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Applying Strategic Perspective Lessons from HBS While Thinking Bigger and Bolder

By: Michael Johnson 01 Oct 2021

Michael Johnson is the President & CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Michael attended the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management – Virtual (SPNM) Executive Education program at Harvard Business School in June. In the interview below, he discusses his experience in the program.  

Tell us about your organization. Since I joined Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County as President and CEO in 2010, our agency has been on an amazing journey of change, transforming from a local children’s charity to a change agent for children and families. Our focus has included driving high standards of excellence in financial transparency, community engagement, and governance; all with the goal of making a significant, measurable impact in the lives of children and their families. We developed two bold, five-year strategic plans that resulted in more than 22k donors contributing more than $50M dollars in financial resources and another $3.5M in crisis relief efforts over the last decade. As a result of this investment, the Club has quadrupled the number of children and families being served, tripled the number of employees, grew our operating budget by 395%, and expanded operations to five additional cities in Wisconsin.  The Club has also created the largest public/private partnership in the Madison Metropolitan School District while investing more than $18M in direct resources to local high school students by helping the district to narrow the achievement gap. As a result of this investment, more than 4,400 young people have graduated high school at an average rate of 97%. 

What brought you to this program? Over the last few years, various nonprofit CEOs made me aware of the SPNM program at HBS as an opportunity to learn with and from peers and the faculty about new techniques for designing and executing strategy over time. For almost a decade I wanted to apply to the program, but never acted on it.  HBS Club of Wisconsin held a statewide competition for two nonprofit leaders to receive a full scholarship to the program, and I was fortunate to be one of them. The timing was perfect as I was taking two weeks of vacation during the time SPNM was offered and was able to dedicate the time to focus on the program.  

Are there specific insights that especially resonated with you? I was inspired after participating in multiple group discussions, reading the case studies, and learning about leaders facing a variety of challenges. I was especially intrigued by the case study about Dr. V, an eye doctor in Madurai, India. I began to think, maybe, just maybe, someday our organization will create a legacy like these trailblazing leaders who led under very difficult circumstances. I reflected on Dr. V and his determination and grit as he built the Aravind Eye Hospital floor by floor and inspired donors, government officials, and prospective employees to work with him to tackle a regional health care issue. I must say that his story resonated with me the most.   

In talking with other participants in the program, I was amazed to see how other CEOs from across the globe are dealing with similar issues that many of the leaders in the case studies faced, such as challenges around board governance, donor relations, and community engagement while working to be a thriving and impactful organization.  

I was able to learn from their challenges and opportunities they pursued. In addition, I appreciated the vulnerability of these leaders in those discussions because executive leadership can be lonely at times.  Their openness and candor about their vulnerability was a reflective moment for me.  

Are there any key takeaways, either for yourself or your organization, that you’d like to share with other nonprofit leaders?  I was so inspired by the program that I started mapping out a plan to garner support for a major project, to create a Regional Workforce and Entrepreneurship Center, that had been stalled for many years.  With the help of key stakeholders, I began researching best practices and strategies on creating career pathway opportunities for young people around skilled trades. During the second week of class, my mind began turning and I said to myself, “I have to think bigger and bolder.”  I thought about how Dr. V saw the need to tackle the broader societal issue of needless blindness and acted. So, I scheduled a Zoom call with two local philanthropists, planning to ask for a $1 million donation. I then consulted with my SPNM working group and our partners for advice, and they encouraged me to go even bigger, and encouraged me to make a larger ask than I had planned, due to the scope and scale of our plan. On the last day of class I met with the prospective donors, who went onto pledge $6 million towards the project.  Within 60 days we raised over $10 million from more than 2,500 donors from a public campaign we started after the HBS program. This has become the most funds raised in our organization’s history. The discussions from the case studies inspired and influenced my thinking to move in a more collaborative and strategic way. I highly recommend this program to any nonprofit CEO who is interested in moving their organization to a higher level of performance and accountability. I give this program 5 stars!!