Why do we need non-profits?

When I took the job as Executive Director of Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation a year ago, I thought I had a pretty decent layman’s understanding of how and why non-profit organizations work. I had served on non-profit boards, had them as clients, and participated in their events. I had good relationships with several non-profit leaders who had shared their experiences with me as I was considering the job move. Boy was I in for an education.

The last year has been one of the most challenging AND rewarding of my professional life. I work with a great team (above at our annual RiverFest event), for a great organization with a rich history, and we do important work. As is often the case when there is a leadership change in an organization, we had some growing pains and adjustment to cultural shifts and operational changes I wanted to make. We had some crisis (our offices flooded less than 2 months after I started and we had to relocate our entire operation for 12 weeks), and some victories. All in all, it was a fantastic year and I learned a lot.

The two most important things I learned were this:

1) Non-profits are no different than any other business, they just have different revenue and profit models. If you are a small non-profit leader with 5-6 employees, you struggle with many of the same things for profit businesses struggle with – paying your people enough, not working yourself to death, managing your cash flow, and figuring out creative ways to accomplish your goals without money. And you have the same opportunities as small for profits – you are nimble enough to make big changes to your business easily, you can attract great people with a fun and flexible culture, and a little financial boost goes a long, long way.

2) Non-profits truly are essential to our way of life and quality of life in America. I didn’t really understand the WHY behind this. I had seen the impact of the work that non-profits do translated into better trails, a deeper appreciation of nature, a more secure food source, an educational boost to a struggling youngster, a safe environment for a child or mother at risk, resources to help veteran’s adjust to civilian life, job opportunities for the underprivileged, and the way that art translates life and feeling for us all. What I didn’t truly understand was WHY DO WE EVEN NEED NON-PROFITS?

What I learned is that the answer is simple – because not everything people, places, animals, and ecosystems NEED for survival is profitable when created, provided, or protected. In some countries, the government steps in and meets those needs at the expense of the state (and the taxpayer). In the United States we place a high value on both individual liberty and local autonomy so only the broadest civic needs are met by the government and the rest is left up to a legal framework that allows for individuals and organizations to stand up for and provide the rest of those needs.

Let me provide an example from the work we do at Catawba Riverkeeper. Very few people would argue that clean and plentiful water is a RIGHT we expect in this country. Protecting our public waters is NOT profitable. On the contrary, it is VERY expensive. It requires constant monitoring and testing of the water to make sure that no one is dumping anything into it that could be hazardous or that environmental changes aren’t killing plant and animal life. It requires educating and working with hundreds of individual municipalities, private individuals, and businesses to ensure that they are using best practices in their use of the water and of their property adjacent to the water. It requires balancing the needs of utilities who use the water to create electricity with that of private citizens who recreate on, live on, and drink the water. And rivers, lakes, and streams don’t care about city, county, or state lines so it requires working with very diverse communities and viewpoints to accomplish all of this. Seems like a job for a huge organization like a federal or state government, right? Not in America, and that is why OUR NON-PROFIT IS NEEDED.

When it comes to water quality, the broadest civic needs are met – guidelines for what constituents “clean water” are in place and permits are granted for use of the water by both public and private users. The largest permittees (such as municipal water utilities like Charlotte Water) are monitored regularly for adherence to their permits. A legal framework is in place via the Clean Water Act for citizens and organizations to raise concerns about private and public entities that are not adhering to the broad guidelines. But here’s the catch…the EPA has relegated authority for oversight and enforcement of the Clean Water Act to states (because it is a huge, complicated, expensive job). The result is that every state monitors and enforces at a different level based on the value they place (and the funds they allocate) to the protection of the waters of their state. In North Carolina, according to a December 2019 report from the Environmental Integrity Project, that budget has been cut by 34% over the past 10 years resulting in 376 fewer staff positions in the NC Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ). During that same time, North Carolina was the 10th fastest growing state in the country, adding over 1 million residents from 2008-2018. In the Catawba River Basin (the area our organization is responsible for protecting) there are 2 DEQ enforcement staff members for a 5,000 sq. mile area with over 350 permits to use the waters of the river. OUR NON-PROFIT IS NEEDED.

