“Make sure your work is what you are called to do.”-Lisa Trevino Cummins
[00:00:00] Lisa Cummins: I think the question I would ask is what is your employee turnover? And because I have found nonprofits come and go, employee turnover helps me understand what your commitment is to, what your ability is to lead, and what your consistency is with your values. Because if you’re not consistent, employees won’t stay long.
Tommy Thomas: Today, we’re continuing the conversation that we began last week with Lisa Trevino Cummins.
Lisa spent the first 12 plus years of her career with Bank of America where she expanded the bank’s community development initiative to become one of the first national corporations to partner with faith-based organizations in underserved neighborhoods. From Bank of America, Lisa was called to help launch the White House Community and Faith-Based Initiative. In 2003, she started Urban Strategies where she continues her work to make resources more available to underserved communities.
Since founding Urban Strategies, Lisa has been a catalyst of several initiatives that resulted in almost $40 million of new programming focused in low-income communities.
Let’s pick up the conversation when I was asking her about the early days of Urban Strategies.
[00:01:23] Tommy Thomas: You’re probably not the first founder I’ve interviewed but you’d be one of the first. What was the genesis of Urban Strategies?
[00:01:29] Lisa Cummins: Yeah, I mentioned that I worked for 12 years with Bank of America and about the last five years of that, and again, I had this parallel path of working in the bank and being fairly successful in that.
And then the second parallel path to that was working in the church. And really that’s where my heart was about year seven or eight into this journey of the bank. I started questioning why those two paths were divergent. Why, if I’m talking about if I’m working in the bank to address communities in need and why is that different?
Why is my church life not connected there? I read a book called The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey. And that really helped highlight the passages in the scripture that, even though I’ve read the Bible three or four times, I really never saw those passages in Matthew about serving those in need, about loving your neighbor, about justice, about God’s heart for the poor.
When he talks to the Israelites and judges has some judgment on the Israelites because of how they treated the marginalized. So, I had this, what I call a “holy agitation” and where my spirit was struggling with this, and about that time the Lord, it was the Lord.
But the bank asked me to move to St. Louis to help start the community development group I had in Texas, to help start that in a bank that we had purchased in the Midwest. So, I had five states reporting to me. Developing from the ground up. It was a hard move because I was really on the fast track in San Antonio politically and socially.
So I ended up moving to the Midwest and it was a hard transition. We didn’t know anyone there. That community was not familiar with the culture that I came from. Spaghetti sauce substituted for hot sauce at the time, and that’s hard for a Texan. And during that time we ended up at a church that was not part of my tradition.
I was from a Pentecostal background. This church was a PCA church. And long story short,
We saw, in action, the answer to that question and that holy agitation I was wrestling with because this congregation was very intentional about reconciling people to God and reconciling people to one another.
And so, you had a congregation before multiculturalism became popular. They were really living that out and very intentional about it. And that became a pivotal point for me in terms of recognizing the role, the opportunity, the obligation that the faith community had to serving its neighbors, to loving its neighbors.
And one thing led to the other. My pastor in Texas, I had brought him to the Midwest, said, you got to see what I’m talking about. And so he said, he came 24 hours. He said, Lisa, my world’s been turned upside down and I’m going to meet with the governor next week. Can I tell him about this? I’m like, sure, you can tell whoever you want to.
It happened to be Governor George W. Bush. And so, when they met it wasn’t long after that I got a call from the governor’s office and said, hey, we want to understand what you’re doing and what you’re working on because that’s something we want to do in Texas.
And so, the governor became president and then they asked, we want help. We want to develop this faith-based initiative nationally. Can you come to the White House and help us do that?
I had three kids under three. The twin boys that were six months and my daughter, who was two and a half and my husband. We moved to DC and ended up working there for a couple years.
[00:05:23] Tommy Thomas: So, when you finally spun off and went out on your own what was that first year like?
[00:05:27] Lisa Cummins: The first year was, when you work in the government, it’s illegal to set up your business for when you’re going to be, for when or relationships or anything, or when you’re going to exit. I exited because I felt that my calling was to work with the church to love its neighbors. I had come to the end of what I could do with that internal to the government.
And I saw the need and opportunities on the outside of the government to still further move along that calling. And so, I left the government, and I remember driving. I was like, I’m going to do this. I don’t know how, I don’t know where, but this is the work I have to continue.
And so, I let folks know that was happening. And I got a couple of small contracts. I remember that first check, I don’t know, it was $10,000 or something. And I was so proud of that because I am entrepreneurial and just that sense of being able to build something and then get paid for it was pretty cool.
