Q&A with Brenda Asare
February 21, 2018
AFP is celebrating Black History Month throughout February. This week AFP interviews Brenda Asare, president and CEO of The Alford Group.
Q: Hi, Brenda! What’s your professional position now, and what are your responsibilities?
A: I’m the President and CEO of The Alford Group, a 38-year old national consulting firm in the U.S. that works with nonprofits and private funders such as foundations and corporations. My own responsibilities revolve around ensuring the firm is a strong, relevant and trusted advisor to organizations seeking to make a difference in the world. I take that very seriously. The Alford Group was founded by Jimmie Alford, and I very much feel like I’m building on his legacy and the values on which he founded The Alford Group: diversity, integrity, leadership, quality, creativity, respect, and joyfulness.
Q: In your own words, what do you and The Alford Group do?
The Alford Group partners with organizations to help accelerate their mission and impact in communities locally and across the U.S. In practice, this means that The Alford Group helps nonprofits reach their immediate organizational or fundraising goals and build their capacity for the future. Our services include capital campaign counsel, strategic planning and implementation, and helping to diversify their corporate-nonprofit partnerships for greater impact. We have a cadre of experienced consultants working full-time from our offices in Seattle, New York and in Chicago, where I’m based.
Q: Are you still actively involved in working with clients?
A: Yes, I still manage a book of business, so to speak, where I am very engaged with clients and working directly with them, either as the lead consultant or as a strategic partner alongside our consulting team. I spend about half of my time with clients these days, and the other half focusing on the firm overall: working on culture, future-proofing the firm, and identifying and strengthening internal and external collaborations. Currently, there are three generations working at The Alford Group. I enjoy maximizing everyone’s unique contributions and perspectives in creating great value for our clients and the firm.
My background is in major gift development, and I enjoy helping organizations be more effective in engaging donors and volunteer leadership. Working with clients also helps me stay sharp and be alert to new trends and better ways The Alford Group can make our clients stronger and more successful.
Q: How did you become president and CEO of The Alford Group? What did that progression look like?
A: I joined the firm in 2004 when Tom Mesaros was President and CEO. Being president was never anything I had thought about specifically. I served as the leader of the firm’s Midwest Division from 2006 to 2014 as a Senior Vice President. The opportunity presented itself a few years ago when Tom Mesaros shared his retirement plans. The Alford Group has always been very diligent about succession planning. I felt like I could bring a good business mind while still having the heart and spirit to build a lasting brand, continue the strong pipeline of talent we’ve developed here, and find new relevant ways for The Alford Group to contribute to the sector.
So, I became the third owner of the firm in February 2014.
Q: Am I correct in saying you’re the only minority woman to be leading a large, national consulting firm in the U.S.?
I am the only African-American leading a national firm in the U.S., though there are definitely minority women leading local and regional consulting firms, yes.
Q: Because of that position, do you feel that women—and women of color especially—look to you for advice and guidance? Do you feel a special sense of responsibility as president?
A: I could spend—and would LOVE to spend—more of my time doing informational interviews and mentoring. I receive many requests from women wanting to know about how to approach career development and how my particular pathway unfolded.
Q: And what do you tell them?
A: I wish I could tell people, “do it this way,” or “you absolutely have to do this.” But the truth is, I was creating my own path without realizing it, and I think that’s how it is for a lot of people. I don’t know how intentional I was with a structured career plan. As I look back now, I can see how each position prepared me for the next and ultimately for me to gain the diverse experience that enabled me to be effective as a leader. What I AM intentional about are the things I need in a job and career, and the things I love to do.
Q: What do you mean by that specifically? What have you been intentional about in the things you need at a job, for instance?
A: There are things we learn about ourselves as we go through life. For example, I have always wanted to make my work feel like play. Specifically, I love to experiment, and I’ve been fortunate to work with bosses who have allowed me to “play,” learn from failures and apply what I learned in the future. Treat work as a laboratory and have fun doing it. Be curious and ask, what if? I love that in my job. I need that, so I’m very intentional about ensuring that I have a workplace that encourages experimentation and curiosity. That’s the type of culture I try to encourage here at The Alford Group.
