Life is complicated. And running a nonprofit sometimes feels like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle. So why give yourself even more stress with elaborate solutions?
Innovative thought leader, Rob Bisceglie, is the Executive Director of Action for Healthy Kids. Rob’s leadership has proven that big problems do not need big solutions. Listen in today for the two simple steps he and Action for Healthy Kids have taken to address big problems, from hungry kids to keeping an organization thriving during COVID-19.
Listen to the Episode Here!
Website: Action for Healthy Kid
Webinar: Leading the Way to Health Equity
(02:20) Finding simple solutions for complex problems
(07:38) Build Your Defense: Strategic planning & Crisis Management
(23:18) Shift to Offense
Dolph Goldenburg (0s):
Welcome to the Successful Nonprofits® Podcast. I’m your host, Dolph Goldenburg. In this episode, Rob Bisceglie will join us to talk about thriving during and after COVID-19. Before we have that conversation, I wanted to let you know that next week our chief executive coaching group is going to be launched. Our January group is for executive directors who want to thrive during the recession. The second year of a recession is always harder on the nonprofit sector than the first year. If you’re looking out at 2021 and are scratching your head and saying, “How are we going to make this work?” then check out the coaching group. Just a quick heads up, we are recording this in November. So, the coaching group might already be completely full. So if it’s full, reach out to me and I will let you know when the next one starts.
Dolph Goldenburg (47s):
I am so pleased to welcome Rob Bisceglie to the podcast. Rob is the CEO of a national nonprofit called Action for Healthy Kids. As I reviewed his LinkedIn page and read some things he has written, it became very clear that he is an intentional, innovative and generative leader that helps organizations rethink their problems to respond and thrive.
As I mentioned, just a couple minutes ago, we’re recording this in November. We’re going to be talking about thriving during and after COVID-19. I know things are moving pretty fast. We don’t know exactly what the middle of January 2021 looks like from where we sit. But I feel pretty confident that we will still be feeling the impact of COVID-19, and we will still be planning for how we are going to emerge from this time. Rob, welcome to the podcast.
Rob Bisceglie (2m 14s):
It’s great to be here, Dolph. Thanks so much for having me. I hope I can live up to those kind words you said about me.
Dolph Goldenburg (2m 20s):
In doing my research, I saw this one phrase that you had written: Big problems don’t always require big solutions. That is so elegant and simple. Can we start our conversation there?
Rob Bisceglie (2m 37s):
I think it’s a really important idea. The reality is nonprofit organizations, even before COVID-19 hit us, tackle big problems. If we try to match up our solutions to those big problems, every single time we encounter one, we would work endlessly. And so the idea of finding simple solutions is important. Often they’re more impactful than the complex ones. Having said that, Action for Healthy Kids is a fairly complex organization, but we try to get small victories every day to make sure we’re going after those big problems with simple solutions.
Dolph Goldenburg (3m 15s):
Can you give us an example of a big problem that you’ve seen an organization face and a simple solution that it came up with?
Rob Bisceglie (3m 23s):
There’s a big problem that we dealt with in a small way that I think is really interesting. One challenge that we face at Action for Healthy Kids is food access for our schools and kids. All over the country, we know that kids are entering school every single day without a healthy and nutritious meal. And so we realized this, and we knew we could make a difference. We focused in on school breakfast as being an area where we could make a difference because we knew that the participation levels around school breakfast differed by community.
Rob Bisceglie (4m 13s):
I remember in my early days, going to a meeting at a school and sitting down in a room with about a hundred people in it. And I remember one of the school food service professionals standing up and telling a story about how she had gotten really frustrated, because she knew that she wasn’t getting to enough kids in the morning and that they were coming into the school hungry. She had figured out that the kids gathered in the playground before school and she had no access to them. She realized that there was a food cart that hadn’t been used by the school or the school district for months. And I remember the expression on her face and the tears in our eyes. She explained she applied for a grant from Action for Healthy Kids and we helped her buy a wheel for her food cart. She could take that food cart out into the playground in the morning and make sure that those kids could get the breakfast that they needed coming into school. This is a perfect example of a big problem for those kids and the solution was simple. They didn’t need to create a new breakfast program. They needed a wheel for their cart. And I remember her satisfaction and how great she felt when she was telling the group they had found this really simple solution. They were able to get out to the kids in the morning. It stuck with me all these years later. I’ve been out of Action for Healthy Kids for 13 years. So it’s been a long time. And I remember it all these years later, it was one of the first things I experienced when I went out to a school.
