Watch the Interview
Community Options: a Nonprofit Like No Other Interview with Robert Stack
Robert Stack is the Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Community Options. According to the New Jersey Business Journal’s Book of Lists for 2018, Community Options is ranked as the 3rd largest non-profit in New Jersey. He has an M.B.A. and is a graduate of the University of Dayton. Robert also attended the University in Friborg, Switzerland, University of Rome and the University of London. He also taught at Kent State University where he received the Graduate Student Teaching Award. He is an Adjunct Professor for the graduate school at Kean University. He is the author of two books: I Matter-So Does Your Cause – Starting a Nonprofit and Meaningful Day: Day Program Services Curriculum and Staff Guidebook.
Robert has extensive international experience in entrepreneurial business development and non-profit management. He has spoken throughout the world on employment for persons with disabilities using a social entrepreneurial model. He was a keynote at the Yale Goldman-Sachs School of Management and has given the plenary session at the National Council of Negro Women USAID conference in Cairo, Egypt, and at Perspectiva in Moscow, Russia on entrepreneurial management, business development and advocacy. In 2015, Stack was the keynote speaker at the University of Oxford Roundtable.
Read the Interview
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, it’s Hugh Ballou, and we’re back on The Nonprofit Exchange with yet another wonderful guest today. It’s the equinox. We just passed the equinox in September where the days and nights are about the same. I’m in Lynchburg, Virginia, and my guest today is Robert Stack, who is sitting in his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Robert, welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. Tell people a little bit about yourself.
Robert Stack: Thank you very much for inviting me to your program and your home. My name again is Robert Stack, and I am the CEO and founder of Community Options. Community Options is now a 30-year-old corporation. We were incorporated in February of 1989. Our mission is to develop housing and employment for people with significant disabilities.
Hugh: Robert, you’ve done this for 30 years. What did you do before that?
Robert: I was the deputy director over at institutions for people with developmental disabilities in the state of New Jersey. That was running a bunch of institutions for people who lived in the facilities throughout New Jersey. Prior to that, in my twenties, I was the executive director of the United Cerebral Palsy of New Jersey.
Hugh: You have quite a bit of experience in this field. Tell me why you founded this nonprofit and why you do this work.
Robert: That’s a great question. I founded this nonprofit out of need. Basically, I worked at United Cerebral Palsy. I got a real good flavor for how nonprofits worked being the executive director of the New Jersey chapter. I saw the great things they did. I saw the things that weren’t that great. I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t grow the way I wanted to grow, and then I realized the charter confined me geographically. I realized there was a limited amount of wiggle room I could have. Necessity is the mother of invention. The person who was the director of developmental disabilities for the state of New Jersey said, “Gee, Robert, we have all these institutions. We need to figure out how to close them. Would you be my deputy over there? We can talk about a phase out plan.” I came and worked for him and was in charge of all the institutions. I had 8,000 staff and a $3 million budget. It was a state bureaucracy. It was also confining.
What I realized then, Hugh, was that there were a lot of people in the institutions, but there were not a lot of agencies who were ready to provide the home and delivery of care to people who needed it. There weren’t a lot of nonprofits to help them find jobs. There weren’t a lot of people. There were a very small number of people. There was an Association for Retarded Citizens founded in the 1950s. There was the United Cerebral Palsy founded in the ‘50s. There was an Easter Seals founded about the same time. There was a Goodwill. There were some small mom and pop organizations.
I thought about it a lot. Who is going to take care of these people who really have significant levels of need? People who are blind and deaf, people who are in wheelchairs and blind, people who are autistic and blind, people who are significantly autistic, etc. Who is going to take care of them? I knew I could. I kept trying to work with providers, explaining to them how they could do this. I then decided to start my own.
I called my friends and said, “I’m going to start a nonprofit.” They said, “Knock yourselves out.” That’s when the whole thing started.
Hugh: This unique experience founding a nonprofit. I’ve done it. I’ve had friends who have done it. I am hoping SynerVision will be the legacy that continues long after I’m here, or at least long after I want to work. You founded it. How long before you were able to put some staff into place, like an executive director?
