Nonprofit leaders gather online to kick off Wipfli National Training Conference

Oct 15, 2020

The 21st Annual Wipfli National Training Conference held its opening session Tuesday, meeting online due to the pandemic. Attendees at the opening session were treated to inspiring talks from three accomplished nonprofit leaders who addressed various aspects of the current emergency and how to thrive despite it and a prestigious award was given for innovation excellence.

Though virtual, the October 12–16 event is structured like a physical conference with a full schedule of multiple sessions running concurrently. The abundance of content at the national training conference is designed to help nonprofit leaders and organizations address the new challenges and opportunities of this year and emerge stronger to serve.

Attendees at the opening session earned two hours of continuing professional education credit by responding to periodic poll questions. Additional credit is available throughout the five-day conference. Random drawings are also a feature of the virtual conference, awarding gifts including a membership in the My Wipfli subscription site.

Helping kids with grit and grace

Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, described in a prerecorded message how Head Start has responded to the coronavirus. During the initial lockdown they helped families have access to nutritional meals, diapers and necessities by partnering with food banks and other nonprofits.

Now that kids are back in classes, they are taking precautions like temperature screening, smaller class sizes and more frequent cleaning. “Teachers, staff and families have all rolled with the changes with grit and with grace,” Vinci said. She described how Head Start programs are also presenting Kitchen Table Talks each week to support each other and their partners, including talks with Wipfli focused on cybersecurity. This is an example of how “change has also created space for new opportunities,” Vinci said.

A tough job

In the first keynote address, Matt George, CEO of the Children's Home Association of Illinois, talked about the heightened importance of empathy during the pandemic, both for clients and employees and their families. “You really have to have the passion for the job,” said George, “but you have to have the compassion for each other. The compassion piece is always overlooked and not talked about enough.”

In responding to the pandemic, George said, “Nonprofit workers are essential workers, social service agency workers are essential workers, and I think people forget that.” And right now, nonprofit staff face extra challenges from their families’ health and their children’s schools. “You all know this. It is a tough, tough job,” he said.

And yet, he said, “it’s our duty to do whatever we can to sell what we do to communities,” not just to raise funds but to get new people coming on board. In Illinois, there is a 42% annual turnover among nonprofit staff and a chronic shortage of nurses, teachers and social workers. It’s critical to model helping others to bring along the next generation. He spoke with pride of his three oldest daughters. “They’re changing lives and they’re savings lives, all three of them,” he said.

Not afraid to act

Michael Johnson, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Club of Dane County in Madison, Wisconsin, gave an inspiring second keynote address in which he described the remarkable success his organization has had responding to the tumultuous events of 2020. Johnson is no stranger to adversity. He shared the fact that he grew up in public housing in a very rough neighborhood and that, out of 23 male graduates from his eighth-grade class, only four were still alive when he visited his school as an adult.

The pandemic was a challenge for his organization. Two weeks before the first of their two biggest annual fundraisers, a 10K race, they realized they couldn’t hold them safely and canceled it ahead of any state or local guidance. But instead of drawing back because they’d be missing the $700,000 they usually get from those fundraisers, they actually expanded their operations.

The Boys & Girls Club did some things you might expect, like feeding kids not in school, helping families that lost jobs with financial support and helping over 1,000 graduates of their program who were in college get home safely. But they also did a lot of things that were unexpected, like feeding first responders, distributing 165,000 face masks and gloves to their community, testing thousands of people for COVID-19 and raising $200,000 to support local businesses that had shut down because of the pandemic.

Johnson and the Club also addressed this year’s civil unrest by speaking up in their community. They led open conversations about these issues with people from all communities in town hall meetings that were watched by 350,000 people nationwide. They knelt with Madison’s mayor and police officers and even hired peacekeepers for social justice protests to keep attendees safe.

Johnson got a lot of criticism and heard that he needed to stay in his lane. A petition was even started to get him fired, but he pressed on. “When we lead during times like this, we can either decide to be part of the status quo agenda or we can push the envelope and seek understanding, rather than being understood,” he said.

And the community responded. Support this year went up from 312 donations to over 6,000 donations in the same period. They raised $3 million in 90 days and distributed $2.3 million to 51 agencies. “I knew if we did the right thing that goodness would come back to our organization,” said Johnson. “We were not afraid to act and as a result of that our community stepped forward and supported us.”

Johnson also shared some wisdom about how nonprofits can be managed in more normal times, describing the lessons he’d learned in building his organization from 18 employees to 175. He outlined the importance of a strong board and a strong team and the usefulness of tools like third-party evaluations. And he stressed that, “if you want to be in it for the long haul, you can’t do this work by yourself.”

An award for innovation

Wipfli also announced the winner of the Evelyn Wright Moore Award for Innovation Excellence, which had received 50 nominations. “Innovation really is positive change, and all of you have done that,” Wipfli partner Denes Tobie said. The award is named for a beloved nonprofit leader from Texas who attended the annual conference regularly and was always challenging Wipfli consultants to know what they can do better.

The award went to Claire Rice, executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois, and a $5,000 donation was made to her organization. Rice was honored for partnering with other cultural leaders to create a COVID-19 relief fund for artists and cultural organizations in Illinois. The public–private partnership raised $6.9 million in just six months. “We’re not a sector that’s used to emergency funding,” Rice said. “The spirit of innovation is part of all of the nonprofit sector and all of civil society.”

The session ended on a hopeful note: next year’s conference will again be held in Las Vegas, in July 2021. When polled, 91% of virtual attendees said they plan to join in person.  “We plan on being there and we hope to see you there,” Tobie said.

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