Insights | Susan Putnam

Susan Putnam


Award-winning Community Relations Professional and Non-profit Leader

Grand Rapids, MI


Organization Leadership Insights

"There is nothing more important to an organization than the passion that resides in the hearts and souls of the staff, the Board, donors and the community."

– Susan Putnam

Negotiated for the Acquisition of New Office Space while Simultaneously Building Outstanding Community Relations

It was the middle of winter, but there was one particular building that had been on the market for nearly a year.   It was known as the “Bolger and Battle” building and it was on the market for $320,000, way out of our price range.   It was the perfect home for us!   The square footage was 4,400 on two floors with windows galore.  It was modern and painted in bright colors – kid friendly colors.



Neighboring Big Brothers Big Sisters Agency Was Failing

In late 2011, the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization serving two neighboring counties was about to go out of business.  I was approached by a member of the Board of Directors indicating the agency was struggling.  

United Way Launches First Online Donation Platform

While I was the Community Relations and Public Affairs manager at IBM in Minneapolis, I was responsible for running IBM’s United Way campaign in 12 states, encompassing nearly 20,000 employees.   I understood how valuable online giving could be in terms of increasing revenues and I also knew how to promote it to employees. 

Organization Leadership Insights

Relentlessly Looking Ahead

The fast pace of technology and business requires an uncompromising focus on what’s on the immediate, short-term and long-term horizon.   A three-year strategic plan in some organizations just isn’t going to work if we don’t have a good handle on emerging nonprofit trends, opportunities and challenges.   Looking ahead will also ensure that we are being relevant to our community’s needs.

Data for Decision Making

The data needs of organizations differ depending upon the purpose and mission.   Finding the right data gathering solution and knowing what data is needed is a key question that needs to be answered at the outset.   Devoting appropriate staff to the task of managing data input and output is an essential staffing decision.   Then, using the data to develop relevant customers that can be communicated to stakeholders is critical.

Technology for Learning and Communication

The pace at which technology is moving for virtual learning is mind-boggling, making it impossible for a nonprofit or association to keep up.   Virtual learning is replacing conference rooms, and Skype, Facetime, and webinars are struggling to keep up with their ability to provide flexibility to their customers.  As membership targets get younger, the role of technology becomes an absolute difference-maker.  With 1/3 of the 2020 population being made up of Generation Z, the demand for the latest ways to communicate and learn will be unstoppable.  This means technology expertise is crucial.   Consider leaving this function to the experts if it’s not available in-house.  This area requires a commitment and a financial investment.

Maintaining Relevance

Unless an organization serves a very specific population, maintaining relevance can be one of their greatest challenges.   Organizations like Chambers of Commerce and United Ways across the country struggle as younger members and donors are looking for support for their own specific issues or are seeking ways to make a difference in a hands-on way.   Trying to be all things to all people is impossible in this time of fast-paced social media networking opportunities.   Priorities will need to be set.

Customer Service

Customer service in the nonprofit world is more than just thanking and appreciating donors or members.   It’s about stirring their belief that they are part of something great – a community where things are happening because they are involved.  It’s important to realize, too, that anyone could be a customer even if they aren’t involved in your organization now.   Therefore, it is the responsibility of every staff and Board member to adopt a customer service mindset by constantly representing the organization.   Excellence in customer service adds value and increases loyalty.

Governance Structure

The make-up and structure of an organization’s Board require flexibility and adaptability as the environment shifts.   A constant eye on the future is critical in order to maintain a Board and an organization that can be nimble.   Every board has certain roles that must be filled (like budget, governance, audit) but it is essential that the rest of the structure and the make-up is diverse and very future focused.   Engaging younger members onto task forces and ad hoc groups will prepare them for bigger governance roles and add that all-important Millennial and Gen Z perspective that will drive and increase involvement, visibility and funding.

A Strong Financial Foundation

So important to the success of any organization is building and growing a financial foundation that not just meets payroll and pays the bills but also provides for solid, reliable reserves while enabling the growth in services.  Reserves allow an organization to invest in growth and innovation.   The annual budget must be realistic when it comes to expenses and conservative when it comes to projected revenues.    It’s also important to build a cushion for unexpected expenses.   Bringing the staff into the budgeting process is imperative.  Not only do they understand what expenses exist but having them involved will give them an appreciation for what is doable and what is not.   The Board of Directors should be intimately involved in the budget process and know the current financial position of the organization, for it is their fiduciary responsibilty to ensure the financial health of the agency.

A Dynamic Staff Coupled with Ongoing Training, Development and a Positive Culture

A motivated team made up of a dynamic, educated staff will continually strive for excellence and meet that all-important goal of providing exceptional customer service.   But it is also imperative that staff receive ongoing training and professional development for the benefit of the organization as well as the motivation and commitment of the team.  Not only will you create a peak performance team, but staff turnover will be dramatically reduced and the culture will be a positive experience for everyone.   The Executive Director’s leadership and openness is critical to making the employees feel valued and relevant.