Will College Ever Be Free???
Interview with Chris Bryant
Christopher Bryant is the Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, Virginia. He oversees all fundraising and philanthropy, marketing, public relations, and scholarship management. Also, in this role, Chris is the Executive Director of the CVCC Education Foundation. Mr. Bryant began his career as a District Executive for the Blue Ridge Mountains Council in 1999. After working ten years professionally with the BSA, he left the program as a District Director to expand his career in philanthropy and marketing. Chris then served in the development offices of Presbyterian Homes & Family Services (now HumanKind) in Lynchburg, Capital Caring (Hospice) in Falls Church, and Goodwin House (Senior Living Community) in Alexandria. Chris has served five nonprofits professionally, and as a board member and volunteer with United Way, National D-Day Memorial, National Powwow, Native American Jump Start, Kiwanis Club of Lynchburg, Churches for Urban Ministry, Capital District Kiwanis, Blue Ridge Mountains Council – BSA, Boy Scouts of America (nationally), Central Virginia Agency for Nonprofit Excellence, Lynchburg Covenant Fellowship, and Rotary Club of Bailey’s Crossroads.
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. This is Hugh Ballou. Welcome back to a new episode of The Nonprofit Exchange. In 7.5 years of doing this, almost 300 episodes, we have had unique episodes. Even people talking about the same topic have much different insight and different things to offer.
My guest today is a new friend, a dear friend, who is a very capable leader right here in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is in the realm of education. He is a very competent leader. I have watched him in action, and we have worked together. I asked him to come on here and share some of his experiences with people wanting some fresh information and inspiration. Chris Bryant, from Central Virginia Community College and the college’s Educational Foundation—he wears two hats—welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. Please tell people about who you are.
Chris Bryant: Thanks, Hugh. I’m glad you said we are going to share experiences and not expertise. I don’t believe I have any expertise, but I think we all have experiences we can share. Maybe it gives us something we can all compare our successes and near failures with. That being said, I hope the next little while, we can be entertained amongst friends and learn some best practices. I hope I don’t wear you out too much. I can be a bit passionate and sometimes enthusiastic. Hopefully, my rose-colored glasses will wear off on each of your listeners.
I live here in Lynchburg, Virginia. I have been all over the Commonwealth with my family, my wife and two sons. I have served five nonprofit organizations, starting with the Boy Scouts of America, which is a national brand. I did grow up in the program and am an Eagle Scout. Professionally, scouting is much different than the program we all grew up in as a youth character development program. I started off with 10 years there.
You’ll have to know this about me: My father was a pastor, and my mother was a nurse. I believe that because of those two service-oriented people, champions for all the goodness in the world and love, they have put me on the track to serve people and be involved in nonprofits. When I left scouting, I went to work for an organization at the time that was called Presbyterian Homes and Family Services. Now it has rebranded as Humankind. It was an orphanage back in 1903, and it is now a multi-million-dollar organization that is a family services organization that serves a huge chunk of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
For several years, we were in northern Virginia in Falls Church serving Capital Caring Hospice, which covers all of northern Virginia, most of Maryland, and all of D.C. In Alexandria, Virginia, I was there for a while with Goodwin House, which is a senior living facility, very similar to Westminster-Canterbury if you are from the Commonwealth. Now I am with Central Virginia Community College, both as the Vice President of Institutional Advancement and also as the executive director of the nonprofit foundation.
Hugh: It’s a stand-alone 501(c)3 and has a very distinctly different identity from the community college, which is part of the government. It’s funded by the government. It’s a government institution.
Chris: I love that you say that because that gets to the heart of some of what we want to talk about today about community college being free versus what people really think about community college and private schools.
I have one foot as an employee of the Commonwealth of Virginia and one foot in the nonprofit that is the stand-alone 501(c)3 foundation. Think about the University of Virginia. It is both a state-supported school, just like CVCC, and probably has 50 different foundations that govern all of the different schools of medicine and engineering. Our greatest institutions of education—UVA, Virginia Tech, William & Mary, JMU, all those big ones here in Vriginia—are all state-supported schools. They are not private. They receive a ton of funding from the Commonwealth, but they also create foundations to help them manage and leverage opportunities to expand their vision.
