Words by Lisa Dahlberg // Photos by Marie Ketring
Katie Nyberg, Executive Director of Mississippi Park Connection, had some frank and timely words of wisdom for young nonprofit professionals at a recent YNPN Leadership Breakfast.
“First of all, always hire English majors, just like Garrison Keillor says,” she quipped.
The English major found herself running an environmental startup in partnership with the National Park Service at the age of 31. Initially, she may have thought herself an unlikely choice, due to a lack of much background with the great outdoors. “I didn’t really grow up camping, besides, like, staying in a motel,” she confided to the group. But Nyberg has grown to love working with environmental nonprofits, and has grown the Mississippi Park Connection from one employee to a staff of six.
Mississippi Park Connection works in partnership with the National Park Service and raises funds for programming that centers on the national park in the backyard of the Twin Cities: the Mississippi River itself. She says her background in fundraising helped her to take on a leadership role early in her career.
Here are Katie’s top five pieces of advice for young nonprofit professionals.
Don’t waste time on tiny grants.
“I remember going to a conference once and this woman said, ‘Go after the soup tureens. Don’t go after the little spoonfuls of money.’ Focusing on where you’re going to get the biggest return on your investment, I think, is really important. I have this theory, and maybe you guys can tell me I’m wrong, that the smaller the grant size, the more work it is. You’re often working so hard for these $2,000 grants, and the amount of time you put into it isn’t even as much as you’d have to put into some hundred thousand dollar grants. So you’ve got to think about what you’re really getting and how much it’s really benefiting your organization. You’ve got to sometimes make the call: ‘We’re not gonna spend our time there, it’s not going to really advance the organization.'”
Act on your half-baked ideas.
“Most of the stuff that we’ve done that’s been awesome was not my idea. I love it when people are just constantly keeping their eyes open for opportunities and are willing to go after it a little bit. If someone comes to me with a problem, I want to know what they think the solution should be. Or, ‘I was reading an article in the newspaper about this great organization doing X Y and Z, and I think it’d be a great fit for this project we’re working on. I was thinking I’d go have coffee with them just to see if there’s synergy there.’ I’m like, great! That’s what I want. That you yourself can kind of go out and make these connections, and come to your boss with something that’s at least a little bit half-baked—that you’ve thought it through a little bit.”
Keep your messaging truly relevant.
“Fundraisers in particular, I think, are thinking less about being insular and more about how things might look or sound from an outside perspective. I remember having this huge fight with somebody at the Bell Museum about the word ‘biodiversity.’ He was like, ‘Everybody knows what biodiversity means!’ and I was like, ‘No they don’t, no they don’t, no they don’t.’ You have to be relevant. The fundraisers at organizations are the ones who are constantly trying to prove relevancy, on a daily basis.”
Squash mission creep.
“You know, you always have that one board member who wants you to do crazy stuff, like, ‘We should go to the moon!’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, I think someone at NASA’s working on that…’ But it happens. And I think that the job of the executive director a lot of times is to not squelch creativity, but also be able to [avoid getting] all wrapped up in something that may seem super exciting but is not a fit for your organization.
“So every once in awhile, a board member will say something like, ‘You know, there’s so much agricultural pollution that ends up affecting the river, and maybe we should work with farmers…’ and I’m like, ‘Nope. There are a lot of organizations that do that. That’s not what we do.’ You have to really know what you’re best at.
“I had this diagram that I made when I first started, because I was trying to figure out all the different players on the Mississippi River—and there are dozens and dozens. There’s government (think of, like, the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers), there’s all these nonprofits, there’s municipalities—and so I made this visual map. Here are all the people who do recreation, here are all the people who do conservation, here are all the government entities who have a piece of the river, and I showed it to my board and they were like, ‘Holy shit.’ And I said, ‘Yes, exactly. So we need to decide where we fit in here, and we need to be really specific about it.’ You have to really know what you do best and stick to that. Your vision and your core strengths are really, really important to keep in mind all the time.”
“What I learned in fundraising was how to communicate really directly and succinctly, and get people inspired in what you’re doing. Those are exactly the same skills you need as an executive director. At heart I’ve always been a program person, and I’ve always been a generalist. And I’ve just always been, naturally, super bossy, so I think that always helps.”
This piece is a summary of a conversation with Katie Nyberg, which took place at Mississippi Park Connection in August of 2015, as part of Pollen and YNPN-TC’s joint Breakfast of Champions series. For more information, or to register for an upcoming event, check out ynpntwincities.org.