Tami’s Blog: Back to School

Tami as a kindergartener

This is my official school photo, circa 1977. Clearly kindergarten is terrifying.

Here we are: August already?! And just like that, a new school year is underway.

For my family, it means that our son, Alex, is now a sophomore in high school, and our older son, Ben, is officially a senior. (College applications, here we come! Gulp.)

But Alex and Ben aren’t the only ones in our house who are knee-deep in homework at the moment. The other person burning the midnight oil over a giant stack of textbooks? That would be me.

Last fall I decided to make the leap: I went back to graduate school. Although I already have a master’s degree in social work, now that I am leading RMHC-KC — a $4 million organization — I wanted to broaden my education, get smarter and be better…so I enrolled in the Executive MBA program at UMKC. It was literally time to get down to business.

I sometimes encounter people who think that running a nonprofit is somehow easier or softer than running a “real” business.  They seem to think it’s more casual, like a hobby… or it’s what people do when they can’t succeed in the for-profit world. In fact, it’s just the opposite: running a nonprofit is running a business!

Nonprofits, as a general rule, have a more complex business model and delivery system than for-profit businesses. In a for-profit system, you make a thing or deliver a service, and the people who benefit from that thing or service pay for it.

But with a nonprofit service model, you typically make a thing or deliver a service to people who do not pay for it. You have to be able to ensure the desired impact of your thing or service, and have the business acumen to encourage a whole different set of people (donors) to pay for it … and another set of people (volunteers) to help you do it—for free!

So, essentially, there’s a double bottom line: first, you must have mission-delivery accountability to demonstrate that you are achieving your purpose (in our case, reducing the burden of childhood illness on children and families). Second, you must have financial accountability and sustainability to ensure you can meet all your financial demands.

Then, there are the stakeholders — and at RMHC-KC, we have a lot: a staff of 50, more than 17,000 volunteers and the 7,000+ families that we serve every year. For a non-profit, that’s what you call big business.

Don’t let the smile fool you: these books are terrifying.

And that’s why I decided to head back to school. Not only because I wanted to further my education and strengthen my business acumen, but because I believe that the families at RMHC-KC — that all of our stakeholders — deserve the very best smarts, skill and leadership that I can provide.

Right now, I’m halfway through my two-year Executive MBA program. And yes, knee-deep in studying. I’m learning so much: about management and leadership; accounting and finance; supply and demand; entrepreneurship and innovation; public policy; marketing — and more. (I even managed to survive statistics!)

Between having a full-time job and a full-time family, going back to school hasn’t been easy. But I love it. Even last week, when the program started up again for the semester, we had a strategy class to kick it off that was five days long, eight hours a day. It was super interesting and relevant to my role at RMHC-KC, and I geeked out pretty hard.

Heading back to school has helped grow my confidence to know that I can handle the challenges and opportunities that can come with running a $4 million nonprofit business. And hopefully, it gives our stakeholders the confidence to know that RMHC-KC, and the kids and families we serve, are in good hands.