Steel curtain

By: 
Feb. 26, 2016

Executive Summary
Individual. Wendy Steele Industry. Nonprofit, Philanthropy Key. Being a good nonprofit board member requires more than a large checkbook.


Michigan native Wendy Steele recalls many trips to Florida growing up.

Not for Disney, but for what her grandparents, who lived in Naples, called the honored guest program. Grandma and grandpa literally rolled out a red carpet — a long and narrow piece of red felt with “red carpet” written in gold script. Steele's mom died when she was a young girl, making the trips, filled with jigsaw puzzles and seashell hunts, particularly meaningful.

Those trips, and a family devoted to community service, resonated with Steele in what people can do for other people. After a business career that included stops in private wealth management and running a small manufacturing business with her husband, Steele followed that passion into philanthropy. Not only sitting on a board or chairing an event, but with big-picture, difference-making goals.

“Nonprofits are always writing for grants, and when they get a grant of a small amount of money it is awesome, it is like manna from heaven where they get to eat for today,” says Steele, founder and president of Traverse City, Mich.-based consulting firm Generosity Matters. “But tomorrow they are right back out there asking again. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be something if we can give significant grants, transformational grants?'”

In 2001, Steele founded Impact 100 in Cincinnati, where she lived with her family at the time. The idea was to find 100 women to each give $1,000 to a fund, then vote on where to give the $100,000. The group created five grant focus areas: culture, education, environment, family and health and wellness.

The concept was a success. The original Impact 100 has given $2.8 million to nonprofits in Greater Cincinnati and had 465 members through last year. After stories on Impact 100 ran in People magazine, USA Today and on the CBS Evening News, Steele got calls from people in other communities about how they could start a similar group. Now there are more than 30 Impact 100s nationwide and in Australia. Through 2015 these groups have donated a combined $33 million to nonprofits.

Steele, winner of a national Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2014, recently spoke at a luncheon in east Manatee County hosted by the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund and Northern Trust. She also sat down with the Business Observer to talk about her career, philanthropy and how it intersects with business. Her are edited excerpts of the conversation:

How did philanthropy become so important in your life?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that gave back, not because we had so much money, but it just was expected that when you left a place, you left it better than you found it. So from a young age I was trick-or-treating for UNICEF, I was helping neighbors; it was just what I did. Later I did the Junior League, I did traditional old-school ways of community service, and I loved it.

How did you come up with the idea for Impact 100?
As I worked on a project, I would call my friends, and say come help me. I would get all these legitimate reasons why they couldn't come. I travel for work, and I can't come to weekly meetings. I'm a stay-at-home mom, and I can't justify paying the babysitter $10 an hour to come volunteer with you. Or this is an arts and culture initiative, and I really only care about education.

I was troubled by all these objections. I knew the community needed their hearts, their minds and their wallets. And I knew if these women had an avenue to give back, to get involved in the community, they could be a part of something so much bigger than themselves.

I solved the problem like it was a jigsaw puzzle. I looked at the pieces I needed, and how to resolve each objection and each reason that kept people out of being involved. I removed the barriers to entry people had.

How has Impact 100 become so successful, given how competitive it is for donors' dollars?
This resonates with people. It's a very simple idea where everyday people come together and give what they can to have a really large impact in ways they couldn't do individually. It's entirely open source. You could find everything you need for it online. Every community makes it a little differently.

Whom do you admire in philanthropy?
Some of the most fascinating philanthropists are people who wouldn't think of themselves that way. The people who are the unsung heroes. The people who are doing what they can, where they are, because they see a need. I think all of us can learn from people like that.

The phrase “run it like a business” comes up often in nonprofits, though some prominent industry experts disagree with that philosophy. What's your take on that strategy?
Ultimately for a nonprofit to survive it has to be run like a business. Parallel to that though, they have to keep the mission central. For-profit companies keep the mission central, too, they just don't talk about it as much. In the nonprofit world you have to unite hearts and minds because pulling on heartstrings without having sound business acumen won't get you very far and won't make you sustainable in the long run.

What are some red flags you have seen in working with nonprofit leaders?
I am most suspect if I come in and work with a group and the leadership hasn't gone through troubled times. I worry about the organization. You have to experience the lows to understand the highs, and to be able to appreciate them and steer your team through them.

Why do you cite failure as an important business lesson, for nonprofits and for-profits?
It's through failing and making mistakes where the growth comes. Being rewarded and taking the step up the ladder and the next step up the ladder without tripping anytime, you circumvent your training and ability to be a better person.

When you're in the valley, that's when the work gets done. When you're on the mountaintop, and they're putting the award around your neck, people will say that's when you're at the top of your game. I would disagree with that. I think when you're in the valley, when you're in the desert, and you don't know what's going to happen next, that's where you test who you are.

How did you address the challenges of working with high-net-worth people and families? (Steele worked for Huntington National Bank in Michigan, where she was ultimately a senior vice president.)
High-net-worth individuals have a lot of options. Every banker in town wants to do business with them, and they know it. Serving them means you have to be on your toes all the time and you have to deliver above expectations all the time. You have to anticipate their needs before they know they have those needs themselves.

I loved it. I loved being able to help clients in customized and unique ways.

What did you learn the most from running the manufacturing business, Tape Wrangler? (The company designed and manufactured duct tape dispensers. Steele ran it with her husband after she left banking, from 2006 to 2012.)

The economic crisis we worked our small company through, I wouldn't trade those trips and falls. Those were valuable times. My husband and I used to joke we were earning our M.B.A. every time some new thing came up. It was probably our Ph.D. by the time we sold it.


Get better
Before Wendy Steele got into nonprofit consulting, she worked in banking and manufacturing.

That makes the nonprofit adage, run it like a business, one of her core strengths. Steele, through Traverse City, Mich.-based Generosity Matters, often works with nonprofit board members and chairs, many from the for-profit world.

Here are Steele's suggestions on how business executives can become better nonprofit board members.

Be aware: Steele says just like in business, a nonprofit board member must stay on top of what others in the industry are up to. “I'm a big fan of cross-function training,” she says. “If you understand business, leadership, management and marketing in other venues than your own, it will make you a better leader.”

Access the network: Steele says a good board member will be vocal about the organization in his or her peer group and larger community. “You need to be unafraid to open your network,” says Steele;

Go deeper: Beyond writing a check or being a public advocate, it's important a board member knows the mission, the leadership and the staff, and why they do what they do. “You need to know their talking points,” she says. But knowledge, warns Steele, isn't a ticket to micromanage.

Remember the role: Find the balance between utilizing experience and overexerting control. Maintain your independence and responsibilities to the organization, and don't hesitate to ask the right, and sometimes tough, questions. But remember the day-to-day leader needs an adviser, mentor and sometimes a cheerleader, not a Monday morning quarterback.

“Know when to speak and when to be quiet,” Steele says. “If you have wisdom or advice you'd like to share with the nonprofit or the leadership, you have to know when it's appropriate to share it and how to share it.”