In this post, Foraker Group President Dennis McMillian outlines Foraker’s core values, program services, and how it has evolved overtime to continue to serve the needs of the nonprofit sector.

Guest post by Dennis McMillian, president of The Foraker Group

The Foraker Group is dedicated to increasing the leadership and management skills of professionals and volunteers working in Alaska’s nonprofit and tribal organizations. In this post, Foraker Group President Dennis McMillian outlines Foraker’s core values, program services, and how it has evolved overtime to continue to serve the needs of the sector.

Recently, we conducted focus groups with Partners to learn how to improve services. As in prior research, we learned that they appreciate what we do – at least those who participated in the process do. One surprising finding was that while those Partners value what we do, they did not know many of the services we provide. This article is aimed at refreshing your knowledge on the range of services we now offer.

From the beginning, Foraker focused its capacity building activities in three areas – back room support we call “shared services,” training for boards and staff we call “educational opportunities,” and various consulting services we call “organizational development.” Then two years ago, we embraced our role as the state’s nonprofit association. These four core areas define what Foraker does.

The Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model© describes the most important factor for a sustainable nonprofit is focus – or the ability to stay in focus about “who you are” and “where you are going.” What the nonprofit does, its services and programs, reflect focus but can change over time as needed to reflect how the founding principles (the answer to who you are) are influenced by the nonprofit’s reaction to the current environment (the answer to where you are going). Therefore, services and programs can and should evolve.

Before describing our current programs and services, describing who we are and where we are headed will clarify what we are doing and our plans for the future. Foraker was founded to strengthen the nonprofit sector in Alaska. In addition to the clarity of our purpose we have four core values that have been our guide from the founding.

Our first core value is sustainability. We knew from the beginning that we were created to help build a sector that had the capacity to have an ongoing positive impact on Alaskan communities. It took us a few years to understand what this value meant and document our theory of change on sustainability – we’ll be publishing that soon in a book.

In that theory, two of our other founding values emerge as critical for sustainability. One was encouraging the sector to be strategic, the other collaborative. We learned the  importance of adaptability. In order to adapt, a nonprofit must be forward looking and strategic. We also learned that sustainable nonprofits nurture collaborative relationships. In others words, they embrace partnerships with organizations that share their purpose and values in order to increase their impact.

The last value came from Elmer Rasmuson, one of the founders of the Rasmuson Foundation and one of our most enthusiastic early supporters of Foraker. When he first heard about the idea to provide back room support for human service nonprofits in Anchorage, he suggested that we offer a variety of services, serve the entire state, all types of nonprofits, and have a particular focus on institutions that serve our most remote communities. The other founders felt his intentions included focus on services for Alaska Native institutions. We articulate that core value as urban/rural-Native/non-Native.

We strive for every service provided at Foraker to help organizations focus on sustainability through the discipline to be strategic and collaborative and that we work to make sure we are relevant throughout our state, for all Alaskans trying to improve their community, urban and rural, Native and non-Native.

From this foundation, we have developed a series of services that we hope manifest our vision.

State Nonprofit Association

The area we are recently developing is our role as Alaska’s nonprofit association. Two years ago, Foraker was recognized by the National Council of Nonprofits, (the association for state associations), as Alaska’s nonprofit association. I am proud to now serve on the National Council’s board. The Council’s primary focus is advocacy – national, state, and local public policy that impacts our sector. They are outstanding in this arena and are working to build our capacity to do even more.

In Alaska, the nonprofit sector is fortunate to have good relationships with state government. We will work to continue that support. Last year, during the legislative session, we, along with the funders of the Pre-Development Program, participated in presentations to the Senate Community and Regional Affairs Committee and legislative staff on the need for the state to become more strategic about funding capital projects. We hoped to encourage their understanding of their role in making sure that the facilities needed by our sector are adequately funded.

We also advocate for nonprofits in their local communities. In the past year, we have intervened where city governments questioned the value of funding they provide for local nonprofits. We hope that over time we cannot only maintain the support from local governments, but increase that support.

And we have instituted an annual visit to Washington D.C. to meet with our delegation and their staffs on our sector’s status and priorities. We are fortunate to have three strong supporters in Washington. As a result we do not have to educate them on our value as a sector, but we provide information to defend our interests in Washington. When you speak with them, please thank them for listening and encourage them to keep up their good work on our behalf.

Being a state association includes more than a focus on public policy, it includes providing useful information the sector needs to be strategic, and it involves connecting the sector so we can work together to achieve more. We have convened the sector twice at our Leadership Summit. The next Summit is planned for April of 2013. The first two gatherings were well-attended and the feedback from the attendees encourages our continued emphasis on such gatherings.