That is what we’re all about as nonprofit leaders. How do we share our story? How do we expand our vision? How do we grow our efforts? The foundation is a way to do that. A separate stand-alone supportive industry that is really meant to uplift the greater organization.
Hugh: One of your hats is a very big hat. You’re a visionary leader. For people in this, we call it nonprofit, which is a dumb word, but a social benefit- We are in a for-purpose business. Why is it important for us to understand and articulate our vision?
Chris: I love that you say “for-purpose.” That’s so powerful. First of all, all of us are good. If you count the number of nonprofits that are in existence today, there are hundreds of thousands. We are all good. We all have the best of intentions. We are all well-anointed. How do you choose one over the other? There are a finite number of volunteers and champions and dollars.
One of the things we have to think about is what makes us relevant. What makes us different from the pack? How can you articulate that? Vision is everything. If you’re not growing, you are dying. I hope I don’t offend you by saying that.
My father was a pastor. I have been in a lot of churches that got smaller and smaller and smaller over the years. Faith is as relevant as it has ever been. The doors should be open, and the churches should be packed. Any place of worship should be filled to the brim. That’s not the case.
The organizations that can have a vision and share their vision and empower others to be engaged in delivering that product and vision and consuming that goodness will prevail. Just because you do it well today doesn’t mean you’ll do it well tomorrow. Vision is truly everything because it always has us on that purposeful pathway of growth. We are each on that pathway personally, and we want to be on that same pathway of success with our organizations as well.
Hugh: You’ve had a good history of really important work experiences behind you. You came to Lynchburg for this job, I’m guessing. How long have you been in this position?
Chris: Just over three years now.
Hugh: Wow. You let me in front of your board. My experience is it’s a very high-performing, very engaged, very professional board of directors who understands being a board of directors. I have found in my work of 33 years doing this there are very few boards who understand how to be the board. Was it that way when you came, or were you a part of that transformation? Have you been a part of an upgrade in that process?
Chris: You’re exactly right. We do have a board with about 23 or 24 directors. They are all presidents and CEOS or folks of prominence in their working careers. I think we have been on a journey together that started a little bit before me. We had great board leadership before my entry into the college. Since then, whenever there is a transition in the executive leadership, there is usually a little bit of transition in the board leadership as well. You see that there are board members that are endeared with the professional staff, or they just use that as an opportunity to check out. “I have been doing this for five, six, 10, 20 years.” There are natural transition points. If you are doing your jobs correctly, and you have those transitional moments for staff, you will have those for our board as well.
One of the biggest things you will do is transition your top leader. For us, we transitioned our board chair. It went from a gentleman who had been our board chair for five or six years. I believe this makes all the difference in the world. We transitioned to a board chair who not only was qualified for the job. He had the affluence and the influence that we all want a chairman to have. We want them also to be able to tell the story well. Our new board chair is an alum of the college. They are a consumer of the product, and also his children have attended the college. I believe that gives him a very distinct position as an industry leader that wants to see a pipeline of talent produced for local industry.
We all believe that education will uplift the masses. It’s the one thing that will get us out of poverty. Education is the key, Dr. King said that. Many folks have said that in the past. We all believe in the mission. But what makes us different, I believe, is that our #1 champion, or volunteer board chair, was a consumer, is currently a believer through direct contact, and is able to share that vision and passion with others.
Then recruit, recruit, recruit. If you are not asking on a daily basis for something, we are not doing our jobs right.
Hugh: Out there, out in front, being assertive. You put a business perspective, but you also have put a relationship piece to this. I got to observe a board meeting a few months ago. I sat in the corner and watched. Everybody leaned in. Everybody was prepared. When they had to report, you called on them. You didn’t dominate. You just facilitated the process. People were ready. They were engaged. They were enthusiastic. You were done in an hour.
The relationship between the executive director and the board is unclear in many circumstances. There is this standoff: Can I do stuff? Do I need permission? The board is responsible for the organization, the finances, the governance. You actually run the organization. Talk about your relationship with the board and how you have cultivated this high-performing perspective and attitude and engagement that is so good.
