Vera Beech (far right) speaks as a member of the Best-Managed Nonprofits panel on Thursday, Dec. 3 in Grand Rapids. Vera Beech (far right) speaks as a member of the Best-Managed Nonprofits panel on Thursday, Dec. 3 in Grand Rapids. PHOTO: Katy Batdorff

GRAND RAPIDS — Identifying sources of best practices and talent — and then cultivating that talent — are two key steps in creating an innovative, entrepreneurial nonprofit organization.

That’s according to a panel of West Michigan nonprofit executives who gathered on Thursday at the Studio D2D Event Center in Grand Rapids for the 2015 MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards, presented in cooperation with Grand Valley State University’s Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.

This year’s event specifically honored organizations that have acted entrepreneurially over the last year to further their missions. During the panel discussion with awardees, local executives spoke about how to capture that entrepreneurial spirit, starting with finding sources of best practices to mimic.

“A lot of the ideas we get come from benchmarking ourselves and our peers — not just in Michigan, but across the country,” said Todd Gustafson, executive director of Benton Harbor-based Kinexus, which was a winner in the over $3 million budget category. “It also comes from connecting with subject matter experts — the best of the best people — and it could be anywhere from Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. It’s not just connecting with their ideas, but also building relationships.”

One sentiment that was echoed throughout the panel was developing practices based on the needs of the clients that the organizations serve. Too often, organizations will provide services they assume consumers will find valuable.

“The one thing that is essential to us is that we listen to our consumers,” said Vera Beech, executive director of Grand Rapids-based Community Rebuilders. Beech was honored with the Professional Achievement Award. “That way, we know that our services are directly providing what (consumers) are finding most useful and valuable.”

Michael Merren, executive director of The Pantry in Grand Rapids (less than $1 million category winner), was one panelist to share a story of how his organization pivoted and developed a new operational method to meet a clear need.

When traditional food drives began to slow down and serve the food pantry less effectively, Merren and his team developed an online store where potential donors could purchase food for The Pantry — and do so at the heavily discounted prices that the organization gets through partnerships with food providers.

At least one other local food pantry is considering the online store infrastructure as a possible way to streamline food donations and maximize value for each donation dollar.

The panelists also spoke at length about the concept of finding and cultivating talent, with some labeling it as the key factor to creating an entrepreneurial environment.

“You can’t just be an entrepreneur (as an organization) — you have to find the right people and empower them and put them in a position where they can succeed,” Gustafson said. “The problems we face are complex and many of the problems we are facing, our parents and grandparents faced them. Why can’t we solve them in a sustainable or systemic way? You’ve got to find talent.”

As reports of talent shortages emerge from a number of different industries, the nonprofit sector is not immune. Panelists acknowledged how competitive it can be to find talent, which explains why an organization needs an attractive sales pitch to offer potential employees.

For Indian Trails Camp, which was honored as the winner in the $1 to $3 million category, it’s a promise of a valuable educational experience.

“One of the things we really try to do is sell the fact that we’re going to train you and equip you and you’re probably not going to work for us the rest of your life, but we provide a great culture so you can go out and change the world with those values,” said Tim Hileman, executive director of Indian Trails.

In discussing the sector’s new crop of talent, the panel also tackled questions about millennials and how to address this mammoth demographic group that will one day be taking over many of their organizations.

“I find that (millennials) are very interested in working in the community and are very community-minded,” Merren said. “It’s important that you give them opportunities where they can apply their talent how they want instead of how you think they should.”

CLICK HERE to read feature stories on all of this year’s Best-Managed Nonprofits winners and finalists.

Read 6050 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 00:06
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

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