ABN Expert Spotlight: Mary Walker

Mary Walker has had a diverse career in multiple industries: food ingredients, automotive, lodging, education, and most recently as the director of development for the Knoxville Museum of Art. She brings a numbers-oriented take to managing organizations and enjoys breaking it down for people who may not be used to looking at financial statements or numerical reports. Walker received her undergraduate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and an MBA from Vanderbilt University. Read our interview with Mary below!

Where did you grow up?

Knoxville…I’m a hometown girl.

What is one thing you see changing about nonprofits that you think is for the better?

I think most smaller nonprofits are becoming more professional. The big guys had the market on advanced degrees and cutting-edge ideas for a while, but I am seeing more and more small nonprofits benefitting from industry knowledge-sharing and best practices. Organizations like ABN here in East Tennessee are helping that happen.

What do you see as the biggest threat to a nonprofit’s success?

In the short run, it’s cash flow. Lack of cash to cover expenses will drive a nonprofit under faster than you can say “can’t make payroll.” In the long run, it’s complacency of leadership—the executive director and the board. Sometimes organizations grow stagnant, develop mission drift, and fail to understand changes in their community, their clients, and their donors. These organizations may continue to do things the way they always have. Good leadership recognizes that the organization is changing, knows where the organization is going, and has a measurable plan to get there.

What are the five most important things a nonprofit should have?

I like to break it down even simpler than that. A nonprofit really needs three things: a mission, a plan, and the resources to execute. Granted, these are three big things. Your mission is your primary focus—your what and why. Your plan is a strategic road map to get there—your how. And your resources are your people, your organization, and the financial means to make it so. The organizational, leadership, marketing, fundraising, and other “business” structures (if you will) of your nonprofit are NOT your mission but are the means by which you achieve your mission.

What do you love about working with ABN?

I just truly appreciate a well-run organization. Jerry and his crew do it right. They are responsive, positive, and helpful.

What is one thing you wish other people knew about nonprofits?

Sometimes, I think the general public sees nonprofit staffers as “lesser” than their for-profit counterparts in the marketplace. Maybe because nonprofit workers are often paid less financially. This is unfortunate, and frankly just wrong. Some of the most intelligent, passionate, and resourceful leaders I have met are in the nonprofit world. In fact, that is one reason I choose to be in it myself. I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I am amazed at the new board members who, without an ounce of marketing or development experience, will suddenly, mid-committee-meeting, decide they have the expertise to shower new (and often ridiculous) development and marketing ideas on the staff. Ugh. Sometimes the for-profit sector needs to remember that the nonprofit sector has been doing more fundraising and marketing with fewer resources for a very long time. Oops, I think I got on my soapbox there for a minute. Stepping back down…

Can you explain why nonprofits require more than a passion for the mission—why they are in their own respect small businesses?

I mentioned above that a nonprofit needs three things to succeed: a mission, a plan, and resources. So, by default, a nonprofit cannot succeed by mission alone. The mission is the great idea, but the other two parts are missing. Merely wanting to provide the homeless with three square meals a day is not enough. You need a plan to do it. And you need the resources (labor, food, and logistical structure) to make it happen. Your nonprofit organization is the “default” structure which helps you organize your human resources (staff, volunteers, board members), your financial resources (fundraising, accounting), your program resources (education, administration), and your other resources (physical plant, outreach, marketing, etc.) in generally acceptable and legal ways to best carry out your mission.

In the for-profit world, businesses are means unto themselves. People start for-profits to fill a need for a product or service and make money doing it. The financial success of the business is a primary benchmark for achievement. Nonprofits are a little different. Their missions are typically NOT financially based; the nonprofit structure is merely the organizational resource that U.S. mission-seekers use to fulfill missions. If you want to feed the homeless, you really don’t NEED a nonprofit to do it. You could just start handing out sandwiches. You could organize as a club, or an S-corporation, or not at all. But then how would you pay employees? And how do donors trust you are using their funds as you predicted? By choosing to organize as a nonprofit, you have legal, tax, legitimacy, and other advantages that make fulfilling your mission easier and more efficient within the context of U.S. systems. So, the nonprofit business structure is a means to an end, not the end itself.

For this reason, I believe nonprofit leaders who understand the professional nuances of running a business organization will generally be the most successful in fulfilling their missions. These leaders can adapt and use well-researched models developed initially for for-profit businesses (marketing, accounting, leadership development, technology, communications, project management, etc.) to help their nonprofits run more smoothly. With the appropriate plans, procedures, and processes in place, nonprofit leaders can better focus on their impact (all day, every day) and ensure the long-term success of their missions in the community.


Mary’s consulting specialties include nonprofit management and financial processes, strategic problem solving, and fund development. To work with Mary, start by contacting ABN Director of Capacity Building Elle Benson at ebenson@betternonprofits.org. Learn more about ABN Consulting at betternonprofits.org/consulting.