John Ashmen – His Leadership Journey Through Three 15-year Careers – Part 2

“Rescue mission Boards should be a mosaic of the community they serve. That includes gender, racial, age – diversity of all kinds must be included.” -John Ashmen

[00:00:00] John Ashmen: You need to be a board chair who understands the board role. So, intellect, respect, humility. Again, I think those are important. There are a lot of Board Chairs out there who really don’t know the role of a Board Chair in a nonprofit.

I’ve seen so many organizations that are in turmoil because the board chair has entered and sees himself or herself as the person who is in charge of the organization. And the Board Chair is only a spokesperson for the entire board.


[00:00:37] Tommy Thomas: Today, we’re continuing the conversation that we began last week with John Ashmen, Past President & CEO of Citygate Network. John was named President & CEO of Citygate Network in 2007 and served for 16-plus years. He stepped down as president on July 31st, 2023. When we recorded this conversation, John, the new Citygate CEO, and the board were in the final weeks of the transition to new leadership. From my perspective, the transition was well-planned and executed.

John will share some of that with us. The Citygate Network has over 300 member organizations. So, you can imagine the number of leadership transitions John has observed. And the number of boards he’s interacted with. Let’s pick up on the conversation where we left off last week.

If it’s not too personal, what was going on in your heart? Obviously, you’re going through a transition now. You told your board at some time. Can you give us a little bit of backdrop to how that happened and how it’s gone?

[00:01:48] John Ashmen: Yeah. So I’ve basically had three 15-year careers. I was 15 years as the CEO of Christian Camp and Conference Center in New Jersey. We’ve already talked about that. Then 15 years as the COO, Vice President, Director of Member Services at Christian Camp and Conference Association. Most of the time we called it Christian Camping International, and we were U.S. and did a lot of work and getting CCI Russia off the ground.

And I was on the board of CCI Canada, Christian Camping International Canada. So that was my camping association career. And now 16 years as the President & CEO of Citygate Network, which used to be called the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions. And you just get to a point where you look at it, and think I’m turning the same pile over. We have conferences that are considered the best in the industry because we’re creative and flexible. Our number of people coming to our events continues to increase. This past year we had the highest attendance we’ve ever had which is unusual in a world where most associations are seeing a membership decline. Ours is increasing and attendance is flat. Ours is increasing. And that’s a good time to leave. You want to leave on a high note and be able to hand something positive to someone.

And so I just looked at it and said, you have two questions. One of them is how much longer can I make this last?  I will be 71 on my last day on the job as president of Citygate Network, and I probably could make it last another five years. The board sure didn’t want me to go.

There was lamenting and concern because of all the progress we’ve made and where we are in so many areas. And I didn’t want that question to be the one that drove me. How much longer can I make this last? The question you ask, is there somebody else who wants to take the wheel and chart a little bit different course or maintain the course we’re on and can be fresh eyes, fresh perspectives, and a good foot for the pedal to keep us going? So, I let the board know two years prior that in the next year, we would want to start dusting off our succession plan.

And it was basically 18 months early and I trusted it to the executive committee for the first six months and then one year prior just broke it out to the entire board and we had a plan already in place and I suggested people for the search committee. I gave my board a list of 12 organizations that we’ve worked with that were search firms and said, you can use a search firm, you don’t have to use a search firm.

And here’s a variety of them that take different perspectives and I told him there are two things that I want to be involved in. One, I want to be involved in the approval of the job profile because I’m the only one who really knows what it takes to run this organization. The search firm they selected had a different idea and they started going that way until I pointed out the problems that already were being created and they said you were right. Let’s go ahead and put you back into this process.

So I gave the final approval and made some corrections and changes to the job profile and said the other thing I want to know is when you get down to your final candidate before you announce let me know who it is because the number of acquaintances I have and the places I’ve gone and spoken and the boards I’m on it’s a good chance that I know this person and may know something about this person that you don’t know. Like they’re about to be indicted or something. And so they let me do that as well. And we’ve had a pretty good journey through this.

We have a three-month overlap.  A transition is like a handoff in a relay race and it’s done while both runners are running. So I am running force with the baton in my hand until that day of the handoff. And right now my successor is running and he’s getting up to speed with where I am.

