The CFO as Chief Service Officer

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As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q3 2016 Issue

THE CFO AS CHIEF SERVICE OFFICER

Fifteen CFOs, mostly from tax-exempt organizations, gathered at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey where they sorted and repacked food for distribution to more than 900,000 hungry people in New Jersey. What made this volunteer endeavor particularly impactful was that it was held two days before Thanksgiving. They came together as part of the CFO Studio Executive Dinner Series, and though this one was held in an unusual location, it featured excellent conversation and food for thought for CFOs of tax-exempt organizations — as well as an impressive dinner prepared by a culinary team that is part of the Community Kitchen, the FoodBank’s Food Service Training Academy.

Bob Barry, Chief Financial Officer of the Community FoodBank of NJ, led a tour of the facility, explaining all that goes into running such an expansive operation, and then hosted the dinner. Cheryl Marks Young, Chief Financial Officer of Easter Seals New Jersey, led a lively two-hour discussion of “The CFO as Chief Service Officer —Balancing Internal and External Customers, Partners, and Other Beneficiaries in Tax-exempt Organizations.”

“In our roles as CFOs, we are not just number crunchers, we are not just data crunchers,” said Ms. Marks Young in an interview. “We are human beings who serve others. The numbers and the data help us tell a story about the impact we make on the consumers we serve. That’s the story we have to get across.”

The group discussed all that goes into becoming a charity of choice. Mr. Barry gave specific examples from the Community FoodBank. He explained that Kathleen DiChiara, who started the organization by feeding the hungry out of the trunk of her car in 1975, instilled in the staff the fact that “no” is not an option.

Ms. Marks Young’s mantra is similar. “There is no room for failure in our roles because we need to continue to provide quality services to those most in need.” Since 2006, Ms. Marks Young has overseen all of the financial functions for Easter Seals New Jersey, ensuring its resources are properly allocated to achieve its long-term strategic goals.

Easter Seals New Jersey is a 501(c) (3) not-for-profit organization that since 1948 has enriched the lives of people living with disabilities and special needs, and those who care about them, by providing opportunities to live, learn, work, and play in their communities. Annually, nearly 9,000 people or families in New Jersey affected by developmental disabilities, including autism, physical disabilities, and mental illness, participate in programs designed to help them address life’s challenges and achieve their personal goals on the path toward independence.

Among Ms. Marks Young’s accomplishments is boosting funding for services by $22 million, enabling the organization to increase by nearly 20 percent the number of people with disabilities or special needs served. She has also served as a consultant and advisor to other Easter Seals affiliates across the nation by sharing her expertise in cash management, financial systems, and financial leadership.

“In my discussions, I use the numbers to tell the story about how what we do impacts those we serve and support,” she said. “It’s the lives touched that is most important. We all have state-specific and regulatory issues to contend with as well as business model issues. At the end of the day, it’s not really about all that. It’s about how we, in all of our individual businesses here, serve that end-consumer.”

Many in the group admitted not-for-profit work was not on their radar while they were in school. “My goal was to be the CFO of a Fortune 1000 company making money for shareholders,” said Mr. Barry. “Here I am in a not-for-profit for 30 years, working for shareholders who are the people we serve. We have to be there to help our respective organizations remain financially viable so we can continue serving those who are impacted by our mission.”

The participants agreed that running a not-for-profit can be a balancing act. A solid infrastructure is vital, as is balancing overhead costs. Transparency is key as well. Open communication with donors, the executive leadership team, staff, and board of directors is important, but there are many more populations that must be addressed.

Many in the room referred to the book Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential, by Dan Pallotta, which examines the constraints put on not-for-profits by the public. A parallel theme in the book and at the CFO Studio Executive Dinner was that not-for-profits must be allowed to use the tools of commerce to thrive and accomplish their missions.

A successful Chief Service Officer doesn’t just talk the talk but walks the walk, said Ms. Marks Young. “Bob [Barry] shared a story about his staff coming in on a weekend to make sandwiches during Hurricane Sandy. That’s being of service internally to the staff as a role model and externally to the consumer we all service,” said Ms. Marks Young. “That’s what it is all about.”

She said it is important to focus on the population being ministered to. “It’s about how we serve our end-consumer or customer to live their best life, to have what it is they need, what brings value to them, and that holds true whether you are for profit or not for profit.”

Copyright 2017