Robert: I founded it in February 1989. I hired myself as the CEO of this small grant. After a very short period of time, not even a month, I saw the opportunity to help deinstitutionalize people. So I started working on that. Then we developed a contract. I made myself the CEO and president of Community Options.
Hugh: You have a staff now that runs the organization.
Robert: Yes. I would answer the phone in my house. We had cell phones, but they were more analog phones. I had a phone on the wall, and I would answer the phone *high-pitched voice*, “Community Options. Please hold. I’ll see if Robert is available.” That was at my kitchen table. Then I had a really nice business card with my home address. That was Thompson Street in Jersey. I had four or five staff working in my kitchen. That was in November 1991. Then we got the first contract to start placing people with severe disabilities because the governor of New Jersey decided he wanted to close one of the institutions. There was a group of people they took out, but there was a group of people no one would take. I said, “I’ll take those people,” and I did. I found them jobs and housing and bought the houses.
That was terribly difficult. I had to hire staff, I had to buy houses, and I had no money. I had to take a second mortgage out on my home. I had every credit card from Diners to American Express to Visa to MasterCard to Discover to anything you could possibly think of to keep the place floating until I could get everything together. That was a tough time. It worked out. We struggled a lot. I remember hanging onto an old 286 computer. We had no real Internet at the time.
Hugh: Those are the days they called it electronic mail, and it was internal and multi-user. Then it went to the Internet after that.
Robert: I could actually create handles for everyone. I was CO1 for my Internet for AOL. Everyone on my staff went on AOL. I had everyone on America Online. You’ve got mail! We did it that way. We progressed in time after that.
Hugh: Fascinating. Give us some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen. You’ve worked with other organizations inside. You’ve interfaced with some in the work you’re doing now. What is the biggest challenge founders face? You had a lot of challenges. You put yourself out on a limb. Some people do that, and they don’t succeed, so they lose everything. What is the biggest challenge founders have in getting a nonprofit launched and growing it to be sustainable?
Robert: It’s not an eight-hour day. It’s not even a 15-hour day. It’s a 20-hour day. You’re constantly clamoring to try to figure out how to do it. I also firmly believe that any nonprofit that wants to survive, the only way they will survive is they have to have a very simple mission statement. Ours is to develop housing and employment. IBM. What do they do? They make business machines. That’s their mission statement. It was their mission statement back then. Even now, they make business machines. Our mission is the same.
However, even though our mission is the same, one thing I pushed for is diversity relative to funding. What a lot of nonprofits are afraid to do is get out of their comfort zone. I was in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Then I was in Texas. Then I was in South Carolina. Then I was in Tennessee. Now we are in a variety of states. There is different parts. There is federal government funding. There is the Department of Education. There is the Department of Labor. Department of Health and Human Services. Local funding. Foundations. Getting people to give money. You have to pony up your own money if you want to survive, too.
Hugh: Absolutely. There is a point where people keep putting their own money in, and they need to learn how to get other money. There is a lot of barriers. You obviously didn’t have the reluctance to go and seek out said funding. That is so crucial. That is one of the biggest obstacles I see, especially with early-stage nonprofits. People say, “I’m not good at asking for money,” or “I don’t want to ask people for money.” Maybe you didn’t have those narratives in your brain. How did you bridge that gap?
Robert: I’m not asking people for money for me. I’m asking people for money to help somebody with a disability. To me, it’s a totally different thing. When I was a kid, I would go around with the canisters for Jerry’s Kids. I wasn’t afraid to knock on the door because I wasn’t asking for money for me. I was not getting a bicycle with that money. I was asking for that money for Jerry so he could fund some basic research to cure muscular dystrophy. I look at it the same way. Every dollar we get goes to Community Options. I have a motto. My motto is “Nothing ever failed because too many people said no. It’s because not enough people were asked.”
Hugh: Whoa, that’s a good sound bite. Doesn’t fail because too many people said no. It’s because not enough people were asked. Salespeople are motivated by no because the yes is just coming if they get enough no’s.