Dolph Goldenburg (6m 3s):
Do you recall how much the wheel cost?
Rob Bisceglie (6m 10s):
It could not have been more than a few bucks. At that time, I think we were giving out a mini grant for schools. They may have been $250. Only part of which probably went to that wheel. So, a few bucks helped feed who knows how many hundreds or thousands of kids over the years, day in and day out. Think about the ripple effect of that one action. That one idea from one woman who was willing to problem solve and make a difference in her community. I really just think that’s how we need to think about the problems in our society.
Dolph Goldenburg (6m 47s):
I love that you talked about the ripple effect because it’s not just that the kids are fed. Those kids probably did better on some quizzes and exams over the course of the year. That meant they had a better year, and they had a better opportunity going into high school or college.
Rob Bisceglie (7m 1s):
The premise of Action for Healthy Kids is in order for a child to grow, develop and become the adult they want to be, these foundational items need to be addressed. The health, wellbeing, and social and emotional connections that need to be made with their schoolmates and their teachers are foundational. When you can address those, you can set kids up for a life of success. That is at the core of what we do at Action for Healthy Kids.
Dolph Goldenburg (7m 38s):
If you’re at a nonprofit and you’ve got a big problem, where does one start to find those simple solutions, not those big solutions?
Rob Bisceglie (7m 57s):
It might sound counter-intuitive, but I’m a huge advocate of strategic planning for non-profit organizations. I’ve worked my whole career in this sector and there’s a stark difference between those that have them and really take it seriously and those that don’t. Our board of directors and I write a new strategic plan about every 3 years. It is not easy to address those challenges head-on and in a way that’s feasible for the organization and will have the intended impact, but I think it’s really crucial.
Rob Bisceglie (8m 41s):
There’s an interesting story behind our strategic plan. After several years of introspection and thinking, “We’re not getting exactly where we need to be.” We decided to take a look at our strategic plan. We realized that our organization was created to combat the childhood obesity epidemic. Former Surgeon General for the Bush and Clinton administrations, Dr. David Satcher, is the person who helped create Action for Healthy Kids. He literally wrote the report calling obesity an epidemic for the first time in our country.
Rob Bisceglie (9m 22s):
When he left office, he got together with a group of people and formed Action for Healthy Kids. So for many, many years, Action for Healthy Kids was an organization that was really concentrating on physical health and wellbeing of kids. Proper nutrition and physical activity, being real cornerstones of that over the years. It became obvious to us, especially in more recent years, that things like social and emotional wellbeing, mental health issues and other issues are intertwined. You can’t separate them out. Last year in the middle of the year, we said to ourselves, “You know, we’ve got to dig deep into the literature to better understand childhood development.” So we formed a committee on our board of directors – a strategic planning committee. It’s an ad hoc committee, and we dug deep.
Rob Bisceglie (10m 5s):
We have some experts on our board who helped us do that too. It was really just a fantastic process. What we ended up with is a strategic plan that has taken us in new directions this year. We got hit this year and there were all kinds of wrenches thrown into the works. But the bones of the plan are still solid because it’s based on the best research that we can come up with. It was incontrovertible research on childhood development. Now we’re headed in a new direction. I always treat a strategic plan as a work in progress. You can’t really set it and then forget about it. That’s just not how they work. We’ve now got the framework of a plan that continues on even through COVID-19 and beyond. So I just think that even though it’s very challenging, it’s very important.