Chris: Hugh, I appreciate you saying that. We are good. The volunteers are fantastic. Let me tell you why we’re fantastic. We all clearly know what our expectations are. Everybody wants to be successful. The way we become successful is we define our goals and then work toward them. You have to have those steps to accomplish your goals.
With that being said, I believe every board meeting is a three-step approach. Let me try to simplify it for folks like me that need it simplified. We have quarterly board meetings. Leading up to that quarterly board meeting, we are going to have regular touchpoints. We have committee chairs. The true work of the board, as far as I’m concerned. I’m going to work backward.
If you want to keep that board meeting to a one-hour meeting, the work needs to be done prior to that. There is no way we can have that 8am-9am meeting without the work being done early. If you’re not getting work done early, then you’re going to have to reshape the way that you think about business.
Our committee meetings are two weeks before the board meeting. That consistency lets our committees know when they are going to meet. It gives them time to prep for their meeting. If there are any action items that need to happen between the committee meetings and the board meeting, it gives us a window for that to happen. At the committee meetings, that is where the true lion’s share of the work happens. We schedule those meetings for an hour. Sometimes they run to an hour and a half or two hours. That is where the true goodness is happening.
Here is a saying that I absolutely adhere to: Keep it simple, stupid. It’s the KISS mentality. We have four committees. Our committees are finance, governance, scholarship, and resource development. Each of those committees has a chairperson. For that meeting to be successful, I have to meet with the committee chair for an hour to answer their questions, to get them prepped, and to tee them up for success a week or two before their meetings.
That three-step approach is the executive director or staff meeting with committee chairs; committee chairs leading their committee meetings and making that the lion’s share of the work; and then the board chairman leading the board meetings for that hour. If we don’t keep it to one hour, a couple of things are going to happen. Folks will get frustrated and antsy, and it won’t allow those committee meetings to be the meat and potatoes of our work. The other thing is that at 9am, people will get up and start leaving because it’s time to go to work. Those clear expectations help us. That three-step approach to a quarterly board meeting is right for us.
Hugh: You really shouldn’t have a meeting more frequently than you have a need to have a meeting. You’re very purposeful about it. The foundation of leadership is relationship. It was obvious to me you knew everybody there, and you had a relationship with each person. My guess is you could ask them to do almost anything, and because of that relationship, they would consider it at least. Most of the time, they would say yes. Talk about the relationship with the leader and the participants.
Chris: I love that. I love that you would say that. I hope that would be the case. I do believe, because of the value of the volunteers, they would. I believe in the innate goodness of people. They want to serve. They want to put their expertise and practice into work. They want it to come to fruition and reality. You have to help people be successful. One of the callings as a paid staff or an executive is to help the volunteers be in a place that they can succeed. I said earlier that you have to let folks know what expectations are.
Hugh, you’re right. Relationships are everything. All too often, we will recruit someone who has finance expertise and ask that person to intentionally sit on the scholarship committee. They are like, “Wait a second. I am a bean counter. I am a CPA. I am a broker. I need to be on your finance committee.” “There is an opportunity for that to happen, but we would like you to serve on the scholarship committee for a year or two so you can hear the stories of our students who apply for our scholarships.” It’s a great touchpoint. Maybe it’s not so much the relationship that I build with the champions that is so powerful. It is powerful. But the relationship that really needs to be built with our board champions is with the organization and the institution.
I hate to say this, but it’s another reality. Executive directors and staff will come and go. The organizations are much more viable in the long term. Our foundation is 40 years old. The community college is over 50 years old. Some of our board members have served for more than a decade. I do believe in my naivety that they will do what I ask them to do because we’ll make it fun, I’ll respect their time, I’ll make them successful, I’ll help them be in the right lane. But I think they also do what they do because they see the vision; believe in the impact of their investment of time, talent, and treasure; and believe in the calling of the institution. Education is a great calling.
Each of these folks I believe will do it because a relationship is being leaned on. I would ask, a board chair would ask, a committee chair would ask. I love it when a student speaks to our board. We always have a student address our board meetings at the very beginning of the meeting. At the top of the hour, we carve out five or ten minutes for a student to share their testimonial so our board champions can hear directly from our beneficiaries who they are serving. That’s powerful as well. Those relationships are invaluable.
