How often do we hear the question, “So what do you do?”
In 2012, today’s guest made a New Year’s Resolution to answer this all-too-familiar greeting with a different question. “What causes do you support?”
Rob Acton is Principal and Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting social enterprise that provides strategic counsel and high-impact programming to foundations, companies and social good organizations with a specialized focus on building both board and executive leadership.
On this episode, Rob and I discuss Cause Strategy Partner’s signature program, BoardLead, and how they train professionals for high-impact board service. During our conversation, we touch on how BoardLead connects talent with opportunity, how to prepare to make an impact at the board level, and the greatest factor board members can contribute to the organizations they serve.
Rob is a super cool human and I’m thrilled we get to learn from him as he shares his insights.
The interview transcript is below for reference.
Robert B. Acton, J.D., is Principal and Founder of Cause Strategy Partners, LLC, a consulting social enterprise that provides strategic counsel and high-impact programming to foundations, companies and social good organizations with a specialized focus on building both board and executive leadership. A Certified B Corporation, the firm partners with local, regional and national foundations; Fortune 500 corporate social responsibility and HR/talent teams; and nonprofit boards of directors, chief executives and staff leaders. Cause Strategy Partners’ client list includes Google, Goldman Sachs, LinkedIn, JPMorgan Chase, BlackRock, Barclays, PwC, Capital One, KPMG, Credit Suisse, United Airlines, MasterCard, Macquarie Group, Cushman & Wakefield, Motorola Solutions, Allstate, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The New York Community Trust, The Chicago Community Trust, Heckscher Foundation, The Joyce Foundation, UJA Federation of New York, and scores of nonprofit organizations serving communities around the country. Cause Strategy Partners’ signature program, BoardLead, has placed, trained and supported more than 360 professionals for high-impact board service at 162 nonprofit organizations in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. Cause Strategy Partners has received a number of awards for its societal impact including being honored as a Best For the World: Changemaker in 2018 by B-Lab.
Rob has more than two decades of experience founding, leading and scaling social good organizations as both a nonprofit chief executive and board leader. In 2011, Rob was appointed Executive Director of Taproot Foundation in New York City and served as interim leader of the foundation’s work in Chicago, as well. During his four-year tenure, revenue more than doubled and the number of nonprofit organizations served grew 220%. Prior to Taproot, Rob led Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA) in Chicago. During his seven-year tenure as Executive Director, CGLA grew substantially in size, reputation and community impact, expanding ten-fold the number of indigent clients served, adding policy work as a key aspect of its programs, tripling the agency’s annual revenue, scaling pro bono legal service, and doubling the organization’s staff. Under Rob’s leadership, CGLA received Chicago’s prestigious Alford-Axelson Award for Nonprofit Managerial Excellence.
Rob is Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York (NPCC), an organization representing and serving 1,500 member nonprofit organizations in the New York City region. He has chaired NPCC’s Governance Committee, Strategic Planning Committee and Development Committee, and also served on the Presidential Search Committee. Rob serves on the Advisory Board of CGLA. Previously, Rob was a founding Board member of Illinois Legal Aid Online, served on the Advisory Board of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management, and served on the Board of Trustees of his alma mater, Spring Arbor University. Rob was appointed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and confirmed by the Illinois Senate to serve on a state commission investigating police abuse.
Rob is a member of the Bar of the State of New York. He attended Michigan public schools, Spring Arbor University & Brooklyn Law School. Rob’s Causes: educational equity, second chances for ex-offenders, the performing arts, and nonprofit capacity building. Rob tweets @RobertActon.
Hi Rob, and welcome to the podcast. I’m so glad you’re here. I’d love for you to start with a brief intro of who you are and what you do.
It’s great to be here, Emily, and thank you for the invitation. I’m Rob Acton and I’m the Principal and Founder of a consulting social enterprise called Cause Strategy Partners and we operate across the country, but we’re probably best known for our signature programs called BoardLead, which I know we’re going to be talking about quite a bit today.
Yes, I’m excited about that. What need did you see that drove you to start Cause Strategy Partners to do social good?
