Developing Nonprofit Leaders & Strengthening Fairfield County

Dec 19, 2017

As nonprofits work hand-in-hand with philanthropists to solve our region’s greatest challenges, success can rely on a key factor: developing strong, competent leaders.

Investing in the professional development of its leadership team can make an exponential impact on how well an organization delivers its mission. But in the nonprofit sector, a lack of discretionary funding can make this investment challenging.

“We’re always dealing with limited resources, and whatever funds we have available we’re trying to put into programming,” explains Matthew Quinones, Chief Executive Officer of the Stamford Public Education Foundation. “As a result, professional development doesn’t always happen for nonprofits. We are often looking for opportunities where it’s either free of charge or very minimal cost.”

Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Center for Nonprofit Excellence addresses this challenge by providing high-quality, low-cost training and resources to help regional nonprofits build capacity and make a powerful impact in the community. As a one-stop resource hub for Fairfield County’s nonprofit leaders, the Center provides a wealth of support that includes two peer learning programs that develop nonprofit leaders through group training and one-on-one coaching.

“Because of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, we’re able to take advantage of these development opportunities,” says Quinones. “The Center is absolutely our go-to resource. Nobody does it better, and really no one else is in the same league.”

Deepening knowledge and skills: the Executive Leadership Program

As Chief Executive Officer of the Stamford Public Education Foundation, Matthew Quinones is responsible for guiding his organization toward an ambitious vision: ensuring that every student in Stamford Public Schools graduates from high school prepared and inspired to be a productive member of society. The Foundation bridges the gap between students’ needs and community resources by providing programs and resources that range from tutoring and mentoring to book giveaways and after-school enrichment.

The 31-year-old Quinones, previously Stamford Public Education Foundation’s Director of Operations, brings energy and enthusiasm to both this job and several other leadership roles, including serving as a Lieutenant in the National Guard and as President of the City of Stamford’s Board of Representatives. To guide his growth as a leader, Quinones looks to the Center for Nonprofit Excellence as a trusted sounding board and resource.

For the past two years, Quinones has taken part in the Center’s Executive Leadership Program, a peer learning program that brings Executive Directors together once a month to collaborate, exchange best practices and explore ways to develop their skills and deliver impact. Participants also receive monthly one-on-one coaching sessions, working with to s seasoned staff members from the Center for Nonprofit Excellence to explore specific issues that impact their nonprofit.

For Quinones, this chance to get expert advice has been highly valuable. In his coaching sessions, he can talk through topics like structuring the organization, interacting effectively with the board, setting fundraising strategies and implementing new programming.

“That coaching has a tremendous effect on the organization,” says Quinones. “It gives me an opportunity to present very specific, unique issues I might be facing as a leader within our organization, and bounce ideas off of someone who has the experience and knows different tactics. I definitely benefit from that.”

In group sessions, talking with peers about best practices and hearing presentations from experts on a variety of content areas have increased the breadth of Quinones’s knowledge on the nonprofit sector and how to lead his organization.

“There are opportunities to hear from folks who are leaders in their industry,” he says. “I’ve been able to take the best practices shared and competencies learned, from marketing and branding to finance to advocacy work, and apply them throughout the organization.”

Like most nonprofits, the Stamford Public Education Foundation is always looking to maximize donor’s dollars, directing as much funding as possible to direct programming. Quinones says this makes it all the more vital that nonprofit leaders can access development opportunities at minimal or no cost through the Center for Nonprofit Excellence.

“This is the only way for us to be able to have these kind of professional development opportunities,” he notes.

Developing effective leadership: the Board Chair Roundtable Program

As the founding Board Chair of Neighbors Link Stamford, now Building One Community, Kathie Walsh faced a big task: helping to launch a nonprofit with a vision of building a united community, in which all immigrants are actively contributing members. Founded in 2011, Building One Community helps immigrants and their families succeed by providing tools like English language instruction, job skills training, personal support services and more.

The organization fills a much-needed role in Fairfield County, where immigrants make up 20% of the population. And in just a few years, the fledgling nonprofit’s staff, budget and program services had grown to a point where Walsh needed to guide board members to shift their focus away from the volunteer work of day-to-day operations, and towards making policy that would lead the nonprofit into the future.

During this period of change, Walsh found a valuable resource in the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s Board Chair Roundtable, a quarterly forum that connects Fairfield County nonprofit board chairs with their peers to share practical experience and take away real-time information. Joining the Roundtable in 2013 was a catalyst for both the growth of Walsh’s professional leadership skills, and the productivity of Building One Community’s board.

“The Roundtable program was incredibly helpful at so many levels as we worked through this transition,” recalls Walsh.

Through the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, Walsh received access to resources on many different topics, from connecting with expert consultants on board performance to securing pro bono assistance to work through bylaw changes. Walsh also learned how to help coordinate her board’s transition into higher-level roles like envisioning where the organization was headed, setting impact goals and ways to measure performance, and guiding staff members to grow in their jobs.

“We got tools like self-evaluations for board members, and training to engage them in fundraising,” recalls Walsh. “It really helped to keep board members excited and engaged.”

Walsh also learned and adopted strategies for keeping meetings on track, from setting a consent agenda to creating a “parking lot” for ideas to be explored at a later time. With these techniques, she saw that board members were able to accomplish more in a limited amount of time.

“It made us more effective and productive in our both our board meetings and committee work,” Walsh recalls.

She credits this increased productivity, along with training from the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, as one key factor in the fledgling nonprofit’s exponential growth.

“We got to be better at fundraising because of the relationship with the Center for Nonprofit Excellence,” says Walsh, noting that the organization’s annual budget doubled from $500,0000 to $1 million during this time.

In addition to learning from the Center’s expert staff and industry presenters, the ability to talk with other Fairfield County nonprofit board chairs about best practices helped Walsh to lead her own board forward.

“We were very new,” says Walsh. “Being able to hear what tools others had used successfully was extremely valuable for us.”

Building One Community would not have been in a position to tap into this wealth of expert knowledge from both industry leaders and regional peers without the Center for Nonprofit Excellence, she adds.

“We wouldn’t have been able to afford it,” she notes. “It’s not something that any single nonprofit can do by itself.”

Convening leaders to build a stronger nonprofit community

Besides developing personal leadership skills that made a direct impact for their organizations, both Walsh and Quinones say the Center for Nonprofit Excellence is making a difference for Fairfield County’s nonprofit community through the simple act of creating a place where leaders can come together.

It’s a positive environment where leaders can find both great advice, and a listening ear and encouragement from others in their shoes.

“Being a nonprofit leader can be a lonely position,” says Quinones. “The Executive Leadership Program is really a support group.”

And when like-minded nonprofit leaders come together, it’s inevitable that they will find ways to work together and make a greater impact in Fairfield County.

“These organizations may have different missions, but we’re all aligned in terms of trying to better our community,” says Quinones. “In bringing all these nonprofit heads together, it results in collaborations that deliver results and impact.”

Walsh agrees – and adds that the Center for Nonprofit Excellence adds value for donors and makes a real difference in the community by giving regional nonprofits an opportunity to learn from experts and each other.

“The Center for Nonprofit is the respected convener of nonprofits in Fairfield County,” says Walsh. “It’s who each organization looks to, whether for intellectual or financial resources. Countywide, it’s building a shared knowledge base and a use of best practices. And it makes us, as a whole, a lot more effective.”

One donation to the Center for Nonprofit Excellence can help provide training and resources to hundreds of nonprofits – touching the lives of thousands of people who receive services. Donate today, and amplify your impact for the future of Fairfield County.