Hugh: When you were talking to the volunteers about doing something, there is a specificity in the ask. There is a reason why you’ve made the ask. We all too often are apologetic about asking people when they are there to serve. We sometimes stand in the way of them really fulfilling their passion to do something. I don’t know why. What is the secret to engagement for you? Do you give board members a specific job description? How do you define their duty and delight, so to speak? There is a fit for what they want to do and what they can do. What is the discernment process of getting to that engagement point?
Chris: There is definitely a philosophy out there that says, “Do what you’re best at.” The flip side of that is, “Let’s become well-rounded people and work on the things we’re no good at.” Regardless of where you fit on that paradigm, I truly believe in the philosophy of let folks do what they do best. You will have folks on your board who will tell you, “I like to do public speaking.” Those folks will be great for coffee talks and chats and rotary meetings. Lean into the skillsets of your volunteers. A little bit of success goes a long way. If someone tells you, “I want to be a public speaker for your organization,” empower that person to do that. If someone tells you, “I’m not going to ask people for money. It’s not my forte,” they are probably not going to be on your resource development committee immediately. Find a place where they can be successful.
I have seen quite a shift of people who say they are not good at fundraising who become amazing volunteer fundraisers. Our governance chair on our board—I won’t tell his name, but if you do a little research, you will be able to find it. He said he was no good at fundraising. I looked a couple years ago, and he was the chair of a local campaign that was happening. He can raise money with the best of ‘em. With that being said, the secret sauce is asking people to do what they are good at, to foster that good relationship, and to empower them to do that. Stand out of their way.
We think as executive directors that we can tell our story the best. We cannot. In my case, I tee up the college president. If we tee up our best folks to go and sit down and have those best conversations, the goodness is going to happen. You just have to do the legwork. You have to be willing to wear all the hats. Sometimes we’re the president in the room. Sometimes we’re the secretary. Sometimes we’re the janitor. Sometimes we’re the bus driver. Whatever it takes to get the right people connected to tell the right story at the right moment. We refer to that as a values alignment. You just want the right people to tell the right story at the right time. It’s all the correctness.
Hugh, I’ll divert a little bit because I want to say this. In fundraising, I am a Certified Fundraising Executive. One thing they tell us is there is truly a formula to fundraising. The cycle of fundraising is very easy. I live by this principle. I believe it goes further than philanthropy or direct fundraising. The four steps are identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship.
Let me go through that again: identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship. I believe you can use that same thing for board recruitment. You can use that same premise for bringing in a new employee. You need to identify what your organization needs and the skills of the people that need to be aligned with that position. Identification is key. Who is the right fit? Who is the right person?
Then there is the cultivation. The dating portion of what it’s going to take to get this person to understand where you want them to be and how they fit in. That cultivation is building that relationship that Hugh talked about and really uplifting the moment where you are going to do that third step.
That third step is the big one. It’s the one we focus in on as the most important. It is important, and it does have to happen. That’s the solicitation. You have to ask. You have to make the ask. Whether it’s for a dollar, a million dollars, or someone to serve on your board, that’s solicitation.
All too vitally important is stewardship. How do you appropriately recognize and thank the people for what they do, whether that’s volunteering or donating?
You have to be able to use those four steps. Not only will it work in fundraising, but it will work for you in board recruitment, board engagement, enrollment for colleges. We have to identify our target audience. We have to get the right marketing pitch out there. Once they come in, we have to have the right value proposition. Once they are here, they have to feel like they are a part of a community. Whatever your product, whatever your organization, those four steps can serve you well.
Hugh: It is so critical. The stewardship part is where we really fall down. Staying in touch with the donors. Letting them know what has happened with their donation. We have been good stewards. In our world, we are custodians of other people’s money. It is for a purpose.
Let’s go back to telling a story. There are people gifted at telling stories, but everybody has a capacity to tell a story with their language. We don’t do enough of that. We typically do a lot more good work than we can tell people about. How do you cultivate this storytelling, even with people who think they aren’t good at it?
