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  • Writer's pictureDave Griffith

United Way of Bucks County Remarks

United Way of Bucks County

Good morning. As mentioned, my name is Dave Griffith. It is an honor and privilege to be with you this morning. I got here last night and just found the room. We are gathered this morning by a joint call—the call of service and the call of service as a profession.

After 37 years of working in the for-profit world, I was asked to lead a non-profit social service agency in Philadelphia.

ECS, Episcopal Community Services, is a 155-year-old non-profit focused on intergeneration poverty and the practice of transformation, coaching, and advocacy as our core theory of change. With some 170 employees, we are nationally recognized for our brain science-based work. I am the first non-priest and non-social worker to lead the agency.


Having made the switch from CEO to Executive Director and Head Coach, I get asked about the differences from individuals thinking about making a similar transition as a final professional chapter and what they ought to consider. I also get asked what a world-class non-profit looks like. That is what brings me here this morning.

So, after ten years, here is my list.

1. Talent Matters. In both sectors, the better the talent, the better the outcomes, the better the income. Historically, non-profits have had lower compensation and benefits, and my approaches to attracting talent had to be retooled. While I have found that investing in professional development, best-of-breed communication practices, and an inclusive workplace, as in people who work for you have a seat at the table with strategy and problem-solving, all help attract and retain talent in both sectors. That said, fair and competitive pay needs to be the norm in the sector. If you want to build great organizations that do the work and attract support, hire talent at a competitive wage with benefits. The extraordinary talent in the non-profit sector is called to this work. Discerning that call is critical in the hiring process. Long-term funding will come with impacts. Impacts will come with talent. Talent needs to work in a progressive workplace and be compensated accordingly. This is the fundamental challenge of our sector.

2. The Pace is different. Not for the challenges, amount of work, and long days. Instead, the pace for getting answers from funders, the government, and compliance matters is very different. I am used to regulation, but in this sector, the amount of paperwork and touches on any given issue is complex and sometimes lacks a sense of urgency. Persistence and relentless patience are necessary tools in the tool kit. But so is a willingness to drive productivity through technology, scale, partnerships, and advocacy with funders.

3. The myth vs. reality of this work. I thought I was savvy on the issues of poverty, race, and economic opportunity. After all, I had run a large business, was well-read, and was involved in non-profits as a board member and volunteer. Never has the ability to listen, ask questions, talking to the people closest to the work mattered more. As staff, board, and funders, I urge anyone coming into this work to do so with an open mind and heart. Business skills can make a huge difference, but the program work is complex and layered. It took two years before I could start to connect the dots around poverty, race, and privilege in this space and understand what mattered to move the needle.

4. Collaboration is not a given. Forty percent of the social service agencies in our region have six weeks of cash on hand. Most agencies depend on government funding for ninety percent of their funding. As an observation, most agencies do not naturally collaborate to protect funding. I think the ability to bring focus on the work, especially work that delivers impact and to collaborate to produce a wide range of services, is a skill where an individual with a business background can bring value. Joint Ventures can bring terrific value to the individuals being served and drive impacts at much more effective levels. Do what you do well, partner for the gaps, but make it easy for the people you serve.

5. Data matters. I am used to using data to drive quality improvement. Getting data, you can take action on is difficult in this sector and is only now recognized as critical to driving process improvement. Like the for-profit work, talking to your customers, finding the pain, and addressing it are the keys. In both sectors, we make the mistake of telling people what they need rather than asking. We would launch at 80%, measure, and tune for impact. Our most important data point is impact.

6. Overhead. I ran a profitable business with 21% overhead as measured by GAAP and sit on several for-profit boards. 990s, if you believe them, suggest 8-10 percent in this sector. Funders only now are understanding that overhead is critical to successful programs. Finance, IT, HR, Marketing, and Development must be done right so programs can function and focus on delivering quality impacts. Changes coming in GAAP will drive better accounting in the sector. Donors and funders will take some time to reset the model of what defines success. It is not the budget mix but the impacts. The best agencies deliver impacts in the most cost-effective manner. Education on that mix is critical. In this area, I believe there are collaborative solutions for smaller agencies, such as insurance, benefits, technology, accounting, marketing, and professional development.

7. Boards. There is a significant difference between a paid board and a volunteer board. Board recruitment is critical in both sectors. However, with a volunteer board, there are different levers when making decisions, and while governance and nominations should not be, they are different. Again, this is a space where a business background can add value. Looking at skills, diversity of thought and experiences, funding capacity, and networking ability is essential. Having clear, transparent communications, hearing from all views, and having two-way feedback and clear expectations are critical for an effective non-profit board relationship with management. It is also essential that the board and management understand the boundaries.

8. Focus. It is easy to be pulled in many directions in both sectors. A critical skill is saying no to your staff, funders, and the board. Your heart will want to say Yes. The key is the focus to drive impact, requiring a clear vision and strategy. In non-profit work, there is a tendency to chase funding. Mission, Vision, and Values matter; they should define your work and direction. If they are right and respond to real needs, the funding will follow.

9. Humble Experience. It is easy to think that the scoreboard you measured yourself with in business matters in the non-profit sector. In many cases, it does, but the program work is hard and, by definition, humbling. I would strongly suggest that the better way to share experience is as scar tissue. When you make a mistake, share what you learned, that you continued to move forward, that in most matters, a mistake is rarely fatal, and that the sun will come up tomorrow. Experience is perspective, and it is something you need to share from a frame of reference that matters to the people you work with. The best feedback comes when you go live with a program. The odds get better when you get feedback from the people you serve before you launch. People know what they need. Better to listen than tell.


10. Muddy Boots. If you know me, you know the story. You do your best work in the field with your muddy boots, listening to the people closest to the work and the people you serve. Ask how we are doing and what can we do better. And you listen. You listen with intention and without defense. I have long believed that leaders are at their best in muddy boots. This is true in any sector, profit or non, and I could make the case true in life.

Finally, if you are not called to this work, I strongly suggest you consider other options for a career or a final chapter in your professional life or as a board member. Understand what you are getting into and do it for the right reasons.

But if you truly feel the call, there is no more rewarding work. You work with amazing people and stakeholders, you have the opportunity to coach young people, you get way more than you give, you learn and grow tremendously, and if you can move the needle in your space to make a difference, then the opportunity for a legacy that matters is significant.

So, one final lesson is that of Mission Vision Values. Mission is a clear statement of what you do. Vision is what it looks like when it is right. Core values are the lens through which you make decisions and hold yourself, your team, and the board accountable.

The world needs our sector, but it needs a sector focused on impacting the people we serve and being willing to go outside our comfort zone and old practices to deliver. To believe that “no more status quo” is how we roll.

Our four values at ECS are Community, Justice, Dignity, and Impact. Community being one with the people you serve, other agencies, donors, your board, and your staff. Justice for the people you serve and the core belief that access to opportunity is a universal right, Dignity that your serve your participants as you would serve you family and colleagues. Impact that moving the needle in the right direction, help individuals reach their goals in a sustainable way is the true measure of success.

I would submit that you are on the right track if you perform with such values as your North Star.  As a staff, as a board, as a donor. May we remember whom we serve.

Thank You

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