Dolph Goldenburg (10m 55s):
I agree that you can’t just set it and forget it. When I help organizations with planning, I always do quarterly check-ins for the first year to get them in the habit of checking back in on their plan. I always start by saying, “It’s not about, ‘we did this or we didn’t do this.’ It’s really about, okay, how’s your implementation going? What obstacles have you had? And do we change some goals? Do we come up and brainstorm some ways to overcome these obstacles? Do we punt a goal to another quarter? What do we do?” It’s fascinating to watch organizations look at it and go, “Yeah, this has come up. And here’s how this goal has changed.” or “This has come up and we now need to do three other things before we can do this in two more quarters.”
Rob Bisceglie (11m 48s):
This happens all the time. We’ve built in a mechanism at Action for Healthy Kids. Every time our board of directors convenes, we provide them with a strategic plan report. That ensures that we go back to those goals and objectives and ask, “Okay, did we get them done? Did we not get them done? Do they need to be rescheduled to some other time per your point? Are they no longer relevant?” Every once in a while, you have to be able to say to yourself, “You know what? That’s what we thought was going to take place here and that is just not what the doctor ordered anymore.” It happens more often than you’d like, but not recognizing it is much more painful than recognizing it, trying to address the situation, and moving on.
Dolph Goldenburg (12m 32s):
I love that you do that report at every board meeting. Can you share what that report looks like?
Rob Bisceglie (12m 37s):
Yeah, it’s quite robust. Our plan has goals and objectives. We literally list out and report on those goals and objectives. And because it’s with the board, we try to make things visual. I’ve learned over the years and crafted what I think is a really strong report with our board chairs and our executive committee. Every once in a while, we’ll survey them to ask them if that report is still on target and they tell us that it is. It runs through the strategic plan from start to finish and reports out on everything that we say that we’re doing or need to do. And the format has worked for us over the years.
Rob Bisceglie (13m 19s):
At the beginning, there’s a performance dashboard. So you can take a look at one document that has our key metrics, or KPIs, all in one place. Then it moves on into increasing levels of specificity and detail.
Dolph Goldenburg (13m 33s):
That’s interesting. I was going to ask it it’s a one-page dashboard. But it starts with a one page dashboard. If you were to guess, on average, how many pages are behind that dashboard?
Rob Bisceglie (13m 43s):
About 15 pages, including both narrative and graphics. It includes charts and those kinds of things to try to explain what the data is telling us. It’s a comprehensive report.
Dolph Goldenburg (13m 56s):
Is it your sense that the vast majority of your board members show up having read every word of that? Or is this more an exercise for you and your team to do a check in, then giving it to the board as the discipline around that?
Rob Bisceglie (14m 11s):
I’m so glad you asked that because I intended it as a tool for the board and it has turned into a tool for the management of the organization. I know that they have limited time; they’re volunteers. That’s why I send it about a week or so in advance of our board meetings. I point out the sections that, if they’re limited for time, they can look at to make sure that they’re really looking at the details. For example, the last board meeting of the year, which happens in November for Action for Healthy Kids, we always review and approve our budget for the upcoming year. We just did that last week. Of course, what I really wanted them to do is dig into the budget and make sure that they understand it. So I try to give them that guidance as well.
Dolph Goldenburg (15m 4s):
So I walked off in a bit of a tangent because I was really fascinated about your strategic planning and what you were doing around that. So, a strategic plan is the first part of making or building simple solutions for complex problems. Are there other things that you think about?
Rob Bisceglie (15m 21s):
Especially as COVID-19 became our new reality, we learned that crisis management is really important. I learned quite a bit and went through the recession here in Action for Healthy Kids. I’ve experienced some really challenging times. This was unlike anything I’ve seen in my career. As we tried to figure out what our plan was going to be, we really took a step back and tried to identify what it is. We need a plan for Action for Healthy Kids in order to make it through this situation. As best we could, we came up with seven different areas of planning that were required for our crisis management.
Rob Bisceglie (16m 3s):
Now for me, it’s another one of those things that every nonprofit should have in its back pocket, in case we experience something for the coming years. You need to be able to do all the kinds of things that we plan to. We were talking about things like handbrake scenarios, meaning how do we slow down spending. Versus break-glass scenarios, meaning in an emergency, how do you really make cuts to your budget so that you can survive as an organization? One of the first sections of the plan was how do we protect our employees?
