Where organizations go to grow: Sound Waters reports on the CNE

Apr 22, 2016

Originally appeared on CT Post Blog

Leigh Shemitz, President

“If you haven’t discovered the Center for Nonprofit Excellence yet, I have really great news: you’re about to discover an absolute gem. If you haven’t yet had an opportunity to experience their offerings, start yesterday. Your nonprofit will see a difference in how you operate, how you communicate and how you meet your mission.” – Leigh Shemitz, President of SoundWaters

To SoundWaters President Leigh Shemitz, the work being done through the Center for Nonprofit Excellence (the CNE) is how Fairfield County’s Community Foundation “walks the walk.” As one arm of the Community Foundation’s operations, the CNE serves as a trusted resource for Fairfield County nonprofits, helping organizations to build infrastructure and knowledge – and allowing the Community Foundation to deliver on its vision of collaborating with local partners to create lasting change.

“We’ve all set a goal,” says Shemitz. “What the CNE offers are tools to achieve that goal. Our organization runs better because of the skills and training we get, and it definitely supports our mission dramatically.”

SoundWaters, a nonprofit that works to protect Long Island Sound through education, has benefited from a wide menu of services available through the CNE, from collaborative team trainings to peer learning sessions for executives. As the educational nonprofit continues to grow and thrive, Shemitz sees the relationship between SoundWaters and the CNE continuing far into the future.

“We definitely turn to the CNE as our primary training resource,” says Shemitz. “It’s our go-to place.”

Developing operations and fostering leadership

Fairfield County’s Community Foundation’s Center for Nonprofit Excellence has been a key partner in helping SoundWaters to implement best practices in essential areas such as effective fundraising, proactive planning and clarity of mission. Offerings like Results Based Accountability training, donor retention workshops, financial management presentations and resource fairs have all made an impact.

“Elaine (Mintz, Director of the CNE) and the team have put together a great depth of offerings,” says Shemitz. “There are a range of different trainings across areas.”

For instance, recalls Shemitz, when SoundWaters was just embarking on the creation of an Annual Report, key staff members found guidance through a presentation offered by the CNE. The training answered questions about basic principles of design and context, helped staff to set the “rules of the road” for the first Annual Report – and even to identify a direction for the next few years.

“The presentation totally transformed how we thought about the Annual Report, and how we approached it,” says Shemitz.

On a personal level, the CNE’s Executive Leadership Program, a model that brings nonprofit executives together regularly for peer-to-peer learning and collaboration, has been “a huge growth point” for Shemitz. Initially, fitting more meetings into her already-busy schedule seemed daunting. But the time investment has paid off exponentially, providing Shemitz with a greater sense of the tools available to her and the ways she can impact her organization’s mission.

“It has exceeded my expectations,” says Shemitz of the leadership program. “The quality of the people around the table and the level of facilitation provided make it an engaging, challenging space…but also a safe space. I think I’m a more intentional leader because of the Executive Leadership Program.”

It’s not just the practical and academic knowledge offered through the CNE that have impacted the quality, variety and creativity of SoundWaters’ programs. The CNE also acts as a hub for local organizations to network and collaborate, by serving as a common ground where nonprofit leaders come together.

“It’s a wonderful forum for meeting my colleagues,” says Shemitz. “That’s how some of our projects and partnerships arise. It all comes down to relationships, and it’s had so much impact on our programs.”

What makes the Center for Nonprofit Excellence stand out?

For Shemitz, the caliber of the CNE’s offerings, as well as their accessibility and relevance to SoundWaters, makes the center a “first stop” for developing and educating the organization’s staff, board members, volunteers and leaders.

After interacting with the CNE for eight years, Shemitz has seen enough to trust that trainings and programs will show consistent high quality. That makes it easier to commit busy staff to the time investment required to participate in the CNE’s offerings.

“If the topic works for us, I know that it will be quality training,” says Shemitz. “It will be time well spent.”

The CNE’s accessibility also makes it easier for SoundWaters to engage in team development. As a local resource for Fairfield County nonprofits, team members don’t have to travel far to attend a workshop or presentation. That leaves staff with more time to focus on mission-critical tasks, and eliminates the costly travel expenses like airfare and hotel stays.

The latter, says Shemitz, is a critical point. While nonprofits are pressured to put dollars towards their direct mission and reduce administration costs, organizations also need to develop infrastructure, leadership and organizational processes to deliver their mission. The CNE helps nonprofits to achieve both goals by offering high quality training and development at a very low cost.

“We wouldn’t do it otherwise,” says Shemitz bluntly. “We just don’t have a massive budget for training, and there are so many pressing concerns to address with the resources we do have. The CNE makes it affordable, and it’s the best.”

For SoundWaters, one final factor that sets the CNE apart are the personal relationships that have been established with the Center for Nonprofit Excellence’s team members. By getting to know nonprofits working in Fairfield County on a personal basis, the CNE can serve the organizations better and connect on a deeper level.

“It’s not just an email and a website,” says Shemitz of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence. “It’s a known quantity because of Elaine (Mintz). She is the face and voice of the CNE, and I think it’s an important element of its success.”

Looking forward to continued growth

As the saying goes, change is the only constant. The larger world continues to evolve, and Shemitz knows SoundWaters too must look ahead and be ready to adapt to change as it comes. She fully expects that the Center for Nonprofit Excellence will grow alongside her organization and help lead the way into the future.

Shemitz has been impressed by the evolution of the CNE’s offerings, with new programs and training formats brought onto the scene year after year rather than a rehashing of old topics and presentations.

“The CNE always seems a little bit ahead of the curve,” says Shemitz. “They’re not standing still, and there is a lot of creativity going on behind the scenes.”

That’s what she wants for SoundWaters, too. And engaging team members with the Center for Nonprofit Excellence has yielded demonstrable results.

“I’ve watched individuals grow, and our organization grow,” says Shemitz. “The offerings help us to do our work better out in the field, and have also been really productive in individual growth. We can follow through on our promise because of the tools offered through the Center for Nonprofit Excellence.”


As a trusted nonprofit partner and thought leader, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation brings together community organizers, business experts and philanthropists to solve our region’s challenges. Our goal is to create a vital and inclusive community, where every individual has the opportunity to thrive. Learn about available resources and how you can support the work being done through the Community Foundation by visiting the Center for Nonprofit Excellence on the web.

Together we thrive.