If water quality and environmental protection is your thing, our organization would love your support. Our staff of now 7 is focused on filling that void in protecting YOUR right to clean and plentiful water left by the system. We regularly test the water and quickly report the results to the public through programs like Swim Guide. We hold polluters accountable when they threaten your drinking water. And we advocate on your behalf to protect your rights to clean water.

If environmental protection isn’t your thing, I would still encourage you to donate today to a non-profit doing work that you care about. They are doing that work because it is needed to fill in the gap between a basic human right and the resources to provide it.


Get Even Better

This week I learned a lesson that many of you probably know (I probably did too but didn’t practice). It’s fairly simple – if you are good at something and are willing to put practice into it, get sound coaching/teaching in the skill, and find ways to share your skill then you can get even better.

Easy, right? No – it is simple, but not easy. At least not for me. I am the type of person who likes to try all sorts of new things. I’m generally able to pick up on a new skill or activity pretty quickly and do it well enough to survive and have fun. If you’re wired like me then you might also have rock climbing gear, kayaks, really nice mountain bikes, a banjo, lots of fancy pots and pans, specialty shoes for all sorts of things, a whole lot of high end camping gear, a kitchen full of cast iron pots, cookbooks galore, computer programs for design, high end stationary, dress clothes for every occasion, a wine fridge, niche magazine subscriptions, and reams of photos from all of the cool places you’ve been and explored.

But are you REALLY GOOD at anything or just “well rounded?”

For the past 4 months, I’ve been participating in an event called SEED20, a program put on by Social Venture Partners of Charlotte that culminates in a pitch by 10 non-profits on stage in front of a bunch of venture philanthropists interested in investing in non-profits in Charlotte that are innovative and sustainable. I was honored to be selected to even participate in this and even more honored to be selected as one of the 10 finalists.

Due to the quarantines caused by the Coronavirus, this year’s pitches didn’t get to happen on stage in front of a thousand people. Instead, we had to film them in our own homes (see picture above of my filming session). I was bummed about this; upset actually. But then I started to reflect on the entire process, not just the unfortunate circumstances around the finale. And in that moment of reflection I realized…

The PROCESS of getting better at something I was already good at was really what was important. You see, I’ve always fancied myself a good public speaker. I don’t really get nervous in front of crowds and I have always felt that I could connect with an audience. So when I started this process, I thought I was in a pretty good place and really wondered what I could learn. But the day before the first training session a friend, Wendy Hickey, who had been through the program with her non-profit, ArtPop, gave me a piece of advice – “Be open to the coaching, you’ll be amazed at how much they can help you improve.” I was skeptical, but tried very hard to take her advice.

Going into the second coaching session we had to prepare and deliver our first pitch. I spent time thoughtfully writing it out and practiced hard to make sure I could deliver it without notes. I practiced in front of my staff and my family and they seemed to like it. I felt pretty good going in. And I got ripped apart. It was too long, rambling, no real substance, don’t see the innovation, lots of irrelevant information, not interesting, unimpressive. These were some of the comments I got. Holy smokes!

I decided that night I was going to be not only open to that coaching but was going to use it as a motivator to get better. I decided to take something I knew I was good at and get better. I dedicated several hours each week to writing and re-writing my pitch, each time sending it to my coaches for critique and changes. I asked them to come visit us and spend time with me so that they could help me express what we were really about as an organization clearly. And I put in the practice. I recorded myself and watched it, making changes each time. I practiced in the shower and in the car and in my yard talking to no one.

And I got better. Each coaching session the comments got more positive and my communication and presentation skills improved. I was chosen to be a finalist and my confidence was growing. Tuesday night when the final virtual pitch competition aired, I saw how much I had improved. And it felt good to know that I had worked at something I was already good at and got better. I knew that the final version would connect with people and communicate our message.

So if you’re anything like me, you’re sitting at home a lot doing your part social distancing and thinking about all the new things you want to try with this free time. Go ahead and join that virtual yoga class and see what it’s like. Get those project materials and make that planter box you’ve seen on Pinterest. Or order the supplies and take up hand lettering. Those will all be fun. But take some time too to get really good at something you already do well. Get your 5k time down by a minute. Make that really amazing dish you’ve always dreamed of. Or go from being a guitar player to a potential performer. You will be amazed at how good it feels to practice, take some instruction, and really improve at something you already think you’re good at. You can always improve.