But we also have been urged to find additional vehicles to connect the sector. Our Operations Board is working to create more opportunities. These additional connecting activities will likely utilize video, telephonic, and web-based technologies. We hope to implement some of these strategies in the coming year.

Foraker has published six salary and/or benefits surveys. We publish and annually update The Alaska Funder’s Guide with the institutions that fund in Alaska. And we have published two economic impact studies, with the third scheduled for later in 2013-2014. We have always embraced our role as a catalyst for research on our sector. We are also currently working to find new ways to secure the best data possible…stay tuned.

Shared Services

When the United Way of Anchorage envisioned Foraker in 1993, it was to provide back room support – what we call shared services. Our surveys at the time indicated that the support many nonprofits needed were financial services, health insurance, information technology, and planned giving. Today we provide all of those services, and more.

In the beginning, Cook Inlet Tribal Council was our strategic partner for financial shared services. Some nonprofits used their payroll services, others accounts payables or receivables, yet others needed comprehensive financial back room support including working with their boards as if the financial shared services’ staff were their full-time financial department. In 2009, we brought this service in house. At that time, there were less than 20 nonprofits, all in Anchorage, using financial shared services. Today, over 60 nonprofits around the state take advantage of the service. Now, we are working to provide even more financial services to more nonprofits around the state.

Another one of the shared services urgently needed when we were founded was health insurance for nonprofit employees. There is probably no issue that consumes so much energy of executives in nonprofits as providing competitive benefits for employees, especially health insurance. Since our founding, we have investigated two strategies to improve options. The first time we gave up, finding there was no way to decrease costs and maintain quality coverage.

Then in 2007, along with significant support from the Rasmuson Foundation, we tried again. This time efforts were complicated by a simultaneous increase in rates from our provider, Premera, and a new president promoting national health care reform. Even with those obstacles, we established a successful program. While the costs were not lower than market, now, four years later, we have begun to see lower rate increases for most of the nonprofits in the plan. Our insurance plan is based on the employer’s participation in wellness programs. We knew from research that wellness programs, over time, improve the health of employees, therefore lowering rate increases. We are now working with Premera and the state to expand this pool for all Alaskans and their employers who will participate in wellness programs.

Another shared service in which we are preparing to offer expanded support is human resources. Since most nonprofits are very small, they do not have internal expertise on human resource issues. We have always had HR consultants. Soon we will have packaged services, like financial shared services, for nonprofits that need such assistance.

In addition, we provide back room support for web design and maintenance, and we serve as a fiscal sponsor for many initiatives that are either waiting for official ruling on tax status from the IRS (like Best Beginnings), or small nonprofits with one employee in order for them to provide benefits (like the Alaska Children’s Trust), or where there are statewide services provided, and no need for incorporation. We are also looking into the possibility of providing group purchasing.

Shared services were the genesis of our approach to capacity building and we are always eager to hear from our Partners about services that may be beneficial. Today, at least one-third of our Partners participate in at least one of these shared services.

Educational Opportunities

Training is the service that has been used more than any other. Yet the recent focus groups found that many of our most loyal customers (Partners) do not know all of the trainings we provide. We encourage you to click on the educational opportunities tab  on our home page to review the entire list. But the fact is we can provide almost any kind of training our Partners need, except for very specific, mission related topics. Even if you don’t see a course that you need, call our office, we will find someone with the expertise you require.

The M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust funded the training development. We developed a comprehensive list of over 30 sessions for nonprofit boards we call Board Forums. Designed in two-hour segments, there are sessions on governance, fundraising, communications, advocacy, finances, and more. We also created a series of classes specifically for staff. Most of these courses are two, four, and even eight hours long and cover a range of topics including fundraising, human resource management, finance, business planning, grant writing, and communications. We have provided classes for over 10,000 people. Today we deliver trainings in person around the state, and now we also provide webinars, videoconferences, and classes over the phone.

Within our first two years we developed the Certificate in Nonprofit Management. In partnership with UAF, we have trained over 220 nonprofit leaders through this program. Our newest cohort of 20 leaders is now in session. For 11 years, we have had very diverse participants, and this year is no exception. We have representatives from the University, Native nonprofits, tribes, conservation groups, the faith community, health and human services, arts organizations – and they are from all over the state!

We implemented the Catalyst for Nonprofit Excellence leadership program in 2011. Our second cohort in that program is in session this fall. The emphasis of this program is not on the skills for leadership, but on the human insights necessary to become the best leader possible.

Training is at the core of The Foraker Group. We continue to modify the original classes to keep current and useful insights. We will launch new courses soon for individuals interested in starting a nonprofit, and for those who want to know how to access the right Foraker services. If you have suggestions on what other courses would be helpful for you or your organization, please let us know.

