Generational Shift: Consultant an advocate for Pittsburgh-area nonprofits

20141119rmeviegardner-2By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
December 30, 2014

After she applied to a graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh in 2011, Evie Gardner wanted to check out the city. But she got very lost.

Navigating neighborhoods around the Pitt campus, she landed near Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Schenley Park and promptly declared its Victorian-style greenhouses and grounds “a gem.”

Three years later, she confidently puts Phipps in the category of Pittsburgh’s “great, thriving nonprofit sector … that makes this region a really great place to live.”

While earning her master’s in public administration from Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, and since she graduated last year, Ms. Gardner, 29, has immersed herself in the business of helping regional nonprofits run more efficiently.

She provides input to groups with missions as diverse as the Veterans Leadership Program, the Wilkinsburg Chamber of Commerce and the Pittsburgh Glass Center, as part of her job as consultant, organizational development and finance, for the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management.

Specifically, Ms. Gardner’s role includes assisting nonprofits with functions such as strategic business planning, financial analysis, fundraising, marketing, cash management, capital investment and personnel.

“We do a lot of listening to the organization and bring different perspectives. We help them see things through a new angle.”

According to the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership, there are about 2,000 nonprofits in Allegheny County with budgets of $100 million or less — not including hospitals and universities — that employ about 75,000 workers.

“When you think about [those numbers] in terms of a workforce issue, that’s critical,” said Ms. Gardner.

But the sector struggles to portray itself accurately as a source of jobs and professionalism, she said.

“We haven’t done a good job clarifying our position in the community. There’s an assumption this work is done voluntarily. We want to be entrepreneurial and compassionate, but we are not solely people with lots of time to volunteer.

“It’s people with advanced degrees doing a lot of work. It’s not all bake sales.”

Ms. Gardner, who grew up in a small farming community outside of Green Bay, Wis., and who holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, got her start in the nonprofit sector as a volunteer with AmeriCorps, a national service organization that places recruits in community organizations.

Her first posting was to Bakersfield, Calif., where she managed staff and volunteers for an after-school program. For her second AmeriCorps assignment, she was a New Mexico state leader based in Albuquerque. The volunteers receive a stipend and housing, but because she had no formal income, “I applied for food stamps and got them.”

While at Pitt, she earned hands-on experience as a fellow and intern at the Heinz Endowments; through service positions at nonprofits including East End Cooperative Ministry and Meals on Wheels; and through a yearlong appointment to the board of directors at the United Way of Westmoreland County.

At United Way, she wasn’t just a student observer.

“I was a voting member and active on the programming committee. It was nice to see the breadth of the way things operate, and be engaged and able to provide people with hope.”

As a 20-something board member, she also lent her expertise by “helping to triage some PowerPoint presentations.”

That position serves her well now in another hat she wears at the Bayer Center: managing the BoardsWork! for Nonprofits program, which trains individuals to serve on boards and assesses existing nonprofit boards for good governance.

“Boards are really the backbone of leadership of nonprofits,” said Ms. Gardner. “I love [BoardsWork] because it gets us out interfacing with lots of people in the community and gets people talking about the topic of boards, which is not so sexy.”

The Bayer Center also works with some for-profit companies — including Alcoa and Bayer Corp. — to recruit younger workers for nonprofit boards and service projects.

That’s a sign that the millennial generation raised with a strong sense of community service wants to continue to give back once they become professionals, said Ms. Gardner.

“Younger people are more involved in different things: athletic associations, academic associations, youth councils, going to school and classes. So why would they necessarily stop being so involved?”

When they land job interviews, young professionals frequently ask what their prospective employer is doing to foster community engagement, she said.

“Young leaders want to tackle big challenges like poverty, homelessness and educational inequities. It fuels the curiosity in my brain … I’m pretty happy with my gig around here.”

Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.