As the chief executive officer of the Nonprofit Leadership Center of Tampa Bay, Grace Armstrong doesn't just strive to provide affordable training and coaching to nonprofits, she aims to have the center serve as a conduit between nonprofits and for-profit companies. • She recognized that bringing together leaders from both entities generated a tangible energy. It created joyful networking instead of obligatory meet-and-greet sessions. That's why the center's third annual leadership conference on Friday at the A la Carte Pavilion will feature presenters whose information can benefit a variety of businesses. • "The leadership conference will convene people from our community interested in growing their companies," Armstrong said. "We're going to address customer and employee engagement in a very engaging way. Jon Acuff, who is part of the Dave Ramsey team, is a smart and charming young man. • "He's going to talk about starting now to make your life awesome and how to take your life from mediocre or average to awesome. Who wouldn't want to hear that message? Whether you're a for-profit or nonprofit, we all want to be awesome." • Armstrong recently spoke with Times columnist Ernest Hooper about the conference, the challenges of running the leadership center and how her improving golf game helps shape her advice for nonprofits.
How has your conference changed in its first three years?
We are a small nonprofit with only four staff members and a very nice board, so our goal initially was to bring people together from the nonprofit sector and talk about something important. What we discovered is that it's good to bring together people from nonprofits and for-profits. Now our topics tend to be broad-based things important to companies in general, because nonprofits are businesses, too.
What's the biggest challenge you face at the center?
It's getting more nonprofit leaders and board members to come for education. People who serve on boards are already on a high level at their own businesses, and sometimes they think that all they need is their own business acumen. They tend to think they don't need training, but they come to our center and they find out a lot. They think, "Wow, I should have come sooner."
What are one or two of the biggest take-aways?
We talk a lot about not falling in love with your CEO. Often, there is a lovefest between the executive director or the CEO and the board, but the board's responsibility is oversight. They have to trust the person, but they can't relinquish their oversight. For example, if a nonprofit doesn't pay their payroll taxes — and they might find this hard to believe — the board members can be sued directly. Some things the board wouldn't be sued for, but that's the one thing they can be sued for. The other thing is conflict of interest. Conflict of interest always has a negative connotation, but nonprofits need to have a conflict of interest policy. When the nonprofit deals with other companies, maybe a board member's company, how the conflict is disclosed can either get you in trouble or allay everyone's concerns about how it's handled.
What gets you up and going every morning?
We get to meet so many people, so every day at work is a new day. We have our training center, so we have groups of people coming in almost every day. When they leave, people leave with smiles and a-ha moments. The enlightenment that comes with learning something new — I get to see that every day. That makes my job really fun. We also get to meet a lot of new businesses, and I like that, too. We're a gateway to the nonprofit sector. A lot of businesses that want to do business with nonprofits come to us and ask: "How can we partner with you? What can we do to get connected to nonprofits?"
With the economic downturn, I know fundraising is a problem for nonprofits. Is that the biggest challenge facing them?
I would say sustainability and uncertainty are the two biggest challenges. Many nonprofits, whether they have a lot of funding sources or not a lot of funding sources, have to focus on that. There are very few nonprofits that can count on a foundation giving a big gift every year. They can never be sure if it's coming next year. We talk a lot about earned income, so they can have a source of revenue that they can control a little. With the economy, the demand for services from nonprofits is increasing, but the availability of dollars, especially from the government, is decreasing. There is a lot more demand from the private sector for monies. The nonprofits that are the most innovative and have the most active boards are in the best position to succeed.
I understand you're a big golfer.
When I met my husband 13 years ago, I didn't know the difference between a tee and a green. The first time I went out to play, I was wearing heels and a dress. That's the last time I did that. But my husband bought me some golf clubs. He would take me out late in the evening when no one else was on the course. He was my best first teacher. But I decided I needed another teacher. Jennifer Cully at Apollo Beach, rated one of the top 50 teachers in the United States, made all the difference in my game. From a 40 handicap, I'm now a 16 handicap. I play pretty well now for an amateur. We get to travel (and play golf). It's something my husband and I have in common. It's our Sunday date every single Sunday. It's wonderful.
Has learning golf helped with your business work?
At the nonprofit leadership center, we liken it to my experience in golf. You have to have a good teacher, and we talk about how a good teacher has made a big difference in my life. When you talk about the courage needed to have a good fundraiser, you have to have a good teacher — and our teachers are good. Our teachers can change your life, too. I liken my golf experience to what we do every single day. We have good teachers, and I just don't say that, I mean it.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.