info@buildupadvisory.com

Publications

Investment and Innovation for Impact with Lawrence Mendenhall

This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Lawrence Mendenhall. Lawrence is the Chief Operating Officer of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the 32,000-member association for America’s eye surgeons, where he leads the Academy’s communications, memberships, marketing, finance, technology, facilities, security, and corporate services functions.

Lawrence has held operational and legal leadership roles for philanthropies ranging from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Humanity United, a startup human rights foundation created by eBay’s founder. Earlier in his career, he spearheaded The Pew Trusts’ change from domestic grantmaking foundation to international operating nonprofit as well as its successful effort to save Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation.

Listen to the podcast here:


Powered by Podetize

Resources:

About Lawrence Mendenhall

Lawrence Mendenhall, MBA, JD, is COO of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the 32,000-member association for America’s eye surgeons, where he leads the Academy’s communications, memberships, marketing, finance, technology, facilities, security and corporate services functions. He also oversees the Academy’s affiliated foundation, with programs that range from EyeCare America, which has served over 2 million patients free of charge, to the newly founded Museum of the Eye.

He has held operational and legal leadership roles for philanthropies ranging from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Humanity United, a startup human rights foundation created by eBay’s billionaire founder.  Earlier in his career he spearheaded The Pew Trusts’ change from domestic grantmaking foundation to international operating nonprofit as well as its successful effort to save Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation.

He attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, New York University School of Law, and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Read the podcast transcription below:

-Upbeat Intro Music-

Nic Campbell: 

You’re listening to the Nonprofit Build Up Podcast and I’m your host, Nic Campbell. I want to support movements that can interrupt cycles of injustice and inequity, and shift power towards vulnerable and marginalized communities. I’ve spent years working in and with nonprofits and philanthropies, and I know how important infrastructure is to outcomes. On this show, we’ll talk about how to build capacity to transform the way you and your organization work.

Nic Campbell: 

Hi, everyone. This week on the Nonprofit Build Up, we’re talking with Lawrence Mendenhall. Lawrence is the Chief Operating Officer of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the 32,000-member association for America’s eye surgeons, where he leads the Academy’s communications, memberships, marketing, finance, technology, facilities, security, and corporate services functions. He also oversees the Academy’s affiliated foundation, with programs that range from EyeCare America, which has served over 2 million patients free of charge, to the newly founded Museum of the Eye.

Nic Campbell: 

Lawrence has held operational and legal leadership roles for philanthropies ranging from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Humanity United, a startup human rights foundation created by eBay’s founder.  Earlier in his career, he spearheaded The Pew Trusts’ change from domestic grantmaking foundation to international operating nonprofit as well as its successful effort to save Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation.

Nic Campbell: 

He attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, New York University School of Law, and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. And with that, here is Lawrence Mendenhall.

Nicole Campbell:

Hi, Lawrence. I’m so excited to have you joining us for our Fast Build Leader series.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Thank you, Nicole, for having me. I’m excited to talk with you.

Nicole Campbell:

I am looking forward to it. So to get us started, can you tell us about the American Academy of Ophthalmology, your role there and the Academy’s immediate priorities?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Sure. My organization AAO, the American Academy of Ophthalmology is the association for America’s 32,000 eye surgeons. And it also has a related foundation where I am COO and CFO for these orgs. Our group also includes a related management company that provides that operational infrastructure to other nonprofits, as well as a political action committee and a state legislative advocacy fund. Now the immediate priority for our group is ensuring that we’re serving our members, right? They include not just the USI surgeons, but surgeons from around the globe who have been hard hit by the pandemic. What many people don’t know, Nic, is that the first victim of COVID-19 was a Chinese ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital. He was one of the first to raise warnings about the virus in China. He was condemned as a whistleblower, and then he later died. Now he’s since been exonerated, but he really just illustrates the risks for our members.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Some of whom have given their lives, working on the front lines to fight COVID-19. And now treating injuries in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police. Eye injuries are one of the most common injuries from the rubber bullets and tear gas that are often police responses to the protests. And we’ve spoken up before around gun violence because they also result in a lot of eye injuries. And we’re also one of a handful of medical orgs that publicly condemned the recent killing. So ensuring that our member safety and livelihoods are protected are our top priorities so they can continue to serve the community of patients. And another high court priority, I would just say for me, is ensuring that our org, which is responsible for one of the largest in-person meetings in medicine ,is coping with the financial impact of the virus. I mean, how do we ensure the safety of our meeting and the viability of what we offer to our members and their patient is really what I’m spending a lot of my time on.