Robert: I agree. I also agree that people hate to say no more than once. I will say, “Can you contribute to my organization?” “I don’t have any money.” “Can you be a member of our volunteer group?” “I don’t have the time.” “Can you give me the name of someone I can call and use you as a reference to talk to?” If they say no to all three, I will move on. But they hate to say no more than once. Usually, they’ll say, “Well, if you call Mary Smith, maybe she’ll help you.” Or they’ll ask how many hours it takes to volunteer or what you want them to do.
Hugh: You have to be ready for that.
Hugh: I had a meeting last night with the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra board. Part of the presentation was our development officers, our committee chair and staff person, talking about how the board bridges those gaps. Who do you know, and how can you introduce us? They used a case study where I was going to talk to somebody, but I didn’t know the person, so one of them introduced me and I had a much better conversation because there was that transferal of the relationship, which is so key. We were talking about a symphony. Why would people give money? They wouldn’t give money if they don’t come. We need to build a relationship, but we also need to give people the experience. By the way, one of our revenue streams is ticket sales. As you know, orchestras don’t cover the cost, not even half of it, with ticket sales. There is a cultivation piece for donors. In this process, you knew something about it because you’d worked with other charities, and you had probably given a presentation or two in your life. I find we are not very good at telling people why it’s important and why we exist. We want to tell them everything we do, the what, but we don’t talk about the why. We really don’t quantify the impact of what those dollars are going to create. How did you create those pieces of the presentation to help you break through to get funding?
Robert: My father, God rest his soul, was a milkman. When he sold milk, he knocked on doors. He kept on talking to the person who answered the door, saying, “Do you know Mary? Do you know Pete? Did you live in Hazelwood, or this or that part of Pittsburgh?” until he figured out something he could relate to that they both had common knowledge of. With me, it was a very easy subject because it’s disability. Everyone in their life has been touched by someone with a disability. That’s the first question. If you’re talking about a symphony, it could be, “Have you ever experienced the euphoria of going to a symphony?” Some people would say yes. Some people would say, “Not really.” Back to me, I would say, “Do you know of anybody who has autism or a developmental disability?” They will say, “My aunt had Down syndrome, or my cousin. My child has Down syndrome, or my child has autism.” That is the start of the conversation. When I go to school, I see somebody there, or my son talks about them. The first thing is to relate who they know.
Then I say, “Do you ever wonder what happens to them when they grow up? Do you wonder who takes care of them? We miraculously grow up and move out and get jobs. What do people with disabilities do?” I have them think about that part. But you’re right. I don’t get down in the weeds. It’s too complicated. You start with people with disabilities. I don’t know if this is true. I’ve heard it, but I say it. I say the word handicap came from “cap in your hand.” That was the etymology, meaning beggar. People with disabilities don’t want to beg. They want a job. They don’t want people to feel bad for them. They don’t want people to pity them. They don’t want people to empower them. You can help me empower people with disabilities.
Hugh: Wow. I can feel your passion when you talk about that. I’ve worked internally with mega churches for 40 years. Part of my job when I was there was helping build systems. We have good work we do, and we have good people, but sometimes we don’t put them in good systems so they can’t function. That would describe 95% of nonprofit boards I have worked with. They’re good people, they have a worthy mission, and they have a good leader. They don’t really have a system to function. As you were starting this, how did you grow it in terms of the leadership piece and the board functioning piece? Was building a strategic plan part of that?
Robert: Building the strategic plan came toward the end. I’m going to be honest with you. There is a huge anomaly here, and I am not traditional. Some of the things I’m going to say, all of the traditional nonprofits would say I’m doing it wrong. 1) In my 30 years, I’ve had three chairmen. That’s it. 2) In my 30 years, I’ve only had one treasurer. Same guy. 3) I don’t have board limits. They can stay as long as they want, but it’s not the Hotel California. They can check out any time they want, but they can leave if they’re not doing something. We will just say, “It’s time to move on.” I wrote my own bylaws. I showed them to two attorneys. Our bylaws are broad enough that you could translate a lot into them. My suggestion to any new person who is opening up a nonprofit: don’t create your own bureaucracy. Don’t create your own hurdles you have to jump over. Always be aware of unintended consequences. If you say this one thing, it could jeopardize what you are going to do for the next several years. You have to keep your bylaws wide enough that you can drive a truck through them.
