By Rob Meiksins, CEO
Note: shortly after I wrote this blog, Pat passed away. I'm leaving it in the present tense as an acknowledgment of Pat's deep contributions to the nonprofit sector and the fact that they will continue to help us into the future.
I just learned the sad news that Pat Wyzbinski is very ill. She was diagnosed with cancer some months ago, but now it appears that things are getting a lot worse. For those who didn’t know her, Pat was a major figure in the Milwaukee nonprofit sector in several ways over the past 20 or so years. She was instrumental in the development and then implementation of the Nonprofit Management Fund, which broke ground as a funder’s collaborative and supported thousands of small to mid-size nonprofits with funds for capacity building. Her consulting business, Management Cornerstones, gave direct assistance to many people and organizations. She helped create ENTECH, the Wisconsin Nonprofits Association, MLINC, Greater Milwaukee on Board, and many other initiatives.
To me, though, one of the most important things she did was share knowledge about nonprofits and the sector. Through workshops, podcasts, research, and articles she was intent on people learning more about this sector and how it works. That’s what I think I’ll remember the most. I was part of a Board Consultant Institute (BCI) that she taught and worked with her for a while at BoardStar. I knew her for longer but that’s where I learned the most. Here are a few things she taught me:
Start with the laws. When it comes to governance and a board of directors, it is critical to start with the laws. In our case that’s Chapter 181 of the WI State Statutes. I'm continually amazed at how many consultants and board directors do not know that law inside out. But when we were in the BCI, that’s the first thing we did. No, it’s not a page turner, but it is bedrock in terms of what you can and cannot do with your board and governance.
People like to be treated with a little something extra. At BoardStar we always had workshops at night, because that’s when board directors can make it, since they mostly have day jobs. So we gave them dinner. Not just some sub served on a paper plate, but a dinner from one of the area restaurants on Kinnickinnic, served on real plates with real silverware and glasses. I cannot tell you how many times people commented on that. It put them in a good mood, and made them feel special as they embarked on their learning at the workshop.
Identify the hurdle and remove it. Consultants all know that when you go to an agency and start working, there is often a big hurdle you have to overcome. Sometimes it’s a bad habit, sometimes it’s a person, sometimes it’s outside pressure. But there is a hurdle to the change you are trying to help them with. When we came back to Pat and asked for advice because the project wasn’t going well, she would ask: what’s the hurdle? Figure it out and remove it, that’s all. Get past it, get over it, get through it, but find out why the hurdle is there and then remove it as a hurdle.
Board service is a very pure form of American democracy. I can’t remember if we ever talked about this directly, but it’s something I've taken from the many things we did talk about over the years. Because nonprofits are an American creation, so is the concept of a board of directors the way it has evolved in our sector. As a board director, your job is to make sure the community’s interests and investments are being used well, and towards the goal outlined in the mission for which the organization was granted tax exemption. So that means you're representing the community. And it’s a role that anyone can do. Where else is it possible for anyone from any walk of life to be given a chance to represent their community? It’s a beautiful thing.
Always teach/facilitate standing up. I’m not even sure why this is true, but when you’re in front of a group of people, teaching a workshop or facilitating a group discussion, it helps to stand if that is possible for you. It might have something to do with putting energy into the presentation and giving the “audience” a focal point.
Make sure you’re right. Before you hand something out as a consultant or before you make some grand pronouncement, check your assumptions, check your facts, and check the spelling. Any mistake like that opens the door for someone to challenge you and take away the sense of trust that is critical to a client listening to what you have to say.
I have often said that Pat knows more about nonprofits and the nonprofit sector than anyone else I've known. Working with her over the years is one of the main reasons I'm now working as the CEO of the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee, or that I even wanted this job in the first place.
I could go on and on listing things I remember from the years working with or for Pat, like the importance of bylaws, color coding, the role of the board president, and when email communication is just not appropriate. And I’m sure there are stories and learnings that I’m just not thinking of right now. So, here’s a call to action for my consultant colleagues: comment on this blog with what you remember about Pat.