Michael Forster, CPA, CGMA

CFO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington

Michael Forster, CPA, CGMA
Photo by Kevin Wolf/AP Images

It’s a balance of getting everybody to understand how to use resources for achieving a short-term impact while accomplishing long-term sustainability

Managing resources to drive the mission: Congress created the Woodrow Wilson Center as a think tank. We house scholars in residence from all over the world to take on challenging issues of our day. All of the board members are appointed by the president of the United States, including sitting Cabinet members. I’m challenged as CFO to have hands on the pulse of the resources while facilitating dialogue necessary to understand what our pipeline of opportunity looks like. Program people inside of nonprofits are very passionate about the mission, but that passion sometimes blinds them to the economic realities we’re facing. The federal appropriation from Congress acts like a funding anchor for our operations. The reach that we achieve is dependent upon our ability to leverage that appropriation with private funding.

Finance’s strategic impact: The money touches everything, and everything touches the money. It puts pressure on the CFO to set a tone in communications that helps [stakeholders] understand that you are completely supportive of the passion they embody. In some cases, you have to ratchet back on the pace and scale that they want to go. It’s a balance of getting everybody to understand how to “pace and space,” effectively using the resources to meet immediate goals while preserving long-term financial viability to continue delivering results.

Satisfying donors’ demands: The philanthropic landscape has changed. Donors have taken much more of a “social investing” posture, and the very term “investing” implies return. They’re asking us to demonstrate how they’re getting return on their social investment. Our reports have to go beyond mere financial statements. They have to start including metrics. I’ve been a big advocate of developing other types of performance-based metrics that articulate the value of our organization to donors. Each organization should determine what makes sense, but an example might be the number of direct customers receiving benefits per dollar of fundraising expense. Then you might trend the metric over time for emphasis.

Hiring and retaining skilled talent: I go for highly skilled, broadly experienced people, because they have to be able to navigate very complex organizational issues. Then once I have those people, I invest in them. There’s nothing worse than seeking highly skilled professionals in the marketplace, successfully recruiting them, getting them on board, and then not investing in their continued growth and development.

—As told to Sheon Ladson Wilson (sheonlwilson@aol.com), a freelance writer in Durham, N.C.

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