My other intentionality, and a key part of myself, is competition. I compete with myself. I ask myself all the time, what more can I do—what can I do differently—to bring value to whatever I’m doing? When everyone else is going right, how can I go left and create something that is unique and stands out? I look for ideas from everywhere, from every sector and the business realm, and think about how they might be applied to The Alford Group to benefit our clients. I coach people to get out of their comfort zones. You have to compete with yourself every day to be smarter and to get better.
Q: So how does that intentionality look practically? Is that something you’ve trained yourself to do automatically, or are there moments of the day you say to yourself, okay, I need do this now?
A: I constantly think about what more I can do and how I can engage staff, clients and others in that question. For example, at my first job with the American Cancer Society, we were working on a special event called Jail or Bail. We would “lock up” community leaders in a makeshift” jail” at the mall and then they would use their Rolodex—yes, back in the day when everyone still had a Rolodex!—to call their friends to raise money for the Cancer Society to bail them out. After banging my head around for a while, I finally came up with this new element: what if the day before the event, we had the ten biggest “celebrities” in town get “arrested” and start calling, raising the event’s profile while at the same time securing major commitments before the community-wide event? It was a great success and replicated across the country!
Part of that thinking is simply the process of wanting to improve, but you need to create that culture within your workplace. We have a booth every year at AFP’s International Fundraising Conference, and my first question to staff every year is, okay, what are we doing to be different? I’m sure they’re groaning just reading this article right now because they can already hear all my questions (laughs). But it’s not enough just to have a booth at AFP International. We need to be something more. What’s the experience for an attendee? What more can The Alford Group do to engage and provide value to the attendee? You must be intentional in asking those questions out loud and encouraging everyone to participate.
Q: I imagine you must have mentored a lot of fundraisers now?
A: Oh, yes. I’ve had some great coaches and mentors who have been very honest with me, and I try to emulate that back with people I mentor. Being comfortable with the person and being honest are key. I had one mentee who changed jobs like once every 18 months. I finally told her, look, you need to figure out what the right organization is for you, or you are going to become a risk factor. When you move around so much, you are not making a meaningful contribution. Figure out in your current job what you want to accomplish. Set some goals for the organization and yourself. You’ll know when you are done, and that way, you can point to things you have accomplished and build a bridge to the next opportunity.
Q: Tell me a little about your career arc. Did you start out as a fundraiser? What was your first fundraising position?
A: I essentially started in fundraising right out of college with the local American Cancer Society, though I officially began as a program person, speaking at different facilities about cancer prevention. I’d take envelopes with me, tell the audience that our programs were made possible by donations from the public and ask them to give if they liked my presentations. Money started coming in, and the executive director noticed and asked me what I was saying to get such a great number of donations. I didn’t really know I was doing anything special. I didn’t realize I was fundraising—heck, I’m not sure I knew at the time what fundraising entailed. But she said I was basically doing it and asked if I wanted to get more involved. So, there you go!
Q: Sounds like you were a natural!
A: It was all instinct at that point. And I felt that way a bit throughout my entire time at the American Cancer Society—that as much as I loved it, there needed to be more intentional strategic direction and business discipline. It’s one of the reasons I went back to school to get my MBA at Washington University—so I could come back to the nonprofit sector and use those types of skills to help organizations operate like a business with heart.
Q: That seems like an unusual skill set in the 1980s—an MBA working in the nonprofit sector.
A: It was. After I received my MBA, I got the chance to join the American Red Cross as part of its national staff in the Midwest. There were not many people like me in the sector in 1989, with a business background and an MBA in marketing. Most had social work background. It made me a bit of a unicorn (laughs) but it also made for a unique perspective, and my bosses appreciated that.
Q: So, you were with the Red Cross for how long?
A: Until 2004. I started in St. Louis as an internal consultant for nine states in the Midwest, and one of them was Michigan. There was a new CEO starting there, Jim Krueger, who asked me to come to Detroit and serve as his chief development officer. I jumped at the chance, and it was just a tremendous time. Jim remains one of my mentors to this day.
Q: How did you get started with The Alford Group then?
A: I met The Alford Group as a client. The American Red Cross in Chicago had hired The Alford Group to lead its strategic planning process. We were about to wrap up our new plan when one of the consultants approached me, said the firm was looking for a new vice president and wanted me to meet Jimmie Alford.
I loved working at the American Red Cross, and I had a great staff there. It was hard to leave. I had just finished up our capital campaign to build a new home for the Red Cross. Again, timing is everything.
Q: What was the transition like? Had you ever thought about being a consultant before?
