We talked with Randy Wyckoff about what he’s learned by helping the region’s nonprofits stay afloat or, in some cases, to call it quits. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Former banking executive Randy Wyckoff jokes that he has attention-deficit disorder: Throughout his career, his resume has become stacked with jobs or work assignments lasting only three to five years. In the last decade-plus, he’s worked as a serial CEO in the Richmond nonprofit community. When a local charity hits rough waters and needs someone to steer the ship temporarily, Wyckoff’s phone is likely to ring. He’s earned the reputation as being a “turnaround artist.” He sees himself as a facilitator who guides a not-for-profit organization through a transition, sometimes after a chief executive is fired by a board, or a leader has chosen to leave of his or her own accord. His list of interim CEO positions — eight or nine of them, he says — includes stints at the Children’s Museum of Richmond, School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC), Comfort Zone Camp and the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.
“Randy was an inspiration to me because when someone who has been an executive in the corporate world moves over to the nonprofit sector, they have assumptions. And many of them are wrong,” says Karen Coltrane, who became the Children’s Museum’s full-time CEO when Wyckoff left the interim role. A nonprofit has more of an entrepreneurial flavor and the relationships — between executives, staff, boards, donors and those they serve — require more intimate, personal attention. “You have to be really cognizant of those relationships,” she says, “so, it’s a different leadership style.”
Coltrane, who is now the CEO of EdVenture Children’s Museum in Columbia, South Carolina, praises Wyckoff’s ability to adjust to a “whole new learning curve,” as well as his understanding of the value of relationships in the nonprofit community. Beyond his administrative leadership, she says, Wyckoff also has a talent for staying neutral while helping boards, donors and staffers bridge transitions.
We talked with Wyckoff about what he’s learned by helping the region’s nonprofits stay afloat or, in some cases, to call it quits. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Richmond magazine: How did you come to the nonprofit world?
Wyckoff: I was very blessed. I worked for a bank that was growing, and the growth created career opportunities that I shouldn’t or wouldn’t have gotten in other industries. I started in the credit card business. We were responsible for marketing. We were responsible for credit policy. We were responsible for operations. We were responsible for collections. We were responsible for managing, basically, the entire customer acquisition, customer management process.
I ended up being given responsibility for business units within the bank that were struggling. And there’s never a better time to learn a business than when it’s struggling because you really have to get to the guts of competitive advantage: What exists or doesn’t exist, the nature of the competition, the caliber of your systems, your staff, your operations. So, I ended up with an abiding interest in how businesses work, how you refresh the cycle.
Once banks started merging, I was in the crosshairs. So I said, “Well, I’m going to go work for myself.” I started consulting, primarily using experience I had in the bank. And it was tough sledding. I didn’t have a reputation, so I was working at it hard. Then, in 2003, I think, somebody called and suggested that I apply for the job as the head of the Children’s Museum [of Richmond].
RM: How did your business experience prepare you for the nonprofit world?
Wyckoff: I talked to a couple people who were familiar with the nonprofit industry and one of them, Judy Langford, said, “The income statement of a nonprofit is exactly like the income statement of a for-profit. The only difference is there is no owner’s equity because the community owns the organization.” So, the question always should be: How does the organization serve the community? The follow-up question always should be — I’ve never forgotten this: If the organization goes away, what does the community lose? These were watershed questions, as far as I was concerned.
RM: What was your perspective, then, coming in to the children’s museum?
Wyckoff: One was: “What’s the role of a children’s museum in a community, particularly relative to children who can’t regularly come?” Second, “What’s the business model and how can it be fixed?” [That} hearkened back to the kind of work I’d enjoyed doing in my banking career.
RM: What was the state of the museum then?
Wyckoff: They’d raised more money than anybody had thought possible. They’d moved to a new location. They’d held a grand opening. And sometimes you achieve a goal and — this isn’t a perfect metaphor — the story about the dog chasing the car? What are you going to do when you catch it? So, they opened it and then the task became running it. And running it is a whole different issue. Fundamentally, the organization was running an operating deficit.