Hugh: That’s wise.
Robert: I don’t put anyone on my board I don’t trust with everything. That is super important.
Hugh: I tell leaders when they are hiring staff or bringing on board members it’s the same kind of vetting for me. It’s better not to have somebody than to have the wrong person. One person can infect the whole team. Talk about that onboarding process. You invite people you trust, so there is a relationship piece that goes before that so you can understand who they are and their values and principles.
Robert: Let’s take you. You seem like a nice guy. I met you today, and we talked once or twice before. I know a friend who you know. I have a couple contacts you do. Let’s say we continue the conversation, and it turns out we have some common values. You happen to have a reason to be involved with this mission. A relative, a friend, someone who you knew who affected you with disabilities. I will ask you to come on the board for one year. I will have my chair decide whether he wants to invite you after that year. After the one year, you are in orientation period. We will see what you can do and what commitments you want to make and whether you will show up to all four meetings that year or not. We don’t want people to come on the board to just put their name on a piece of letterhead.
Hugh: That does happen. People want to be on the symphony board to have it on their resume. There are nonprofits in each community where people want to be on the board because it’s good for their career, but they skim by and don’t do a whole lot. In that one year that you’re trying each other out, that person is trying out the board, and you are trying them out. What do you look for to see if they are going to be a high-functioning board member?
Robert: I don’t bring a person on board unless they have a profession or a reason to contribute to the organization. My last board member I just brought on, she happened to be a retired physician from the World Health Organization. I have some issues of medical needs where I need some expertise that is pro bono to look at some of our medical programs for people with severe disabilities. I asked her to come on board, to chair this committee, and to write a report. She is working on that now. We’ll see how that works out. If it does, we’ll see what happens in the future.
Another thing. This is the antithetical to any kind of things you heard from everybody. I don’t ask for money. I encourage it. I ask them to talk to people, but the truth of the matter is I am the CEO of Community Options. Our budget is about $240 million by July. $4.5 million excess over deficiency. That is a pretty substantial amount of money. I’m not going to say to you, “Hugh, would you be on the board?” “I don’t know.” “I need you to figure out how to connect with media. I need you to connect with journalists and getting our mission out. But can you give me $25,000?” “Huh, really?” That’s not going to happen in my opinion. I’m not the Met. My advice to people is don’t have delusions of grandeur. Maybe someday I’ll be able to do this. But I’m not the Met. I’m not Princeton University. I’m certainly not the panache of Make a Wish. However, I take umbrage to it in the sense that I think providing a living for a person for their entire life, to provide a job for a person where he could actually work and feel responsible is a lot more important than having lunch with Daryl Strawberry. But the panache or the cache of those kinds of organizations are there. When I get people to come on my board, I want them to work and help and contribute.
Another thing I do, I ask, “Can you do me a favor? We have 5,500 staff. The majority of them are people who work day in and day out to provide care for people with disabilities. Will you work side by side with one of those people for a day? I want you to experience why we do this.” If they don’t want to do that, I’m not that interested in them as well. I want them to know. Anyone can read a mission. Anyone can recite a mission. Anyone can memorize a mission. But if they don’t live the mission at least once in a while to remember why, the whole thing doesn’t make any sense.
Hugh: That’s fascinating. $240 million this year. That is a substantial amount of cash flow. I’m sure the amount of impact you have is pretty large. We do teach leaders that all board members should be donors because we feel there is a commitment level that comes with that. Plus we know there is a lot of foundations that ask you at the very beginning when you are submitting a grant application that 100% of your board donates. We do find that is a barrier to getting some of the arts grants we want to go after with the symphony for instance.
Robert: I think it’s good. Quite frankly, all of our board does donate. I am not selling a board seat. As the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art would say, “Give me $50,000, and you can come on our board.” I don’t do it that way. As I said to my board, we had hired a consultant, and he suggested that. I said to my board, “There is 11 of us on this board right now. If everyone gave $10,000, that would not even pay for two months’ overtime in central Pennsylvania.” The impact, as I say, is like trying to get drunk on a shot of whiskey in a swimming pool.
