#NCLGBA20 Recap Series: Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

For the past few weeks, we have been featuring reflections on the 2020 Virtual Summer Conference. Our final #NCLGBA20 Conference Recap comes from Janet Schafer, Budget Manager, Gaston County.

As I listened to Vice President Brian Pahle kick off the 2020 Summer Virtual Conference with a reminder to step out of our comfort zones, I began to reflect on the ways local government budget professionals have been forced out of our comfort zones since the last conference.

Michael Walden started the Economic Update with a discussion on the uncharted territories of this “mandated recession” with a potential recovery occurring in 2023. This session brought back memories from just a few months prior when budget departments across the state began updating revenue projections without recent or historic data for guidance. Instead, we looked to our peers for guidance, many of whom we have built connections with at these conferences.

Next, I attended Norma Houston’s Purchasing with COVID-19 Funds session. This session helped me obtain a better grasp on how my own agency can grapple with the friction caused by varying levels of government fiscal policy in combination with the urgency of trying to protect a community during a global pandemic.

The Questica session reiterated the importance of high-performing technology and software at a time when offices and in-person meetings are dangerous, and teleworking is the new normal. Our standard budget procedures were completely disrupted at the most critical point in the budget process. I am still unsure how we all survived this disruption but Questica was able to turn “surviving” into “thriving” for several of our local government budgeting peers.

Lastly, the NCLM’s Legislative Update reminded us all just how unfortunate the timing of this global pandemic was for budget professionals. The NCLM was, and continues to be, an important source of guidance for North Carolina government agencies at all levels. At a time when public health and the economy are at odds, the NCLM keeps us up-to-date on legislation and policy surrounding both of these topics in an ever-changing environment.

My takeaway from this virtual conference is that we, as local government budget professionals, are extremely fortunate to have an extensive list of resources to guide us (or commiserate with us) during a time of discomfort. Our universities and their experts, our partnering agencies, and our peers provide us with a solid foundation that allowed us to navigate these discomforts a bit more comfortably.  So whether it’s a mandated recession, ever-changing fiscal policy, a disrupted budget process, or even the “Pahlenator” hashtag, we can handle any scary thing that comes our way!

#NCLGBA20 Recap Series: Engaging and Learning Through “Tele-everything”

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring reflections on the 2020 Virtual Summer Conference. If you would like to share your experience, please email admin@nclgba.org.

Our second #NCLGBA20 Conference Recap comes from Heather Curry, Budget and Evaluation Analyst, City of Winston-Salem.

Despite looking very different this year, the morning of the NCLGBA conference still held that same electric energy and excitement that I have come to associate with these events. While only one day and held entirely online, I knew I was still in for a day of learning and I was excited to see colleagues from around the state on the computer screen and Twitter timeline.

The day started with the Economic Update, presented by Dr. Michael Walden from NC State. He described the current recession as a “mandated recession,” meaning that it was caused by our need to distance due the pandemic, and not by an excess and subsequent correction in some area of the economy. Theoretically, this should make recovery easier – just undo the mandate and things will rebound – however, the unknowns of the virus (how exactly does it spread, what activities are safest, when will a vaccine be available, will it be effective, etc.) complicate the recovery. The projections he shared showed it taking until 2023 for North Carolina’s GDP to reach pre-COVID levels. In the meantime, our economy is likely to undergo a shift to “tele-everything” – telemedicine, telework, teleschooling – which could result in people reexamining choices about where to live – if you’re engaged in tele-everything, do you need to live in the big city, or can you still access those resources while living in a rural area?

Next up were the concurrent sessions. I attended Dr. Kara Millonzi’s session on budget ordinances. Having attended Dr. Millonzi’s Introduction to Local Government Finance course at the School of Government, I was expecting a nice refresher, but not necessarily any specific new knowledge from this session. However, my expectations were exceeded when we got into the final section on interim budgets. Essentially, if a local government cannot pass a full budget and tax levy by the July 1 deadline, the Fiscal Control Act does allow for limited interim budgets. The tax rate still needs to be set by August 1, however, so no ongoing continuing resolutions for this level of government! For local governments facing extreme uncertainty in their budgets that could prevent them from having a complete budget for a longer period of time, Dr. Millonzi suggested using a hybrid interim/full budget model, described in the image below.