It’s hard to go to a donor and say, “Our attendance [last year] was 178,000, and our attendance this year is 60,000,” and help them believe that’s a good story. So, we had to decide, “What are the metrics we’re going to focus on?” We decided to focus on attendance. Once again, “Why do you exist?” “We serve younger children, 2 to 6 [years old].” It’s very clarifying. So, we were able to say, “What makes children 2 to 6 happy? Oh, cartoon characters. Oh, Legendary Santa. Oh, exhibits on the floor that are really simple — sand, water, art.” Once we were able to turn the attendance around, then we had a story to tell donors that made sense.
RM: Was this your first experience dealing with a board?
Wyckoff: Yes. But I had been on a board before, and I was a terrible board member because I didn’t know exactly what my role was. But I learned. A board member is a community volunteer who donates, in many cases, up to a week of their time [in one year]. They have the responsibility of ensuring to the donors, to the community, to the authorities, that the money’s being spent effectively and efficiently. There’s a huge amount of trust involved. They are the boss of whoever runs the organization on a day-to-day basis.
In the life cycle of an organization, what you do [if you’re a nonprofit founder] is you go get your friends [for the board.]. Well, you have to transition from them because suddenly you’re dealing with — I’ll use the acronym OPM — other people’s money — and that carries with it a huge responsibility. The relationship of the board to the CEO has to reflect a certain tension. It can’t all be lollipops and roses. The board has other responsibilities, as well, but that’s a huge one and it’s a testy one if the board doesn’t understand [its role] ... The board can’t get too involved.
RM: You mean micromanaging the director.
Wyckoff: You hire a CEO to run the organization. You really need [the board] to be asking the big questions: Is our mission the right one? Is it honed well enough? Is it meaningful? Are we making a difference? Are we reducing pain and suffering, in Peter Singer’s words? [Chuckles.] And how effectively are we reducing pain and suffering? And not, “Is the color of the carpet right? Or is this program effective?” Because that’s the CEO’s job.
RM: What has to happen at a nonprofit for them to summon you? And who calls you?
Wyckoff: I work for boards, so all my relationships are with the boards … In one case the CEO announced they were going to retire and the board did a search, thought they had a candidate and the candidate changed their mind. So, they just needed somebody to bridge while they renewed the search. And that’s happened twice. I think generally what happens is the board gets uncomfortable that it doesn’t know everything it needs to know. Whether it’s omission or commission [on the CEO’s part], they can’t get answers to questions they want and the metrics are going in the wrong direction. Donations are down, whatever. Sometimes they’ll say, “We need you to do an assessment.” In two cases, the CEOs have been there. I just said [to the CEO], “I’m here to learn,” and I go to the board and say, “Here’s my assessment. Act on it as you will.”
RM: Has that ever resulted in the board’s decision to change leadership, to say “adios” to a CEO?
Wyckoff: Once it did, and once it didn’t. Once, I went “adios.” [Laughs.] At that point, though, I feel like the board has the best information I can provide. … Again, since I don’t have a vested interest in the outcome, I like to think they can go, “Oh, OK, now we know what we need to do.” Hire a new CEO, downsize, strip the organization back to the core program, overhaul the board, rethink the mission. There’s a multitude of options.
RM: What do you think about the Richmond region as a climate and culture for philanthropy?
Wyckoff: I think Richmond is a very generous town. People are generous with their time. They’re generous with their money. And we have terrific nonprofit organizations, across a spectrum: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Lewis Ginter [Botanical Garden], the Virginia Historical Society, Maymont, the Children’s Museum [of Richmond], FeedMore, The Valentine — I mean, on and on and on. They have great leadership. They have engaged boards. They have clear missions. They have great staff, and they demonstrate that they fulfill their mission. Those organizations wouldn’t exist if people didn’t have confidence that they could do what they said they were going to do and if people with resources weren’t willing to step up, regardless of whether their name’s on the building or not.