Hail Fellow Well Met

Earlier this week, I started a new column at New York Nonprofit Media devoted to issues of non-profit leadership.  The basic idea is to interview a different non-profit CEO each month to talk about the substance of their work, the path they took to their current job, and the management challenges that they are currently tackling.   

My first interview was with Wayne Ho, the CEO of the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), one of the largest Asian American social service agencies in New York.  I’m not close with Wayne but I think of him as a “hail fellow well met” – he is quick with a story and a laugh whenever our paths cross.  

When I interviewed Wayne two weeks ago, however, he was all business.  My timing was awful – our meeting occurred a few days after a fire had hit one of his programs and in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.  Despite all of the distractions, Wayne was exceedingly generous with his time. So much so, that I had plenty of good material that didn’t make it into the final article.  Here are a couple of additional excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for clarity and length.  Think of this as a B-side or an outtake from the finished product

Ho: We're getting more recognition in the mainstream press. We're always in the Chinese press. We're always recognized by immigrant and Asian communities, but we're getting more recognized in mainstream press.

Berman: Just to play devil's advocate for a moment, but why does it matter?  Who cares if you are in the mainstream press? 

Ho: We need to make sure that the external environment supports us. And one way to do that is getting public recognition from folks outside of our networks or outside of our communities. So whether that's being covered by City & State or New York Nonprofit Media or the New York Times or neighborhood blogs, I think it just helps the organization get recognition, which hopefully then means more resources and support for what we're doing.

Berman: Not all press is good press of course. How do you deal with being criticized?

Ho: I'm okay. I think that I learned early on that if you're making hard decisions, not everybody is going to support you.  I think that there are some longtime allies and supporters of the organization who always want to see positive press about CPC and that’s not always possible.

Berman: Did you fundamentally change the structure of the organization when you took over?

Ho: So much was decentralized because we always wanted as many resources as possible to go to the program level.  As we've been fundraising, I think I've been pretty transparent that we are trying to raise general operating dollars and capacity building funding. I'm trying to build up our central administration. When I joined, we didn't have a formal development team.  We didn't have a communication system. Our fiscal team ran very lean. Our HR team ran lean. Our general counsel was a one-person shop. I wanted to formalize our structure, so I created a C suite structure. And then I made it clear that everyone on the C suite level and the director level has to join in in carrying out our strategic direction while also trying to raise revenue and support.

Part of what I am trying to do is to build more unity in the organization. Not everyone had emails when I started, so communicating was hard.  So we made sure everyone had emails. There wasn't a common orientation.  We didn't have staff meetings. We have 700 staff, and 4,500 home health aides. How do we communicate with everyone, when we have 5,200 people total?  So now we are having more emails, having staff meetings every quarter, having a common orientation so I can communicate to the team.  I have been trying to bring in more systems while supporting those folks who've been here for a long time as well as the new people coming in.

Berman: Have your politics changed over the years?

Ho: I think some report came out a couple of years ago that said the longer you're out of college, the less radical you are.

Berman: Well that stands to reason. 

Ho: It stands to reason because you start realizing fiscal realities and political constraints and how negotiations work.  I don't think ideologically or philosophically I've changed my mind, but I think the reality is when I'm the leader of an organization, I have this dual role of looking out for what's best for the organization and its staff. At the same time I have to look at what's best for the communities we serve or represent. While the Venn diagram has a high crossover, it's not always the same. 

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