IS members represent nonprofits, foundations, and corporations engaged in every kind of charitable endeavor, with missions that reflect the nearly infinite ways of working for the common good. New member Center for Nonprofit Excellence (CNE) in Charlottesville, VA serves the people who power nonprofits throughout Virginia with resources for nonprofit management, leadership, and collaboration.
We talked with Cristine Nardi, executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence since 2008, about their work to create a learning lab for nonprofits in Virginia so nonprofits can be efficient and effective to achieve the greatest community impact.
Tell us a little bit about your career path and how you arrived at your present position.
CN: I started my career with the Peace Corps in Botswana in Southern Africa. From there I continued to work in international development, with projects in Uganda, mainly focused on women-run and small- village cooperatives. That experience really helped me understand that by helping women you really help whole communities. After that I returned to the states and went to law school, and some of my work in law included advocacy nationally for women’s reproductive health. Working at CNE has allowed me to bring all of these aspects of my work to what we do to strengthen nonprofits and advocate for strong nonprofits.
What does a typical day for staff at your organization look like? Was there a day you remember that was extraordinary?
CN: We are a member driven learning lab for healthy nonprofits and that powers what we do. Our typical work might include facilitating a board retreat, running a training for developing nonprofits leaders, advocating for the sector with community partners. There are a lot of moments where we see leaders take what they learn and apply it to their work. But one day that sticks out is annually we hold a community-wide celebration to come and celebrate our good work over the past year and inspire leaders for the year ahead. About two years ago, there was an ice storm in November when the celebration was held, and the power went out after we were already gathered together. More than 400 people were there, ready to enjoy a meal together and hear from speakers. We forged ahead to create the most intimate, candlelit experience. We had to band together in the dark, and there was a feeling that we were all in it together – that is always true to an extent, but that experience really highlighted that feeling. After that, at last year’s celebration we gave everyone a flashlight!
What are some of the challenges your organization faces and how have you responded to them?
CN: As a learning lab, we are focused on being as transparent as possible and have the good fortune of having the mission to create and support strong nonprofits. For almost 15 years, our challenges have been similar to other nonprofits – particularly those that have a network that they need to provide with services. Diversifying revenue, identifying the right programs at the right time, balancing the needs of small organizations in our membership with the needs of much larger nonprofits have all been challenging. We try to make sure we are offering opportunities to nonprofits that will help them regardless of their type of work or size. However, that creates challenges in balancing how specialized or not programs should be. I’m also thinking of the challenge presented by stakeholders of nonprofits lacking understanding of the critical nature of nonprofits’ work to support and build community.
Describe some of the programs or services your organization offers.
CN: We provide education, consulting, and resources to create strong leaders and effective managers and collaborators. We also advocate for a strong, independent nonprofit sector – in our region of Virginia, but increasingly, across the state. I think one of the things that is really critical about our work is what we do behind the scenes through our nonprofit help line. If you call CNE with a question on the nonprofit line – you’ll get an answer, or be directed to a resource or expert who can help. That’s a way we really add value for nonprofits in the community, and particularly for our members to know they have that support. That requires staff capacity to offer this expertise and mentoring, coaching, and advice. This work may only be seen through the good work that nonprofit is, in turn, able to do because of this support.
What is one of your favorite places to be in your community?
CN: The Charlottesville foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains are so beautiful, and I particularly enjoy spending time in the Rockfish Valley nearby. Especially now, but always, our outdoor places are so important whether it be for hiking, playing sports, or just appreciating nature and animals.
Is there an unsung hero on your team you’d like to recognize? What makes this person special?
CN: I am so lucky to be part of a team that includes staff, volunteers, board members, our members, community members, and more. I’d like to recognize the anonymous philanthropist who has supported CNE since we opened our doors. This donor helped our organization get off the ground, and continues to provide such valuable support each year. Their support encourages us to be a strong organization, and celebrates what we do. There is no way we could do our work without our supporters and funders.
How is your organization adapting to your work during the COVID-19 crisis?
CN: Right now our greatest challenge has been pivoting to be radically responsive to what nonprofits need to survive. While we were able to pivot our work to being done 100% remotely and learning as we go through this experience, it hasn’t been without challenges and a sense of loss of connection. One thing we’ve been doing more of is advocating for the health and survival of the sector. It’s important that we are thinking about critical needs now as well as the long-term health of the sector. Typically we have advocated more so on the local level, but we are now expanding that to advocate for nonprofits on a state-wide scale in Virginia – we are advocating for closing gaps in the CARES Act, as well as building on our historical commitment to advocacy by continuing to build on our strategic priorities.
Learn more about the Center for Nonprofit Excellence at www.thecne.org.
Visit Independent Sector’s members page to learn more about our members and the wide spectrum of their missions.