Nicole Campbell:

Wow, that’s a really wide remit, Lawrence. Thank you for that background. You mentioned that you were both CFO and COO and that is fascinating. So can you talk a little bit more about those roles and how they play out essentially within that network, you named a few entities that you are also responsible for.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Sure. So I was using the little shorthand, I’m the COO for the Academy and then the CFO for the Foundation, as well as the Executive Director of the foundation reports to me. Really what it is, I feel very blessed to work with such an incredible team and incredible CEO, David Park, who’s been our CEO for 10 years and has been involved with the Academy for decades. But essentially I am responsible for harmonizing our very diverse operations here. We go from membership and meetings to patient education, to member education, continuing medical certification, a real range, to public serving programs like Eye Care America, which has provided over 2 million exams for free to the public, to a museum of the eye that we’re trying to launch. So you can imagine trying to launch a new public museum in the middle of the pandemic. So it really is that harmonizing role. It was brought in because so often we see in not-for-profits, whether it’s funders or NGOs, just too many direct reports to the CEO, right? They need to be able to be out in the world and to advance the mission with the public and with the members, if you have members, but then someone needs to really be translating and making sure that that vision is moving forward internally. And it’s harmonized, especially when you’ve got a large team, we’re lucky to have a large team.

Nicole Campbell:

I just think it’s great that your organization and the work that you’re doing is really showing up for everyone during such a tense time for our country. So I appreciate that. And you are a nonprofit and I would love to hear just how you would talk to other nonprofits who fundraise as a significant part of their budget. In other words, what do you think should be top of mind for these organizations, particularly now during this time of uncertainty? We’ve got so much unrest, we’ve got the pandemic, what should they be concentrating on? What should they be doing?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Sure. You know, my top advice for others who are fundraising at this difficult moment is don’t give up. Your donors are still out there and many are looking for ways to help even more. Now I know that’s easy to say right? Going to our experience, the key has been to divide the donors into segments, which is of course a good practice generally, but it’s critical right now. If you have a strong market segmentation in place, you’re ahead of the game, but you probably need to go through the steps again, re-segment based on how COVID is impacting it. Who is going to go into your stewardship category? This isn’t the right time to be asking them they’re going through a lot. This isn’t the right time to approach them with big aks. And then who can you approach? So even though there are some who aren’t going to be able to help now.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

So for example, at my organization, our average donor member have been hard hit. I sort of alluded to before by COVID-19 they stopped seeing non-emergency patients and the impact has been severe. So they’re focused on protecting their patients and their staff and their community. So it’s not the time to go to them for money, but there are others for us, and I think for many other not-for-profits, there are significant segments, particularly corporate sponsors and other corporate partners in our space, for example, that are eager to help. They want to create that goodwill with members in the community, especially now. Their budgets weren’t necessarily impacted, or they’re not being impacted as quickly. So they’ve still got money for this year, right? And they’re eager to support long standing partners and highly visible challenges at a time like this. And so for us, it’s been large pharmaceutical and medical device companies that have stepped up to fund additional education for doctors and patients around say telemedicine, at a time when in-person visits are only for urgent cases. We do also have some high net-worth donors who’ve been able to contribute.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

You know, they’re not suffering from this. And I think there is a significant set out there. The second thing I would just mention, it’s similar, is that there’s a significant funding available specifically for COVID response and COVID responders, or for people who are impacted by COVID. Sometimes it’s an embarrassing amount of funding, including government funding, there’s money that’s just looking for a home, for a place to be effective. So for example, medical societies we’ve found that are focused on emergency care or emergency providers and emergency service for the indigent. Those societies are in short supply and they’re incredibly popular donors. Of course, they’ve, don’t always have the infrastructure yet to deploy that money effectively, but they’re very popular with donors. So what I would say is any of your programs that directly benefit impacted communities are uniquely positioned to succeed with the funders. And I would say, depending on your capacity and others in your space, even if you don’t have a program in place, if you can quickly ramp up and make a difference with integrity, the dollars may be there to support your efforts. And that’s what I’m seeing. Nicole.

