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Chantal Sheehan : Nonprofiteer Turned Nonprofit Numbers Nerd

Last year at Cause Camp, I laughed when speaker and fellow nonprofiteer Rachel Muir called herself a “recovering nonprofit executive director.” I laughed because that describes me to a tee.

My path to #nonprofitlife was winding at best. My parents instilled in me a strong work ethic and a servant leader mindset from a young age. No matter what job I had or role I played, I constantly looked for ways to make things better. In my late 20s, after working for small and large companies and the government, I longed for a career with real purpose ― a career that would make a difference. So, I gave the nonprofit sector a shot and served as a nonprofit executive for two different organizations from 2009 to 2013. 

The Great Recession was technically coming to an end when I got my first nonprofit gig, but as many of you remember the effects of that economic downturn reverberated in the nonprofit world for several years afterward. As a newbie to the sector, I was (naively) surprised at the persistent financial pressure our organizations were under. 

The constant grind of cash flow concerns, a board with a scarcity mindset and very real fundraising challenges due to internal and external circumstances quickly wore me down. Networking and commiserating with colleagues and friends in the nonprofit space revealed that I was not alone. We were all on pins and needles, and most of us were constantly stressed about finance. 

Foundations and institutional funders were talking about sustainability and capacity building, but what we really needed was operating funds. Overhead dread set in with each grant or ask. It was all just too much for me. In 2013, I retreated to the private sector to save my sanity (and my health) with holes in my heart and a heavy soul. 

For the next two years, I continued to reflect on my nonprofit experience and talk with colleagues still in the sector. Sometime in 2015, it occurred to me that if nonprofit finance was more strategically approached, and if boards and staff alike were more educated and open about money, the space could be radically different. Sustainability, then, would not just be a word we toss out to make a funder happy – it would be a real possibility. Stewardship of every dollar, of every gift, would be a team sport for board and staff, reducing or even eliminating unhealthy power dynamics. 

I was so excited by this idea that I was compelled to do the one thing I swore I would never do: start my own company. Blue Fox was born in 2015 with a singular mission ― to disrupt the traditional accounting model through technology, innovation and a radically client-centered approach to finance. I put a stake in the ground to only serve nonprofits and social enterprises, and we developed services that were uniquely tailored to those two types of organizations. 

We’re not your average accountants. We’re strategic partners, we’re numbers nerds who care about our clients’ missions, and we’re the team looking at the financial big picture with an eye towards sustainability and true stewardship. And we’re actually fun to be around ― imagine that!

After four years of serving nonprofits all over the country, it’s my vision for 2020 and beyond that Blue Fox lead the sector to revolutionize its approach to finance. Our clients excepted, nonprofit leaders spend 90% of their time chasing funding, and 10% of their time analyzing how they leverage those hard-fought dollars ― if that! If we were for-profit companies operating this way, we’d be out of business in a matter of months.

We must shift our habits and mindsets. Financial stability and sustainability depend on it. I look forward to talking with you all at Cause Camp 2020 about your fiscal experiences as nonprofit leaders and managers, and having some fun (yes, FUN!) together as we talk about all the money things ― including how to change your organization’s approach to finance from reactive to proactive and how to get your board on board.

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