Red Cross exec.: Fewer firms have ties to community

NONPROFITS INC.

June 07, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

I had a fascinating talk with the relatively new CEO of a major Baltimore-area nonprofit last month. Frank Miller, executive director of the community services side of the Maryland Chapter of the American Red Cross had asked me to share with him my perceptions of Maryland's corporate community.

My conversation with Mr. Miller followed similar ones he has held over an eight-month period with 45 area corporate CEOs and the directors of 25 nonprofit agencies. I wish that every new nonprofit director would be as motivated to get a feel for the area as is this man. From the questions he asked, I knew he already had a pretty good fix on the local corporate environment.

After we covered his questions, I turned the tables and wanted to know what he had learned so far about our Maryland corporate community. I figured that the views of an objective and professional observer would be valuable. I welcome comments from readers who might verify or refute these observations.

First, Mr. Miller noted a significant trend that has disturbed many of us for the past decade. There is a decided movement toward less local ownership of large corporations, due to takeovers.

Mr. Miller's experience reinforced the fact that new corporate owners usually make a statement early on about continuing or increasing local community investments. But only time tells whether the new management is committed to local priorities, or instead is out to advance only its national corporate agenda.

Across the United States, the merger mania of the '80s ended up with both scenarios playing themselves out.

Another issue of concern, Mr. Miller noted, is the recent loss of some major Baltimore-area corporate chiefs who played unusually effective roles as community leaders. Some nonprofit directors feel that this old-line leadership may never be replaced. Their impressions are that the new corporate leadership feels that community involvement is not as important as is the job of creating jobs.

Another finding in Mr. Miller's informal survey is that nonprofit executives are being told by corporate leaders that they want to do something for local nonprofits -- but only if it also helps the company's marketing or its employees' morale.

Frankly, this is an issue that not only takes some getting used to but requires experience on the part of nonprofit organizations. It certainly makes sense for a corporation to want some benefit from their community work. But, even in Baltimore's recent past, corporate benevolence came with few, if any, strings. So nonprofit leaders are scrambling to climb the learning curve of win-win corporate giving.

One interesting issue emerging from Mr. Miller's meetings is that Baltimore-area nonprofit and for-profit executives report a tendency for corporations to assign more third-level managers to work with nonprofits.

That is good in terms of nurturing a base of future business leaders with a deep understanding of nonprofit operations. It is not so good when viewed from another perspective.

These third-level managers are successful because they are hands-on. They are used to managing daily operations. They trouble-shoot day in and day out. They are constantly in meetings, on the factory floor, working in teams, working in a competitive business environment today that has a flattened pyramid. With fewer layers of management, the tendency is to go right to the source when there is a performance concern.

When working in the nonprofit environment, these managers tend to meddle more, my source noted. They want to be involved in daily operations. They are less patient than their volunteer predecessors, which in and of itself is not a bad trait. But they often bypass the board or go beyond their other volunteer roles and interfere with nonprofit supervisory staff. And that can quickly become a public relations nightmare for beleaguered nonprofit executives.

HTC (Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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