Banking

What Makes A Nonprofit Stand Out? Its Leader Sets The Right Tone

Jennifer Gremmert sought to convince a roomful of utility executives to approve subsidies for low-income consumers in 1996. It didn’t go well.




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They rejected her argument. “How dare you ask me for this money,” one of them said. “People should pay their energy bill themselves.”

“It was shocking to me,” recalled Gremmert, now chief executive of Energy Outreach Colorado, a Denver-based nonprofit organization that provides households with affordable access to energy. “I cried when they said those things. I was young and emotional.”

As she left the meeting, she remembers thinking, “I just set us back three steps.”

The incident became a teachable moment for Gremmert. She came to accept that different people hold different views — and it’s important to speak their language and build a case that anticipates and addresses their concerns.

“Early on, I’d think, ‘Wait, how can they criticize me. I’m doing all this great work,'” she said. “Now I realize, ‘Oh, they just understand things differently and face their own issues.'”

Gremmert, 52, joined Energy Outreach Colorado in 1996 as development director. In 1998, she left the organization for four years before returning as deputy director in 2002. She became its executive director and CEO in 2018.

In 2018, the organization had 28 employees and an annual budget of $25 million. Today, it has 44 employees with an annual budget of $55 million.

Energy Outreach Colorado is the only nonprofit in the United States with 21 straight four-star ratings from Charity Navigator, which scores nonprofits on fiscal management and efficient use of donated funds.

When Facing Critics, Take The Heat And Stay Calm

Gremmert cites two reasons for her organization’s stellar rating. First, she embraces transparency to the extreme.

“You have to be willing to put all the information out there and understand when it’s hard for people to understand it,” she said. Through educational outreach, her team seeks to simplify its message and clarify what matters most to its target audiences.

“You can read a document with numbers in it and make certain assumptions,” she said. “So we try to identify what those numbers mean” to reduce misunderstanding and ensure that everyone comes away with accurate information.

A second reason for the organization’s superior track record revolves around accountability. Gremmert is a big believer in taking responsibility for leadership decisions.

“It’s owning the decisions we make,” she said. “That means owning when we do things well and owning when we don’t do things well.”

She has testified at legislative and regulatory hearings that she knew in advance would spark lively debate. She welcomes such opportunities, even when facing aggressive resistance.

“I know we will be criticized,” she said. “I’m owning the controversy. It signals to everyone that I’ll take the heat.”

When critics voice opposition to her organization’s objectives, she has learned to take it in stride. She acknowledges it’s hard to hear criticism, but the key is responding with a level head and verifiable facts.

“For me, it is like breathing,” she said. “I live by the serenity prayer: Understand what I cannot change, have the courage to change what I can and have the wisdom to know the difference.”

She also takes a long-term view when she encounters criticism. Resistors may set up roadblocks, but she stays the course.

“I recognize these are points in time that will fade quickly,” she said. “They are blips” over the long haul.

Set Priorities From The Top

Taxpayers, individual donors and utility ratepayers are Energy Outreach Colorado’s main funders. The organization helps low-income people tackle their energy bills along with furnace repair. It also supports efforts to upgrade their homes to increase energy efficiency.

“We are laser-focused on our mission,” Gremmert said. “I have to drive that from the top. It’s intentionality and prioritizing what matters most.”

Soon after becoming CEO in 2018, she hired an organizational coach to help her maintain a steely focus on the mission. The coach also helped her become more decisive and accept input from others to strengthen her decision-making.

“My coach taught me to overcome the impostor syndrome,” she said. “I knew I was ready for this role (as CEO). I have a lot of confidence. But I learned it’s also important to own my vulnerability” as a leader.

Her coach suggested that she join a peer network so that she could share business challenges in a collegial, confidential setting. She meets regularly with a small group of CEOs who support each other’s success.

“It’s great to have other leaders to talk to,” she said.

Perseverance Pays Off

Every leader faces setbacks. The key is how you handle them.

For Gremmert, persevering in the face of disappointment has paid off. She balances her eagerness to produce fast results with the patience she needs to overcome obstacles.

In 2004, for instance, Colorado lawmakers passed legislation to create a “systems benefits charge” to fund energy efficient programs and provide energy assistance to low-income households. It took a herculean effort by Gremmert to get it passed.

“It was lots of meetings in the Capitol basement and lots of calls at night,” she said. “We had to demonstrate the need. I walked it through the state legislators, one by one.” The triumph was short-lived. The governor vetoed it at the last minute.

“I was totally crushed,” she recalled. “System change is hard.”

But rather than give up and stew in defeat, Gremmert worked with the governor on a compromise bill. Over time, they made incremental progress. Seventeen years and several governors later, the bill passed.

“When you hear no and you still think it should be yes, it’s traditionally a law, rule or opinion that has to change,” she said. “You’ve got to be patient and keep at it.”

Mix Long-Term Strategic Thinking With Daily Operational Issues

Top leaders stay one step ahead of change. They are nimble in a crisis and open to wide-ranging solutions.

When the pandemic hit, Gremmert raced to adjust to the new normal.

“She’s willing to change when change is needed,” said Moe Tabrizi, chair of Energy Outreach Colorado’s board of directors. “She listens to reasons for change rather than being defensive and saying, ‘This doesn’t apply to our case.'”

He recalls speaking with her frequently in the pandemic’s early days in March 2020. At first, employees continued to show up in the office.

“Within a couple of days, we moved to virtual,” Tabrizi said. “Because she was willing to invest in IT (information technology) resources before the pandemic — both hardware and software — we could quickly flip the switch and work remotely.”

As board chair, Tabrizi admires Gremmert’s ability to toggle between big-picture, strategic thinking and running the daily operation with a steady hand.

“Leaders get so busy with everyday nuts-and-bolts that they often struggle to think long term,” he said. “But she can see over the horizon” without losing sight of day-to-day issues that merit attention.

Jennifer Gremmert’s Keys:

  • Executive Director and CEO of Energy Outreach Colorado, a consistently top-rated Denver-based nonprofit organization.
  • Lesson: Rebound from a crushing defeat with patience and perseverance and play the long game to achieve big goals.
  • “When you hear no and you still think it should be yes, it’s traditionally a law, rule or opinion that has to change. You’ve got to be patient and keep at it.”

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