And then I will slow my pace and be around as President Emeritus to help fill in some holes for the first month or two. The board wants me to remain as President Emeritus indefinitely, it sounds. I’m not sure how long that will be feasible. But that’s the plan and it seems to be going well.

[00:06:52] Tommy Thomas: Going back maybe a little bit earlier in your career. I’m always curious as to when people turn the corner and maybe they find their professional voice. They get comfortable in their leadership skin. Can you think back over your career to when you segued into that?

[00:07:13] John Ashmen: I don’t think there was a breakthrough, Tommy, at any point where it’s okay, now I think I know what’s going on.

If you have people following you, you have probably found your leadership voice.

I followed in my father’s footsteps. He was certainly a leader and a hero well known in the Delaware Valley, which is South Jersey, Southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Northeastern Maryland, that kind of area. And I just did what came natural and what I observed him doing. I think a lot of it comes with do you have people following you? And if that’s the case, then I think you have found your voice. There was a camp teacher that I always thought was fun. It goes there they go. And I must catch them for, I am their leader. That’s not what you want. And, because I had great responses to the things I started, and the ideas I had, and the initiatives I launched it just seemed to follow that what was happening was what was supposed to be happening.  I think at Christian Camping, I probably perfected those skills Christian Camping Conference Association, when I became the MC for all the conferences for about 15 years, and just realized that we were making progress, and the processes were all firing on all cylinders.

And so there wasn’t, like I said, one time, I think it just increased. And my confidence increased as the positive responses increased.

[00:08:46] Tommy Thomas: If you were to invite me to a staff meeting next week of your senior leadership team and at some point, we excused you and I asked them these two questions.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of working for John? And what’s the most difficult aspect of working for John? What kind of responses do you think I would get?

[00:09:11] John Ashmen: We actually had some of those kinds of questions asked at one time. The one that they would say, probably what’s the most enjoyable aspect is that we make work fun.

There are no routines that are drudgery. We are always looking at something new and my director of meetings and events would say John is full of surprises. It’s fun to do a conference because you have an idea of what’s going to happen and all of a sudden, he springs something on you and you go, yeah, I think we can do that.

And it so it just becomes fun to work and see where we’re going. I think the other thing that was said when this question was asked to our staff was we are seeing results my vice president and director of member services said I’ve stayed here as long as I have because the things that we say we’re going to do in our mission statement and our vision statement, we are actually doing, and we’re seeing these things accomplished.

My Vice President says you’re the best boss I ever had. You’re also the hardest boss I ever had because you expect everything to be done with excellence.

So when you can have that kind of response, that’s probably the most difficult thing is that we don’t let up. We keep going and we keep moving forward. And I am, as I said, an expressive driver and my Vice President says you’re the best boss I ever had. You’re also the hardest boss I ever had because you expect everything to be done with excellence.

And it comes back to the sign that my father had over his lathe in his machine shop. First Corinthians 14:40, let all things be done decently and in order. And so that is something that we look at. We send out every publication as if we’re sending it to the EPA, Environmental Evangelical Press Association, not the Environmental EPA.

Even though it’s an association we’ve won awards for best in class for our publications. And the hardest thing again, just to reiterate, is the demand to have things done well and do them over until they’re done right.


[00:11:20] Tommy Thomas: If you were a judge on a nonprofit version of the Shark Tank and they were asking for early-stage investments, what questions would you need solid answers to before you would open your purse strings?

[00:11:30] John Ashmen: How much have you committed to this personally? There’s a lot of charlatans who come around once you invest in something they think might work. Show me your success and how it’s worked. And then show me the possibilities beyond what you are stating is the success rate in this.

I just want to see that there’s a door to an area that you have not even discovered or explored yet. And so that’s important for me.

[00:12:05] Tommy Thomas: What about if you were consulting and you were creating a dashboard to get at a nonprofit organization’s overall health? What would some of your dials be?

[00:12:16] John Ashmen: The temperature of the staff, you got to start with your personnel and is everybody there enjoying being there and is everybody there? Looking at the possibilities, do they believe in what’s happening? When I was hired to take this position, it was the organization at its own admittance the board telling me was in bad shape.

