Dennis McMillian spent the bulk of his professional career in Alaska helping nonprofit organizations. He arrived in 1992 to lead United Way of Anchorage. He helped to develop The Alaska Community Foundation. And in 2001, he led the creation of The Foraker Group, which exists to increase leadership and management skills of those working in nonprofit and tribal organizations. McMillian and his wife, Stephanie, this month are leaving Alaska to be closer to his parents, who are in their 90s, though they plan to return for stretches. Over the decades, he’s been one of Rasmuson Foundation’s best allies, and one of the nonprofit field’s visionaries. Before he could get away, we asked him these questions. Here is what he said:
1. What do you see as the biggest challenge for Alaska nonprofit organizations in 2018?
McMillian: It’s the same challenge I’ve come to learn from years of working in and developing the sector: relevance and impact.
Nonprofits focus too much on self-preservation; but institutional survival truly isn’t the issue. It’s mission. Nonprofits are our unique tool to build community. Building community is not about institutional survival; it’s about mission staying upfront and center.
To deliver ongoing mission, institutions are required. Building more sustainable institutions to deliver on our promise of the future is our purpose.
The problem has been and continues to be capacity. Most nonprofits are so under-resourced, their ability to solve problems is limited. We expect miracles from institutions that just don’t have the bandwidth to deliver on their promises.
At best, most nonprofits are doing a heroic job of responding to challenges, mainly through the personal sacrifice of the thousands of overworked, underpaid and definitely underappreciated people who work for and volunteer in our sector. We should all thank them for their sacrifice. For indeed, they’ve dedicated their lives to help others.
2. What might surprise us about how nonprofit organizations have changed during your years in Alaska?
McMillian: It may be a surprise, but it shouldn’t be. With all of its challenges, our sector in Alaska is stronger than the rest of the country.
Virtually every national consultant Foraker has brought to Alaska to meet with nonprofit leaders has consistent insight: Our nonprofit leaders are better-equipped than what they see in other communities.
Their assumption of why this is so, is the dedication of the Rasmuson Foundation to fund capacity and especially their visionary leadership in the development of The Foraker Group.
Today Foraker is the largest, most comprehensive nonprofit support organization in the country. Other national leader support organizations like Third Sector New England (recently renamed TSNE MissionWorks) and CompassPoint (based in Oakland, California) want to adapt their business practice to better reflect what has been realized here. The unrestricted support from Rasmuson Foundation has continued to be one of the factors that allowed Foraker to thrive. I work all over the country, and there is nothing like Foraker. Most that learn about it wish they had one.
3. Why did you want to work in the nonprofit field?
McMillian: I ended up in the sector like most, by accident. In an early conversation, my mother told my wife my purpose had always been “community.” I guess I found my calling?
4. Who most inspires you?
McMillian: Not to single out just one, I am most inspired by the amazing philanthropists in our state who are giving their hard-earned assets to build a better state.
5. What is something nonprofit boards could do, to improve their work?
McMillian: Do all they can to support their staff.
6. What is a valuable lesson you learned in your professional life? Anything you wish you could do over?
McMillian: To speak truth to power.
While I’ve always worked to speak my truth, I know I have enabled too many people in powerful positions to use their position to overly control others. I’ve been fortunate to be included as a leader. And I’ve done my best to walk the talk. But I regret I wasn’t more confident in calling out those who abused their power.
7. What was your goal in starting The Foraker Group?
McMillian: To build a stronger sector. Promote strategic thinking, collaboration, sustainability and relevance throughout the state.
8. Who is the funniest person you’ve met in the Alaska nonprofit sector?
McMillian: Unfortunately, our sector is limited in terms of people with a sense of humor. We are a serious, self-sacrificing group. We should all work to become the funniest person. Maybe a new competition?
We should not take ourselves so seriously.
9. What is your most memorable moment off the grid in Alaska?
McMillian: I’ve been so fortunate to visit 183 Alaskan communities. Everywhere I go is my favorite place and I long to return to all.
But the stories I often tell are weather-related. One trip to Anaktuvuk Pass for 24 hours turned into five days because the temp dropped to 70 below! The people of that amazing village did all they could to make me comfortable for that unplanned vacation.
Another was my first-ever visit to a village. I arrived at the Hooper Bay airport, located one mile from the village, with a temp of 14 below and winds that took the chill factor to minus 40.
We could see the snowmachines running across the tundra to get their packages and visitors. They all came, then they all left with me still standing on the tarmac. I was out there another 40 minutes before I got my ride into town. I ran into the school to make sure I still had my nose, fingers and toes.
10: What else should have we asked?
McMillian: All I could say is the increased need to prepare for the inevitable transition of so many people from my generation from active work to whatever is next. I fear too many will and already have stayed too long. That creates two problems. One is the vision to adapt to new realities is hampered. The other is that totally qualified leaders in the wings are underutilized.