Chris: There is so much noise in our world these days. There is so much either in the backdrop or even in the foreground. We have all heard that there are 50,000 action points a day for our young people that are consuming information through their devices, their phones, their TVs. All the stimulation that’s around them. We live in a very noisy society.
I think that each organization probably needs to understand a couple of key premises. What is the best message to share? You have to refine your story. What makes it unique? What makes it relevant? What makes it stand out? You have to refine your story before you can share your story. Come to grips. Go through your identity crisis. Go through the work to get that mission, vision, and goals.
Hugh, you’ve been helping us do that. We are very grateful for you. Even if you are a 40-year-old organization, you have to hit the reset button every now and then. Just because I used to do it one way doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful now as it was decades ago. Make sure you are listening to your consumers, your customers, your audience. It’s resounding the story you’re telling. If not, you have to go back to square one, which is where a lot of us go. How do you hit the reset button and make sure you have a good story to tell?
Then there is the sharing of the story. There are as many ways to share stories as there has ever been. There are more mediums and markets than ever. We used to have to be very verse in our oral presentations and public speaking. That is no longer the case. Any 11-year-old potential scout, a girl or a boy with a cell phone, can make a video and share it on TikTok or YouTube.
I do personally believe that if you are an organization that has consumers that can share direct testimonials, that is more powerful than ever. We want our students to be on our social media platforms. We want our students to be telling their stories directly. No longer do you have to rely on a conduit to share your story. Of course, if you have a million dollars in marketing money, bless you. Most of us put marketing at the very end of our budget, and we spend what’s left, which is usually nothing. This marketing thing has always been a nut to crack. It’s never been easier to tell our story though.
What I would say to nonprofit leaders is examine your story. Make sure the story you’re sharing is relevant today. Who are you going to send that message to? It’s the old telephone game. Who are your consumers? Who are the stakeholders that need to hear that messaging? Be very direct and intentional about who shares that message. It’s the what, the who, and the where is it headed? I know it sounds so simple. We simplify it so much that we make it sound so easy. It’s not. But getting your story out there could be as easy and advantageous as ever.
Hugh: It is a lot easier than we make it. The work we do is difficult, but we make it harder. You talked about wearing different hats and doing different roles. There is a fine line between doing it and empowering others. You get good people. You’re clear on the vision. You’ve defined the goals. There is a place to get out of the way.
In America, there is 1.6 million nonprofits. There was a survey done that said 45% were burned out and leaving. This is before the pandemic. We do that to ourselves by overfunctioning. We do things that others could do. I watched you in the planning session with your board. Everyone is engaged. Everybody participated. You sat at a position that wasn’t a power position. When you spoke up, people paid attention because you’d built a relationship of credibility. You didn’t speak for people. How do you do this dance of doing enough but allowing other people to do what they can do, rising to their level of proficiency?
Chris: That’s a great question. I wish I had it mastered; I don’t. It starts with biting your tongue and shutting up. For people like us, Hugh and I, and many others, it’s hard. We all believe we have relevant information to share. Listening is so important. Choosing the right opportunity to give information is important, too. For an executive director or paid staff, it is so vital to share the appropriate information up front and then really be quiet. Bite your tongue. Sit back.
You will know when to lean in and appropriately stir the conversation. Sometimes we call that guiding the conversation. I used to think I could control what the outcomes of things were. I cannot do that. I used to think that I could, but now I realize that I certainly cannot. I’ve heard people talk about guided discoveries. I think only my wife has the ability to do that. She can guide me where I’m supposed to be.
For boards, it does not work. You have to have an understanding of where you want to be. No concept or preconceived notions about how you will get there. I’m telling you, oftentimes we are wrong. We are relying on our historical knowledge and data and our expertise and our experience about what’s worked right in the past. What I’ve seen in the past two or three years is sometimes those principles are no longer relevant. There are many ways to get to the destination that we are all after. Oftentimes, our job is to tee something up. Tee up an important topic. Sit back, be quiet, and every now and then, if we are off topic, push people back to center on the topic, not necessarily on how to accomplish the goal. Then learn to be quiet again.
