Businessmen in Alabama: Top Management Skills in Philanthropy

“Business? Mankind was my business, ” says corporate head-turned-ghost, Jacob Marley, in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” “Charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business!”

Benevolence is Alabama’s business, too — big business.

Because with philanthropy come fundraising, donations and troops of volunteers marching on a nonprofit battlefield. Today’s charities are directed by CEOs with skills and strategies akin to Fortune 500 companies. They serve as volunteer leaders, nonprofit institution fund-raisers and foundation chief administrators.

Here are three of them, with a look at how and why they do it.

Photo by Heather Durham

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Mike Warren

Nonprofit Institution CEO and Fundraiser

Last year, Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children was visited by Batman. Joined by Spiderman and Captain America, he scaled 12-story walls to visit gleeful but sick children on the other side.

Infirm 8-year-olds enjoy such encounters and give little thought to the fundraising that made it happen.

That’s Mike Warren’s job.

He is CEO and fundraiser of Children’s of Alabama, the Birmingham-based, third largest pediatric facility in the U.S., which last year received patients from 45 states and four countries, seeking medical miracles in the Magic City.

Warren had a learning curve. He retired as CEO and chairman of Energen Corp. on Dec. 31, 2007, New Year’s Eve, and assumed the same role with Children’s of Alabama on 2008, New Year’s Day. “I watched a football game or two then went to work, ” he says, recalling the early days. The work never stops. Neither do healthcare needs.

“I was a ‘knowledgeable volunteer, ’ with no background in health care, ” he says of the early days. He credits his people, saying the 5, 000 Children’s of Alabama associates are among the most devoted with whom he has ever associated.

“Our organization is complex, ” Warren adds. “Most of our physicians are not our employees, so I do not have the power of the paycheck. It lends itself to collaborative, corporate management, as opposed to a ‘Do this because I say so’ environment.” Praising team members, he notes, “regardless of function — doctor, nurse, volunteer-helper — we are united in helping children.”

As a nonprofit manager, Warren leaves room for experts to work. “But I want to be a sponge and soak up as much knowledge as possible, while at the same time relying on talent around me, ” he adds. “My job is to lead and support.”

Fundraising is a major piece of support.

“We see benefits in dual-purpose dollar and awareness raising for children’s issues, ” he says. Fundraising is accomplished in many ways. More than 130 benefits, including golf tournaments, jogging competitions, dinners and more, are held annually.

In children’s health care, many expenses are covered by Medicaid, but other costs fall through the gaps. “The role of philanthropy is to fill those gaps, ” says Warren. Children’s of Alabama targets approximately $8 million to $10 million of fundraising revenue yearly.

“Alabamians are very generous people, ” he adds. “We are grateful for that.”

The chance to make a difference in someone’s life motivates Nancy Collat Goedecke as she begins a term leading United Way of Central Alabama.

Photo by Art Meripol

Nancy Collat Goedecke

Volunteer Leader 

Thousands assist in the United Way of Central Alabama. Birmingham’s charity-chapter alone is a force of thousands, spanning five Alabama counties, doing charitable works, commanded by a leader. Nancy Collat Goedecke is one such leader.

With a family history rich in philanthropy, her United Way kickoff as the 2015 campaign chairman begins in January. But her philanthropic roots were planted years earlier. She has led more than a dozen charity efforts from United Way-size projects to  her local PTA.

“Making a difference in someone’s life, even if small, makes me feel good, ” she says. “Knowing I may be a little part in helping someone makes it all worthwhile.”

In January, she will once again make a difference, commanding thousands of volunteers as an Alabama chairperson of the United Way. The charitable army’s boots on the ground deploy in the New Year, but the leader began much earlier. Because early is key.

“I’m not a last-minute person, ” she says. “I do a lot of planning, sometimes taking a year or two for research. I want to understand the organization before committing to leading the project.”

But once on board, she is fully engaged. You have to be, Goedecke says emphatically. A nonprofit is like a business. Neither runs on automatic. As she says, “Put yourself out there.”

Drawing from experience as CEO and chairman of Mayer Electric Supply, she notes that as head of industry or head of charity, a leader is a leader. “Surround yourself with good people; be there for support, but let them do their work, ” she says. “Do not agree to take on a leadership role unless you can fully commit.”

Goedecke believes a nonprofit charity leader must employ the same practices used by business executives. “Set the tone, ” she notes. “Motivate the troops. Believe in what you do and show it. Don’t just fill a slot. It’s not enough to take the right bus. Take the right seat on the right bus.”

Admittedly, nonprofit work is an enormous time drain, according to the CEO who constantly juggles charitable endeavors with home, family and church. But it pays dividends, even if some are intangible. “When you see a homeless woman find a home or collect food for those who don’t have any, we know we made a difference.”

Christopher Nanni looks for ways to turn charitable funds into civic betterment.

Christopher Nanni

Foundation Chief Administrator

Hailing from the Midwest, Christopher Nanni has worked with street gangs, drug addicted teens and startup schools. “I’ve always been in the nonprofit sector, ” says the new president of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham.  His experiences molded a core belief, “Money follows purpose.”

Nanni elaborates: “You must make a difference in the community for people to want to invest in you.” Birmingham’s Community Foundation started in May 1959 financially supporting an army of one. Today it supports more than 450 grant-making funds with the average size of $399, 000; the largest is over $20 million. Nanni’s philosophy works.

“Some community foundations just want to grow their assets bigger and bigger in dollars. Our focus is to change the community, ” says Nanni.

Change starts with understanding of what they do. A foundation is not a charity per se — it is more like a bank that funds worthy causes.

Typically, a community foundation is a tax-exempt public charity, dedicated to and benefiting local people. Donors can support issues and charities they care about either immediately or through estates. Community foundations operate continuously, growing and providing forever.

CFGB’s investment committee of the board of directors determines how funds are distributed. Grantees are a diverse group, including sports centers, parks and trails, vocational training, health/wellness organizations and more.

“People often think, ‘How hard can it be to give away money?’” says Nanni. “It’s not hard at all. But to give out money that makes a difference, that makes the greatest impact, to answer the question, ‘How do we best invest and be change agents in the community?’ That’s what keeps me awake at night.”

Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer who lives in Satsuma. 

Text by Emmett Burnett

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