Paying attention

By Todd Cohen

Smart Start of Albermarle is working to help child-care directors and centers in Currituck, Camden and Pasquotank counties find ways to work together, learn from one another and meet common needs through shared efforts like a substitute-teacher pool or joint insurance.

“People are being asked, and answering,” says Don Wells, the consultant for The Duke Endowment-funded project, “yet they’re all trying in large part to do it on their own.”

Wells says the aspects of listening, reaching out and collaboration that attracted him to the project also reflect the goals he has strived for as director of the certificate program in nonprofit management at Duke University.

“There are synergies of all sorts that I believe enable tasks to be accomplished more wholesomely or wisely, and with a greater network of endorsement,” he says.

Wells, who plans to retire in June, leaves the continuing education program much larger than the one he inherited 11 years ago.

Annual enrollment has grown to 4,000 people from 200, the curriculum has expanded to 350 courses from 20, locations throughout the state at which classes are taught has increased to 20 from two, and the program has graduated 1,600 nonprofit staff and volunteers.

Aiming to help nonprofits help themselves, the program focuses its curriculum on the nuts-and-bolts of running and building a nonprofit.

With their numbers continually growing, nonprofits face big challenges in strengthening their “capacity,” or internal operations, says Wells, who will work as a consultant to nonprofits and be succeeded at Duke by Laura B. Edgerton, now program coordinator.

“There are sets of skills and best practices that have come out of others’ experience that, when you know them, you run a more efficient and effective shop, and as such, you serve your mission more fully,” he says. “And if you don’t get those skills, and they’re very practical skills at times, you basically are trying to do something well over your head.”

                            Don Wells

Born: Oct. 28, 1939, Bridgeport, Conn.

Job: Director, Duke Certificate Program in Nonprofit Management

Education: B.S., biology, Dartmouth; M.A.T., biology, Wesleyan

Career: U.S. Navy, weapons officer; William Penn Charter School, Philadelphia; Carolina Friends School, Durham; Habitat for Humanity of Durham.

Family: wife, Darlene, former director, Orange County Women’s Center and Orange-Durham Coalition for Battered Women; two grown sons.

Hobbies: Golf, walking, reading, sailing, keeping up with friends and colleagues.

Favorite movie: Waking Ned Devine

Recently completed: Robert Grisham’s novels.

Inspiration: “My dad and mom, and their commitment to ministry.”

The son of a Presbyterian minister who helped him see ministry was about “sharing and living,” Wells says he later became a Quaker while working at Carolina Friends School in Durham because he was inspired by the Society of Friends’ focus on “listening, as opposed to speaking.”

Those lessons deepened in his next job, as founding executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Durham, where he experienced the challenges he says most nonprofits face in “effectively working with, ofttimes, a production team that is primarily volunteer.”

Because executive directors and other staff often begin their jobs with “virtually no training in the fundamental aspects of a nonprofit organization,” he says, maintaining a “delicate balance” among volunteers and paid staff is critical, both to keep volunteers productive and to keep the paid staff from being overworked.

And even if they are able to equip their staff with basic management skills, Wells says, many nonprofits still lack the resources they need, and fail to think much about succession planning and how to “sustain good work.”

So a common challenge for nonprofits is “running a shop with multiple demands and stakeholders when that shop is normally significantly undercapitalized,” he says.

And despite growing pressure from funders to be more entrepreneurial, the challenges most nonprofits face remain basic, Wells says.

“Most of philanthropy and most of nonprofit work is very local, very community-oriented,” he says, “and to some degree very grass-roots.”

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