After concurrent sessions and lunch, the conference picked up with the business meeting. Along with the usual items – celebrating new CBEOs and promotions, thanking outgoing board members, and welcoming new faces – our VPs also shared a statement from the Board expressing the organization’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and highlighting past and ongoing efforts in these areas. The full statement is in the image below.

The afternoon rounded out with two more general sessions. First, The Quest for a Balanced Budget highlighted the ways budget development – especially in a pandemic – is supported by technology. As the panel cities worked to adjust to developing their budgets remotely, ever-changing revenue projections, and other pandemic challenges, they relied on technology to engage residents, run scenarios, and validate data. Even with all our technology however, most offices are still building budget documents essentially by hand. Additionally, documents remain a moment-in-time snapshot, rather than living documents. These areas could be the next great innovations in budgeting.


Like many discussions recently, the final session – Legislative Updates – had a somewhat different tone than prior conferences as much of the update focused on revenue changes and resulting COVID relief legislation and ongoing advocacy. Other legislative highlights from the short session include updates for NC DOT funding, support for struggling water and wastewater systems, regulations for robotic package delivery, and funding for workforce housing.

While the conference format may have changed, it was still a time to learn, engage the brightest minds in budget, and – in this moment of tele-everything – as close as we can get to seeing our colleagues from across the state. And that makes the first-ever virtual NCLGBA conference a success in my book.

#NCLGBA20 Recap Series: Adapting to the New Normal

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring reflections on the 2020 Virtual Summer Conference. If you would like to share your experience, please email admin@nclgba.org.

Our first #NCLGBA20 Conference Recap comes from Janice Hillanbrand, Budget and Management Analyst, Forsyth County.

Going into the 2020 Summer Conference, while I was hopeful and optimistic, I truly did not know what to expect from the organization’s first virtual conference. I had many questions – will the sessions be as impactful and instructional on a virtual platform? How will the Q&A sessions work on a virtual platform with so many people tuning in? Will the sessions be held on Zoom calls with all of the attendees awkwardly staring at each other on the screen?

The Summer 2020 Conference exceeded all of my expectations. I was deeply impressed with the virtual platform that was created for the conference, as well as the format of the general and concurrent sessions. I know planning a virtual conference in the short time that was available was no easy feat and I have endless respect for Paarth, Brian, and the rest of the NCLGBA Board for being able to do so seamlessly.

As to be expected, the underlying topic in each session was COVID-19 and the various responses we all took. During our legislative update, Chris Nida made a poignant statement when he said that the COVID-19 crisis kicked off at the worst possible time for all of us: in March when most Budget Offices are in the thick of Budget preparation. It left very little time for Budget Offices to get accurate projections of sales tax impacts- a vital revenue source for all local governments in the state. The uncertainty still continues, as Michael Walden pointed out in our first session: Economic Update. There will be continued effects of teleworking and prolonged closure that we are yet to see.

The session that left the most impact on me was the ‘What’s Your New Normal?’ concurrent session. All of the presenters talked about the importance of having adaptable, effective and compassionate leadership during times of crisis. All of the presenters spoke about the importance of listening to and being responsive of different voices, being compassionate towards those in your organization and your community, and trusting those around you to do their job and do it well. The message of this session (and the fantastic speakers) left me motivated and encouraged, despite the continued uncertainty that we all continue to face.

The overall theme of this year’s conference has proven to be the importance of being adaptable and responsive as budget offices and professionals. We work in a profession of the unknown and uncertain, and this year has clearly reminded us of just that. Despite this, it is important to keep effective leadership and work practices and to do them with compassion for the communities you serve. It will be interesting to see how this pandemic continues to effect the state as we continue through this fiscal year, as well as how it will play into planning for the Winter Conference. The NCLGBA leadership team and moderators did a spectacular job planning such a moving conference. I already cannot wait to see what is in store for this year’s upcoming Winter Conference!

#NCLGBA19 Recap Series: Checking the Boxes for a Successful Conference

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring reflections on the 2019 Winter Conference. If you would like to share your experience, please email admin@nclgba.org.

