#TextGen Episode 10 Interview Adam Bratton

James Martin
#TextGen Episode 10  Interview Adam Bratton


In this episode, Adam Bratton with The Nonprofit Partnership joins us to share his story, What he’s learned in his various nonprofit management roles, as well as how his organization made a big pivot in response to the events of 2020.

The Partnership is a membership-based organization that provides an extensive array of program and support services to a community of more than 375 member nonprofits. Since 2006, The Nonprofit Partnership has served the nonprofit community by providing education, training, consulting, and information-sharing tools. The Partnership was founded by and works closely with The Erie Community Foundation.

Listen to learn more about Adam and his work with yournpp.org.

Post in the comments what your biggest takeaways are, and be sure to connect with Darryl in the #TextGen Community.


#TextGen Podcast

James (00:06):
Hello, and welcome back to #TextGen. In this episode, I'm going to introduce you to Adam Bratton. Adam Bratton is the executive director for The Nonprofit Partnership. Adam has an impressive career that expands really a multitude of roles within the non-profit sector. I've gotten to know Adam, I really appreciate his heart towards teaching and service. We love to learn about the non-profit partnership out of Erie, Pennsylvania. We'll spend some time today talking about Adam's experience and what got him to where he's at the day, as well as the services and the opportunities available to you through The Nonprofit Partnership. But really, what's neat is just learning about how the non-profit partnership had to expand its services and really pivot on a dime as a result of 2020 and the COVID pandemic. I think we can all relate to that. It's just neat to hear how they did that successfully. Let's get started today with Adam Bratton with The Nonprofit Partnership.

James (00:55):
Hello there. Welcome back to #TextGen podcast. I'm excited today to introduce you to Adam Bratton with The Nonprofit Partnership in Erie, Pennsylvania. Welcome to this episode in our show today, Adam. Good to have you here.

Adam (01:09):
Thanks, James, I've been looking forward to it. [I'm] happy to be here.

James (01:13):
Adam, this is a very informal time, as I said, kind of setting up the introduction here, just to want to hear your story, obviously learn what The Nonprofit Partnership is. We'll talk a bit about the challenges you were facing there in Erie. I know you represent several nonprofits, so we'll talk about the partnership and just your journey coming up. Why don't we start out with just introducing yourself to our audience? Tell us about the man named Adam Bratton.

Adam (01:37):
Sure. Adam Bratton. The most important things to Adam Bratton are my family. I'm married to a lovely woman named Carissa. I have three terrific children: Isabella, Danny, and Jack. Of course, COVID has thrown us all for a loop over the year - last year and a half or so. It's been a challenge, but everybody's come through great. I live in a small, small town in Western New York, although I do work in Erie, Pennsylvania. I work for a wonderful organization called The Nonprofit Partnership. It's been an incredible experience as a kind of natural evolution to my career in the non-profit sector and my passion for serving my community and what the sector represents in American society. It's really a wonderful position that I've been able to take on. I think I've been led there because of my background and how it kind of blends with what I do now, and couldn't be happier. But again, thrilled to be here on your podcast, James.

James (03:13):
Great. Well, that's outstanding, Adam. So your career, you brought that up, let's walk us through your career. Where did you start out and how did you get to where you are today with The Nonprofit Partnership?

Adam (03:24):
Sure. Well, I started my career over 25 years ago, but even before that it was instilled to me, growing up, the value of public service, the value of serving others. My father was in higher education and in arts and cultural world. My mother was a psychologist with county mental health department. So really, that kind of career was all I knew and something that I wanted to get into in some way in my career and that kind of service to others. That was reinforced when I went away to college at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, a big focus on community service and learning about using your education for a greater impact in our world. Looking at graduate schools at that time, there weren't really many graduate schools that had any focus on non-profit management.

James (04:37):

Adam (04:39):
Thankfully, there are a lot more now. There are graduate schools just focused on fundraising and philanthropy. But back then, there weren't too many. I selected George Mason University to get my masters in public administration, largely because they had a nonprofit concentration and that's what I wanted to focus on. And did that, and spent seven terrific years in Washington serving the non-profit sector, and good government groups, and high-edge groups. [I] went from there back to Allegheny College where I worked for the college in their public affairs office and dealt with a lot of interesting and exciting challenges, and sometimes frustrating challenges, during that time. [I]went on to become an executive director of an organization called the Robert H. Jackson center, which is a center dedicated to the legacy of a man named Robert H. Jackson, who is most well-known as the prosecutor of the Nazis at Nuremberg.