Hugh: That’s pretty deluded.
Robert: It’s the same with the money they give. I want them to contribute, but I want them to be ambassadors and introduce me to people of means. That has happened.
Hugh: Sure. There is a lot of opinions in that. I won’t arm wrestle you on that. Everyone chooses to run the board the best way for the organization. In your bylaws, you appoint board members. Did I hear that correctly?
Robert: No, they are elected technically. I have never had anyone not say, “Okay, we vote for them.” The bylaws say they are elected. I say to my chairman, “Here’s Hugh. I’d like him on the board.” The chairman would say, “Does everyone accept Hugh on the board?” They all say yes, and he’s on. It would work like that.
Hugh: Glad I passed that one. I got elected president of the symphony board, and I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even on the board. I was a consultant. I am not really a consultant. I am an insultant to resultant. It’s a transformation. Like you, I don’t follow standard procedure. A solution map is my model of a strategic plan. I don’t even attend meetings that have agendas because they are so low-functioning. I am a 40-year conductor. A conductor runs a rehearsal with an agenda. We work toward outcomes. I run meetings with deliverables, not agendas. It really transforms the whole culture into a high-functioning one. I find the planners are the doers, and the planning and the board need to go together, or else we have cut them off at the knees and they won’t step up to their work. How would you talk about rating your board as to how well it functions? How did you arrive at that point?
Robert: Arrive at the point? There was a lot of evolution that occurred. A lot of education has to happen. The board spending a lot of time with the people we support is important. Our mission is important. We have to give them something to do for real. We have a strong audit committee. We have a strong executive committee. We now have a medical committee. We had a strategic planning group. We developed a strategic plan. We had them all work in small groups to bring on other people who were not board members to help them pull this together. We made sure the meeting was run by my chair. He is a volunteer. The chairman of our board is a retired senior executive from a very large company. He knows how to run a meeting. He has been around the block. He encourages participation. His major thing that he says to the board is, “You have to be generative. We as a board should be generative. We should not be reactive. We should come up with ideas and plans as to where we should move forward.”
Hugh: What is that word? Generative?
Hugh: Meaning you generate.
Robert: To generate, to be proactive, I guess.
Hugh: Just trying to be clear. Some people call me a degenerate sometimes, so I want to be clear.
Robert: Take off the “de” part. Just generate.
Hugh: You gave me an interesting thought to think about. Should other nonprofits with similar missions want to merge with you?
Robert: Yes. We have merged with a few smaller organizations. It’s a good question. There is definitely synergy, and there is economy of scale. This is important. When I was at United Cerebral Palsy, and they are a wonderful organization. However, there are about 200 United Cerebral Palsys. They are separately incorporated entities. That means they have separate financial statements, audits, 990s. They also have separate bylaws. They also have 200 CEOs, 200 CFOs, 200 ways of conducting business, 200 ways of doing insurance. I incorporated one nonprofit, one 501(c)3. This nonprofit, what we have, is a nonprofit that can adapt to everything and also because of the economy of scale, we self-insure. Our insurance costs are much lower. We have staff where we can offer them a pretty competitive rate where they can come onto our insurance policy. We are self-funding it with a Florida ceiling. There is a lot of help on that. We also have good 403B plans. We cross-pollinate all of the people. Somebody in Utah might be an expert in head injury. People in Austin, Texas might want to know more about it, so we will have that person come to Texas and do some cross-pollination training. We have national conferences where we bring everybody together. We all meet and talk about the issues, pre-establishing that agenda ahead of time.
Hugh: Love it. If somebody is in a smaller organization and they are thinking, “Gosh, this is too much. I need a leg up,” that would be a conversation you would welcome.