Rob Bisceglie (16m 45s):
How do we make sure that our employees and even their family members are protected? If one of their family members were to contract COVID-19, how would we respond as an organization? How do we communicate with them about all of those kinds of things? Another really important part of the plan is how do we go back on offense? Luckily, Action for Healthy Kids is going to survive. We’re going to end the year with a balanced budget. We made some tough decisions along the way. But we felt really good about it. But now what we’re talking about is how do we go back on offense? That was defense – how to protect our organization and make sure that we survive and protect our assets and those kinds of things. Now, what we’re talking about is how do we take our model, pivot, and go in some new directions so that we can go on offense and start to work toward accomplishing our mission in even bigger and better ways.
Dolph Goldenburg (17m 35s):
Before we jump into the offense part, I’d love for us to stay on the topic a little bit more of mitigating risks. How do we put some sort of a handbrake on spending if we need to? Or how do we mitigate risk for our employees or support our employees? I hear a lot around mitigating risk. A client of mine this past spring, we identified eight benchmark organizations that looked a lot like them in other cities. They were cities that had already been harder hit by COVID-19. So literally they were just looking at what these other organizations were doing and starting to implement that, but they were implementing it two to three weeks in advance.
Dolph Goldenburg (18m 15s):
It was really amazing because a lot of their funders would come to them and say, “You were three weeks ahead of everyone else in your region.” And we would look at each other and think, “Well, all we’re doing is we’re looking at organizations that are a lot like this one and figuring out what they’re doing so that we do it in time.”
Rob Bisceglie (18m 41s):
I think it’s a really good point. I’m in a CEO group and my CEO group has almost all for-profit companies in it. I’m the only nonprofit CEO in the group. In addition to looking at and benchmarking against other nonprofit organizations, you can benchmark against other for-profit organizations that have similar challenges. That’s one thing I’ve discovered over the years is organizational development and crisis management looks the same in many different kinds of organizations. Benchmarking against similar organizations is a solid strategy. Everybody should be doing those kinds of things. You were asking about our strategic plan a couple of minutes ago. We benchmark our strategic plan against other organizations, both those that we think we’re similar to now and those that we aspire to look more like in the future.
Dolph Goldenburg (19m 31s):
Listeners that are not seeing this on video, but I’m over here mouthing. “Yes. Yes. Yes.” Because when I do strategic planning, once we identify what the three to five-year goal is, we try to find an organization that has taken that journey over the last three to five years. We reach out to them. We do a learning journey. We often go to a different city where we sit down with their executive team or members of their board. And we ask, “Okay, how did you get here? What were some of the things you ran into?” I’m right there with you. I’m all about the benchmarking, not just for who you are now, but who you want to be in the future.
Rob Bisceglie (20m 12s):
I couldn’t agree more. I think I may have mentioned to you previously that I’m a huge basketball fan and I’m a coach for my kids’ basketball teams. Some people are afraid to use the word competitor in the nonprofit realm. The fact is we have some competitors. We compete for funding. The way I look at it is that we have competitors/partners all over the place. It’s like stepping onto a basketball court with your friends. You want to beat them, but you don’t want to destroy them. You just want to take them down on that particular day on the court and then move on.
Rob Bisceglie (20m 52s):
One of the things I love about this sector is that in addition to competing with each other (which I think is healthy because we make each other better and strive to outdo each other in our missions), we’re also colleagues and collaborators.
Dolph Goldenburg (21m 15s):
It’s admittedly one of the things I like about the nonprofit sector as well. We’re more into coopetition than competition. I think organizations sometimes compete for funding, but they’re also competing for talent. As an example, if you’re an organization with case managers you’re competing for talent. How do you recruit and retain the best talent? A part of it’s salary, but there’s a lot of other factors as well. So I hear you. There’s a lot of ways that we’re competing with each other.
Rob Bisceglie (21m 49s):
At the end of the day, we can compete each and every day and then the next day we’re there working on a project together. At Action for Healthy Kids, schools have multiple partners. They don’t just have one. So the idea that we can live in a silo or work in a silo is just not reality. We need to be able to go into our workday knowing that we’re going to be right there with our other partner organizations.
