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For Good: Who can Tampa Bay Area leaders of nonprofits call when they need answers?


CEO Emily Benham of Nonprofit Leadership Center.

CEO Jessica Muroff of Girl Scouts of West Central Florida.

Beth Houghton was the CFO and general counsel of All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg for more than a decade. She had years of experience in the for-profit sector. But as the new executive director of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, she realized she needed to fine-tune a different skill set. To accomplish that goal, she turned to the Nonprofit Leadership Center.

The Nonprofit Leadership Center, better known as the NLC, provided the crash course she needed to gain insight into just about every facet of nonprofit management, Houghton says.  

“While I had served on several nonprofit boards and oversaw a major capital campaign for Great Explorations Children’s Museum, almost all of my career was on the for-profit side,” says Houghton. “For the first time, I had significant responsibility for duties like board governance and development. I knew about board governance from a legal perspective, but not the finer points of engaging with my board.''

That was six-year-and-half years ago. Over the years, Houghton says she’s taken just about every class the NLC has offered.

“They used to kid me that if their doors were open, I was there,” says Houghton.

CEO Jessica Muroff of Girl Scouts of West Central Florida.She also encourages her staff to participate in NLC programs and invites board members to attend the organization’s yearly conference. The most recent conference, held in May at the Tampa Convention Center, was a sold-out event with national and local speakers, including Jessica Muroff, CEO of the Girls Scouts of West Central Florida, and Michele Reeves, director of Diversity and Inclusion at Raymond James Financial.

“I’ve made it clear to everyone who reports to me that if there is anything they see on the NLC schedule that might be helpful to them in their jobs, I would say yes,” says Houghton. “We’re a small organization. We don’t have a training department so it’s good to have a resource like this. The quality is excellent and the cost is reasonable. It’s local so you don’t have to pay for airfare or hotels. The value is incredible.''

Raising the NLC’s visibility

Last year, Houghton was invited to join the NLC board, helping guide the organization’s future as it adds more staff and expands its reach in the area that it serves: Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk and Hernando counties.

Emily Benham joined the NLC as CEO three-a-half-years ago. Under her direction, the NLC embarked on a strategic plan to raise the organization’s public profile and identify the needs of local nonprofits.

CEO Emily Benham of Nonprofit Leadership Center.“I had the privilege of coming into an organization that already had a strong team, a great board and CEO,” says Benham. “The NLC also has a 22-year history of serving the community. But we wanted to see how we could make a bigger impact.”

One of the NLC’s newest programs is the CEO leadership circle, a monthly confidential discussion group providing education, training and problem-solving for area nonprofit CEOs.  

Houghton is a member of one of the circles and calls the group an excellent sounding board.

“It’s hard to get confidential feedback about challenging matters,” says Houghton. “Whether it’s a difficult employee, a difficult board member or someone thinking about retirement, we’ve supported each other.”

There are currently two groups in operation, with plans to launch a third in 2019, says Benham.

Before joining the NLC, Benham was vice president for development of the Bayfront Health Foundation for more than two decades and oversaw all philanthropic activities supporting Bayfront Medical Center, now Bayfront Health St. Petersburg.

Her earlier career was with performing arts organizations, including the Evansville Philharmonic in Indiana; South Dakota Symphony; Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami; and locally, the Florida Orchestra and American Stage Theatre. Her husband, James Connors, is the principal violoncello with the Florida Orchestra. Benham is also an accomplished equestrian.

Now she’s on the other side, helping nonprofits learn to thrive in a challenging economy.

Capacity building

The NLC is one of 10 similar organizations in Florida, and several hundred around the country, whose mission is “capacity building,” says Benham. 

“We’re trainers, we connect people to resources, and we’re thought leaders,” says Benham. “We specialize in solutions to help nonprofits accomplish their mission.”

That’s not always an easy job. 

“Nonprofits are charged with tackling the most complex problems in society,” says Benham. “There’s tremendous pressure on them, along with changing public policy. The nonprofit sector is growing. The need for nonprofits is not going to decrease.”  

At the same time, says Benham, there are a lot of myths about nonprofit leadership -- that a nonprofit is something to retire to, or that it is simple to run one. “But it’s none of these things. It’s very complex.”

Organizations like the NLC not only strengthen nonprofits, they also benefit investors -- the people or organizations donating funds to a worthy cause. “We’re almost an insurance policy for funders’ investments,” explains Benham. 

The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay agrees. Strengthening the “nonprofit ecosystem” is one of the priorities for the foundation’s board.

“When our nonprofits are strong, every part of our community benefits,” says Marlene Spalten, President and CEO of the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. “We believe strongly that training, networking, and other professional development opportunities are extremely important to build the capacity and sustainability of our local nonprofits.”

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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