A: I had never thought about being a consultant before, which in some ways was good. Most people express concern about becoming a consultant because they think they don’t know enough—as if you must know every aspect of fundraising before you can consult. I didn’t know what I didn’t know! So, in that sense, I came into the consulting world without a lot of preconceived notions. I was confident that I had a great track record of success, brought significant experience having worked with staff and volunteers at all levels, had raised a lot of money and could figure things out.
There are definitely nuances. There are times when you do not own your calendar due to client priorities and the availability of their volunteers. As a consultant, you don’t typically have lots of employees to manage unless you start working in senior management. On the other hand, instead of employees, you have maybe 5 – 10 organizations, 5- 10 CEOs, Boards and all of their staff to work with, so there’s definitely a tradeoff!
Q: What are you most proud of in your career at this point?
A: Two things, one is more of an accomplishment and one an opportunity. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some terrific colleagues and be able to mentor some smart people who are making some amazing contributions to the sector. I’m very proud of that—I feel perpetuated through their work, like part of my legacy is passing my knowledge and perspective on through the generations. To think of all those individuals and their contributions, and that I played a small role in that—it’s a tremendous feeling.
The accomplishment relates to a particular campaign that stands out in my mind. It was a bold idea, a BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal)—a billion-dollar campaign for a community foundation when community foundations were not doing that sort of extensive fundraising. Traditionally, community foundations are recipients of funds and not necessarily asking for money. The Alford Group was engaged to conduct interviews with philanthropists to understand what would motivate them to give to and through a community foundation, as well as benchmarking community foundations across the country to determine if any had engaged in similar campaigns before. There was essentially nothing.
The billion-dollar campaign started in 2009—not a great time to be doing ANY fundraising given that the Great Recession had just hit the year before. And in partnership with our client, a strong foundation was laid out throughout 2009 and 2010. We did everything we could according to our plan, learning as the campaign progressed, and we finished in 2016 having raised more than $1.6 billion. I am so proud of that campaign, and not just because of all the obstacles we overcame. That campaign opened the doors for so many donors to help make a difference in their community and for other community foundations to raise their sights on what is possible relative to launching similar campaigns. The Alford Group and our client showed what was possible, and I think all of philanthropy can and will benefit from that.
Q: When you think about how fundraising has changed over the time you’ve been in the profession, what stands out the most to you?
A: For me, it is the sense of exchange and expectation that donors have now when making a gift. When I first started with the American Cancer Society, just giving was enough. People trusted the organization, they made their gift, they received their thank-you letter, and that was it, very transactional.
Donors have become more sophisticated and are asking more questions. They demand accountability and mission-driven impact. Donors expect to be engaged and get more out of their relationship—that’s why I say “exchange.” Those are big issues that some charities are still struggling with but I think that’s a good thing. They SHOULD struggle with it and work to earn donor trust and the donor dollar.
Q: What’s the most challenging issue the profession faces right now?
A: Without a doubt, our biggest challenge is strengthening the skills and building the pipeline of the next generation of development professionals. Many of our clients are struggling finding experienced talent to fill positions. I think AFP is doing great work—looking at how we equip members with the right experience, training, and mentoring to be really impactful—but the talent pool is a big challenge. There are so many development positions available, and it feels like it is taking longer to fill them. I often tell clients that they may have to look at growing their own internal talent; therefore, dictating patience and a “ladder” for development professionals to climb. This is a huge issue for the sector, and I want to work with AFP and others to see how we can create this pipeline of talent the nonprofit sector so desperately needs.
Q: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to creating that pipeline?
A: Well, there are a number of things. We are actually seeing people interested in moving from the for-profit sector to the charitable/social sector, which is good. The influx of talent from the for-profit sector is contributing to shaking things up a bit and enabling more of an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy, which the social sector needs. On the other hand, appreciating the learning curve relative to the donor engagement process, and working toward transformational gifts rather than transactional ones, are areas that these folks must understand. AFP and other organizations involved in creating the pipeline need to look at how they are developing current fundraising professionals, the next generation, and having a structured way to develop their experience and careers.
Q: What are organizations doing then when it comes to hiring?
