The Background Players: Meet the consultants who are helping drive Traverse City’s nonprofits

Executive directors, board members, employees, volunteers, and donors: Those five groups are what most people think of when they envision the key cogs behind America’s more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations.

But what about the people working behind the scenes – the people who aren’t listed on org websites or donor thank-you lists, but whose contributions provide undeniable value to nonprofits?

Nonprofit consultants contribute their knowledge, skills and work to help nonprofits grow and thrive, but rarely get much time in the limelight themselves. From board governance, to strategic planning, to government compliance and relations, these experts are often there to help not-for-profit entities navigate their most crucial junctures.

Whether an organization is seeking to find its footing in the days after launch, grow beyond its initial mission, or navigate inner turmoil, the right consultant can mean the difference between failure and success.

In northern Michigan, there’s plenty of potential work for nonprofit consultants. According to Dave Mengebier, who serves as president and CEO of the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation (GTRCF), there are currently more than 1,000 nonprofits in Grand Traverse County alone. It stands to reason, then, that there would be at least a few nonprofit consultants making their living here, too.

The Traverse City Business News sat down with three of those consultants for this month’s issue, to learn more about which services they provide, what it’s like to have a hand in the success of myriad local organizations, and whether Traverse City might be nearing its nonprofit saturation point.

Leah Bagdon McCallum, Blue Orange Consulting

Services offered: Blue Orange Consulting is a place-based firm. We focus on people, projects and places near our amazing freshwater economy – places beside fresh blue water, with bright orange sunsets. We offer a little extra muscle for small tight projects, like a strategic plan or transition management, or for long-term project management like executing a multi-year regional strategy. We work with everyone: nonprofits, units of government, private-sector organizations and individuals. We’ve worked with Patronicity, Hagerty, the GTRCF, Traverse Connect and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, among many others.

Inspiration: Traverse City is growing and evolving, but there are limited opportunities with a ladder to climb for someone with a background like mine. I wanted to grow and try new things, so I built my own ladder by building my own company. Blue Orange Consulting has brought people and projects to my life that I never would have found in a traditional job. The variety rocks. I work more and harder than I ever have, but maneuver around the needs and schedules of my two awesome kids.

Recent projects: I’m honored to be a part of the Northwest Michigan Community Development Coalition – an endeavor championed by the GTRCF. Since 2018, I’ve worked with Dave Mengebier to bring the coalition to life and it’s been rewarding and meaningful to see it take shape. I’ve helped create the scorecard, recruit organizations to the effort, and engage partners throughout the five-county region and beyond. I also curate and facilitate a monthly speaker series for GTRCF, focusing on a wide range of community development topics. We’ve hosted both of Michigan’s United States senators, the lieutenant governor, the director of the Michigan State Police, and many local leaders, like Warren Call of Traverse Connect and Dan Buron of Goodwill.

Does Traverse City have too many nonprofits? I suppose there are two sides to every story, but my take on the argument that there are ‘too many nonprofits’ is that it’s a great problem to have. Nonprofits exist to fill a gap or fix a problem. If we have a glut of organizations staffed by people who want to make this place better, what a fabulous pickle to be in! That said, I’m also a data-driven thinker and we live in a community full of smart people and philanthropists. We collectively know how big our money-pie is and we are pretty darn good at divvying it up to make an impact. However, there is always room to improve nonprofit operations and to improve local grantmaking.

Megan Motil, Parallel Solutions

Services offered: I provide consultative guidance and advice on governance, strategy and planning; organizational and community development; communication and engagement; and facilitation services. Most of my clients are located in the Great Lakes region, while some are on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Some of the work I do is public and some is behind the scenes. My clients are diverse and include local, state, and federal government entities, nonprofits, and some private businesses. Some are large and complex like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and some are local and complex, like the City of Traverse City. My clients are working on and across sectors on issues related to housing, transportation, health, water quality, ecology and energy.