Robert: Yes, we’ve had that conversation with a nonprofit in New Mexico, one in New Jersey, and one in Maryland. All those execs stayed with us, and they still maintained their status. But they lost their board. A couple of board members came on our board. They now have the ability to have a lot more capital in order to grow. We help them with certain finesses relative to acquisitions and management entities they might have not had experienced at the same level of sophistication we have. We have a CHRO, we have a CD, we have a chief compliance officer, we have a CFO, those kinds of folks. We have folks who get more involved in what they need.
Hugh: You have a lot of infrastructure that a whole lot of folks don’t know how to create. They might have a really good program or skillset, but not the ability to scale it and impact people’s lives. You throw out the 403B. That’s a unique type of program that is similar to a 401k, but it’s a program that is specifically for nonprofit employees, correct?
Robert: What we do that’s different is we match it with 4%. If you put in 4%, we put in 4%. It encourages you to save. When people leave, and they rarely do, they are able to take that and translate it into another instrument, an IRA or something of that. We do that through Lincoln Financial, through a regular big company.
Hugh: I wanted people to know there is another instrument. A 403B is specific to your type of organization.
That’s a very intriguing proposition. Why don’t you come under our umbrella or merge with us? There are organizations that work independently underneath an umbrella like a committee. When I was in Blacksburg, there was a group I worked with that functioned under the Virginia Tech Foundation. They did a specific function, and that’s all they did, so they never founded their own 501(c)3. They just worked under this umbrella, and it worked well for everyone. It was founded after the massacre at Virginia Tech, and they wanted to honor volunteers. That was a specific thing they did that was of value to the university. That is a good start-up function for a lot of people. You are talking about folding your organization into the larger one so you can get more done and have less pressure on yourself. Is that right?
Robert: One of the problems you have with boards, and I see this when we merged with a smaller nonprofit. The boards have problems realizing the difference between operations and governance.
Hugh: You think? I have seen that so much. It’s a problem. It’s not funny.
Robert: When we do merge with someone, we will take one of their board members, reeducate them about what the role of the board member is. It’s not to talk about the salary of someone who reports to that director. It creates a lot more education, if you will. I also think that if they are struggling with finances, it’s expensive to run. Because we are so large, we have one CFO and an infrastructure with 30 accountants who do receivables and payables and that stuff. In this world of Medicaid, and in this world of billing, it becomes a complex situation. We are able to silo it into situations no matter what state we’re in.
Hugh: That’s accomplished. You founded this because there was a need. You had a niche you wanted to fill that wasn’t being met. You weren’t able to do what you could do in other organizations, so you created your own pathway. You are one of the 3% who want to do something and survive and make it happen. That’s quite an accomplishment. 30 years ago, you did this. What has changed in 30 years as far as organizations and how they run in this 501(c)3 world? We call nonprofits, which is a stupid word.
Robert: One of the biggest changes for me, and the most helpful, was the most wonderful thing that happened to me, which is what happened to everybody: technology. We are talking on Apples right now. The fact we are able to manage things. I can do so much more with platforms. I pay a lot of money for some sophisticated platforms, whether it’s to conduct time management for all the staff. I have 5,500 people. I have three people who do my payroll. In the beginning, I was writing checks out and putting them in the mail, holding my breath. That’s quite a difference. Honestly, I will give them a free commercial. In 1999, I wrote a grant and got a meeting with a higher-level person at Microsoft. Microsoft gave us some money, platforms, and software. That was the first thing that enabled us to kick off a lot more stuff that we do. We finally had servers, and it got more sophisticated. Technology is a level playing field. It’s a cliché everyone has heard of.
The work ethic may not have changed, but how work is done has changed. In my world, I learned the four reasons that people work for you. 1) They have to feel they can control their environment. 2) They have to feel they are valued. 3) They have to have their value recognized by their boss to others. That’s more prevalent than I have ever seen before. 4) Money. I rank them in that order. Now, especially now, everyone talks about the millennials, the big M word. I embrace millennials because in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, everyone was trying to make as much money as they could, whatever they could to do it. They didn’t care about anything except the money. Now I am talking to millennials who actually want to make a difference. They want to change, and they want to have an effect on people’s lives. They want to make a difference. Those people have a whole different attitude. They embrace working in an environment where they can actually make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities.