Our third #NCLGBA19 Conference Recap comes from Rusty Mau, Winter 2019 Conference Scholarship Recipient and Budget Analyst, Buncombe County

Consider the last conference you attended (other than the NCLGBA winter conference).  After the conference, you probably received a survey that asked, “Would you recommend this conference to a colleague?”  The answer is not always “strongly agree”.  When I think about the NCLGBA winter conference, I “strongly agree” that every budget professional in North Carolina should attend!

The conference started on a high note, with NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver sharing why planning is critical in the 21st Century.  He discussed the “clash of values” between the 20th and 21st centuries and encouraged us to consider the importance of density in our communities.  The family unit of yesterday is not the family unit of tomorrow, Silver shared, as an estimated 25 million single family homes will be on the market by 2030 with no buyer.  How will a public trend towards density align with the powerful forces of NIMBYism?  What are the tax implications of density?  These questions came to my mind as Silver helped us peek into the future.

Throughout the conference, I came back to the question of “why?”  In The Value Beyond Strategy and Data, Mary Vigue with the City of Raleigh said Raleigh’s goal with innovation and performance management is to empower people to ask why.  In Jeff Richardson’s session on High Performance Leadership, we learned you must understand why managers, boards, and colleagues are motivated and successful in order to be successful yourself.  In the screening of All the Queen’s Horses, we saw what can happen when we don’t ask “why” when something doesn’t add up.  For local government to continue to improve, all employees must be empowered to both ask why and understand why.  This mutual understanding of why transcends innovation, routine operations, and even ethical behavior.

Before I “strongly agree” to recommend a conference, I must be able to check two boxes: solid content and ample time for valuable networking (plus, of course, good food).  While I thoroughly enjoyed the content, the networking opportunities were the highlight of our time.  In Buncombe County, for example, we are drafting a new grants policy.  I was able to ask several jurisdictions about their practices and provide a firm foundation for our first draft.  The conference also included opportunities for speed coaching, budget-focused networking, and informal conversation.  I am no “master networker”, but I truly appreciated the opportunity to learn from other attendees.  The diversity of expertise among attendees made the conference impactful.

When I reflect on the NCLGBA winter conference, I think about my motivation to attend.  First, I wanted to learn more about budgeting in North Carolina.  Second, I wanted to gain valuable insights that I could use in my work.  Third, I wanted to build connections that will help us build an even better budget.  All of these have been accomplished and more.

So, when I ask “why” I attended the conference, I realize my conference experience was a success.  I strongly encourage other budget professionals to reflect on why you attended and consider attending a future NCLGBA conference.  As I mentioned above, I “strongly agree” all of my colleagues attend!

#NCLGBA19 Recap Series: Innovation and Change

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring reflections on the 2019 Winter Conference. If you would like to share your experience, please email admin@nclgba.org.

Our second #NCLGBA19 Conference Recap comes from Mimi Clemens, Winter 2019 Conference Scholarship Recipient and MPA Candidate, UNC Chapel Hill

This December, I was able to attend the 2019 NCLGBA Winter Conference in Asheville, North Carolina with a scholarship from NCLGBA. Overall, the conference was a wonderful experience! Each day of the conference there was a general session in the morning followed by concurrent sessions with usually three sessions to choose from. At the end of Wednesday and Thursday, there were networking opportunities with roundtables and a happy hour. The conference concluded with the Economic Update and a raffle. I had a wonderful time meeting local government employees in different stages in their careers, including Budget, Finance, Performance, and Budget and Management Analysts, Senior Analysts, and Directors as well as City, Town, and County Managers. It was great meeting Analysts at the beginning of their careers in local government. This was greatly beneficial to me as a soon-to-be graduate of UNC Chapel Hill’s MPA program this May. It was enlightening hearing from them their experiences and advice after graduating from MPA programs within the state and what ways MPA programs translate well with the local government profession and lessons learned.