Great question. I spent my entire career in the nonprofit sector and in fact my last two jobs were as Chief Executive Officer of two different nonprofit organizations, Cabrini Green Legal Aid in Chicago and Taproot Foundation here in New York. So in that role, obviously as a CEO, you work very closely with your board and I developed a real passion around governance through the experience, having the opportunity to work at times with a lower functioning board that didn’t necessarily have all the right people in the right seats and was effectively operating on all cylinders. And then on the flip side, working with boards that were highly effective, fully engaged, really driving the leadership roles and outcomes that you look for from a high functioning board. And I just dramatically saw the difference that happened when that high impact board was fully engaged on mission accomplishment and not doing the management role, but doing the governance role, resource development, and organization oversight.
So out of that experience, during my last year at Taproot Foundation, I actually had the opportunity of working with our local teams. We designed and built a board placement program and after a year or so a Taproot Foundation, which had a focus on pro bono consulting, really wasn’t going to move forward. With this pilot that we built, we sort of spun off and Cause Strategy Partners was born. Our focus at Cause Strategy Partners is all things nonprofit board governance, so the full life cycle of recruitment, placement, training, support and helping boards develop professional governance practices.
Yes, I love that you talk about the potential you saw with low functioning boards. Sometimes it can be really frustrating. I know the audience has felt it too, so I like your focus on making sure the right people are in the right place. Most people have the skills, they just need the knowhow. There are interesting stats you share that support and highlight this. The first is when board members are asked to grade the composition of the board, the average is a C+ rating. Second, is that 18% of nonprofit CEOs say they have the board they need to accomplish their mission. This has been true for me and the nonprofits, associations, and user group boards that I’ve served. We have volunteers who are task masters or who are really good at the social aspects, but they may not be an ideal candidate for the board seat or to help us move the organization forward in that way. They play an integral part in the organization, but not that part. So how has BoardLead solved some of this and what impacts has the program had?
Yeah, and you know, it’s a quirky setup when you think about it. That these organizations that are 501(c)3 status are charged with doing some of the most important work in our community. Taking care of educating children, protecting the environment, taking care of the sick – hugely vital, important missions. They’re given far too few resources to ever accomplish them, but then we place volunteers at the head of the organization, right at the very top, and they are charged with setting strategy and providing important oversight. Driving these resources is a group of volunteers, busy business professionals who have big jobs and families and faith communities and lots going on in their lives, but we charged them with this incredibly important leadership role of a really important work in our community.
Fundamentally, what motivates us to do this work is that we recognize the importance of that job, but also that there are incredibly talented people living and working in communities that really are not engaged. Maybe they’re writing a check every year to their favorite nonprofit or maybe on Thanksgiving, they take their family and go feed the homeless in a shelter in the community, but by and large pretty disengaged. Our passion is to grab ahold of those people, the most talented professionals, and connect them to a cause that resonates with them. Something that’s very close to their heart, something they really believe in, and then equip them with the training and support and resources that they need to be effective right out of the gate. I have to say – the data, the outcomes we’re seeing really demonstrate that. To date, we’ve placed 366 professionals at about 160 nonprofit boards in six cities around the country. I can say both qualitatively and quantitatively that the impact their driving is really incredible. Ultimately, that’s what this is all about, connecting talent to opportunity that really leaves an impact on the communities where people live and work.
Yes, connecting talent to opportunity. And that’s really 366 professionals who may not have had the skills or knowledge to be as effective in that type of role if they wouldn’t have gone through BoardLead. So that’s great to see that they’re now making an even bigger impact.
Absolutely. These folks have incredible professional skills. Imagine a marketing professional at JP Morgan Chase in Chicago. They know marketing inside and out. Well, guess what? Nonprofits need functional marketing, marketing as much as a for profit organization. So they have professional skills, they’ve got a great network, they’ve got a lot of intellect, wisdom to deliver in the board room. They have a network of friends that they can connect to the organization that make some money so they can write an annual contribution. Really, they sit on such a wealth of resources to be given to that organization. In so many ways, it’s about making that connection and then helping them translate those skills from the for profit sector into the nonprofit.
So how do you make that connection then? How did these 366 people find out about BoardLead and go through the process?