Hugh: Wow. When I hear you talk about it, I’m sure your passion is contagious within your organization. There is so much that happens from the leader outward that is so important. It’s like an orchestra. What they see is what you get. A conductor is thought of by non-musicians as a dictator. You have a white stick and are in front of union people, but you can’t make them do anything. You can influence them though. Music happens when we influence people to make music. Otherwise, they are playing notes. What is underneath what you just described is the impact you have on the culture. What you outlined to me is what we teach. Those are principles. We have core values that people write and put away. Principles are how we make decisions and our values in action. What you’ve outlined here is the principles we abide by and that you and the organization make decisions by. I see that principle-based organization is one of the anchors as to why you are so successful. How do you see it?
Robert: I agree with you 100%. I was in South Carolina this morning. The executive director of Columbia was driving me to the airport. Barely making it. She was talking about her relationship with Charleston, how she had to trust the executive person at Charleston when she was at Columbia. I told her, “Lindsay, the worst kind of control freak is a remote control freak. You can’t run South Carolina from New Jersey. I can’t run Utah from here.” I’m nothing more than an infrastructure. You step on the gas. You can make it into a rocket ship and make it way past Jupiter. But that’s up to the person. If they succeed tremendously, it’s up to them. If they fail, it’s them. I am nothing more than a person who helps facilitate what they need to do.
Hugh: That’s a good sound bite to highlight. The worst kind of micromanagement is remote micromanagement.
Robert: The worst kind of control freak is remote control freak.
Hugh: It is micromanagement. Let’s talk about managing a team or leading a team. What is the difference? How do you empower your team?
Robert: I set direction and course. Our group calls it EMT: Executive Management Team. That consists of all my Cs and some VPs. We sit down and meet on a quarterly basis away from phones and faxes and Internet and iPhones. All we do is talk about what our problems are. Everybody learns from everybody else. Everyone is a contributing member. The person in charge of fundraising has to be talking about the person talking about vacancies in group homes, who has to talk about the problem in government with some local authority in Texas. We all have to work collaboratively. Once we figure out how to go, we break up, and everyone does what they have to do. We talk about what we need to talk about. That is the most important part. They manage their own thing. My job as the CEO is twofold: to provide as much information as I possibly can, and to give them whatever resources they need in order to adequately do their job.
Hugh: There is probably some cheerleading in there, too.
Robert: Yes, there is a lot of vision in there.
Hugh: Absolutely. People sometimes get discouraged. If we tell them they are on the right track, go for it. It’s not a straight line. To me, that summarizes how I define leadership. It’s influence. You also said I am creating the process. Here is where we want to go. You get out of their way. They are able to do their work. I do what I call a coaching clinic in corporate America, nonprofits, clergy. People at that management level work with other people. I find burnout happens a lot because they overfunction, they try to control too much, and they really misunderstand leadership. Teaching people how to coach is a way of teaching them how to be leaders like you just defined. I find that a lot of people don’t know how to lead, but I’m sure you set an example that people catch on to. Do you have to pull people aside often and say, “You don’t get this, or can I help you figure this out? This isn’t working.” How do you intervene with people who aren’t quite making the grade or who don’t quite get it?
Robert: I try to let the leash out as far as I possibly can. The more issues I have, the more I pull the leash in. I have always said if you have to terminate people, if they are surprised, you are doing a bad job. Any time anyone left my organization, they pretty much know why, and they understand. I am doing them a favor because they realize they don’t have the aptitude or stomach or gumption to do what is needed in order for them to function. I always believe everybody is trying to do a good job. Hugh, I think it was Lincoln who said, “Only a fool trusts everyone, or no one.” There is something in between. I agree with that 100%. I trust you until I can’t. The person might need a bit of coaching. The person might need some facilitation from other people or additional training. I try to do whatever I can, but I have a small window. After three or four months, if they are not figuring it out, if they can’t speak the basic language in several months, they need to move to another country that understands their language, so to speak. If they can’t speak our vernacular and they can’t get into what we’re doing. I explain to my execs the same way This is not a job; this is not a lifestyle. We are on 24/7. We are providing care 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is no snow day. I am constantly looking at the national weather to see if there is a hurricane and how that will affect my houses in South Carolina. What is going on in Texas? The people who are down there are figuring out how to deal with their local people as well. It is a lifestyle. It is more of a vocation than just an employment. If they don’t look at it that way, it won’t work.
