Gayle Carlson

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Gayle Carlson and I am the Chief Executive Officer of the Montana Food Bank Network. We are a statewide emergency food distribution center serving a network of pantries, food banks, shelters, schools, kitchens and senior centers in an effort to improve access to food for all. We also provide advocacy and education on issues surrounding food insecurity.

What has been one insight or lesson that has been most helpful in your career?

Never stop learning. I’m a huge proponent of continuing education and professional development. Everyone, regardless of your level of education and experience, has the opportunity to learn something new. It’s easy to get myopic in our careers thinking we have everything mastered, but that leads to complacency, boredom and a lot of missed opportunities. As a leader in my organization, I encourage my team to find workshops, classes, conferences and other opportunities to not only improve their field of work, but other areas a well. In order to do that, I make sure we have sufficient funds in our budget every year and give them the time to attend. I encourage those with supervisory goals to attend workshops on human resources, nonprofit management and leadership. I love to coach and help those around me grow. In turn, they contribute to my growth as a leader.

What has been your favorite mistake? A mistake that in retrospect led to a great lesson and progress.

Thinking I needed to step away from the nonprofit sector about half way through my career. Frankly, I was burned out. I had been an Executive Director of two different small nonprofits by then and with a small staff, you become a jack-of-all-trades. The long hours were getting to be a struggle with my young family. So I tried the investment and accounting fields. What a huge mistake. But frankly, it was a valuable one for my future. While I had the opportunity to work a 9-5 job, I went back and got my Masters. Then I got back into the nonprofit arena and, eventually, spending the last 14 years in food banking – something that I love. Would I have taken this path without leaving for a while? I’m not sure. But I know it gave me focus in knowing that I needed to do something that served humanity and not just raise profits for a corporation.

Project forward ten years. How will your industry or field be fundamentally different then? What opportunities do you see?

The nonprofit sector has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades. There was a time when leaders of for-profit corporations thought they had a higher level of skill at running a business and with the fail rate of nonprofits at that time, it was partly true. But I do think that charitable organizations have stepped up and demonstrated that they are, at the very least, equal. Every day we deal with the struggles of raising sufficient funds to keep our services going and keep our team employed. We know how to do a lot with a very small budget. We are forced to be agile, flexible, adaptable, and most of all, keep the people we serve as our focus at all times. That’s not to say nonprofits haven’t learned a few things from for-profits. Marketing, fiscal management and various business strategies have helped this sector become far more financially and programmatically sustainable.

What are some bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

Employees working for nonprofits shouldn’t be making a decent wage. I totally disagree. One of the biggest myths in the nonprofit sector is that we should be frugal with overhead. Many guidelines tell you that a nonprofit shouldn’t spend anymore than 8-10% of its budget on salaries and overhead. If you ever get a chance to watch this YouTube video, do it (The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong, Dan Pallota shook up the nonprofit and foundation world when he called out this myth. Just like any other industry, you get what you pay for. Too often, I’ve hired some amazing people, spent a lot of time training them, then they take that skill to another position with higher pay and benefits. Yes, I do recognize some national nonprofits have taken this a bit too far with paying leaders seven-figure salaries and bonuses. But the boots-on-the-ground people should be paid a living wage. Anything less is being a bit contradictory to the mission of making our communities a better place.

In the last two years, what have you become better at saying no to?

That’s a tough one and I’m still working on that. But I do think I’ve become better about jumping in to volunteer for things just because I was asked. Rather than just automatically saying yes when I’m asked to serve on a committee or board, I ask for some time to think about it. I then take a look at how this will impact me personally and professionally. It forces me to prioritize better, serve better, and not become too overwhelmed.

What is the one book you recommend most often and why?

John Maxwell’s teaching has always been my compass. Back in my career when I left the nonprofit sector, I happened to be listening to one of his podcasts (then on cassette tape 😉 ) entitled “Why Aren’t You Doing What You Love to Do?” while I was on a long drive. I had to pull over and listen. That was my moment of clarity and when I charted my path back to the nonprofit sector. Then I later read his book “Failing Forward” and it all made sense. I’d highly recommend any of his books and podcasts, but that one really hit the mark for me.

What advice would you give a smart and ambitious recent college graduate? What advice should they ignore?

Advice: I’d go back to my “never stop learning”. You may have that hard-earned diploma and think you have all the answers, but it doesn’t stop, there is much more to learn. Education is not just in books or the classroom, but from your peers and leaders. Listen, ask questions, dig deeper, but never stop. Some of the things I learned were what not to do…but it all helped me become a better leader.

Advice to ignore: Without related work history, you don’t have much to offer an employer. One of the things I enjoy doing is working with people on resumes. Many times they sell themselves short. If you spent your college years working in a fast food place, how can you make the skills you learned apply in your future career? Customer service? Project management? Multi-tasking? Work ethics? Everything is a foundation for the next step in your career.

What is your favorite quote, one you aim to live by?

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” ―Winston S. Churchill