Through partnerships with corporations and professional services as it’s very much a cross sector model. We at Cause Strategy Partners build those partnerships and then end up recruiting from within the ranks of our corporate partnerships. That’s the talent pool we ended up placing. And then as a part of the process, we build a nonprofit pool as well. Those become the beneficiary organizations to the places where we send board members. Nonprofits generally find us through the strategic partnerships we have with local foundations, membership organizations of nonprofits in the community, other corporate and foundation partners. In many ways it’s one big partnership. I’m an advocate for cross sector partnerships, making those connections is the fundamental starting point between the philanthropic sector, the for profit sector and the nonprofit sector. I think we serve as a hub of that broader universe.
What a fun place to be. It feels like nowadays there is more of an interest for companies or the companies we work for to have a philanthropic mindset. There’s social good, more corporate social responsibility programs. It’s great things like these that are intersecting in such a unique way to maximize the overall impact we’re seeing.
Absolutely. That movement afoot and millennials deserve a lot of credit in my mind for helping guide corporate America towards a workplace where folks are looking to their employer and saying, you know, it’s not really enough to just give me tasks and a job or role that I like, although I’m glad I have that and a paycheck. But people want to find purpose. They want to understand a deeper meaning for their lives and for the work that they do. So a movement is very much afoot. I would just add that increasingly we’re seeing that movement well beyond the millennial generation. The CEO of BlackRock, Larry Fink called out the importance of purpose at his firm. I am friends with the Chief Purpose Officer at PWC, the global accounting firm. That’s literally her job title – Chief Purpose Officer and she is looking at how PWC can infuse purpose throughout the firm. There’s a movement afoot and we’re really proud to be a part of it.
That is so fun. What a cool title! I love that.
Once you find these BoardLeaders, who are going to go through the program, what are the first things you instill in them in terms of values? What do you want them to learn?
The number one thing we say at the very beginning is you need to be ready to stretch yourself and we’re really not looking for board members who just sort of want to add their name to the list on the website or the letterhead. We’re looking for board members who are prepared to really go all in and to stretch themselves, to exercise new skills, to be passionate about the mission of the organization. We are looking for fully engaged. So I think the number one thing we do is set really clear expectations. The nonprofit sector suffers from, often times, a lack of expectation setting for board members. We’re asking for an entirely different level of buy-in. So expectation setting is key.
Also, making very strong matches and really understanding what our nonprofit partners need in their board room. Finding candidates who are really passionate about the mission of the organization and have the readiness and skillset to deliver. The third thing is our strategy in training in that we don’t just connect people to nonprofit boards and then say, “Go with God.” We provide eight hours of governance training on the backend. At the same moment they are beginning their board service, we’re equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to be effective. And I have to say that eight hours of good governance training is eight hours more training than almost every nonprofit board member gets around the country. Usually, people are elected to a board and there’s no real training in governance. So we’re pretty passionate about that equipping piece as well.
It is so vital, especially with the new people coming in, the turnover each year with terms. Also, sometimes orientation is maybe an hour if that, so this is such a vital piece to ensure success.
So we have these BoardLeaders, who are now ready to go, who’ve had training and are now in a new board situation. How do you ensure they’re going to be successful? Some boards, like we mentioned at the beginning, are low functioning. Is there a process to support these new BoardLeaders and their impact?
We do our best, but I’ll be really candid with you, Emily. Many nonprofit boards really aren’t functioning at full capacity. We spend a lot of time in the board room as consultants and so many times we show up at a board meeting to talk to them and they don’t even have half the board members in the room, so the Executive Director takes out her phone and starts texting board members so they can at least be on the phone to get the meeting started. Then you look around the room and half of the board members don’t have the packet of materials in front of them that was diligently prepared by the staff a week in advance to prep them for the meetings. The treasurer gives the financial report and nobody even looks at the balance sheet or the P&L. They just kind of listen, passively. The Executive Director then gives their report and nobody asks any probing questions, right?
We can’t guarantee our BoardLeaders will be placed on high performing boards, although we sure hope to do the best we can. The message we send to our BoardLeaders is look, nonprofit board service is tough and if you go in with these high expectations and real passion and deliver on the training that we’ve given you, you’re going to stand out. You’re going to help raise the level of performance of the overall board culture and demonstrated a different level of board service. You’re in Chicago, I have a Chicago example with Cabrini Green Legal Aid. I would see at board member come in with this sort of commitment and you could see the rest of the board start to elevate their performance, elevate their contribution, elevate the kinds of questions they were asking, elevate their giving and their fundraising for the gala because one or two people had really set a different standard and it was acknowledged and admired.