Dolph Goldenburg (22m 22s):
I’ll also say that when I’ve run organizations and a friendly competitor organization steals someone away from us, I take it as a compliment. They look at you and they’re like, “If we can get that person to be our program manager or that person to be our development director, wouldn’t we be lucky?” Well, we’ve had them as our development director for five years. Haven’t we been lucky?
Rob Bisceglie (22m 48s):
I completely agree. Talent is probably the biggest competition in nonprofits and for every company these days. There’s a race out there to try to bring in the best possible people you can. That’s how you build an organization. It’s just made up of a group of people. There’s nothing else to it.
Dolph Goldenburg (23m 10s):
To continue the basketball metaphor, you’re just about to get back on the court and now you’re thinking about offense.
Rob Bisceglie (23m 18s):
Thinking about offense is really critical. This is a perfect time to talk about this because we’ve just been through this. We had the bones of our strategic plan. We took a step back. We said, “Is this still viable?” We reexamine our strategic plan every 3 years, but we also decided on a 10 year vision for our organization. So the concrete details are three years, but the vision is for the entire decade of the 2020s. We’ve still got the bones of that plan, and now we’re beginning to pivot and beginning to do new things at Action for Healthy Kids that are really responsive to the COVID-19 environment.
Rob Bisceglie (24m 4s):
I can give you one specific example. We’ve been working on health and wellness for years with schools and families. Our model is called a family-school partnership model. It’s really powerful.
And because of what we’re now experiencing, this model is literally what the doctor ordered. Kids are now learning from home. Parents and caregivers are engaged every single day in their kid’s environment and education. They need to work with their school stakeholders; their teachers and their administrators and so on.
Rob Bisceglie (24m 47s):
It was really time to pivot into this new environment. During the COVID-19 environment in which schools were not meeting, we took a step back. We created an entirely new program – what we call a program roadmap. It’s got components of the model that we’ve been working on for years that includes social and emotional health and wellbeing and looking at positive decision-making for older kids that are in middle and high school. We took the opportunity of a little bit of downtime while schools were not in session and said to ourselves, “Okay, how are we going to meet schools where they’re at when they start back?” And now, as schools begin to open again, we’re ready. We’re ready to support the social and emotional wellbeing of kids as they deal with an adverse childhood experience. They’re coming back to school or they will be coming back to school and have a whole new set of support that they need. We just decided it was time to move and create the systems and the tools that we’re going to need to support schools and families and kids going forward.
Dolph Goldenburg (26m 5s):
That’s awesome. And I think it’s incredible that despite COVID-19, which is a wrench that none of us expected or have ever experienced in our professional lives, you are still moving toward that 10 year vision. That’s really incredible.
Rob Bisceglie (26m 20s):
We feel really good about it. We just had our board meeting last week and our board of directors could not say enough about how we as a team intentionally put ourselves in a great position for moving forward. We wanted to be in a position so that as schools come back in person, we could provide as much support as we’re capable of. Now, it wasn’t really a choice for us. We needed to figure out how to do things differently. Our model for years, for example, has been all about in-person education. We have been conducting events. We’re working with schools and teachers and family members and PTA’s and PTOs in order to conduct our programming.
Rob Bisceglie (27m 4s):
That’s not the reality in which we’re living right now. The big challenge was: how do we take our model and make it more virtual than it used to be? And so we’ve been working on that for months. Now there are all kinds of tools and resources that families and teachers can use together to keep kids healthy, physically active, and well.
Dolph Goldenburg (27m 24s):
That’s incredible. Rob, I have to ask you the off-the-map question, and you’ve fed me the question. You shared that you are in a CEO group where it is all for-profit CEOs with the exception of you. So what have you, as a nonprofit chief executive, learned from a bunch of for-profit CEOs?
Rob Bisceglie (27m 49s):
So I’ve been in the group for almost four years. It is a wonderful group. It’s called Vistage. We meet once per month and get together for an entire day. Everyone is expected to bring issues from their organization to the table in a way that we can sit down and not only help them work through the issue that they’re facing, but also learn at the same time. It’s hard to explain how much I have gotten from this group.