Hugh: People show up for paychecks, but they perform at a higher level because of the personal fulfillment. It sounds like you have people who are really called to this duty.
Robert: Yes, they have to be called. If they are not called, it won’t work.
Hugh: What you just described is difficult for a lot of leaders to do the course correction and see it’s just not working. I’m surprised at how many power leaders don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings, but they will let them go on in a non-functioning status and let it do more and more damage thinking it will get better. When they know they’re not doing a good job, you know you’re not doing a good job. Why not just address it? Sometimes they are happy because they know it’s not working and they don’t know how to get out of it. Any advice for people who are listening who are struggling with this low-performing or non-performing employee?
Robert: There is two things. I started off by talking about how when you ask people for money, realize the money is not for you, it’s for the people you support. If the person who is working with you is not doing a good job, you are not being a good steward of their money, of them. You are actually not being prudent for the person or cause you support or work for. Whatever cause it is, I don’t care, if the person is not effective, you are taking donor money, government money, somebody’s money, and are paying them not to do a good job, you are actually squandering the money. That is not good stewardship in my opinion.
Hugh: That is not good stewardship. That is the bottom line for me. We are stewards of everything, especially of other people’s money. We are not earning it. We are not putting it in our pocket. We are earning a rightful salary in compensation for the work we do.
You have given us a lot to think about. You have seen things happen over the last 30 years. What is in the future, both for your organization—will this be a legacy that will continue after you—and nonprofits in general? Do you have any thoughts about that? How will yours change?
Robert: I’ve set the bylaws up. It’s very important, especially when you get older, to make sure you have a strong succession plan. In my succession plan in my organization, there are people involved in the actual succession. I honestly strongly support having a good key man insurance policy so that when I’m not here, if there is some money that will help transition a new person. My point is I have it set up so that it would be extremely difficult for them to sell the organization or move it into a new place or have it become something else. This has been around for 30 years. It’s my intent that this will be around for another 100 years as Community Options.
In the realm of nonprofits, how they will survive, I don’t know. People are generous, in my opinion. People will help, if they believe in your cause. But the other thing is that no one gives a dollar to cancer. No one gives a dollar to a blood drive. No one gives a dollar to a symphony. No one gives a dollar to Community Options. They give a dollar to the person who is asking them for it. It’s you, and the credibility of the person who does it. As long as we can keep on creating leaders in the nonprofit world who can actually be strong stewards and be passionate, down to the bottom of their heart that they want and believe the mission, once they can continue to do that, they are going to have this go on in perpetuity.
Hugh: Wow. I want to sign up. I can see why you have good people. You are able to tell the story and let your passion for what you are doing come through your story. I think sometimes we tend to be a little heady or reluctant to tell people how we really feel when you are transparent and out there and are not afraid to say what you want to say from the heart. You have rehearsed this a bit. You are articulate. You have practiced speaking about these things often. We don’t do that enough as nonprofit leaders, do we?
Robert: I think everyone needs an elevator speech.
Hugh: And you need to give it.
Robert: And you need to give it often.
Hugh: Go to an elementary school and say, “We need to talk to you.” “How long is it going to take?” See how long you can hold their attention.
Hugh: Go out into the world and do that again.
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Robert, you’ve given us a lot of good stuff today. A lot of good sound bites. A lot of really mature wisdom. I don’t know about you, but I’m enjoying getting older because I’ve learned a thing or two, mostly by the things I’ve done wrong, but also by associating with good people like you. What thought would you like to leave people with, or what challenge, as we end this good interview?
Robert: My challenge is go find at least one person in the next week or two that you don’t know, chat them up, and tell them what your mission is.
Hugh: Robert Stack, thank you for sharing your wisdom and experience and thoughts with nonprofit leaders everywhere.
Robert: Thank you.