Abe Fernández

Vice President for Collective Impact and Director, National Center for Community Schools, Children’s Aid

How old is your organization? 166 years
What sector do you work in? Social service/education
How long have you been working in this sector? 23 years
How long have you been with your current organization? 16 years

In what ways have nonprofits adapted business practices that more similarly reflect for profits over the last four decades, and has that been a necessary shift?
Although I can only speak to the last two decades that my career spans, even within that shorter timeframe I have certainly observed the growing influence of business practices within the nonprofit sector. We have borrowed language like “key performance indicators” and “verticals,” and built out logic models and strategic plans with tools taken directly from management consulting firms.

On the one hand, I appreciate the focus on results that this shift has brought about. As a sector, we have built discipline and skills around collecting and analyzing information that have, no doubt, made a positive impact – not only in better identifying what practices lead to outcomes but also in shining a light on where inequities exist. Communities are better off and our field has grown stronger.

On the other hand, some bottom-line driven practices don’t always translate over well, especially given the complexity of the human experience and the multitude of ways to define success. I worry at times that, particularly when the communities we serve are not directly involved in interpreting the data we’ve collected, we can be driven to make decisions that work against our missions or that ignore broader equity issues. If we’re not careful and purposeful, we might shy away from serving the hardest-to-reach young people, for example, or pass on taking risks that lead to innovation for fear of not hitting a target.

What is the single greatest challenge you face today in your sector?
It’s hard to ignore how the current political environment is touching down on our work. As providers, we are experiencing an unprecedented level of uncertainty about funding and are struggling to reconcile the divisive, bigoted policies coming from the federal government with the realities we see on the ground in communities. We are seeing trust eroded among our most vulnerable populations, including immigrants and some religious groups, resulting in a chilling effect on seeking help.

What opportunities exist now for nonprofits to break through into success that did not exist 40 years ago?
Despite the challenges that go along with them, advances in technology are poised to position nonprofits for success. We now have available to us capabilities to capture, visualize, and analyze data, and therefore to make better decisions about practice and investments. We’re also better able to demonstrate our impact, especially among subgroups that were once hidden in the data. The excellent work spreading through the country on reducing chronic absence in schools is a great example of looking at a data set in a new way (analyzing attendance of individual students to identify those missing 10% or more) and efficiently targeting improvements that add up to significant changes. We also benefit from communication tools to share stories – about our constituents, where we are successful, and where/how we need support.

What leadership qualities are necessary to succeed as a nonprofit executive today?
I imagine that many of the characteristics of successful nonprofit executives have stood the test of time over the last 40 years. The ability to articulate a bold, clear, compelling vision is paramount. I have been most inspired by those who know and share the “why” of their work – the ways in which their personal story is aligned with their leadership of the organization. I also think being able to share leadership and listen to a wide range of voices is critical.

Recently, I’ve grown interested in the role that mentoring, or sponsorship, plays in paving the way toward executive positions and, therefore, the responsibility nonprofit leaders – and given their under-representation at the highest executive positions, nonprofit leaders of color in particular – have to identify and support protégés in the field.

What skills do you believe are necessary for people to succeed as managers over the next few decades?
The most critical resource for most nonprofits is their workforce. We have a responsibility to set our people up for success by embedding (and helping donors to see the value of) meaningful, ongoing professional development as a centerpiece of our management practices. This means allocating time and budget lines for training, for sure, but it also means aligning managers’ behaviors with the content and practices promoted by those learning experiences. Having a culture of continuous improvement – where it’s actually OK to fail as long as there are structures in place to quickly learn from those failures and iterate solutions – complements a commitment to professional development nicely, as it places responsibility for change in the hands of all staff, not just the managers.

Why did you join this sector?
I grew up poor in the Bronx in the mid-70s and 80s along with my twin and two older brothers. We are the sons of immigrants from the Dominican Republic who, with a tremendous amount of courage matched only by the fear of the unknown they would encounter in the Bronx, fled their homeland in search of the American dream. The Bronx of the 70s and early 80s was the canonical image of urban blight, with high crime rates, gang activity, drug trafficking, and buildings being burned by owners seeking to collect insurance payouts.

Against the odds and with the support of my family, teachers, and nonprofit programs, I was lucky enough to enroll in an elite independent school and take advantage of many opportunities there and beyond. While I am grateful, from an early point I remember feeling uneasy about the scores of peers in my elementary school and in my neighborhood who were not so fortunate. I imagined a Bronx where success was not dependent on luck. What would it take to ensure opportunity for all in the Bronx and other places like it across the country? I’ve dedicated my career to finding out.

What do you want your work culture to be like?
As I have gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I have come to appreciate work environments that — in addition to encouraging creativity, teamwork, and inclusion, among other attributes — promote continuous improvement and employ a direct style of communication. The challenges our constituents face are too great and complex for us not to have brutally honest conversations about where we are and are not getting the results we seek.

Find out more
Children’s Aid
National Center for Community Schools

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