Adam (05:58):
At that point, I should say, early on in my career, I really wanted to kind of get a diversity of experience. I thought I wanted to be an executive director, CEO of an organization at some point. I thought the best pathway to do doing that was kind of experiencing different elements in the non-profit sector. I've been in on the program side, I've been on the operations side, I've been on the marketing communication side. When I was at the Jackson center, I really needed more of a focus on the fundraising side. My next two positions were directors of development type positions with human service agencies, really large room of human service agencies in Erie, Pennsylvania. That's where I really honed my skills in fundraising, even though I have done fundraising throughout my career.

Adam (07:08):
That led me to the partnership. Again, initially, in my career had thought, ''Well, I wanted to gain this diversity of experience to be an executive director.'' That diversity of experience really made it a natural fit for me to run The Nonprofit Partnership. The partnership exists to provide capacity building resources and services to non-profits on a whole host of issues. So really anything non-profits need, anything our members need, we try to provide. So that depth of kind of experience that I had gained had certainly served me well over the last five or so years where I've been the executive director of the partnership. I was trying to gain that diversity of experience for one reason - that I thought I needed it, and it turns out I gained it for another reason, which was to serve this organization.

James (08:23):
I love it. That's amazing, Adam. We'll get to the organization in a minute. I want to learn more about The Nonprofit Partnership. I know you and I have talked about some of the types of services, and organizations, and trainings and things that the resources that you provide. So definitely, I want to dive into that. But you brought up a point that I thought was interesting. You mentioned the diversity, and clearly, in your role now, but even as an executive director, it makes a lot of sense to touch a lot of different types of roles that you're going to be leading and managing in your role. But is there one particular area in your career as you've worn these different hats, if you would, that you felt like, ''Man, this really set me up for my time'', not just in your role now but just as a general executive director. Which of the hats that you wore do you feel like best prepared you for where you are today in your career?

Adam (09:14):
Sure. I think it probably was kind of the deep dive into the fundraising. Most organizations require some level of fundraising. Every organization has done some function on reimbursements, some fees for service, but you really need that background in fundraising. Fundraising really kind of connects in many different ways. It tied into my kind of communication and marketing background. It tied into my operations background and my programs background. The great thing about being a fundraiser - while there's a number of things that I really enjoyed about being a fundraiser, unfortunately, I don't think too many fundraisers even say they enjoy being a fundraiser - but I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. One, you got to get to know really all aspects of the organization.

Adam (10:23):
You really have to know how the organizations function, who they provide services to, how that impacts the lives of the people that they provide services to. Every day was different, every day was a learning experience, and it was just rewarding in the aspect of to know the good work of the organization, and how they manage organizations, and how it impacted the lives of people. On the other side, the donor side, it was rewarding to connect donors with that. Donors are passionate. People are passionate. They want to give their time in to our non-profit organizations. When I was able to kind of [get] that connection between what I had learned within my organization and the passion of our donors, it's such a rewarding experience because everybody gets something from it and everybody's satisfied by the outcome. So that fundraising, it integrated just a lot of what I had experienced in my career and my education and supremely rewarding. Obviously, in my current role, [it's] very useful in advising our non-profits.

James (12:06):
Yeah, that makes sense. Adam, I appreciate what you said. We're in the business really, I believe, in fundraising and philanthropy, right, is to connect people with their inner passion to serve and help others. I think there's - maybe not true a hundred percent of the time - but most of us, I think, as humans, just our humanity, want to help and want to experience being fully human, right? The more we can connect the ''why'' and the mission of the organization back to kind of our innate desires, as humans, is just to be human and to be in community and to belong to something bigger than us and to provide that value. So it sounded like your role in fundraising really was to provide that opportunity to connect people and their ''why'' with your organization's mission, your ''why''. Did I say that right from what I heard you say?

Adam (12:56):
Definitely. I think it's great when it just happens kind of naturally, but it's also rewarding, as a fundraiser, when maybe that donor doesn't necessarily make that connection naturally. Maybe they don't really understand what your organization does. When the light bulb goes off and it clicks for them, that's when it's really, really rewarding as a professional, because you've kind of made that connection. Maybe it wasn't just before, and it's not forcing anything on anybody; it's just opening your eyes to really what the organization do.

