This is part 2 of an ongoing series of interviews with retiring nonprofit leaders in the St. Louis region. In this edition, we spoke with Marcia Kerz, CEO of the OASIS Institute for the past 16 years. The OASIS Institute is a national organization that promotes healthy aging through lifelong learning, active lifestyles and volunteer engagement.
You have headed up OASIS for 16 years. What have been the biggest day-to-day challenges you have faced?
Marcia Kerz: “One of the greatest challenges has been the small amount of financial support available for aging programs. Even though all the statistics show we are getting older as a society, programs like ours have not yet become a priority with funders. So there’s a lot of work to do in fundraising.”
Why do you think that is?
“We live in a very ageist society. People don’t value aging. They tend to focus on the negative aspects like health issues and fail to see the potential that older adults have. So, we have to reframe the perceptions of aging in society. People have so much to give back. That's our message.
“We recently completed a business planning process, which led to a new agenda for our organization. We’re looking at the classes we offer and ways to increase earned revenue. We’re ramping up marketing efforts and focusing on a slightly older demographic as our core target audience. Our new branding is ‘Lifelong Adventure,’ and we’ll be launching a campaign next year themed ‘It’s Your Time.’”
That’s a lot to take on just as you are leaving the organization.
“Our staff is in good shape, so I’m confident that the transition will be smooth. This is only the second leadership change in the history of OASIS, so we have had a lot of stability. The new business plan gives us not only guidance but true excitement as we make these changes.”
How has your transition process been structured?
“Our national board formed a search committee and used a consultant to help. The process started in September and we hope to name my successor in early 2017. I plan to be available through the early part of 2017 to assist with the transition through the first part of the new year.”
What one or two skills do you think are critical for nonprofit leadership today? What personal characteristics are important to being a nonprofit leader?
“Certainly any nonprofit leader has to have strong leadership skills and a high level of financial acumen. Fundraising skills are also critical. Beyond that, I’d say they need strong marketing and communications skills. In the case of OASIS and probably other organizations, being able to work at the national level to influence policy in the field of aging is important too.”
Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about the broader nonprofit sector in the region. How do you view the state of the nonprofit community here?
“Well, in general I think we’re in pretty good shape. There’s certainly a lot of nonprofits – many more than when I started – so that adds a level of challenge since we tend to compete for a finite number of dollars. It’s also making it harder to find talented and experienced development staff, especially those who are a good fit with your organization. We’re seeing a lot of business people who want to transition into the nonprofit world, but many times they don’t have the passion for the work that we need.
“We’re also seeing funders using more sophisticated processes to evaluate grant requests and the impact their dollars have. They are more rigid in their funding process. That’s probably a good thing, but it makes it harder at the same time.”
What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the nonprofit world?
“Think carefully about what you are committed to, what matters to you. You have to have a passion for this work in order to be successful. You need to understand how the nonprofit world works, how it is different, and the value the organization provides and how you can move that value proposition forward.”
So, what are your plans for the future?
“Live life to the fullest. As we say at OASIS, it’s lifelong adventure, so I’m looking forward to the next part of my journey. I’ll spend time with family and friends, determine my ways to give back, and of course continue to swim a mile three times a week, maybe more. I see this as my opportunity to do all the wonderful things all people should do as they age.”
Thanks Marcia, and good luck.