Remember “who’s in front of you”: Day 1 highlights from Stronger to Serve

“Surround yourself with people with different super powers than you,” keynote speaker Anna Maria Cháveztold told nearly 1,000 nonprofit leaders during the rousing opening session Tuesday of the Wipfli Stronger to Serve national training conference. “Pick your team. Get your dream.”

Chávez, the first woman of color to lead the Girl Scouts of the USA, helped bring the 104-year-old  organization into the future with a sweeping girl-centric organizational redesign. She prioritized teaching girls about technology and social entrepreneurship, including adding new badges in fields like financial literacy and STEM education. She went on to hold leadership roles with the National Council on Aging and the National School Boards Association.

With “We Will Rock You” and other up-tempo classic rock tunes setting the high-energy tone of the day, Kathleen DuBois, Wipli’s  nonprofit, government and education industry leader kicked off the conference that had attendees dancing in their seats, “We’re passionate about providing you with an amazing experience this week,” she said.

Chávez recounted her childhood in Eloy, Arizona, crediting her enrollment in the local Head Start program with helping her beat the odds and escape poverty. “I learned I could do anything if I put my mind to it,” she said.

Chávez, who graduated from Yale University and went on to law school back in Arizona, encountered plenty of “red brick walls” on her journey but got smarter along the way about how to achieve her goals. “Feedback is a gift but don’t take feedback from someone who doesn’t care about you.”

Fear, she says, is an often-unspoken part of leadership, but “don’t let it paralyze you.”

Reflecting on her long career as a committed public servant, Chávez added: “Always remember you’re there to serve. It’s not about the accolades, the awards or title. It’s about who’s in front of you.”

Leaders’ burning questions

Feedback from last year’s Stronger to Serve conference showed that attendees wanted a free-form roundtable to discuss pressing issues affecting their organizations. Among Tuesday’s slate of mini-sessions was a Leadership Roundtable facilitated by three Wipfli leaders.

The hottest topic: how to retain and recruit employees while offering adequate compensation. Being open to offering new employee incentives – like compressed workdays or paid training for established time-saving technology – were offered up as easy-to-implement solutions. Beyond that, knowing that what nonprofits have – a true sense of mission – can be communicated to recruits as a benefit beyond compensation.

Tackle project management

As a manager at Wipfli, Jennifer Summers specializes in Sage project management. She’s been through it all and today shared what lessons she’d learned from years of experience working with varied teams. Her best advice? Remembering that project management is all about building relationships and that open communication is key. Make sure project team members feel involved and make sure they’re meeting goals.

“It all ties back to getting the buy-in and then, being able to pivot. Ultimately, if you take away the tasks, you’re focusing on what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Combat culture shock

In Barbara Low’s session on the ‘Leader’s Role in Fostering a Positive Culture’, she noted it’s becoming more challenging than ever to know how to adapt.

“The culture you have now is a different culture than you had three years ago,” she said.

What do you do? Focus on your people.

She said finding people, keeping people and staying competitive in compensation with other industries is so important to fostering a culture where everyone feels valued.

“Create the environment where money isn’t the primary focus.”

Keep it simple

‘Financials for Non-financial Leaders’ was a session that hit at the heart of every nonprofit’s challenge: empowering boards with the information they need in a format they can digest and use. Wipfli’s Katherine Eilers, CPA, reminded leaders that different people learn in different ways and visual learners are prevalent.

“Use charts and graphs and colors, because it’s faster and easier to comprehend information in a chart,” she advised. “If you’re not the person putting it together, ask ‘Can you put it in a chart?’”

And silence is not golden when it comes to board report outs.

“Ask questions of your board,” she said. “Silence can mean no comprehension. Promote a safe environment for open and honest dialogue.”

A spotlight on human trafficking

On top of all the day-to-day challenges non-profit leaders have in serving their communities, managing budgets and meeting regulations, attendees learned about the threats posed by human trafficking – a phenomenon that deserves more attention than it typically gets.

“Many people don’t believe that human trafficking exists in the U.S. The State Department reports 199,000 human trafficking incidents occur here each year. We need to do better on education,” said Wipfli’s Andrew Hoffstetter, a director of organizational performance.

While the term slavery is rarely used to describe the practice, “It is essentially stealing freedom for profit,” he said. “Your role is very important. And everyone needs an emergency action plan.”

Keynote speaker Anna Maria Chávez

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