Hugh, you do this better than most. At the very end, there has to be someone who is collecting the yes’s and no’s and the data. There is nothing worse than doing great work for an hour or two and then walking away, and nothing happens after that. Ensuring that there is appropriate follow-up is as important as anything. We all want to hear ourselves talk. We all want to give information. Who is going to own this? Who is going to take this and run with it? That is a very important ask at the end of the conversation. After you say, “Here is what we’re saying. Here is what we want to do. Here is who is going to own it. Here is when we are going to talk about it again.”
Hugh: That’s a sequence that doesn’t always happen, but it’s crucial. My last topic is competition versus collaboration. We think we have our own silo. We have our own volunteers and donors. Guess what? They support others. What keeps us from collaborating in community?
Chris: Just our own stupidity, I think. I’m a very competitive person. I will speak out of both sides of my mouth. The first time I took the Myers Brigg study, I was with the Boy Scouts of America. We went to Texas for a two-week training. We did the questionnaires before we arrived. Once we got there, they shared the results. I said, “I already know who I am.” That’s the kind of person I was then. “You don’t have to tell me. I know who I am.” They said, “We have an Attila the Hun in the room.” I was like, “Oh no, who is this person?” They said, “Chris Bryant, where are you?” I could not believe it. I was not in the place where I maybe thought I could or should be.
What we have to understand is that competitive need that existed in playing college football and growing up the youngest of seven children, which will make you competitive as well, is collaboration is key. I have learned that from several good leaders who have taught me that investment in others is the right investment. I do a lot of work with the Boy Scouts. I have heard over the past several years that there has to be a lot of discrepancy and head butting with the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts organizations right now. Boys have opened up their organization for girls to participate in the program. I had a friend come to me and say, “The Girl Scouts must be really upset with you guys now that the Boy Scouts are getting into the market share of Girl Scouts. What’s that relationship like?”
Here is the answer I gave to that person: “The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts together nationally are only serving 6% of total available youth population. Both of us need to get over ourselves and worry about the 94% of customers we are not reaching.”
Just let that be our calling card. Regardless of what we may think about competition, collaboration truly is an opportunity for all of us to lean in, to uplift one another, to help one another, to love one another. There are so many seeds to be sown together.
You started the question with a number of donors. It’s a fact that donors have 6-7 organizations they truly believe in and lean into. All of us probably give to 20 nonprofits. Through the year, you stop and put a little bit of money at the Salvation Army. You gave $5, and you’re done. You will give to 20 nonprofits over the course of the year. Studies show you’re really going to lean into those five, six, or seven. You just want to know where you are with your donors.
One of the questions I always ask my donors when I have those sit-down visits is, “You know, tell me who your top five organizations that you love to be involved in are. Tell me more about that.” The follow-up question to that is, “Where do we rank amongst your top five? Where does CVCC Educational Foundation fall?” Those are questions that are good to ask. They are tough questions to ask. But your donors are okay with sharing that information. If they’re not, they’ll tell you. Oftentimes, they will tell you, and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Hugh: Those are astounding. Like I said at the beginning of this, it’s going to be a unique interview. Chris Bryant, this has been so informative, so encouraging. To be focused on the leader as an influencer. All of what you’re talking about is so critical. What parting thought or tip or challenge do you want to leave people with today?
Chris: I’m going to piggyback on the word you just used. My 18-year-old son said this just yesterday. He used the word “influencer.” All my life, I thought you could be a controller, a leader, a dictator, a captain. The most relevant word that I think really circulates amongst our young teens today is “influencer.”
Did you know there are people who for a living all they do is influence other members of society? Think about that. There are folks who have a YouTube followship of a million people. Sometimes I think, “What did this person do? How did they aspire to become this? What expertise do they have to be an influencer?” It’s belief. It’s passion. If you have love and joy and passion and belief in your heart, and you’re called to serve something greater than yourself, you’re an influencer.
The only parting comment I’ll have is always look to a brighter day. Always understand that it’s our job to push advancement and growth. Lastly, be an influential person for good. If you build a team of good people, and you have good people surrounding you, good things are going to happen.
Hugh: Chris Bryant, thank you so much for this helpful interview today and being our guest.
Chris: You’re welcome. I hope there is at least one nugget in there somewhere.
Hugh: There is. Thank you so much.
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