James (13:40):
Yeah. That's great. I love it. We talked a lot about donor journeys and moving somebody from stranger to becoming more of an ambassador even, right? Or, at least, a donor supporter, right? It's just creating that awareness. I need to know your ''why'', your ''what'', your ''how'' to some extent, right? As you said, that can sometimes happen a little bit more naturally, so that's outstanding. As you look back on your career, Adam - and we'll talk about the organization you're part of now here in a minute - but as you look back on your career, what are some things that you feel like you wish that somebody would have told you earlier? Did you have a lot of clarity on the onset about the role and importance of connecting people to your ''why''? Is that something you had to kind of bump into? Is there another lesson entirely that you learned? But if you were talking to a younger Adam today and back in time, what would you want to tell Adam based on what you've learned today?

Adam (14:28):
Yeah, a lot at 47, but mostly, on the non-professional side. But, yeah. There's something really to be said by experiencing things. So while there's a lot of advice I'm sure I could give to a younger Adam, I think I would advise him to go down the path he did to gain that diversity of experience because it has been so rewarding.

James (15:10):
I love it. Yeah.

Adam (15:10):
I think, also younger professionals in the career talk about the value of experience in trying to kind of jump in wherever you can and insert yourself wherever you can and and create opportunities wherever you can, even if it's not in your wheelhouse or even if it's not your area of responsibility. I think that's what I would, obviously, advise to the younger Adam, which is, take on whatever you can and and build up that experience, because a lot of what we do in the non-profit sector, in general, is gained through through experience. I just encourage young folks, and certainly a younger Adam, just to dive in deep and make mistakes and learn as you go, do whatever you can to provide value to the organizations you serve, and learn as much as you can along the way.

James (16:30):
Yeah, I absolutely love it. That's outstanding. I've loved that you're got so much diversity. So walk us through the non-profit partnership today. What is the organization? Who do you serve? What are some of the challenges and opportunities you either solve or create?

Adam (16:46):
Sure. Yeah. Well, we are a member-based organization. We serve about 400 non-profits. They range really from the smallest you can imagine to the largest, you can imagine. The diversity in our membership base is significant. Like the non-profit sector nationally, a majority of our non-profits are smaller or medium size, but that's reflected nationally. Most non-profits or majority of nonprofits are smaller in size. It's really a diverse membership base of size, cause area, budget, staff size. Our goal with our members - and this is very simplistic, but it kind of what drives us - is we try to provide them with whatever they need. That doesn't mean we provide a ton of free services, but we try to connect them to the resources that they need to do their jobs in a more effective and impactful way.

Adam (18:10):
In more boring terms, we're kind of a capacity building or a management support organization. The services we provide, the programs that we provide, are primarily focused on improving, helping to improve the staff capability of our non-profits. A lot of professional development services, lot of programming workshops, educational programming, intensive trainings, cohort groups, peer-to-peer learning. We try to provide something for everyone so they can become or better serve their organizations, the resources we provide. We also provide kind of one-on-one services with our members through intensive consultations, that sort of thing. Again, our programs and services are pretty wide ranging, pretty diverse. The goal is, again, just to meet our non-profits where they are, try to find out really what they need help with and try to connect them to the resources, whether we have them, or there's like yourself, provide those connections to them so they can better accomplish their missions.

James (19:51):
Okay. What types of organizations - you mentioned the size, and you're absolutely right. There's, I think, more than not, most non-profits are not extremely large or enterprise level. So they're really, I think, resource-trapped and looking to get a lot done. Is there a particular geographical area you serve or a particular type of non-profit? What's an ideal non-profit, if they're listening today, to reach out to you?

Adam (20:16):
Yeah. We are, somewhat, a younger organization. We were started as a program of our community foundation in Erie back in 2001. In 2006, [we] became a standalone non-profit and have had pretty significant growth since that. Our geographic - and this is a kind of an interesting by-product of COVID - our geographic focus has always been kind of Northwestern Pennsylvania. We do have numbers outside of that, but the majority of our members come from Northwestern Pennsylvania. That was a lot, largely, due to the fact that a lot of our services, a lot of our programs - our trainings workshops, that sort of thing - we're very place-based. So we've got a beautiful facility where we host a lot of our programming or did before the pandemic.

Adam (21:19):
Then the pandemic started to change things. The pandemic forced us, even though planning on it and it was part of our strategic plan, even though we had to do in about one week what we had planned to do in about six months, and that was really go virtual with everything that we provided.