Nicole Campbell:

That makes sense, because essentially you’re saying, well, be strategic about your outreach. Also look in different places, right? Not just keep tapping the same sources for funding, because there might be additional funding sources out there, particularly around COVID or around funds that are working with impacted communities. And so that really makes a lot of sense. And so if you were to look at the other side of the conversation and look at the funders who are providing these resources to nonprofit organizations, beyond the advice of give more money, what advice would you provide to funders to support nonprofits sustainability, both within the moment that we’re in and to get us past it, and when you are past it, what does that look like? And I know that you are experienced, you know, you’ve been with funders. So you have that really unique perspective of not only having a leadership role within a nonprofit organization currently, but also haven’t had leadership roles within philanthropy, as well as I would love to hear what your advice would be to funders.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Well, it’s a terrific question and sort of looking at it from both sides. Unfortunately I think the answer, for the donor mindset, the answer isn’t funders just need to provide more advice. You need to provide more thought partnership. I think that’s what a lot of funders think, but that’s not going to be enough standing alone. Like I said, it’s off in the view of these smart well-meaning funders and program officers who say, well, our thought leadership is more valuable than our funding. There’s a point in there, but for true sustainability, I think that funders need to be willing to be thought partners and to support the infrastructure and health of the org beyond the short term, not just a particular program that is of interest to that funder. Now I’m not saying that funders should embrace, you know, 50% overhead rates, but they should be willing to pay reasonable overhead.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Yes. But to go further to support those specific organization strengthening initiatives and work, whether it’s developing fundraising expertise, recruiting board leadership, and putting in place strong work practices, creating compliance infrastructure, building tech platforms, they need to be willing to support those things that benefit the whole organization and not just a slice of it. So that’s the first piece of advice. And of course, many funders say they’ve made a shift, but in reality, I think there’s still a long way to go. The second piece of advice I would say to funders is to make longer term investments, not one to two or even three to five years, but 10 year plus investment. I think the larger your investment is the more true this is. So what’s large? Well, that’s going to be determined by the funding that already exists in the space, but large short term investments, they can really distort the mission of the organization in the field. When they end, they may have co-opted the direction of the org and the space and leading other funders to that source to bow out. So then the org in that field can end up diminished, which harms the exact community that you intended to help.

Nicole Campbell:

You are definitely speaking my language because I’m hearing you say, you know, support infrastructure needs beyond the immediate needs that are cropping up. And I liked when you said support the whole organization, not just the flight, because it really resonates with me. I talk a lot about just making longer term investment in an organization, not in deliverables, right? So that makes complete sense to me. I’m going to ask you a question about this overhead support. Talk to me about why you think there are so many organizations, so many funders out there who are saying, well, we’ve determined that you can’t spend more than 25% or 10%, whatever their percentage. Why do you think that those percentages are introduced if they are, as you put in that language, like if they decide to make longer term investments in an organization for their sustainability, how do we reconcile the percentages of overhead?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Right. Sure. I think what’s happening and want to really give credit to funders. I think they want to be responsible. I think they want to share that they are delivering on their mission and that they’re supporting the mission of the organization. But what I think has happened is it’s become misguided. It’s become a rule of thumb. Say we’re not going to go beyond this percentage because somehow that signals that this isn’t a responsible investment. And I think what’s happened over the last 20 years. We had some very visible scandals at hundred million dollar organizations, billion dollar organizations, the Stanfords of the world. Now there is a question, how do I, as a funder, for example, in the social justice space, do I want to place a project at Stanford or another large university, which may have a 30% overhead rate? I think that question is very different than whether for this small 10 person not-for-profit, which may be in South Sudan, which may be a couple of people in Northern Nepal.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

I think the question would be it’s a very different issue. And unfortunately it becomes sort of one size fits all. This is our policy and we don’t fund beyond this amount. And so I think it really is a desire to be accountable, but I think there has to be a built-in flexibility there. And it’s hard though. It’s hard because a lot of the funders they’ve gotten larger, they’re bigger. They need to have sort of…I know this from the operational perspective, black and white rules are always easier to implement than sort of, it depends. And so I think that’s part of the challenge that also is another aspect for philanthropy. Philanthropies themselves, they say, well, we want to stay small. We don’t want to get too large. That’s their idea of humility, but if you need to grow to do your work well, I think that for philanthropies themselves is an investment that’s worthwhile. So this obsession with overhead comes from a good place, but I think it needs to be examined in specific cases.

Nicole Campbell:

Right. And just be tailored to the organization that the funder is investing in. We’ve talked about the advice that you would provide to nonprofits, the advice that you would provide to funders, with all of that in mind, what do you wish we did less of as a sector? And what do you think we should be doing more of?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Sure. And here I’m putting my kind of funder hat on. I know what I’d like to see less of is really honestly, less self-reflection and more other reflection. You know, I look across the philanthropic sectors, funders are often incredibly skilled at looking inward, at examining their own notice and practices, and there’s a place for that. This is a good thing, but listening to you and reflecting the grantees and NGOs that they’re supporting is the number one job for me. It’s similar to the conversation my team and others are having around privilege and around race for folks who are part of a dominant culture that’s the funder culture in this case, they need to be listeners and to not expect to be catered to. They need to open up space for others to be heard, take the time, to educate themselves to the extent possible, and then still be willing to defer to the expertise and these lived experiences of others. Now, in some ways, it’s the exact opposite of the strategic and venture philanthropy models that many funders have cycled through or are still in. But that’s what I wish we would do less of as a sector.

Nicole Campbell:

Well, how do you think this shows up from an infrastructure perspective? So you’re a funder and now they listen to you and they say, okay, well, we’ll do less self-Reflection, we’ll listen, we’ll let our grantees be the experts. How does that show up in terms of a funders grant making? And I’m speaking in terms of infrastructure, like the type of award, type of monitoring evaluation, like what could we be looking for to say that is a funder who is listening to their grantees?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

I think some terrific practices are to fund group of grantees with general operating support, working in an ecosystem where you are hoping to see systemic change, opening the spaces for them. So whether that’s hosting a monthly call, whether that’s actually giving them financial support, coordinate advocacy, public education efforts, it’s supporting that without tons of strains, perhaps providing staff support for those meetings, introducing the systems that will allow them to create sort of a shared portfolio. Or do you begin to think about it? Right? I think so often we jump to that, we’ve done the mapping, we know what needs to happen, and now let’s just plug it in. And I think funders have tried to get away from that, but it’s that, I think that hangover of that approach is it’s still very much out there.

Nicole Campbell:

And remove the strains. What do you think then we should be doing more of?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Well, of course, through the flip side of that is the listening. And it’s also what I would love to see. And I’ve not seen a lot of this. I know, Nic, you’re so deeply involved in these conversations, but there is some great writing in philanthropy. The state of the art and best practices continues to evolve. But I also think there is a, and this is from part of my work here, there’s a communication aspect to helping the rest of the world understand the various ways that effective philanthropy can show up. And sometimes it is just opening the space. It is writing that check. That doesn’t mean that we’re not effective philanthropists. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to eventually create the change that we all want to see. It’s just that we’re committed to a longer timeframe. We’re committed to doing it in this more collaborative way.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Take the focus off of wow, who pays for 30% overhead versus 15% overhead. And can you believe X large foundation funded this work, helping the public and helping our policymakers understand that this is not a command and control economy. We are putting the dollars out there to let this work bubble up, to let these good ideas and these movements advance. We are not controlling them. So there’s a role for communications and messaging to change from that strategic philanthropy model, where it’s my funding, I’m responsible for it. It’s like if I’m funding it, I’m trying to open a space.

Nicole Campbell:

And so getting out of your own bubble your own way and using communications to fully integrate within the world, right within the economy in which philanthropy is trying to make a difference. And that resonates. And so I know that the focus of many nonprofits is often on programmatic strategy and their own development needs and fundraising apps, which makes sense because fundraising is a large part of their budget and their app and what they’re doing to get money into their work and to support their operations. Is the Academy thinking about building infrastructure during this time? I know you talked about how you were being responsive to your members and showing up to support communities in need. Are you thinking about how you were building your own organizational infrastructure? And if so, how is that showing up and how are you thinking about this beyond the moment that we’re in?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Sure. You know, we are a hundred year old organization that really reinvented itself in the eighties, nineties. And so we do have a lot of infrastructure in place. And I would just make one point as I go into this, it’s often harder to change existing infrastructure, strong infrastructure, than it is as I’ve been, for example, in a philanthropic startup environment, where if you had a system for three years, it’s not really hard to get rid of it. But if you had a system, whether it’s technology, whether it’s a process, that’s grown up over decades, it’s more challenging. So for us in the short term, we’ve had to get comfortable in some cases with really quickly assemble infrastructure, for example, holding a dozen webinars a week, educate our members of the public on COVID-19. When we would normally host a fraction of that number for a fraction of the viewers. When we’re doing that, responding to this immediate need, how do we right-size our investment? They’re urgent needs, but they may not be permanent.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

So that’s one of the things so lowering our standards, being willing to say, Hey, you know what? Some of this is going to happen quickly and we’re going to test it and we’re going to decide then what we do next. But looking at the longer term, we are asking ourselves daily, how will the needs of the communities we’re serving be different after COVID-19? How do we build the infrastructure we’ll need to respond to those needs? Then the reality is that in this fiscal environment, though, we also have to ask, what are we going to stop doing so that we can meet the new reality? You know, in my humble view, every org, whether it has sufficient reserves or a deep pocketed funder who can help plug the current funding gap, I think every org should be asking the strategic question about the long-term. What’s changed permanently and what hasn’t changed. And why do they have to ask this?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

I think it’s because the reality is that we don’t know what the new normal will be after this period we’re in. And we want to be prepared to continue to serve our communities, the ones that rely on us, even if our funding model turns out to be very different. So for us, for example, as I said, we hold one of the largest meetings in medicine. Well, what is that going to look like? Right. Are folks going to be comfortable going to meetings in the future? Is the whole world going to permanently go more virtual? We don’t know, but we need to be asking those questions so we’re ready.

Nicole Campbell:

It’s such an interesting perspective, right? Because you are within an organization that has a tremendous amount of infrastructure. And your view is that even within that infrastructure, you want to continue to innovate so that you are responsive to the needs of the community that you are serving and you’re working with. And I really appreciate how you’re saying changing an infrastructure that already exists is a lot harder than, you know, just creating one. And I understand there are a lot of considerations around why you…convincing someone to create infrastructure in the first place. But I agree with you, I think changing that infrastructure that has been hardwired, not only into the processes and the policies, but into the people, because people are a large part of that infrastructure. And it’s like, how do you not only change the policies and change the processes, but then change the people and have them be innovative in that way.

Nicole Campbell:

So I really appreciate that observation, Lawrence. And you know, your responses, I appreciate them a great deal, particularly because they’re coming from a COO who has that programmatic vision, has the organizational vision, but is also able to think about the details within the infrastructure to hold up those visions. And I think that your advice has been so thoughtful and so practical and just powerful. And I want to ask you a question to help us continue to build knowledge through books and people we should learn from or about to close us out. What books do you think we should read next? Or what artists, the think we should be paying attention to?

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Well, I thought hard about this. I was thinking about what I’ve been reading lately. I’ve been rereading though, what’s really impacted me, is I’ve been rereading ‘I Will Bear Witness’ which was written by Victor Klemperer as a diary of his experience of one of a handful of Jews who was able to survive in Nazi Germany through the entire prewar and world war II period, right through Germany’s liberation. He was this accomplished professor, married to a Christian woman, the cousin of a famous conductor, some folks know Otto Klemperer, and he kept a daily diary of his experience beginning in 1933. Now there’s so many comparisons, you know, folks drop between the 1930s and our present era, including global trends toward populism, potentially fast fascism, but to see his daily count of how’s German society, you know, this fame cosmopolitan, at that time, society that would produce an erudite converted Jewish professional like him, to see how that imploded and almost brought the entire world down with it. It’s just incredibly powerful. What I find is that it’s a reminder that our engagement as individuals, as not for profit leaders, and as funders, that our engagement just isn’t negotiable. You know, it’s easier, and the risk is, it’s easier for the world around us to change us than for us to change it. And we really need to fight for what we value. That’s not hot off the presses, but it is one that I think is worth a read.

Nicole Campbell:

So ‘I Will Bear Witness’ by Victor Klemperer. Thank you for sharing that, Lawrence, fight for what you value. You have shared such knowledge and insights that I think leaders, as I mentioned, can practically use in their own organizations to help them build bravely. And I think that that’s, what’s really important that we’re not only sharing our thoughts and our insights and talking in cliches, but actually saying here’s what I think. And here’s what I think you can do next. Here’s what I think we can do next. So I want to thank you for sharing that level of insight, that level of practice, just how practical your suggestions and recommendations are. And I want to thank you for joining us today, Lawrence.

Lawrence Mendenhall:

Nicole, thank you for all the work here, and it’s a pleasure and a privilege. Thank you.

-Upbeat Outro Music-

Nic Campbell:

Thank you for listening to this episode of Nonprofit Build Up. To access the show notes, additional resources, and information on how you can work with us, please visit our website at buildupadvisory.com. We invite you to listen again next week as we share another episode about scaling impact by building infrastructure and capacity in the nonprofit sector. Keep building bravely.