Inspiration: I’m motivated by desire to work with people to address community-based issues. Nonprofits are doing that work often alongside government – and in some cases, with the for-profit sector. My work involves detail-orientation and big picture thinking …

Those who know me well know I love poetry. There’s a poem by Marge Piercy called “To Be Of Use” that sums up my business philosophy and the way I feel about nonprofits. I’m inspired by folks in our local community who are committed to looking upstream at challenges and root causes, and who are working together to create solutions and change the ways they work within (and across) their own organizations. This type of partnership takes role clarity and a commitment to sharing decision-making power and resources. There’s always resistance and a temptation to revert back to what’s familiar, to what typically gets rewarded and incentivized. So, what these folks are practicing takes patience and persistence –  and tolerance for a process that’s not linear or formulaic.

Recent projects: This year, I provided consultative support for a few networks of folks who are working together to get things done that no one entity may do alone: the Boardman-Ottaway River Network, the Healthier Drinking Culture project, the Three Mile Trail, and the Water First Collaborative. I also guided half a dozen clients through strategic planning, including The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, the Au Sable Institute and Arts for All. I supported others through training and coaching on governance and decision-making, executive leadership and organizational succession planning, internal communication and team coordination, conflict management, program management, board development, staff development, revenue planning, and partnerships. Some of my local coaching clients this year were the Disability Network, Northwest Food Coalition, Traverse City Track Club, Huron Pines, the National Writers Series, Goodwill of Northern Michigan and Safe Harbor.

Does Traverse City have too many nonprofits? We do have a lot of nonprofits in northern Michigan. I think that’s a testament to a few things: the needs of the community that are unfulfilled by government and the private sector; the willingness and innovation of those in the nonprofit community to address those needs; and the generosity of donors and volunteers. It’s hard to assess what the ‘right number’ of nonprofits would be, but what’s certain is that as community needs, conditions, and levels of support change over time, the system of nonprofits will also change.

Gabe Schneider, Northern Strategies 360

Services offered: I provide services for monitoring, advocacy, shaping of policy, and compliance as they relate to legislative and regulatory actions in state government or federal government. I like to say, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re usually on the menu.’ I help bring clients to that table (with government players) so that their interests are best understood – both by lawmakers and by policymakers in administrative offices.

Inspiration: I founded Northern Strategies 360 as a comprehensive government affairs consulting firm. When I started the business back in 2014, I was trying to provide a service to this region that I didn’t think was really being provided before. I wanted to bring those services to public sector, private sector and nonprofit clients. What I’ve found is that organizations greatly value having somebody that is locally based (to do governmental consulting work). There are a lot of consulting firms or lobbyists based in Lansing or in Washington, but what they often lack is that understanding of the local communities in which those entities reside. I bring both a local understanding of issues as well as a deep understanding of the state and federal issues that those organizations face.

Recent projects: One project that I’m quite proud of recently was a combination of assistance with TART and with Garfield Township. TART was leading the charge in getting a deed restriction removed on the property at the Commons. When the State Hospital closed and the State of Michigan transferred (the property) to Garfield Township, there was a restriction on that transfer that said that the property could only be used for hiking and cross country skiing. That essentially eliminated any other recreational use of that property. I worked closely with Sen. Wayne Schmidt in passing a law last year that removed that deed restriction. So now, all non-motorized recreational activities are allowed on the Commons, which was not the case before.

Does Traverse City have too many nonprofits? I’m pretty optimistic. I think we have a strong nonprofit sector. I think that we have a strong sense of collaboration seen in this part of the state that is not seen in other parts of the state. And I know from talking to other people around the state, and even around the country, we stand out as a region that plays above our level. I think we see all that in the nonprofit sector. While we do have a lot of nonprofit organizations, they work very well together – and they work very well with the public and private sector as well.

I think of the GTRCF and what Dave Mengebier has put together with the Community Coalition and with the community scorecard project to measure success; he’s really brought multiple nonprofits together to work together to achieve that success. And I think of organizations like Rotary Charities and Sakura Takano, who is in the role now of executive director; she has already done a tremendous job to ingrain systems change in the philosophies and the mindsets of the nonprofits in this region.

Organizations like those two have really done a great job of helping to pull nonprofits together into common goals and causes. So, we don’t necessarily have a disparate group of nonprofits; we have a coordinated and collaborative group of nonprofits, which really strengthens our ability as a region to grow and prosper. I think that’s unique, and I think it positions us – regardless of the actual number of nonprofits we have – to be very strong in the work that we do.