James (21:41):

Adam (21:41):
Thankfully, we had done a lot of the backend on that, so we didn't really miss a beat providing those virtual services. The fact that, during the pandemic, at least, the initial parts of it, I'd say from March till about July of 2020, we just opened up all of our programming to anyone. It was free and open to any non-profit and any for-profits. We have for-profits taking advantage of a lot of our programming and services. What that resulted in was a greater awareness beyond our region of the services we provide. That's resulting in members from around the country wanting to join the partnership. In the past, we would be like, ''Well, a lot of our services really are kind of in-person, one-on-one'', that's not really the case anymore, and that's not going to go back completely to that again, either. So kind of a by-product of the pandemic is expanding the potential of our membership base. We're seeing, and you see, there's a lot of need for those kind of membership capacity building organizations in the sector. They don't exist very often outside of very large cities, so you'll find organizations like ours, either at a statewide level or, again, in really large metropolitan areas, and then increase in our membership beyond kind of our traditional membership.

Adam (23:36):
You talked about kind of the ideal non-profit. There really is none. And that's something that makes life pretty interesting every day in that we deal with every different kind of non-profit you can imagine on a daily basis. It requires us to be very cognizant of what we're doing and what we're providing, ensuring that what we're providing to them, at least in general, be of an advantage to really any non-profit. So some of the stuff we'll provide will be focused on smaller organizations; some will be focused on larger. Some will be about programming or services that really can benefit anyone. But it requires us to kind of think that through before or when we're making those plans. There's really not an ideal non-profit. Again, I really wouldn't have it any other way. It makes the job supremely fun, interesting, different, engaging. Like I said, every day is different just because the groups that we serve are, even though they're in the non-profit sector, are so different.

James (25:12):
Yeah. It's great. Adam, I love that you made the point. I think a lot of non-profits experience this and you're right in the middle of it, so you can confirm or deny it, but it seems a lot of us had to shuffle at the last minute and really pivot away from our traditional and really forced onto us some innovation of our current programs and processes. It sounds like, in your case, even expansion, right? I know a lot of the clients that we work with have said that, ''Look, we've always had our smaller gala and it's worked for us and it's good, but I talked to one yesterday that I think in the past had raised 80,000 to 90,000 at their gala and they just raised 400,000 because they were able to go more virtual and bring in bigger speakers and create a larger footprint than what they would normally do. That comes with some, obviously, logistical concerns and challenges, but really combining last year's event with this year's event make it a much, much bigger and pushing them more virtual, I think, is an expansion. So outstanding job making that pivot and opening your services up. Do you feel if there's been some resistance to non-profits working virtually? I wouldn't think so, but do you feel like you're able to provide the same level of services with somebody that's been in Texas, even though you've traditionally done it in Pennsylvania there?

Adam (26:28):
Yeah, I think so. Non-profits, in general, obviously, it was a difficult transition to do virtual with their workforce and with any sort of engagement largely because technology is part of that overhead dirty word. Non-profits, I think in general, did not invest in the technology they needed to make the pivot that that needed to happen. That investment had to happen at the same time. They were trying to just maintain during the early part of the pandemic. As far as the services that we're able to provide, I think it was more on us kind of changing the way in which we provide our services to really anybody taking advantage of it. Some folks, me included, really like the in-person, one-on-one engagement with people, but that doesn't mean that you can't do something very well in a virtual environment. It's going to be kind of a continuing evolution. Well, at some point, we haven't resumed any in-person programming or activities. At some point we will, but a lot of that will be a hybrid. It'll be both in-person and virtual. We'll need to figure that out. Again, getting back with the earlier point, we'll probably have to figure that out as we go, as we test things, and as we figure out the kinks and see what works with people and what they need. But for the most part, I think what the pandemic taught us is, really if we just approach our work differently, we can provide our services really to anybody who needs them.

James (28:44):
Yeah. No, absolutely. One hundred percent I love and support that. I know that when we used to be downtown with our offices, we had high speed internet and kind of had a conference room and a studio room or kind of recording room and didn't really have much challenges. Then, of course, now we're working remote and the kids fire up their zoom sessions in the afternoon and the internet goes down in here. I think the key is to remain flexible enough that you don't snap, right? Just to maintain an attitude of gratitude and positivity to say, "Hey, what can we learn? How can we expand ? What do these sessions look like if we let go of some of our older ways and pick up some more diversity and opportunities?'' So outstanding. Well, hey, Adam, I'll wrap up here in a minute, but I saw on your website an upcoming virtual conference. Tell us about that conference and how people can get involved with exploring the services and the the training opportunities with your organization.

Adam (29:41):
Sure. The best way to learn about anything we do is by going to our website. That is at yournpp - so Y-O-U-R-N-P-P dot O-R-G. At that website, folks can take a look at really everything that we do. We, again, are a member-based organization, but a lot of what we provide on our website, resources on our website, are free and open to anybody that desires. Any non-profit can participate in our programming. There's a cost for it, as opposed to a lot of it being free for our members. Again, any non-profit can be a member. We don't have any restrictions other than that they are non-profit organizations. A lot of that can be looked at and discovered on on our website.

