In 2013 when the recruitment began for a new president and CEO for Perkins – known best as the parent organization for the Perkins School for the Blind – Dave Power did not consider himself a candidate. The more he thought about the job, however, the more it made sense. He was a successful corporate executive and venture capitalist always looking to make a mark, and had a personal connection to Perkins: his son David is deafblind and had matriculated at Perkins for his entire schooling. As a “Perkins parent” and board member, Power had seen first-hand over many years the incredible difference that the organization was making in the lives of students, parents, and other constituents. He didn’t need to be sold on the mission—he got it.
Since taking the reins, Power has brought an entrepreneurial spirit to an already successful organization and is helping to expand the “brand” and reach more “customers”. Power and his progressive ideas are the subject of a new Witt/Kieffer case study, “Nonprofit Leadership: Innovating Around the Mission.”
The case study includes a lengthy Q&A with Power on life, leadership, and running a nonprofit. Here below is an abridged version of that discussion:
You’ve had a distinguished career in technology, finance, consulting, and more, yet being president and CEO of Perkins is the “most important role” of your career. How so?
Power: Blindness, deaf-blindness, and multi-handicapped issues have been around forever. They are stubborn problems, along with the very high unemployment rate for these individuals as adults. If you can make a dent in terms of better ways to prepare students for a more productive and fully engaged life, that has enormous tangible value. It’s hard to compare that with the kind of results you get in the private sector.
Has it required a shift in mindset to run a nonprofit organization like Perkins?
Power: Yes. To be the CEO of an organization would be natural transition or career path for me, but to run a nonprofit, that’s what was different. If you presented [leadership roles at] a number of nonprofit organizations to me, I might not have jumped on any them. It was Perkins that I knew so well—what the opportunities are, what the challenges are . . . I was sure that if I stepped in that I could make a positive impact.
Did you have any preconceptions or biases about leading a nonprofit?
Power: The biggest fear that I had about a nonprofit was, can the organization move quickly enough and can you have the kind of goal-setting and accountability that I was used to in the private sector? In a private company, things tend to align around financial objectives. You pick a goal, and your investments are measured around that financial goal, and the things that are measured toward that financial goal are usually revenue and profits.
In a nonprofit organization everyone is mission-driven, so the metrics for how you’re doing in achieving that mission are not as easy to craft. They’re not as easy for people to come to similar views on whether the organization is “on mission” or not. How many lives have we improved? In what way? You try to look at what you’re trying to achieve and whether you have really made progress.
How do you view marketing in terms of building a brand in the nonprofit sector?
Power: Marketing is a business label that private companies are more familiar with. Marketing done well is communicating effectively to a target audience that you have a solution to a problem them have. Some view marketing as a very commercial activity and wonder if it has a role in nonprofit organizations . . . but I view marketing as being really clear about your message to your various constituencies, and then everybody wins. We try to be clear to parents, students, school districts and donors about what we do here. When the right students enroll to become students at Perkins, then it’s a good match; the same is true when we get the right donors nationally and internationally to make contributions to the causes they care about and they see the results. If you do something valuable that you’re proud of and don’t let people know, you miss an opportunity. You have an obligation to let people know what you’re doing and to have them come on board!
Are the corporate and nonprofit sectors moving closer together, and what are the implications for leadership?
Power: [The two sectors] are doing different things as they always have. One is mission-driven without a pure financial objective. The other has financial objectives and aims for wealth creation. Where the blurring or cross-fertilization is going on is that more talented leaders are choosing to get involved in mission-driven organizations. You’re seeing millennials, the new generation of the workforce, consciously choosing to take jobs where they can “make an impact.” This is different from the Gordon Gekko, BMW generation of the eighties and nineties. Even private companies when they’re hiring talented people are crafting messages about giving back to society.
Leaders are increasingly looking to nonprofits as places to make a difference. The more results-oriented not-for-profit organizations become, the more they will attract leaders who want to get things done. A lot of executives have chosen not to spend their personal time in nonprofits because they don’t feel like they can do enough as leaders. If they knew that you can make the kind of impact in nonprofits that make private sectors companies want to recruit you — there’s a switch – then maybe they would see the opportunity in a new light. We might then see more talented executives building their resumes as leaders of mission-driven organizations.
Read the entire case study and full interview with Dave Power here.
By Paul Thomas, Strategic Communications Leader