Three of my favorite sessions of the Winter Conference were: The Value of Planning in the 21st Century: What’s Next? presented by Mitchell Silver, High Performance Leadership: Connecting to Your Manager, Supervisor, and Your Board presented by Jeff Richardson, and Public Engagement Tools to Reach a 21st Century Audience presented by Ming-Chun Lee and Scott Correll. I was drawn to all three of these sessions due to their innovative nature. In Mitchell Silver’s presentation, the changing demographics of America will create new norms, expectations, and needs from communities for local governments to address. Jeff Richardson’s presentation encouraged self-awareness as public leaders to be able to understand elected officials, residents, and staff’s viewpoints when addressing issues in the community. The test we took during Richardson’s session was eye-opening by showing how the viewpoint and expectations of the community, staff, and elected officials can shape organizational culture and performance of the organization when addressing issues in the community. Lastly, Ming-Chun Lee and Scott Correll’s presentation on public engagement in the 21st century was fascinating. Correll discussed how the City of Charlotte’s Urban Design Center created a board game as a new way to engage with the public. This started a conversation in the community on what city residents would like to see Charlotte become in the next 20 years. With the many different paths Charlotte residents could choose in the game, the city was able to gain insight into what priorities the community values and how the community would like the city to manage growth. And Lee used new geospatial technologies to create an app that would augment reality for users on their smart phone. This app allowed for residents to see what neighborhoods in Charlotte looked like in the past as well as changing demographic trends.

I am grateful to be given this opportunity to attend the 2019 NCLGBA Winter Conference. With the new year, 2020 will bring new challenges and solutions for local governments. It is my hope that I can take what I learned from these sessions and apply it towards future challenges that may arise.

#NCLGBA19 Recap Series: Building Connections to Increase Meaning

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring reflections on the 2019 Winter Conference. If you would like to share your experience, please email admin@nclgba.org.

Our first #NCLGBA19 Conference Recap comes from Ellenore Holbrook, Budget Analyst, City of Asheville

The 2019 Winter Conference addressed a wide variety of topics throughout its sessions, but I found one dominant theme between them all: connecting with one another.

I am not talking about connecting in the formal, shake hands and talk about the weather sense of networking. Rather, talking about the differences in our experiences, acknowledging them, and learning from one another.

I first noticed this theme during the opening session with Mitchell Silver who discussed how to plan for the 21st century. He spoke about changing demographics at the local, state, and national levels and how they would impact the challenges our communities face over time. What struck me was when he spoke openly about the different generations, their attributes, and how we are able to learn from one another to better support our organizations. As the demographics of NCLGBA change, we continue to learn new ideas from one another and push ourselves to be better.

The theme of connection continued throughout a number of sessions, including the panel on the Recession. As someone who was in high school during the Great Recession, I do not have a clear idea of how it impacted our organizations. By being able to hear from those who experienced it firsthand, we are able to gain an understanding of how we can better address the next recession.

Finally, my favorite session (and I promise it was not because I helped plan it!) was Speed Coaching. Entirely centered on connecting with those in your field, it provided a space for those beginning their budget career to ask questions and listen to those who have a wide breadth of experience. With the time constraint, it pushed participants to ask valuable questions quickly, rather than attempting to make small talk. The best part was after the session officially ended, most individuals remained in the room to continue their conversations and meet others.

Building connections with one another is important but also difficult. It can be hard to get over the awkwardness of meeting new people, asking potentially difficult questions, and making yourself vulnerable in recognizing what you do not know. This conference provided opportunities for everyone to open up, learn about something new, and connect with others in a valuable and mutually beneficial way.

#NCLGBA19 Recap Series: Leadership on Display

Over the last few weeks, we have been featuring reflections on the 2019 Summer Conference.

Our final #NCLGBA19 Conference Recap comes from Ross Hatton, 2019 Summer Conference Scholarship Recipient, UNC-Chapel Hill Master of Public Administration Candidate, and Budget and Management Services Intern, Wake County.

When I first applied for the NCLGBA conference scholarship, I had no expectation that I would be lucky enough to receive it. I am deeply thankful to the NCLGBA for giving me the opportunity to learn from its passionate, creative, and talented members who are constantly striving to serve and improve each of their communities.