Organizational Development

Another way to describe organizational development  is “consulting.” We use organizational development rather than consulting since the word consulting can be misunderstood. Many consultants tell you what to do. Our emphasis is on providing insight into options to improve your organization’s performance. But unlike consulting where an expert speaks and others are expected to listen and obey, we strive to have everyone in conversations so they can develop their organization. It takes much more than an expert with a slick process, pretty visuals, and “ten-cent college words” to help nonprofits thrive. We have found it much more beneficial, and will have greater impact, when the organization is empowered to find its own way. That is why we call our services organizational development, not consulting.

The most used organizational development support is through facilitating strategic planning sessions for boards. Over the last twelve years, we have conducted over one thousand sessions with hundreds of nonprofits, many having been through our process numerous times. We set a context for a strategic discussion, and then the board identifies the outcomes they envision over a period of time. We also use these sessions as a time to reflect and celebrate the hard work of the board and staff. The expected product is a one-page, very high-level plan, useful to nonprofits that consistently refer to it so they accomplish their long-term outcomes. But the real benefit of strategic planning is that it provides a process for the organization to become more strategic in every meeting – board and committee. A written strategic plan is far less important than a generative discussion where the right questions are addressed.

We also facilitate various board sessions including those that address board-staff conflicts. We even facilitate community gatherings. We also have experienced professionals (we call consultants) for financial and human resource support, as well as limited assistance on legal issues like incorporation.

Our financial consultants work closely with the financial shared services clients to provide a more strategic perspective for the organization’s financial health. These consultants also provide a wide range of assistance to any Foraker Partner dealing with financial issues.

In human resources, we have become increasingly involved with employee performance evaluation, including 360 reviews for executive leadership. We can also assist organizations working through touchy HR issues, such as terminations or layoffs. Our HR consultant has expertise in employee benefits, developing job descriptions, and personnel policies.

The Foraker Group is not a law firm, so we do not provide legal advice. But we do have experts with the capacity to give sound, non-legal advice for newly forming nonprofits, or organizations facing potential legal issues. And, we can help you determine when you need to secure legal services.

Organizational development requires a long-term commitment. When a nonprofit uses a consultant once to help them plan or manage a situation, they may feel the experience has been helpful. However, we have found that when a nonprofit uses various support services, over time, they are much more likely to see a long-term benefit. Capacity building is not just developing a strategic plan or attending a training session, it involves ongoing training, support, and facilitation, over years.

Our Operations Board actively advises on the services that are needed. The list of current members is listed for your review. Speak to one of them about your ideas on what else we can do to be of service. They can also help guide you through our numerous services and connect you to the right person to answer any question.

Elizabeth Ripley, Operations Board Chair – Executive Director, Mat-Su Health Foundation

Stephanie Allen – Executive Director, United Way of Mat-Su

LaRue Barnes – Manager, Community Development & Sustainability, Native Village of Eyak

Marla Berg – State Government Liaison, North Slope Borough

Carrie Brown – Executive Director, Healthy Alaska Natives Foundation

Michele Brown – President, United Way of Anchorage

Karen Cowart – Director, Community and Public Affairs, BP Alaska

Angela Cox – Vice President of Administration, Arctic Slope Native Association

Shannon Daut – Executive Director, Alaska State Council on the Arts

Jerry Drake – Business Manager, Bethel Community Services Foundation

Mary Gibbs – Manager, Philanthropy & Community Service, ConocoPhillips Alaska, Inc

Sven Haakanson, Jr. – Executive Director, Alutiiq Museum & Archeological Repository

Randy Hagenstein – State Director, The Nature Conservancy

Karen Lundquist – Executive Director, United Way of Tanana Valley

Doris Miller – Executive Director, Doyon Foundation

Joan O’Keefe – Executive Director, Southeast Alaska Independent Living Inc

Megan Olson – Vice Chancellor University of Advancement, University of Alaska Anchorage

Chris Perez – Program Officer, Rasmuson Foundation

Ira Perman – President, Important Work

June Rogers – Executive Director, Fairbanks Arts Association

Ann Rothe – Executive Director, Alaska Conservation Foundation

Suzanne Rudolph – President, Providence Alaska Foundation

Jaclyn Sallee – Executive Director, Koahnic Broadcast Corporation

Wayne Stevens – President/CEO, United Way of Southeast Alaska

Joy Steward – Executive Director, Homer Foundation

Saralyn Tabachnick – Executive Director, AWARE, Inc

Candace Winkler – CEO, Alaska Community Foundation

We are identifying additional “Foraker Champions,” executives who have used a variety of our services, who will also be available to promote the services they are familiar with for you, your staff, and board.

So that is a summary of most of what The Foraker Group does. What we want is for Foraker to be your long-term partner that empowers leaders to build a sustainable, strategic, and collaborative sector. We need honest feedback so we can continue to improve how we serve.

To learn more, email us at or call 907-743-1200.