A: I see organizations going to extremes on both ends sometimes because they are so desperate to hire talent or taking steps to minimize their risk by not investing sufficiently in their development offices until they realize a demonstrated ROI. Part of this is driven by unrealistic expectations. Organizations seek to raise a lot of money, and fast, but are impatient with the time required to build the necessary relationships. Some organizations offer substantial salaries and incentives to attract fundraisers, and get frustrated when millions are not flying through the door in a short timeframe.
I feel like there’s a tension right now, with a dance going on between hiring organizations and development professionals. I think if both sides took the time to make sure expectations and timetables were clear, along with adequate investments, development professionals would stay a lot longer at their jobs. But again, that points to the education that must be done with CEOs, Boards and development professionals. CEOs and Boards are looking for their chief development officers to be entrepreneurial and serve as the chief philanthropy strategist. Development professionals must be equipped to serve in that capacity.
Q: The Alford Group has been a long-time supporter of AFP’s diversity and inclusion efforts, especially at the International Fundraising Conference, including the Diversity Art Showcase, among other projects. Why is that so important to The Alford Group?
A: I have to credit Jimmie Alford. He was really the force and had the vision behind this important commitment. Diversity has always been core to the DNA of The Alford Group. He felt great ideas came from everybody, and he wanted to be very inclusive.
I share his belief that there’s room for everyone, and that the firm is so much stronger because of our diversity. Diversity, inclusion and equity make us stronger as a sector, across communities, and with donors. I love how the Diversity Session is evolving from talking about diversity to equipping the sector to take action with intentionality and purpose.
Q: You wrote recently in AFP’s magazine Advancing Philanthropy that the profession needs to shift from diversity to inclusion and equity. In fact, AFP has changed the name of its committee to the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA) Committee. Why is this shift important?
I talked about remaining relevant in that article, and that’s basically why the change needs to occur. The importance of diversity, inclusion and equity is even more pronounced in the current operating environment, and the nonprofit sector needs to exert even stronger leadership in this area. As a country, we are living in extraordinary times. I challenge all of us who are committed to this work to be extraordinary and courageous in our response and actions.
Q: What do you think AFP and the profession can do to encourage individuals from under-represented groups to consider fundraising?
I am not sure it’s us ENCOURAGING them, as much as nonprofits’ efforts to FIND them. I know a lot of women of color, for instance, who are interested in fundraising. They’re all over the place! I would like to see more men from under-represented groups consider fundraising as well.
It can be challenging, of course, and we need to do a better job with the basic strategies. For example, where is your organization placing its job postings? Just recently I was talking to a client trying to find diverse candidates, and I asked their human resources staff person where she had posted the job. She listed off all the big obvious places, but she didn’t know about AFP or any other websites where people of color or others might specifically look, such as sororities, fraternities, and other professional organizations. There is an opportunity to educate human resource departments on recruiting development professionals in general.
Q: Do you see organizations being intentional about looking to hire diverse candidates now?
A: Without a doubt. Organizations are trying desperately to find diverse candidates, and most board leaders support this priority. We need to publicize that there IS a pipeline and get organizations and diverse candidates together.
Q: February is African-American History Month. What has that meant for you as a fundraiser in this field?
A: For me, February is a symbolic reminder that our futures are intertwined. It’s not about me being a black fundraiser or CEO. We’re all in this together. We rise and fall together. The only color we should be ultimately concerned about is green: as fundraisers, how are we creating opportunities and relationships to make the quality of life better for everyone?
Q: How do you stay engaged with AFP?
A: I’m more involved on the international side but I do things locally, like speaking and moderating panels here in Chicago. I love our Development Day Chicago and AFP Advancement Northwest Conference. AFP continues to be an important part of my professional life—not just from an educational and programmatic point of view, but also with regard to networking and maintaining social connections. The relationships I’ve made through AFP continue to be a source of inspiration, learning and a place to stay connected with colleagues.
Q: How do you manage to balance your personal and professional life?
A: Ah, work-life balance. There are times that it’s more work than life. I have to be intentional about the life part. I meditate daily. Work out at least three times a week. I unplug from technology at a decent time every night and often take mini-vacations throughout the year so I can rejuvenate myself.
Q: Last book read (or show you’re watching, binge-watching or otherwise!)?
A: I love any show by Shonda Rhimes. She puts women in powerful positions and shows all sides of us, even the flaws. Her characters exemplify who are we are as humans, always evolving.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
A: I would like to be remembered for inspiring others to be their best selves and for embracing the greatness that lies within each of us.