The business of nonprofit Featured

9:50am EDT July 22, 2002
Patricia Nobili knew the changes wouldn’t be easy. Although her organization had a long tradition of providing quality services, unless strident changes were made, the agency’s ability to continue providing the same high level of programming for its clients was in doubt.

But to everyone’s satisfaction — the board of trustees, clients and the staff — Nobili delivered on her stated goal. More important, she did it without ever turning a penny of profit.

Nobili is executive director of the Achievement Centers for Children, a nonprofit agency which serves mostly children and young adults with chronic disabilities and behavioral and emotional problems. She was hired to bring a fresh management perspective, a decidedly business-oriented approach, to the job. And while profit may not have been one of the board’s motives, that doesn’t mean the dollars were unimportant.

“The agency has a proud history of delivering quality programs,” Nobili says. “But what the board recognized is, the environment was changing dramatically and the agency was having increasing problems with expenses going up and revenue going down. There needed to be a change for the agency to remain a viable and vibrant organization for the future.”

Prior to her arrival in 1994, the agency — founded in 1940 as The Society for Crippled Children — was without an executive director for two years. The board of trustees even considered merging with other organizations with similar missions to keep the agency afloat.

Nobili has faced a twofold challenge: She was charged with changing the agency’s operating procedures so they resembled a for-profit business model. But to do that, she had to convince the staff that the changes were needed.

“In the first six months, I just learned, listened, asked questions,” Nobili says. “(I) was developing, at the same time, my own impressions of what would have to change and how.”

What she found was an organization that was extremely dedicated to its mission. Says Nobili, “The values were one of the things I wanted to protect. (There was) a lack of understanding about what the environment was doing — changing — and how that would dictate success for this agency.”

Without those operating changes, Nobili says it would have been impossible to continue the level of success to which the staff was accustomed. “It was an educational process with the staff to try to explain what the environment was saying to us, why we had to change and that it was, in fact, changing for the benefit of children with disabilities,” she says.

People often resist change, and the staff at the Achievement Center was no different. Nobili brought in a new computer system and restructured the way much of the paperwork was done. In hindsight, Nobili understands the staff’s initial concern.

“It was resistance because of human nature,” she says. “Most people don’t like change. If you’re changing and going into something you don’t know, you feel a little less competent and more vulnerable.”

And perhaps, Nobili says, it appeared to the staff that she was too motivated by financial and productivity issues and not the best interests of the clients. That belief, though, no longer exists. The concerns quickly dissolved.

“I can remember frequently stating to them if we sit back and continue to do it the way we’re doing (it), it might be easier for us, but we’re doing it at the expense of children who are born with disabilities tomorrow. And that’s unconscionable. And I know nobody in this agency wants to do that.”

Perhaps Nobili’s most businesslike adaptation was the adoption of a strategic plan. It had an enormous impact on the agency.

According to Director of Development Kerry O’Connor, “The agency saw a substantial cultural shift from informal to formal, from being service driven to market driven, and from subsidized to self-supporting.”

Among the changes instituted were cultivating marketing and public relations expertise, restructuring and enhancing services, upgrading technology, getting a better understanding of cost/pricing and tracking the quality of all services delivered to clients of the agency.

“Running a nonprofit is as challenging as running a for-profit,” Nobili says. “Perhaps (there are) some different challenges here and there. But you have to be ever mindful of everything a business is mindful of.”

How to reach: Achievement Centers for Children, (216) 795-7100

Daniel G. Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor at SBN.