I’m a big believer in not letting ourselves get too discouraged by kind of a mediocre level of board service because it just takes one or two who come in and set a standard and defines excellence on that board to really start to change the overall culture.
I love that. Defining excellence. I do think it’s a great way for folks to set an example. It isn’t only change happening throughout the organization, but especially at that board level, they’re contributing more because this example has been set for them. That’s great. So tell me about the greatest factor these BoardLeaders can contribute. Is it the drive for change? Is it bringing something new to the table or is it something else you’ve seen over time?
The greatest thing that a board member can contribute in some ways I would say is unique to each individual because there are lots of different sorts of board members. There are some who are exceptional door openers. They know everyone, they know the right people, they’re not afraid to introduce their contacts to the organization, so you might have a great door opener. Then you might have somebody who has just amazing skills in a particular functional area. I remember once recruiting a board member who was a development consultant. She was an expert in raising money and she was super valuable as a board member, working with us to help us figure out how to do better in our development work. Another board member may bring a big name. Sometimes you’ve got a celebrity board member who, well good luck trying to get them to board meetings, but their name is there and they’ll do one or two big things a year and it makes a huge difference.
You got another who’s a functional expert in governance, who can really shepherd the board and might be a great board chair. So I think for me, the best answer to that one thing is really understanding your unique value. What is it about you that can distinctly drive impact in a way that no other board members around the room can. Look around the room, understand what’s needed, understand what you offer, and then double down on that. I’m not tooting my own horn at all, but obviously, I’m a governance consultant, so I know a place I can shine is in all things governance or trainings, the board nominating process and helping make sure that our board documents that describe board service are articulating the right level of service. I know where I can be of value, but when we get to the finance committee report and they want to dig into the P&L and my eyes start to glaze over, it’s not the place where I’m going to deliver my greatest contributions. I’m not a finance expert, so know your value and know your expertise, then deliver on it.
That is so valuable. We each have a unique expertise, so knowing what you can bring to the table, then delivering on it.
Let’s talk about someone who is looking to make this type of impact, but may not be involved in BoardLead. Where would you tell them to start and what steps would you tell them to take to prepare for a board role?
I love that question and it’s a broader question than governance, so I want to approach it that way. As I look around society and our communities at some of the most pressing challenges that I think we as a country are facing, I think the number one thing we can do is walk across the room and shake the hand of somebody who’s not like us. Make a connection with somebody who’s different in our society. I think we are increasingly so isolated to our own community. People who look like us think like us, act like us, believe like us, watch the same news channels that we watch and I think it’s to a point this has become actually an increasingly dangerous time around not being able to understand or empathize with anyone else.
So if you’re a Democrat, find a Republican. If you’re an African American, find a white person. If you’re Latina, find an Asian. If you’re LGBT, find an evangelical. Go across the room and shake their hand, get to know somebody different than you. In many ways, I know it seems like a strange answer, but I think it’s one of those small actions that could have the biggest impact on your life because it’s really hard to not care about somebody when you know that person. So walk across the room and shake a hand.
Yes, just be kind too, right?
That openness really can make a difference and help us to understand where other people are coming from. It’s so important and especially right now. That’s a great answer.
I recently saw you and your team got an award – Best for the World: Changemaker by B Lab. You were recently recognized for the positive impact you’re making on society and this is a global award. What has that meant to you and your team?
Oh, well thank you, Emily, for calling that out. We didn’t know that that was coming at all. I have to say it was a happy surprise that showed up in our email inbox. It means a lot to our team. They work incredibly hard. We have an incredibly talented group of consultants and support team members who are unbelievably dedicated to the mission and it’s obviously a big mission, but to be recognized by a community of businesses that are committed to social impact and social outcomes and to be called a Changemaker on a global scale is really special. But I will say, I don’t think we let it get to our heads by any stretch and we certainly don’t let it lead to us resting on our laurels. We recognize the impact that we’ve had is good and growing, but there is so much need. We’re so deeply passionate about the nonprofit sector and about good governance in the nonprofit sector and we recognize how much talent is still sitting on the bench just looking for an opportunity to engage. So it’s a happy day, a special award, but we’re moving on.
