Nonprofit leaders draw from corporate career experience

Last updated on August 6th, 2019 at 10:57 am

Bill Krugler spent 31 years in the business world, including many as managing director at Milwaukee-based private equity firm Mason Wells Inc. 

In 2011, he closed out his for-profit career. Driven by his faith and a desire to make a bigger impact on the community, Krugler in 2013 launched nonprofit Milwaukee JobsWork to help the city’s chronically unemployed find work. 

“It was right after the 2010 census came out, saying that Milwaukee was the fourth most impoverished city in the U.S. That really hit me,” Krugler said. “ … I got to thinking, is there anything I could do to bring to bear on the problem of poverty? That led me to stepping away from Mason Wells and starting this new life.” 

As he considered how he wanted to take on the issue of poverty, Krugler attempted to use a different model than what he had seen in the city’s robust existing nonprofit landscape. Plenty of organizations were working to get people jobs, but Krugler couldn’t find many that were simultaneously addressing the underlying challenges that prevent people from keeping them. 

He wanted to see people not only land a job, but also succeed and advance professionally. 

“It was this cycle that people were never getting out of poverty. They were working, then not working,” he said. “That’s where we needed to take a more business approach to this problem of poverty, a longer solution that was about using employment as a way to get people economically self-sufficient and out of poverty.” 

Krugler is among several Milwaukee-area nonprofit leaders who credit their corporate career with helping them bring a fresh perspective and business savvy to an altruistic sector that can struggle to balance mission with margin. 

Applying business principles

Brenda Skelton

Brenda Skelton made the switch from the for-profit to nonprofit sector after a long career in marketing and public relations, which included 13 years at Midwest Express Airlines. 

As a business executive, Skelton was recruited to serve on several boards of directors, including the Milwaukee-based Siebert Lutheran Foundation. 

“One of the things I brought to the board, partly because it was so much of a focus at Midwest, was a focus on continuous improvement, inherently not being satisfied with the status quo,” Skelton said.

After serving on the board for eight years, she was appointed in 2013 as president and chief executive officer of the foundation, which supports ministries and projects based in Lutheran churches and organizations. The position provided a new professional opportunity that aligned with Skelton’s personal values. 

“It integrated my professional skills and faith commitment,” said Skelton, who recently transitioned into a newly-created executive counsel role with the foundation. “It was the combination that was unique to find in a role. For me personally, I wouldn’t say I was drawn to the nonprofit sector as much as I was drawn to this organization.” 

Skelton said maintaining fiscal discipline and a narrow focus on funding priorities are two qualities she’s carried over from her for-profit experience. Siebert has clearly-defined criteria and geographical limitations to determine where it lends money. An undisciplined approach to spending could put the foundation at risk of sunsetting, Skelton said. 

“It’s very easy to want to meet every need because the needs in the world are infinite,” she said. “But it’s important to define your lane and then stay in it. Because no organization can do well if they are not really focused …We have to have the discipline to say, ‘They’re doing great work but we’ve decided with our finite resources, these are the areas where we can have the greatest impact.’” 

Milwaukee JobsWork, which is a beneficiary of Siebert’s funding, intentionally partners with existing agencies to provide its clients with services that are outside of its purview. Based in the Harambee neighborhood, the organization offers career readiness workshops and individualized plans to address barriers to employment, such as a lack of a high school diploma or drug and
alcohol addiction. 

When he entered the nonprofit community, Krugler noticed the duplication of services among the region’s nonprofits. Rather than reinvent the wheel, he decided his organization would partner with existing organizations that provide the services his clients need, such as literacy or addiction services. It allows the organization to better focus on its mission of connecting unemployed individuals with jobs, Krugler said.

“Our first question we ask is, ‘Who is out there doing the work that we can partner with?’” he said. 

Bridging the two sectors

While there are certain complexities to measuring outcomes of social services and philanthropy, Skelton said it’s necessary to have evaluation measures in place, as is expected in the for-profit sector.

“Often what nonprofits report as impact or outcomes aren’t that; they’re outputs – the number of people trained or meals served or people touched,” she said. “A question we often ask our funded partners to think about is: What is the change you’re trying to create in the world? And then come up with a measurement plan and work back from the answer to that question.” 

Krugler said establishing measurable goals along with a long-term plan are things he learned from his time at Mason Wells. 

“A lot of times, not-for-profit entities are reactive,” he said. “But you have to start with getting out of the moment, looking at the bigger picture and putting together a plan of how to best use what you’re good at and then making goals for that plan and what are the things you need to measure … If you don’t have a plan and you’re working on something different all the time, because you’re not moving in any one direction, you’re moving in too many … I’ve seen a lot of nonprofits that really lead with their heart and are very passionate about what they do, but don’t have that overall discipline.”

Kathy Thornton-Bias

Kathy Thornton-Bias spent most of her career in the corporate retail world, at Saks Fifth Avenue, the retail division of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Bang & Olufsen, and most recently Milwaukee-based Verlo Mattress. 

In March, she crossed into the nonprofit sector when she was named president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. For her, it didn’t feel like a big leap. 

The organization is an 800-employee operation that serves 43,000 children and teens across 44 locations, making it one of the largest Boys & Girls Clubs in the country. 

“It’s like running a medium-sized retail company,” Thornton-Bias said. “My customers are just 18 and under … We market our services; we have strategic partnerships. We do all the things businesses do to grow and sustain themselves, it’s just the profits go back to support the mission, not to a shareholder.” 

While there are certainly differences, the overlap between running a business and running a nonprofit is strong, Skelton said. Both require sustainable business models to survive.

“Not-for-profit is a legal structure, not a business goal,” she said. 

Having straddled the two sectors, Krugler said he’s intent on bridging them. JobsWork partners with area companies to provide its clients with stability employment, allowing them to establish a track record of good attendance and performance, with the organization serving as a liaison between the employee and employer.

“Coming from the business world, I always say, ‘You don’t reduce poverty without getting people jobs, and you don’t get people jobs without the business community being involved,’” Krugler said.

For Thornton-Bias, nonprofit leadership has had a way of crystalizing her priorities and what she finds meaningful in her work. 

“For anyone considering making a change like this, you will be humbled beyond belief and you will quickly learn it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the mission work you’re there to deliver,” she said.

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