I didn’t have a job description. I was handed something that was 25 mandates that came out of a survey that the consulting firm had done. The first was we need a new strategic mission and vision. The second one, we need a new business plan that’s profitable. If you’re going to start working for an organization and those are the number one and number two things you’re basically building I would say, is there a vision for where this organization can go and do the people realize it? Do they embrace it? And can they tie everything that they’re doing that particular day to that vision? We have KPAs and KRAs, Key Result Areas, KPIs, I should say, Key Result Areas, KP KKRAs, and these indicators that we look at and I can go around in my organization here and say what are you working on right now and where does this fit in our strategic map?

And is this something that is in which line is this on? And I think once you’re seeing the people understand their role in moving an organization forward, not just building widgets. I think that’s critical. And then the finances are there. Are you financially viable?

Is this something you’d go on to that? I just also look at, what is it we’re doing? Are we selling the invisible or are we selling a product? It’s much easier when you sell a product. There’s a book, Harry Beckwith, I just mentioned, Selling the Invisible, at associations that I’ve been working at for the last 30 years, you really sell something that’s invisible.

If I were in tire manufacturing, you could come and you could run your fingers through the tread on the tires and you could see the wear and tear on used, and you know what you’re buying. Here, you’re buying a promise that we can assist you and be a resource to you. Programs, products and services.

And so you have to agree that what you think you’re going to get is what you will get before you sign up. And we’ve been able to deliver on those products.

[00:15:09] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go to board service for a minute. Obviously, you report to a board, and you serve on several boards. When you think of an ideal board chair what words and phrases come to your mind?

[00:15:21] John Ashmen:  You need to be a board chair who understands the board role. So, intellect, respect, humility. Again, I think those are important. There are a lot of board chairs out there who really don’t know the role of a board chair in a nonprofit. You may have a corporate model where they have a Board Chair and a CEO and a President and they all have different roles and a nonprofit, the Board Chair has to realize that they are not the boss.

I’ve seen so many organizations that are in turmoil because the board chair has entered in and sees himself or herself as the person who is in charge of the organization.

And I’ve seen so many organizations that are in turmoil because the board chair has entered in and sees himself or herself as the person who is in charge of the organization. And the board chair is only a spokesperson for the entire board. They also have to be a good collaborator and communicator.

That’s critical as well, because if they are going to move the organization forward, it has to be done in harmony and the board chair is again, not the person who’s in charge. They’re simply the spokesperson for the entire board. And once they understand that and can move on, they’ll be successful.

[00:16:41] Tommy Thomas:  What does your working relationship look like with you and your board chair?

Since I’ve been here, I’ve probably had 10 different board chairs in 16 years. We change board chairs on a regular basis. And that has been very helpful.

[00:16:48] John Ashmen: I’ve had let’s see, since I’ve been here, probably I’m just going to ballpark it, 10 different board chairs in 16 years. We change board chairs on a regular basis. And that has been very helpful for the organization.

There are some organizations that say, boy, we’ve been fortunate. We’ve had the same board chair for the last 20 years. And I see in those situations, you have great communication, and predictability, but also have a lot of great stagnation. And so the board chair has to be somebody who’s communicative and understands where they’re going. I’ve had some really good board chairs. The difficult ones are the ones who still took them a while to understand that they weren’t in charge, but we got that settled pretty quickly, and then others who were just hard to get ahold of.

I work in a national organization, actually international, we’re the U.S., Canada, Caribbean. My Board Chair can be 2,000 miles away from me. And if I don’t have somebody that will pick up the phone when I call, and realize that, hey, even though I’ve had a hard day’s work in my own organization this is my opportunity, and I’ve signed up for this to be communicated here, so I think that’s important as well somebody who’s we’re able to have good communications.

[00:18:17] Tommy Thomas: So how often do you meet with your board chair, either formally or informally?

[00:18:20] John Ashmen: I don’t think this is a good sample right now because we’re going through succession. And with the succession, there’s a lot of stuff going on. But normally, before this time, I would probably talk to my board chair twice a month.

And our board meetings for the longest time, were two times a year. And then we added and those two times were three-day meetings. So, we had two three-day meetings where everybody flew in from all over North America. And then we added, about four years ago, three years ago maybe, we added two more meetings via Zoom and that makes it four meetings per year.

So, four meetings per year are when I talk to the board chair, and twice a month after that and they’re usually not long conversations. They’re maybe sometimes three or four minutes and then we’re done.

[00:19:20] Tommy Thomas: Who sets the agenda for your board meeting?

[00:19:24] John Ashmen: I do. I set the agenda for the board meeting because I’m the one who knows what needs to be done and where we’re going and what steps and processes have to be done. It’s funny you asked that question because the last thing I did before I picked up the phone to call you here was send out the agenda for my July 25th board meeting to my executive committee and said, this is going to be the agenda. Let me know if you have any questions and if we want to talk about anything.

Most of the items on the agenda will not be a surprise because there are things that were carryovers from previous meetings or things that they know have happened at this point. But yeah, I set the agenda.

[00:20:04] Tommy Thomas: What about term limits for board members? What’s been your experience or observations there on best practices?

[00:20:13] John Ashmen: There are different kinds of boards where different kinds of situations work better. I don’t run a local ministry. I don’t run a local nonprofit where you want to have on your board, the local banker, the local head of the hospital, the local owner of the hardware store, or whatever it happens to be.

I work at an international association, and it’s a representative association. My board members are made up of practitioners in the industry. So, I have a board of 15, and all but three of them are rescue mission leaders. And so that’s a little bit different. I don’t have somebody who’s coming in from the perspective of being an attorney, somebody who’s coming in from the perspective of being in management, somebody else who’s coming in who understands supply chain or whatever it is.

And they’re all bringing a different area of expertise. The lion’s share of the people I work with all lead rescue missions, and they have one profession. And they’re representative. They’re not brought on for their expertise in an area. They’re brought on to represent their peers. So, in my world, I’ve insisted that the board needed to be three years on and you’re done.

We don’t even have the opportunity for a second three-year term, which most revolving boards have. You come on to our board and you’re on for three years and then you’re off. And we have others come in. When you have a representative board and there are 75 people in one particular district that are eligible for the board.

Most of them would want to be on the board at some time, I would think, because they’re leaders. And they get to know that, hey, there’s another term coming up where maybe I could be on that board. If you are on for three years, and then you get to another three years you got six years, and if you had a couple of those, you only get two or three people from that whole district ever to be a representative. So that’s how I work it. I like a revolving board with one term of three years and it works for me.


[00:22:38] Tommy Thomas: Maybe this is a broader question or maybe a more high-level question. A lot of people talk about bringing younger people onto boards, people in their thirties and forties.

When you think of boards, I guess in an American sense, it’s usually a bunch of men and they’re usually older. Maybe speak to that idea of diversification on a board in terms of wisdom and experience and what all that means.

[00:23:05] John Ashmen:  If you’re having a board that’s overstaying a corporate fund or stock investments, you want the oldest, wisest people you can get.

You don’t want to bring a millennial in and say, hey, what kind of creative ideas do you have? We can play with this money. That’s not what makes sense there. I think boards have to be a mosaic of their community and the people that they serve. And so that includes gender diversity, racial diversity, size of organization diversity, all of that kind of thing has to be included.

Rescue mission Boards should be a mosaic of the community they serve.  That includes gender, racial, age – diversity of all kinds must be included.

But I will also tell missions and my world rescue missions that your board needs to have on their people who have been through a program and understand what it’s like to have been homeless or something like that. You don’t want to make your whole board that way, but you want to have perspectives that represent that.

And I also push for age diversity as well. You don’t want to have people, all people who are baby boomers on a board. You’re going to be shocked when all of a sudden you get your first millennial and find out that your positions don’t line up anywhere near what the positions are that they would hold.

And so, I think you need to gradually bring some of those folks on so you can adapt to perspectives that are changing every day in the world around us. That’s certainly something that’s important. I applaud those who bring somebody onto the board who is in their late twenties, early thirties, but not just somebody who has no idea what they want to do in life.

Somebody who understands where they’re going and has some goals of their own. And yeah, I push for that all the time.

[00:24:58] Tommy Thomas: Somebody once said you need a director on the board who will be a pleasant irritant. Someone who will force people to think a little differently. That’s what a good board does. Your thoughts on that philosophy?

[00:25:11] John Ashmen: Yeah, I have been that person on my board but I’m the one who’s asking the tough questions. I’ve got 15 board members and there certainly always is somebody like that. They learn to ask the question as long as they ask them in the right way looking for the right thing, not just to be disagreeable. I welcome it.

And it challenges me to make sure I have the answers in place. Yeah, I will always take somebody like that. I’d rather have people like that than people who aren’t really engaged and rarely talk at a meeting. Fortunately, I have a pretty good hand in helping to pick the board.

I don’t select them, but I make strong recommendations and so I get people who I know will be question-askers to begin with.

[00:26:01] Tommy Thomas: This is maybe more on a local board than it would apply to your board, but any thoughts on the board and risk management?

[00:26:07] John Ashmen: Risk management is certainly something we all have to keep in mind these days.

There are risks at every corner. Going back to that idea of surrounding yourself with better people than you are, we have resource colleagues that we go to all the time when these risks come up. And as you can imagine, there are huge risks when it comes to running a rescue mission, or a street mission, or a city mission.  And we’re always mindful of those things.

[00:26:43] Tommy Thomas: You get a call next week from somebody who’s been asked to join a nonprofit board. What questions are you telling them to make sure they have answered in their mind and heart?

[00:26:57] John Ashmen: First thing is, why do they want you?  Have they told you why they want you? Have they been up front?  It used to be that people were asked for one of the three W’s. Wealth, wisdom, or worth. Wealth, wisdom, or work. They want you because you have a construction team at your disposal, and you can work and build things or whatever it is.

Or it’s your wisdom, you’re very wise on other boards and notice for that. Or it’s you’re going to support. Is there a reason why they’re asking you? And then can you support the ministry long-term? Or the organization, whatever. If it’s not a ministry of nonprofit, of sub-court, can you support this and would you support it after you’re done, or is it just a temporary thing? And the other question I was asking would can you fire the CEO if things weren’t going well? Do you have that ability, capacity? Or if, oh my, I don’t know, he’s a good friend, I’d hate to do that. If you can’t fire the CEO, then you shouldn’t be on the board.

[00:28:08] Tommy Thomas: Wrap-up question.  Maybe two wrap-up questions. One, if you could tell a younger version of yourself something, what would that be?

[00:28:18] John Ashmen: The first thing is listen to your son. Invest in Apple. Back when it was $7.92 a share. That’s the first thing. My son works for Apple Corporate. They were paying him in stock, I think, initially.

Listen as much as you speak.  Let others talk and hear them out.  Don’t assume you know what their mindset is.  Make sure you give people the benefit of the doubt.

Listen as much as you speak. That was probably one of the lessons that took a long while to learn but let others talk and hear them out, don’t just assume you know what their mindset is, and always make sure that you’re giving people the benefit of the doubt.

[00:28:57] Tommy Thomas: If you had a do-over in life, what would it be?

[00:29:03] John Ashmen: I really don’t know. Maybe keep moving up in housing.  I’ve stayed in the same house for such a time and all of my peers have moved up three or four houses, for your long-term investment. I don’t know, that’s a personal thing, but as far as organizationally I don’t think I have one.


[00:29:25] Tommy Thomas: You’re in a good place. Thank you so much for your time today and for the insights you’ve shared with us. And I wish you the best as you make this transition.

[00:29:36] John Ashmen: Thank you. I appreciate it.

[00:29:38] Tommy Thomas: Thank you for joining us today. If you are a first-time listener, I hope you will subscribe and become a regular. You can find links to all the episodes on our website.

If there are topics that you’d like for me to explore my email address is [email protected].  

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“Listen as much as you speak. Let others talk and hear them out. Don’t assume you know what their mindset is. Make sure you give people the benefit of the doubt.” -John Ashmen


Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

Citygate Network Website

Invisible Neighbors – John Ashmen

Selling the Invisible – Harry Beckwith


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