Former Literacy Pittsburgh executive director and current Executive Service Corps volunteer Don Block took some time to talk to us about all things nonprofits, including his passions, advice, and history in the sector, in addition to giving us some insight to his favorite restaurant and current book list.
Talk to me about your tenure with Literacy Pittsburgh and the Library Center. What brought you to (and kept you in) those positions and missions for almost four decades?
From the age of 12 I knew I would enter the field of education. I was already volunteering to tutor kids who were my own age or slightly younger. I just wasn’t sure what part of education I would end up in. Service in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa, and my own values steered me toward education of disadvantaged people. So in 1980, when my wife told me about an opening for an adult literacy coordinator at the library where she was working, I jumped at the chance and entered the field of adult basic education.
What kept me going in that field for so long is that the work constantly evolved. I like to say that Literacy Pittsburgh was not the same organization two days in a row. There were so many new challenges every year that I was always learning. If you’re going to be an advocate for adult education, you should seek opportunities for your own adult learning, and the job gave me those opportunities. I was leading an organization that grew from two employees to 45, and from serving 100 students per year to over 4,000 students per year. We became one of the leading programs of our type in the nation. I was fascinated with nonprofit management and how to lead effectively.
You retired about four years ago and came to the Executive Service Corps. Before that you taught classes for the Bayer Center. What drew you to volunteering in this capacity?
Actually, one of our staff members at Literacy Pittsburgh is responsible for this. He observed my skills and told me that I needed to share my expertise with other nonprofits, and he urged me to contact the Bayer Center and offer my services. I was so busy running our organization that I hadn’t considered this. At his urging, in 2013, I started teaching a few classes for the Bayer Center. This work as a consultant has continued after I stepped down from being an executive director.
What do you think are the top two or three issues facing nonprofit organizations today?
One area that I am particularly interested in is how boards of directors can be more effective. So the first issue would be how boards can become more engaged with the truly strategic issues for their organizations. How can their meetings be more focused on the future and less on what the organization did last month or last quarter? Also, how can organizations utilize board member expertise to the fullest possible extent? The people who can make these things happen are executive directors/CEOs.
A second issue would be: Can the organization look beyond its doors to understand the entire field that it operates in and what its niche is? Some organizations might be humble enough to say that they are not the best ones to provide a particular service, or that their service would be strengthened through a partnership.
Do you have a favorite ESC engagement or class you’ve taught?
All of them are interesting, but I particularly appreciate assignments where I can go deeper than a one-time consulting meeting. To work with an organization for a few months and help them develop action plans to address their needs is a very gratifying opportunity.
Outside of your work here, where do your passions lie? Where else do you volunteer? What books are you reading right now?
I have a very wide range of interests. I’m deeply interested in music, especially classical music, and I play piano at a beginner level. I’ve sung in choral groups for most of my life. I volunteer at my church as a choir member and lay reader. Recently I joined the board of Wilkinsburg Community Ministry, which does fantastic work feeding needy people in the eastern area of the county.
I also read books on a wide range of subjects. Since I was a student of English literature, I like to read nineteenth-century novels, like Dickens’ Little Dorrit. I also read about spirituality, so right now I’m reading Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. For lighter reading, almost anything by Alexander McCall Smith, the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.
For nonprofit executives, I highly recommend the books Leadership is an Art and Leadership Jazz by Max DePree.
What is one word of advice you would give to nonprofit leadership, especially after two years of the COVID pandemic?
Don’t chase dollars; chase mission. (Chasing dollars can lead to mission drift and reduced effectiveness.)
Favorite local restaurant?
Walnut Grill on Freeport Road