But it was a time of learning. It was a time of flexibility. It was a time of really trying to find my way. I remember there’s a fellow named Gordon Loux, I don’t know if you know him. He always said, Lisa, the challenge you’re going to have is figuring out where you’re going to focus.
And he’s right. We do all kinds of work, but the common thread has been low income or it’s not low income. The common thread has been working with Latino populations. Why? Because that’s what I know best. And working with the church. And today we do that in all 50 states.
We do that in Puerto Rico, we do that in Central America and do in all kinds of arenas. I’m sorry, I think I diverted from your original question. I remember Tommy, I will say one vivid recollection I have, it was about August, September of that first year of 2002.
This is our 20th anniversary at Urban Strategies. And I remember being really frustrated because I saw the need was so significant in communities and I didn’t have any resources. I remember a woman saying, Lisa, I don’t think we need federal funds because God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.
I’m like, I agree that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, but where those resources are, they’re not being released to the communities I work in. So where I do have access is federal funding. And I was wrestling with that idea and wrestling with God about why is it so hard to get resources?
And I never got an answer on why, but I got the comfort of understanding that if I’m doing God’s work, God’s going to provide. And so, I was able to let that go. Let that go. And God has.
[00:08:22] Tommy Thomas: So, what counsel would you give an up-and-coming wannabe founder?
[00:08:29] Lisa Cummins: I go back to what that pastor told me 20 something years ago, to make sure it’s what you’re called to do.
The work that is called to do. Two is not make your ownership the goal but make your goal that calling. That calling can be pursued in a number of different ways. It can be in partnership, it could be like, I was in banking, I was very much an entrepreneur in banking even though I was part of this structured company of 60,000 employees.
But I was running my own thing. So, I think it’s really important to not think, not to lead with the form or the structure, but lead with the calling and purpose. And I think the form of structure then will come and will be made known. You’ll understand what that is.
If in fact that means setting up your own organization, I would say keep your costs low. I’m still at the office where, this call is from my home. So, I was doing remote work 20 years ago, before it became popular. Our headquarters folks asked us today, where is your headquarters?
I’m here in Arlington and this has been my office for the last 20 years, but we don’t have a headquarters because we’re based all over the country. I didn’t make those big expenses early on and so it gave me some freedom to not have to worry about how I was going to pay for those things.
And it allowed me to focus in on again, what my purpose in calling had been.
[00:10:00] Tommy Thomas: Another question first. And you may have answered this all along the way, but can you think of a time when you felt like you had found your professional voice that you know, that you were comfortable in your skin?
[00:10:13] Lisa Cummins: Yeah. Tommy, that’s an interesting question. I think it depends on who is listening to that voice. I think being raised in a community where you’re the first or you’re the only one has caused me to be hesitant about my voice. Even among people who are well-meaning and I know are great folks, the differences in our upbringing, in our culture, in our understanding and our experiences would cause me to be comfortable in a second seat. Because for me to be comfortable, behind someone in leadership or behind someone that’s front stage. I think there’s some real benefit to that.
Because I think that comes with having a sense of humility that requires me to really focus on what is it that matters to me. Is it that I’m at the front with a microphone or is it that this gets done right? And so, I think there’s been a lot of that. Having said that, over time it’s funny when people say wow, you’re an expert at this. I’m like, I don’t feel like it’s just because I’ve lived longer, it’s just because I have a few more gray hairs. That I’ve been able to speak on things. And so, I think in the last 10 years, I think I actually have become more comfortable in my voice.
I have, and in some ways that’s a sad reality because I think I had a lot to contribute prior to 10 years ago. And having said that, I think that I am not as concerned anymore about what others think, nor as concerned about what others might think. And there’s a term that our culture uses today that’s called gaslighting.
And as I understand it, gaslighting is causing people to believe that it’s their failure. That has resulted in x, y, z consequences rather than the person that’s doing the gaslighting. And I think in some ways I’ve allowed myself to be in that place of being the individual, the part of a community that is at fault or is less than or it comes short and hasn’t recognized the value that I bring to the table.
I think Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about David and Goliath that’s along those lines about, everyone saw David as the minuscule person who’s going to be tossed and defeated, etc. But David’s experiences brought him some things that really allow, besides the divine, besides God being part of that story.
But it allowed David to bring some understanding of resilience, of working under pressure of working with, few less resources, etc. That’s what my community has brought to the table, and I think I’ve, over the last 10 years, I’ve owned that more than I had in the past.