As I sat down to write this recap, I ran into the problem of having too many sessions to choose from. Whether it was Brandon Juhaish’s Budget Monitoring Report – The Future is the Past, Rebecca Jackson’s Creating a High Performance Culture – Engaged Employees Transforming Communities, or one of the many other engaging panels and sessions, I was impressed by the knowledge and ingenuity of the conference’s many presenters and attendees. However, I found myself particularly struck by Professor Rick Morse’s Lead from Where You Are by Encouraging the Heart, given the many ways in which I saw leadership during the conference.

His session, nestled in the middle of the conference, was an earnest discussion of what it means to be a leader and a necessary reminder that leadership is “everybody’s business”. I have heard many times how management and leadership are fundamentally different concepts, but I have also often felt that these differences can be difficult to communicate and conceptualize. Professor Morse helped remedy this by offering the following five key behaviors of leaders:

  • Model the way
  • Inspire the vision
  • Challenge the process
  • Enable others to act
  • Encourage the heart

As someone in the early stages of his public service career, I am grateful for this reminder that leadership is an opportunity for all of us, regardless of position or experience. I have been lucky to witness empowering and innovative leadership in both my public service experience and at the conference, which has raised the bar for how I aspire to serve my community. It became clear to me, through the Past President Panel: The Bat-Signal has been answered! in particular, that the NCLGBA cares deeply about creating what Professor Morse called a “spirit of community” by celebrating successes, sharing stories, and forging connections.

As Professor Morse concluded his session, he left each of us with a blank letter and encouraged us to take the time to thank someone. We work in a time of unparalleled access to information and data, which often requires us to move quickly in order to be responsive to changing needs or priorities. In light of this, it can be easy to forget to slow down and recognize the people around us for their support, mentorship, and leadership. I appreciated this discussion of leadership and the importance of not forgetting to recognize the people who support us.

I was absolutely thrilled by my first time at the NCLGBA conference. From hearing how other people think about common problems to seeing the novel policies and practices being put into place in other jurisdictions, I was blown away by the activities and leadership of the NCLGBA membership. I look forward to continuing to learn from this community, and I hope to be a part of fostering its growth in the future.

#NCLGBA19 Recap Series: Community Engagement in Budgeting

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring reflections on the 2019 Summer Conference. If you would like to share your experience, please email admin@nclgba.org.

Our fifth #NCLGBA19 Conference Recap comes from Lauren Brune, Budget Analyst, City of Asheville.

The 2019 NCLGBA Summer Conference was the first one I attended since Winter 2017 and did not disappoint – it was one of the best budget conferences in my experience. I thoroughly enjoyed connecting with budget peers new and familiar from across North Carolina, and the mix of conference sessions was informative and engaging.

A common thread I noticed throughout several sessions was one that did not used to tie directly to budgeting: community engagement. This illustrates the notion of the evolving budget profession. The days of spending all day at a desk crunching numbers are gone; instead, we need to get out into our communities to forge partnerships and ensure our services are meeting stakeholders’ needs. Budgeteers must work closely with community engagement staff and management to ensure that the organization’s strategic plan aligns with community priorities, and then allocate financial resources accordingly.

One of the biggest takeaways from Brock Long’s session, “Emergency 2.0,” was how to leverage federal emergency funding through local partnerships. Brock compared emergency management to a chair with four legs: the citizenry, local and state governments, the private sector, and federal government. If any of these legs is weak, it destabilizes the chair and prevents an effective emergency response. The “emergency 2.0” approach is to create partnerships in your community to keep the chair stable. Brock mentioned several examples of how to create such partnerships before a disaster strikes, so that the machine can be put into operation immediately when necessary. He advised local governments to partner with reinsurance agencies to leverage their fund balance, which can provide more flexibility in the permissible uses of funds than federal reimbursements alone. Brock also suggested writing MOUs with local stores to provide food and supplies immediately in case of emergency. By engaging effectively with their communities, local governments can establish a robust emergency management strategy that incorporates effective preparation and response.

The community engagement theme popped up again in the “Budget Monitoring and Reporting” session from Mecklenburg County. Brandon Juhaish explained that Mecklenburg budget staff shares quarterly reports with departments and asks departmental staff for feedback to keep employees engaged in the process. The communication loop then comes full circle when budget staff incorporates departments’ feedback into future reports. This seemingly simple action works to break down silos in the organization and moves the type of engagement from information to collaboration.

The community engagement thread also wove its way into the Past Presidents’ Panel, which illustrated how the budgeting profession has evolved. When Maia Setzer offered words of wisdom to burgeoning budget professionals, she encouraged talking to customers, which I interpreted to mean internally as well as externally. Beyond communicating with citizens, community engagement could take the form of benchmarking and learning from other organizations. It was a good reminder that local governments everywhere borrow ideas from one another and that there is no shame in replicating a successful initiative in your community.

The second conference day began with an inspiring session about Fayetteville. Rebecca Jackson explained that to be high-performing, an organization must collaborate and break down silos by engaging with employees and citizens alike. Listening to customers is a behavior that all high-performing organizations have in common. By knowing what your community values, you can create a strategic plan that serves as your blueprint for successful budgeting. To close the communication loop with the public after the strategic plan is implemented, Fayetteville uses tools like the TracStat scorecard, which aligns performance measures in the organization to Council goals. The scorecard is shown in an open database so that Council and citizens can dive into performance stats and see how the budget aligns with their priorities.

The idea of community priorities informing the strategic planning process continued in the next session, “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” Scott Tesh explained that in Winston-Salem, results from the citizen survey are provided to departments about their specific services, and that residents also rank departments’ services by importance. Parks & Recreation services ranked higher than anticipated in the survey, which led staff to reallocate some bond funding to Parks projects. If Council is resistant to strategic planning, it could be helpful to highlight concerns from the community rather than staff — these may be more impactful since they affect electability.

When members of the community participate in the governing process, it is important to lead them by encouraging the heart, as Rick Morse explained. Citizens will be more enthusiastic about participation when their contributions are recognized, they feel appreciated, and values and victories are celebrated. Strong recognition cultures encourage good relationships between management, staff, and the community. This idea emerged most clearly in my favorite session of the conference, “PB Durham: Humanizing the Budget Process.” Community engagement was the key to Durham’s success with participatory budgeting. The “PB Jam” (brainstorming) sessions at recreation centers and festivals, as well as canvassing, met the community where they were and encouraged maximum community participation in PB. Any Durham resident age 13+ could vote on projects, and PB was integrated into the schools’ social studies curriculum. With the online idea collection platform, Andrew Holland and Robin Baker brought technology to the people and used it with or for them if needed.

After the two-month idea collection phase, internal departments used community engagement in the proposal development process. These intensive workshops trained citizens on how to turn their ideas into actionable projects. Although the PB staff provided information and direction, they depended on citizens to push the project ideas forward. Citizens were also encouraged to spread the word about their own project ideas to increase votes. I believe this feature of Durham’s PB process was the most innovative and important to its success. By taking ownership of the projects and the voting, citizens were probably much more engaged in PB than they would be if staff had simply led the process. This recalls the idea of closing the communication loop and moving the community engagement process from informing to collaborating.

Seeing the community engagement theme throughout so many of the conference sessions reinforced the changing nature of the budgeting profession for me. I am excited to see how community engagement will play a role in future budget processes in our local governments, and I can’t wait to play host when the NCLGBA Winter Conference comes to Asheville!

#NCLGBA19 Recap Series: A Culture of High Performance

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring reflections on the 2019 Summer Conference. If you would like to share your experience, please email admin@nclgba.org.

Our fourth #NCLGBA19 Conference Recap comes from Jenn Wolf, Strategy and Budget Analyst, City of Charlotte.

While the 2019 Summer Conference explored a range of topics for local government professionals, I saw one theme emerge as a common thread from a wide variety of sessions.

Former FEMA Administrator, Brock Long, opened the conference with a presentation on emergency management that underscored the importance of insuring and hardening our assets and building resilience in our communities. If communities are implementing these lessons, then they can create high performing levels of resiliency.

Dr. Olga Smirnova and Jennifer Wolf from the City of Charlotte discussed green initiatives and making strategic investments in an increasingly unpredictable climate. If organizations are following this path, then they can create high performing levels of sustainability.

Lastly, a general session led by Rebecca Jackson and John Werner gave an in depth look at creating a culture of high performance. If individuals are putting this into action, then they can create a high performing attitude within themselves.

We also had the privilege of hearing from a full panel of past NCLGBA presidents, whose words of wisdom are an inspiration to those who may one day answer the call and serve on the board, with all the responsibility that entails.

The theme of what it takes to become a high performing community, organization, and individual is a stand-out that sets this conference apart from the rest, whether through resilience, sustainability, culture, or leadership: continue to do your best to perform at your highest.

#NCLGBA19 Recap Series: Bridging the Gap

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring reflections on the 2019 Summer Conference. If you would like to share your experience, please email admin@nclgba.org.

Our third #NCLGBA19 Conference Recap comes from Lauren Stepp, 2019 Summer Conference Scholarship Recipient, Western Carolina University Master of Public Affairs Candidate, and Communications and Development Coordinator, Evergreen Community Charter School.

Seeking First to Understand: Bridging the Gap Between Government and Nonprofit Personnel

I didn’t sleep much the night before my five-hour trek from North Carolina’s mountains to its coast. I developed a passion for budgeting early in my graduate program at Western Carolina University, seeing it as a mechanism for encouraging civic engagement and racial equity. But not three weeks prior to the NCLGBA Summer Conference in Wilmington, I was offered an opportunity to serve Evergreen Community Charter School as their Communications and Development Coordinator. I took the job. And I love it. Regardless, my chief concern in attending the conference was that fellow attendees wouldn’t understand my perspective. After all, the situation sounds like a hackneyed joke: nearly 150 government budgeting professionals and a singular nonprofit fundraiser walk into a riverfront hotel…

I was wrong. The conference afforded thoughtful, productive conversation. Fellow conferencegoers were intrigued by my attendance and genuinely interested in my path to Evergreen. Better yet, it afforded a chance to discuss the financial implications of charter schools as well as opportunities for public-nonprofit collaboration. Whether obvious or not, collaborative governance underscored many of the conference sessions. Rebecca Jackson’s Creating a High Performance Culture – Engaged Employees Transforming Communities alluded to enacting collaborative agreements with community organizations in pursuit of innovation. Jackson’s four qualities of high-performing organizations can also be applied to nonprofits. Arguably, nonprofits should also be mission driven, use data to drive decisions, listen to customers, and engage employees. As Director of Fayetteville’s Office of Strategic Performance Analytics, Jackson advised practitioners to avoid a hero-based approach to strategic planning, to start small, and (my personal favorite) to ensure your staff can bell the cat. More plainly, are your strategies feasible? Conversations about strategic planning are important, especially considering just 52 percent of the audience agreed their organization was high-performing and 10 percent strongly disagreed. To attain innovation and bring more legitimacy to the causes we care about, government and nonprofit professionals must band together. We are stronger together and, as Rick Morse argued in Lead From Where You Are by Encouraging the Heart, we are stronger when we challenge the status quo.

Christopher Williams and Brandon Juhaish’s session, Funding Non-Profits: Mecklenburg County’s Process for Selecting and Managing its Community Service Grant’s Program, echoed these sentiments. Mecklenburg County modified their CSG Program in light of 12 recommendations from MPA students at UNC Charlotte. Chiefly, the sunset provision opens funding opportunities to new programs while providing others the opportunity to become established vendors. In fact, more than 70 percent of 2020 grantees are new. Though Williams and Juhaish discussed challenges of providing community funding, particularly those associated with processing applications, the benefits are overwhelming. In providing funding, Mecklenburg County supports critical needs in areas that might not otherwise receive financial assistance. In collaborating, the County better provides for its citizens and, arguably, creates a more equitable home.

Regardless, research continues to suggest a schism between government and nonprofit personnel. I won’t illustrate the alleged disagreements here, but perhaps it goes without saying­—we all deserve to be recognized, appreciated, and understood more regardless of sector. One tenet at Evergreen is to seek first to understand, then to be understood. I would like to think my attendance­—a nonprofit fundraiser amid a sea of budgeting professionals—was a step in that direction.