Adam (30:41):
Our annual conference is at the end of October, have had this conference. This will be our 20th year. Last year, we've changed the conference. It was a more intensive what we call a summit , more locally based in our region, on recovery from the pandemic and addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in the sector. That wasn't technically our conference. So our conference, the Keystone Nonprofit Conference, is happening at the end of October. It'll be both virtual or a hybrid virtual and in-person conference, we believe. We're hoping it'll be in person if things don't get worse or better. So we're planning on a hybrid conference. It's a terrific conference, really inexpensive comparatively to national conferences.

James (31:56):

Adam (31:57):
Last time we had it in-person 2019, we had about 500 people in attendance. Those non-profit professionals came from really anywhere. We had people from around the country. Again, majority of folks came regionally - Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York - but folks came in from around the country. As you mentioned, as far as the opportunities that the pandemic has afforded, with our programming, we had relied a lot on local or regional experts or consultants to provide a lot of resources. The pandemic opened it up, especially our virtual provisions to national experts and speakers. So our speaker base has grown significantly, and we expect that to continue for our annual conference. If anybody wants to check that out, there are links on our website for that conference.

Adam (33:06):
They can registration isn't open yet, but they can they can send us their contact information if they're interested in getting more information; we'll keep them in the loop. A lot of great resources on that website. [The] best way to get ahold of us is by going through that website. [I'm] happy to hear from anybody who wants to be a member or not. If they're just in need of something - I could potentially get myself into trouble if I keep doing this - but talk probably to two or three people just needed this week that weren't members. We're just really happy to provide any resources we can, but we do what we do, have a focus on our member organizations.

James (33:58):
Yeah. Well, and I appreciate your heart on that, Adam. I know I've talked to you a couple of times. You've always been a very open and helpful resource, and I appreciate that about you. Your website's super impressive, yournpp.org. I will put a link in the notes of this podcast so people can just click on it and see that firsthand. But I know RallyCorp is participating in their conference so we'd like to in October 25th and 26th. So looking forward to learning more about that and following the journey there. Well, Adam, I think that wraps up our time today. Any closing thoughts or anything else as we wrap up our time here?

Adam (34:33):
Well, no. I appreciate the opportunity to chat today. It's been a really rewarding career in the non-profit sector and very proud of the work that goes on in the non-profit sector. There's a quote from Hank Rosso who's kind of a pioneer in the fundraising realm. He was talking about, specifically with fundraising, that we should substitute pride for apology and fundraising.

James (35:08):

Adam (35:08):
I think we should do the same, in general, in the non-profit sector. The sector is special in our American society, somewhat unique in our American society, and everybody who works in the non-profit sector should be proud of that work.

James (35:26):
Absolutely. Yeah, no, absolutely. And we're very, very thrilled and love serving as well. As you said, serving those who serve is what our world needs right now, to come together and work together for common good and unique causes. So, absolutely.

Adam (35:41):

James (35:41):
Well, Adam, thank you again for your time today. As I said earlier, I'll post a link to the website in the notes here so people can get access to it. We look forward to working with you and following your journey on October in the conference even. So thanks, again, for your time today, Adam. Thank you.

Adam (36:01):
Great. Thanks, James.

James (36:03):
Have a great day.

James (36:04):
So that's a wrap with our friend, Adam, with your Nonprofit Partnership. Some of my notes here today, just the power of experience. If you have teenagers, you know this is true. You can tell somebody anything, but they just, sometimes, have to experience it themselves, and that's okay. That's how the world works. Our job is just to be a guided and to, of course, help them. ''Remember, we told you so'', or something like that. But anyway, expanding on really the friction and the results of change just made an impression on me, Adam, when he talked about just the power of pivoting and really look into expand beyond what's what's normal and just find a new way in spite of the friction, and just really the beautiful end that came out as a result of that.

James (36:45):
Then, of course, his closing remarks on being proud to serve. That is a phenomenal statement, I think, we can all take to heart. Really, what you do is special, it's unique, it's a privilege, it's an opportunity to connect people to really the passion to serve and to care for others, and that's an innate human need in all of us. To that, I am grateful. Thank you, Adam. So learn more about Adam at yournpp.org. That's Y-O-U-R-N-P-P dot org. There's a conference coming up in October; we hope to see you there. Thanks, again, for tuning into this episode of #TextGen, and have a fantastic day.


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