Rob Bisceglie (28m 33s):
I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector my whole career and nonprofit organizations have budget limitations. It’s just the way we operate. We don’t have a lot to put toward professional development (which I think is really a shame because I think that things like this CEO group are invaluable for non-profit folks). To get to your question, what I’ve discovered over the years is that for-profit organizations and nonprofit organizations experience about 95% of the same issues. The other 5% are related to what you are going to do with the profit. We put it right back into our organizations and our mission. They do something different with it.
Rob Bisceglie (29m 15s):
The rest of the issues are the same exact issues, like attracting talent, budgeting issues, insurance and mid-level management issues. I just can’t recommend finding a group like this enough to anyone who is a nonprofit leader or who wants to become a nonprofit leader. I would not have been able to make it through this COVID-19 situation as well as I did without my group. I really believe that’s true.
Dolph Goldenburg (30m 4s):
I have to say that was quite a testimony for that group. That’s incredible. I know you mentioned it’s Vistage. I know you’re based in the Chicago area – is Vistage national or only in Chicago?
Rob Bisceglie (30m 15s):
No, it’s national, so people should check it out. I know there are other companies out there who do similar things, I’m sure they’re also fantastic. The bigger point is to find a group of really smart people who don’t have a vested interest in your organization and work with them as advisors. It can’t be a more valuable experience.
Dolph Goldenburg (30m 43s):
That’s really awesome. And we will post a link to Vistage in the show notes. Rob, thank you. I am so grateful that you’ve come on the podcast today to share your enthusiasm and expertise with our listeners. Listeners, let me make sure you know how to reach out to Rob. He is at actionforhealthykids.org. If you are an organization that serves children, caregivers, parents or is involved in education, you can find hundreds of resources and activities that you can use to promote wellness, wellbeing, healthy habits, and more, both at home and at school at his website.
Dolph Goldenburg (31m 33s):
I’d also recommend that you check out their blog so that you can find even more ways that you can take action. And the last, and this is a little bit of a longer URL so we’re going to link to this, but you can view the recording of ‘Leading the Way to Health Equity’ which is their conversation with Dr. David Satcher, who you may recall was the Surgeon General under Bush and Clinton. Rob, thank you so much for joining us today.
Rob Bisceglie (32m 8s):
Thanks so much for having me. It’s been my pleasure and I really love what you do. So keep up the good work.
Dolph Goldenburg (32m 13s):
Thank you. Listeners, if you are just busy checking out, Vistage going, “How can I get into this group?” You keep on checking them out. You can go to our website, successfulnonprofits.com to check out the show notes and transcript of our conversation today. You also will get all of the links we talked about. Don’t forget, if you want to be a part of a nonprofit CEO group, next week is the week that we are launching our chief executive group coaching that will help you thrive during the recession.
Dolph Goldenburg (32m 55s):
It is curriculum based and is 13 sessions happening every other week. If I’m a betting person, it’s probably already filled up because this is the week before. If you’re interested, let me know, and we can get you on the list for the next one. If you enjoyed this conversation, there are 2 episodes I think you should check out: Episode 154 “Navigating Uncertain Times with Toni Pergolin’. You may recall we had her on the podcast during the spring of 2020, and she had some sage advice and comforting words for nonprofits that are facing crisis. Also check out our Episode 169 with Natasha Wallace. Natasha and I talked about her book, The Ripple Effect, and ways that your organization can take care of your staff. That is our show for this week. I hope that you have gained some insight to help your non-profit thrive in a competitive environment.
Dolph Goldenburg (34m 18s):
I’m not an accountant nor an attorney. And neither I nor the Goldenburg group provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. This episode is for informational purposes only and should not be relied on for tax legal or accounting advice. And if you’re all the way at this point, you are one of our loyal listeners. God bless you. God bless you. God bless you. If you find yourself in need of tax legal or accounting advice, I would recommend that you get some recommendations from
peers and colleagues that you trust and that you reach out to someone who is licensed and able to assist you.
** We have edited this transcript because how you listen is not how you read. If you have a problem with this, remember you got this for free!