O’Donnell seeks to lead Rensselaerville to a bigger future

Charles O’Donnell, new president of The Rensselaerville Institute and Meeting Center, says he does n

Over the past three decades, Charles “C.T.” O’Donnell II has made a living of filling big shoes at nonprofit organizations, and making them bigger.

The Rensselaerville Institute and Meeting Center in September named the 56-year-old Pittsburgh native its new president and chief executive officer. It was the third time O’Donnell succeeded a leader who stepped down after at least a quarter century at the helm of a nonprofit. And in a fraction of that time, O’Donnell managed to significantly increase the size of those organizations.

In rural Albany County, O’Donnell in October took over the Rensselaerville Institute, succeeding the nonprofit organization’s president of 38 years, Hal Williams. Under Williams’ leadership, the institute earned the reputation as “the think tank with muddy boots.” Its counseling services and operating programs help schools, governments and other nonprofits achieve specific goals tied to their missions.

“I felt it was time for a new leader. I was at the place for a very long time,” said Williams.

With only 100 employees, mostly in Rensselaerville, and a budget of $5 million, the institute is one of the smallest nonprofits O’Donnell has headed.

Big mission

However, O’Donnell does not expect the organization to stay small, saying, “Experience tells me it will grow.” Size aside, he said his new job promises to be his most influential ever because the institute helps nonprofits around the globe better achieve their goals.

“It’s the largest mission I’ve ever embraced. And I think I could have the largest impact I’ve ever had,” said O’Donnell.

And O’Donnell is jumping in at a time when the nonprofit industry — heavily dependent on charitable donations and government funding — is struggling amid the recession that started in December 2007. A 2008 study by the Giving USA Foundation nonprofit found that charitable giving does not keep pace with inflation during recessions.

During the five recessions since 1973, giving rose at an average inflation-adjusted rate of 1.3 percent, compared to an average inflation-adjusted rate of 4.3 percent for the non-recession years between 1966 and 2006, according to Giving USA, a Glenview, Ill., nonprofit consulting firm. Reflecting fears that trend will persist, 32 area nonprofits surveyed by The Community Foundation of the Greater Capital Region said they believe the overall state of local philanthropy is worsening. However, more than 50 percent of nonprofits expects funding from public foundations and corporations to increase or remain the same in 2009.

Even as the recession pinches nonprofits, O’Donnell does not expect that trend to curtail his expansion plans for the institute. In fact, the funding clampdown could work in his favor.

By late last year, for example, the institute was working with two major New York foundations to better allocate their funds by revamping their grant application process. Under the streamlined application process at the foundations, which O’Donnell would not identify, prospective grantees outline goals the funding would help them achieve instead of emphasizing their need for the money.

“They’re focused on results from the beginning … It’s a higher thing than just a bang for their buck,” O’Donnell said.

Began in college

O’Donnell came to embrace the work of nonprofits while attending Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va. He entered his undergraduate years wanting to become either a priest or an aircraft pilot, but “neither one worked out.” During O’Donnell’s junior year, he volunteered at an orphanage, which put him on course for a career with nonprofits.

“I just became attached to that line of work, and at the same time I always had an inclination to business,” O’Donnell said.

After graduating from Wheeling in 1974, O’Donnell assumed his first nonprofit leadership role with a West Virginia alternative school for students who did not do well in traditional education settings. In 1979, he became president and CEO of Crittenton Services, a Wheeling nonprofit that provides medical service and health education to single and adolescent parents.

Crittenton had a single site and 19 employees when O’Donnell arrived there. But during his 13-year tenure at the organization, it grew to have 100 employees with 10 sites in eastern Ohio and West Virginia.

By 1993, O’Donnell was in Live Oak, Fla., succeeding the 33-year CEO of Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches, a nonprofit child-care and family service organization that was already quite large. He moved on after a relatively short tenure.

For two years after leaving that group, he worked at his consulting firm, O’Donnell’s-Strategy and Results, based out of his Bethlehem, Pa., home.

O’Donnell later replaced a 25-year CEO at Kids Peace National Centers, an Orefield, Pa., charity that serves the behavioral and mental health needs of children and adolescents. When he arrived at Kids Peace in 1999, it had 1,200 employees and a budget of $90 million. When he left the organization in January 2008, after his outlook for it diverged from directors’ views, it had 2,000 employees and a $190 million budget.

They key to growing those nonprofits, O’Donnell said, lies in “surrounding yourself with good people and developing a shared vision.” In Rensselaerville this month, O’Donnell, staff and directors will begin laying the groundwork for a new strategic plan for the institute — a process that could take up to nine months to complete. That will mark the eighth strategic planning initiative he has led at various nonprofits. By “putting them together in a shared mission, it unleashes the potential that’s in an organization.”

After Kids Peace, O’Donnell briefly returned to his consulting business in Bethlehem. By April, the Rensselaerville Institute’s search committee — on the hunt for a new leader — “caught wind of me,” said O’Donnell. He had not applied for Williams’ position. The search committee’s chairman, Peter Gerry, that month called O’Donnell and later invited him to the institute’s headquarters.

Familiar with area

O’Donnell’s trip to Rensselaerville was not his first to the Capital Region. While growing up, he often visited his aunt in Troy. Kids Peace also has foster care centers in Albany and Amsterdam. He was offered the job and accepted.

He started work at the institute Oct. 1.

“I never really applied for a job.” O’Donnell said about his arrival in Rensselaerville. “I’ve never asked for a raise. And it’s the only thing I know how to do.”

The institute, with roots dating back to 1870, has three core operations: business meetings, consulting services and operating programs.

The operating programs include School Turnaround, in which institute teams are deployed to under-performing schools to help administrators set and achieve student achievement targets. Its Community Sparkplugs program helps local leaders use self-help and volunteerism to help change communities or organizations.

A significant amount of the organization’s revenues come from the 10,000 visitors its meeting center receives each year. The institute has been hosting its “Country Forums” since 1924.

While “the meeting center is holding its own in this economy,” O’Donnell said its other two operations are growing. And that is likely where he will likely pursue his tell-tale growth strategies.

“People want outcomes. At a time when money is shrinking … they want results,” O’Donnell said.

Building on the momentum of the institute’s consulting and operating program arms, O’Donnell wants to develop more outcome tools, such as milestone-setting. He also wants to get more school and community leaders involved in its Turnaround and Sparkplugs programs. The institute annually works with about 15 schools for Turnaround.

“It’s a combination of fresh thinking and building on the best tools the institute has to offer,” said the institute’s previous leader, Williams, who now does consulting working for the institute and the North Carolina Network of Grantmakers in Cherry Hill, N.C.

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