Yes, there’s still more work to do.
Rob, let’s shift the focus to you for just a few minutes. If you were to look back at when you first started in this field, what advice would you give yourself?
I’ve always been in the nonprofit sector, literally since college moving forward. I think my only for profit job was at 16 when I was at McDonald’s and maybe at 15 when I was a newspaper boy for the Flint Journal. I’ve always been in the nonprofit sector. I think the message that I would tell my self getting started is one that I actually happen to a follow and that’s to follow your passion. You just can’t put a dollar sign on fulfillment. You may be committing to a career where you won’t have as many zeros on your paycheck at the end of the month, but you can’t put a value on that. I have personally found such career fulfillment in identifying early on what I was passionate about, what moves me, what brought me to tears, what elevated my emotions, what sort of fired my inner fuel and said I need to do something about that, sometimes against other people’s better judgment.
I nonetheless follow those passions and you know, I guess I’m giving away my age – nearly 30 years later and just recognize that every one of those decisions to follow that passion that I felt, what needed to be different about the world and that I could do something about, proved to be the best possible thing I could have done that just for my own personal fulfillment, but frankly for my career. So I’m a huge believer in keeping priorities where they should be and putting passion for mission or calling, what some people call it in certain faith communities, above all else.
That purpose driven life. Amazing.
Is there a proudest accomplishment you have from your time in the industry or something that you’ve enjoyed the most?
It really does have to be quitting my last job and starting Cause Strategy Partners. That was a pretty scary proposition. You know, I’m somebody who had worked their lifetime in the nonprofit sector. You don’t develop a real financial safety net during your career. You don’t make a lot of money in the nonprofit sector. So financially, it felt like a risk and then from a career standpoint it felt like a risk when you’ve sort of always had a job, had a salary and health benefits and some structure in place, and then suddenly one day you don’t have any of that. You have an idea and a dream. I’m very proud. I have a sign that hung over my desk for many years when I was at Taproot Foundation that said, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” I knew when it was time to start Cause Strategy Partners, that was the thing I would do if I wasn’t afraid. So I guess I’ve found a way to let fear not get in the way and take the leap. It’s been the most incredibly fulfilling professional experience in my life.
Yeah, amazing things do happen when you take the leap. I love that and the idea of having that servant heart, looking for ways to serve others, impact others and encourage others to drive this type of change. Thanks for that inspiration. It’s been fun to watch.
Well, thank you, Emily. It’s fun to watch you and the work you’re doing too. Thanks for the many contributions you’re making and I know that so many nonprofit organizations are really benefiting from your expertise and service, to say nothing of this podcast.
Oh, well thank you, Rob. I really appreciate that.
Any last thoughts you’d like to share with the audience before we wrap up for today?
No, other than to say, we’d love to be in touch. So if folks are looking for us, our website is causestrategypartners.com. That’s the best way to be in touch and on social media our Twitter handles are @CauseStrategy and @WeAreBoardLead. That second one is the one that’s focused on BoardLead, but would love to be in touch if we can ever be of help or assistance.
Excellent. I will link to all of Rob’s contact information in our show notes for this episode. Thanks again so much for being here and chatting with us about you and what you’re up to in driving change with BoardLead. We look forward to having you on again soon.
Sounds great, Emily. Thank you.
There are a lot of great takeaways from today’s episode, but there are two I want to highlight as we wrap up
“What causes do you support?” Have you ever heard that question asked instead of, “What do you do?”
We focus so much on the what do you do, the job, our job title, but really asking what causes people support gets to the heart of what people care about and I just loved that piece. That’s a great takeaway.
The second is asking ourselves, what is your unique value? Rob really challenged us to determine what this value may be, understanding what we have to offer, and then doubling down on it. Knowing our value and delivering on our expertise.
If you’re interested in more information on this topic, I highly recommend that you listened to episode two of The Nova Communities Podcast where we had Mark Thorsby on to talk about governance and riding a bicycle. It really breaks down the role of the board in governance.
I also highly recommend CauseKit, the blog from Cause Strategy Partners. They have some great articles there on obstacles, things to look for, ways to improve, and they’re so valuable to any board looking to make a bigger impact.