[00:13:21] Tommy Thomas: Earlier in the conversation you were talking about transparency and maybe you said you might’ve got hurt a little bit there. This is a quote from Joyce Meyer that I’d like for you to respond to. She writes about what she calls the Judas Kiss Test – The test of being portrayed by friends that we have loved, respected, and trusted. Most people in positions of leadership for any length of time are likely to experience this.
[00:13:48] Lisa Cummins: Unfortunately, if I’ve experienced that more times than I’d like to, that I’d like to admit, and hopefully I haven’t been the perpetrator of that for anyone else.
I think when power and greed come to the picture things change and I think all of us are susceptible to that.
And I think that I’ve had some very difficult situations that have been driven at, in hindsight by those two things. And I think for me, the key is what I need, I am always checking myself to make sure that I’m on the right side of that story. And if I’m not to make amends and to identify what there is that I can, that I need to adjust on my end. But yeah, there’s been things, and I think any business owner, any leader,you’re susceptible to folks who maybe at one time, they were the best of, they were the trusted confidant, but something changed in their environment.
Something changed, and those that influenced them, something changed in their circumstances that caused them then to make this Judas kiss. Ironically, we’re talking about it this week. But yeah, those are very hurtful and that’s probably been the most difficult part of my career is those circumstances and, if I didn’t care about folks it wouldn’t matter. But the ones that hurt the most are the ones that were people you care about the most. That’s where it’s going to hurt the most. And it’s just part of where we are, part of humanity. And so I try to learn from that. I try to also appreciate, a friend of mine said, Lisa, don’t ever trust me without accountability,and she’s my most trusted friend.
But she said that to me because she loved me, and she knows that all of us have shortcomings. And I think accountability is key. And another friend told me, a banker that’s been my friend now for the last 25 years, she’s our CFO. She says check what is it, trust and verify.
And so I’m learning to do that better. Trust and verify.
[00:16:04] Tommy Thomas: Let’s switch over to board service. Because obviously you report to a board, you serve on several boards. And I just would appreciate some of your input here. So, when did your first board show up?
[00:16:16] Lisa Cummins: So actually Tommy, I’m an LLC so, technically, I don’t have a board. Having said that, we do have a couple of projects that require a board. So, we’ve set up a board for those projects. And I don’t have a board, not primarily, just because when I started the organization that was establishing a 501(c) 3 and all the process that goes with that just wouldn’t happen fast enough for the kinds of things I was doing.
Having said that, I do have people who I trust. And so I hold myself accountable to our CFO, to our employees. I hold myself accountable to, and then I have some outside friends that have been on the journey with me for decades who I hold myself accountable to.
So having said that I do serve, I have served on a number of boards. And so, I think there are different kinds of boards. Some are boards where it’s as a good friend said, nose in, hands out, and then other boards where it’s like, we need you all in. So, it depends on where the organization is.
Their life cycle, the maturity of the board organization, the kind of resources they have, etc, that determine then what kind of board you’re going to have and what kind of board members that you need.
[00:17:36] Tommy Thomas: You’ve served on the World Vision Board. That’s a big one, obviously. Maybe you can highlight some differences about the big board like that versus some of the smaller boards you’ve served on.
[00:17:47] Lisa Cummins: Yeah, so I think World Vision, it was a nine-year term, three, three-year terms. It was a great experience.
I think I learned a lot and hopefully I was able to contribute from my experience and knowledge with equal value. I think that World Vision is a very large organization, and so the best way to serve them is by asking those tough strategic questions. And by those questions that really are looking at more systems and strategy policy versus.
Another board here in my community that I’ve been part of where I was signing time cards and helping make calls on fundraising and those sorts of things. So, they’re very different. I have served on a public board which is Texas Teacher Retirement System.
It was only for about a year and a half because I had to withdraw since I was moving to DC, that board was very interesting. It’s politically appointed members of the board. And I remember learning that I was approved to serve on that board. It was, at the time it was a 60 billion fund.
I don’t know what it is today. Probably double that if not more. But I remember I got a call from a gentleman, again, I hadn’t been to a board meeting, just got word. And he says, hello, Lisa. This is Bo in his West Texas accent. Welcome to the board. What side are you on?
Oh, I said I don’t know, the teacher side.
And it was a board where there were some issues that there would be sideline meetings on who’s going to, who’s going to join with who. And alliances met. That was crazy. And I was appointed by Governor Bush. And so, it’s interesting and even serving in the Republican administration, I’ve never been a partisan person.
I try to vote and do what I feel like is best according to my biblical perspective, and so folks assume I go this way on one item and another way on another item, and I don’t do that. And so I think that on that, even on that board, whether it was talking about how you’re going to invest funds, or you’re going to, how much are you going to put in versus how much you’re going to put in funds.
There was political haggling going on. I’ve just tried to stay true to what my values are, and that’s what I bring. I can’t bring anything else. And so if that doesn’t work, then that’s probably not a good place for me.
[00:20:35] Tommy Thomas: I’ve started asking in the last month or so, my Shark Tank question.
If you were on a nonprofit version of a Shark Tank, what questions would you need answered before you opened your checkbook?
[00:20:48] Lisa Cummins: I was ready to tell you what my investment opportunity was. I have that one, I have a few of those ready.
I think the question I would ask is what is your employee turnover? Because I have found nonprofits come and go and employee turnover helps me understand what your commitment is to, what your ability is to lead, what your consistency is with your values.
Because if you’re not consistent, employees won’t stay long. Maybe you can explain them once or twice, but if you have an ongoing record of employees that are leaving, then there’s a problem there. The other thing I would ask is a lot of nonprofits talk about partners.
Let’s say, describe the continuum of partnership with these organizations. When you say your partner is this because you dropped off a leaflet at their door sometimes, that’s okay. Depends on what the goal is or is this talking about someone who you know their name, right?
You know their name and you know their story and so you’re trying to get at it in a deeper way. Those kinds of things. Yeah, I think those are a couple of questions I would ask. I would also ask how well, and this is important, not just for, some people will say, this is a political thing and it’s not.
How well does your organization reflect the communities you’re serving? Because if it doesn’t, that means that there’s probably a sense of a pejorative type of approach that is not going to be that way. What could be, and it’ll result in less results than what could be.
Does that make sense?
[00:22:43] Tommy Thomas: Yes. If a nonprofit calls you and they’re looking for a little consulting and you’re going to put together a dashboard of things that you would be looking at a glance to check on their health what would that dashboard look like.
[00:22:56] Lisa Cummins: Yeah, so I think it’s who are you partnering with and what are the depths of those partners? Do you know how to partner, can you partner too? What is your employee retention rate? I think the third would be your 30, 60, 90-day accounts payables and 30, 60, 90-day receivables.
What does that look like? And accounts payables are very concerning. Obviously if you’re 60 days behind in paying, you’re like, what’s going on here? And how long has this been the case? And so that relates to some of the financials. I would look at the composition of leadership and experiences that they bring.
I think I would also look at if, and I get calls all the time, organizations wanting to start something. What have I asked? In looking for resources, I ask, what have you already done with the resources that you have? And so if you’re in organizations, I want to start them. I want to work to serve my neighborhood and work with kids.
Kids need something. I said okay, what’s the name of the school principal in your neighborhood? And they don’t know that then that’s a sign to me that they haven’t done their homework. They haven’t done enough work, they haven’t been driven enough to do this even without resources.
Because I think if you are driven and called, you’re going to figure out a way to do it. It may not be all that you want to do, and it may not be, but it says that you’re going to do something with the time and the health that you have.
[00:24:27] Tommy Thomas: What do you wish a younger version of yourself had known and acted upon?
[00:24:33] Lisa Cummins: I think my younger self, it would’ve been good to know that my voice matters and that difference doesn’t mean that one is inferior to the other. And that hard work matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters.
There’s a scripture that talks about you can toil all day, but it’d be off or not. And I think that’s important. So hard work matters, but the goal, the purpose, the reason that you’re doing things you know that you’ve got to keep that forefront.
In Episode 85, we began a conversation with Jerry White that we will conclude next week. If you didn’t hear that episode, Jerry is the President Emeritus of The Navigators International. Prior to that, he enjoyed a distinguished career in the United States Air Force – retiring as a two-star general.
One of the reasons I wanted Jerry to be a guest is because of the depth of his nonprofit board service. Among the boards on which he has served are World Vision, The Navigators, Christian Leadership Alliance, Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and the Air Force Association.
[00:26:06] Jerry White: In one board that I’m on, we appoint someone every board meeting to be what we call a responsible skeptic. And that person is designated ahead of time. their job in that board meeting is to be a bit skeptical. Now, I think you have to be a little careful about always having a person who’s always skeptical.
I don’t think I want a board member who every time something comes up, they raise their eyebrow, and you wonder what they’re thinking. I think everybody ought to be a little skeptical at some time. And the main thing is if they don’t understand something they need to ask.
“We saw, in action, the answer to that holy agitation I was wrestling with because this congregation was very intentional about reconciling people to God and reconciling people to one another.”-Lisa Trevino Cummins
Links and Resources
Listen to Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas on: