The Changing Role of the Nonprofit CFO – Part 2

“If I could go back in time and tell a younger version of myself one thing, I would encourage me to hang in there. In the long run, it’s worth it.  The struggle, the challenges, it’s worth it!” -Scott Brill

Today, we’re continuing the conversation that we began last week with Scott Brill, the Chief Financial Officer at Young Life, and Mark Tjernagel, the CFO for Cru. These two seasoned CFOs have given us a behind-the-scenes look at the role of the Chief Financial Officer and a nonprofit organization and how that role is changed over the years. 

Mark brings a perspective of having worked for Cru his entire adult life and is the longest-serving CFO that Cru has ever had. Scott began his career in the private sector with Target Corporation and joined Young Life a little over five years ago as their CFO. Let’s pick up the conversation where we left off last week.

[00:00:43] Tommy Thomas: Take me a little bit into getting maybe a little more toward the accounting and finance piece of this, because I know our listeners, I want them to hear about that piece. Tell me a little bit about the size of your teams, and so you both work for two of the largest Parachurch Ministries, at least in the United States, probably in the world. Both of you are international. Tell me about your teams. 

Scott, what does that look like at Young Life? 

[00:01:09] Scott Brill: Yeah, so I have the financial services teams plus administrative and legal risk management teams. The financial services team is, 40 to 50 people. And that’s really a lot of hourly people focused on income processing, the donation activity, accounts payable, all of our P card activity that’s associated with that and is used throughout all of the U.S. and many countries in the world and then, our core accounting teams which are fewer people, but support accounting for all of our consolidated Young Life missions across the world. And we’re in 102 countries. Not all of those are consolidated, but we’re doing ministry work in 102 different countries.

[00:01:57] Mark Tjernagel: So, for me, our structure is a little bit different than Young Life. I have a team of about 75 people based out of Orlando, largely. Doing everything from the typical financial services that you would think of, but also internal audi. Cru is made up of many ministry divisions and many of your listeners have probably heard of the Jesus Film Project or Family Life or the Campus Ministry.

Those are all parts of Cru. So, Cru is a lot like an umbrella. With all of these things under it, each of the heads of finance for all of those divisions also reports on my team, so there are about 75 of those people, that I directly give leadership to then indirectly, there’s probably another 75 to 100 people that either, you know, in related departments, but they don’t report to me or that are out within our divisions. And so they report more indirectly as opposed to directly to me. But it’s a pretty good-sized team. We have a lot of great folks working in finance. 

[00:03:01] Tommy Thomas: How much of the job takes an accounting mind, and how much of it takes a finance mind? And I think I do know the difference between those two functions. 

[00:03:11] Scott Brill: Yeah, you’re talking about our jobs? Yeah, the CFO role.

I would say it’s predominantly the leadership and more of the financial mind is way more prominent than the accounting. There are a lot of CFOs who’ve never done accounting, and don’t have accounting degrees, right?

They have an MBA and an engineering undergrad, right? And I think at that, at this level, you have a good controller who has to firmly understand all of the accounting, but many CFOs don’t have that.

[00:03:44] Mark Tjernagel:  Yeah, I came up through accounting, right? I started in accounting. That was my track to be in the CFO.

That’s a little heavier in terms of my experience than the finance side, what we would call treasury management, but certainly, once you get to this, the level of CFO, I don’t do any journal entries, I’ll interact with the partner from the auditing firm that’s auditing Cru.

Most of my time is not on the technical. It’s on the relational side and the leadership side.

[00:04:12] Mark Tjernagel: And I have to understand what’s happening with accounting, right? It’s certainly that. But most of my time is not on the technical. It’s on the relational side and the leadership side. But I would say this, I think if I’m trying to really dig deeper into where your question was going there.

As a CFO, I do spend more time thinking about things like debt and investments and liquidity, and cash flow. Things like that, which tend to be more the finance side, the treasury function, then I do thinking about strategies for how we’re managing the accounting for a film project or something like that.

I have people that are really good at that, and they do it, and they report it up to me, but I tend to be involved a little bit more on the liquidity and the treasury side. 

[00:05:03] Tommy Thomas: Obviously, Scott, you’ve had a longer tenure in the private sector. So you might draw from that and, Mark, you obviously are from a nonprofit. But to both of you, how has the CFO role changed over the last 20 years?

[00:05:19] Mark Tjernagel: I wasn’t the CFO, you know in the 80’s, so I don’t know what it was like back then, but I’ll speak for myself, what I’m seeing now, is it requires communication skills and it requires relation, abilities to build relationships. There’s so much technical, so many people in the ministry, in the nonprofit setting, that don’t understand like the super technical finance things, right? And frankly, don’t even care about them. They just want to know can I do it and I do what God’s called me to do. And so the ability to translate, to simplify, to take a really complex matter and just to be able to present it in less than 60 seconds, and then to say to a Board, you know to our Board or to leadership, hey, here are the things that we should be concerned about, and being able to say it really simply.

Communication skills are vital for the nonprofit CFO. You have to be able to communicate well.

[00:06:13] Mark Tjernagel: So, communication skills are just vital for CFOs. Now, maybe it was like that in the eighties, but I know right now that’s the life of a CFO and a nonprofit. You have to be able to communicate well.

[00:06:37] Scott Brill: Yeah, I agree. And that evolution has, the role has tended to get more strategic and forward-looking.  You report on what the results were and you share that with everybody. Make sure everybody knows how they did financially. 

It’s much more about how you are partnering and working with people to change and improve results going forward.


[00:06:56] Tommy Thomas: In both of your organizations, what does your interface with the board look like? 

[00:07:02] Mark Tjernagel: For me, I attend all the board meetings. My team does the presenting. We have two financial-related committees, an audit committee, and what we call an investment committee.

And so we’re putting the materials together, we’re doing the presentations, we’re framing out the issues we need decisions on for the board. So as the CFO, I personally interact with the chairman of those committees. Make sure they have what they need ahead of time. So, there’s a lot of personal interaction with board members.

Whenever the board meets, they always have dinner. And members of management are able to go and interact with them in that way. So there’s a personal relationship with the board members, but there’s also a kind of a real formal role that we play as well in presenting to the board.

[00:07:56] Scott Brill: We have a finance committee that basically does the presentations to the finance committee at each of the board meetings and shares that with the entire board during the executive session. And then we have an investment committee. That’s a subset of the finance committee and I chair the investment committee. So, we’re actively integrated with the board on keeping them up-to-date and involved in our financial performance. 

[00:08:25] Tommy Thomas: You guys have the privilege of probably working with fairly sophisticated boards. I know some of your board members from each of your organizations. If you were teaching at CLA or somewhere, what kind of counsel are you giving the CFOs on how to interact with their boards, and how to keep them informed?

[00:08:47] Mark Tjernagel: One of the most important concepts, and look, I serve on a lot of boards and at Cru, I don’t serve on the Cru board. I help our board as a member of management, but then I serve on a lot of other boards. One of the most important concepts to remember for people is that the board has a distinct role and it’s not management.

Like management has a role. The board has a role. And there’s a lot of trouble when the board tries to manage and run the organization or when management tries to or fails to run the organization and basically keeps going to the board to tell them what to do all the time. So keeping those roles separate, I think is really important where you, so for example, one of my previous bosses told me, and it’s been a lesson I’ve always remembered is

Don’t ask the Board what to do. Present to the Board your proposal of what you’d like to do. If they don’t like it, they’ll tell you.

Don’t ask the board what to do, present to the board your proposal of what you’d like to do. If they don’t like it, they’ll tell you, but don’t go to the board and say we’ve got this issue, we’re not sure what to do, what do you guys think? Go to the board and say we’ve got this issue.

Management has worked through a process. We would like to propose this course of action. And we’re seeking the Board’s approval on management taking this action. And so, it emphasizes that separation between the Board, that’s governing these trustees that are governing the organization, and management, which is running the organization.

[00:10:17] Scott Brill: One of my first interactions with nonprofit boards, that was the conversation. Is this a governing board or a fundraising board? Never is the conversation, is it a managing board? 

The Board should be focused on fundraising or governance or some combination of both.

And that’s the advice I would give them is exactly following up on Mark’s.

[00:10:39] Scott Brill: Continue to use them for governance purposes and fundraising purposes. 

[00:10:44] Tommy Thomas: What role does the board have in risk management, if any, and if not, how does your office help mitigate risk?

[00:10:56] Scott Brill: I think that’s one of their principal duties, right? As a governing board, they are charged with evaluating the risk relative to the nonprofit, focused, in our case, our ministry. And where are risks appropriate to take relative to the value of the ministry? And where do we need to have risk mitigation strategies in place?  To mitigate the risk to the broader global ministry.

[00:11:23] Mark Tjernagel: Yeah. I totally agree. It’s fundamental to the board’s role to evaluate what we would call enterprise risk at that level to hold management accountable to that evaluation and provide the information that they need to perform their role in assessing that risk.

Risk management reports to me, and they do an assessment of risk and so forth, all of that, but a lot of that ends up being, like the insurance component, how we’re transferring risk outside or what we’re holding inside and what we’re using the captive for and what we’re just buying in the regular markets, that’s more of the kind of the insurance side, the risk role for the board is broader than the insurance side. It’s reputational risk and it’s, it’s all those things as well.


[00:12:16] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go back to your team for a minute. When some people would think about accounting and finance, somehow creativity and innovation might not be in the same sentence.  How do you lead your staff in creativity and innovation without getting too far afield from ones and zeros?

[00:12:36] Mark Tjernagel: There are things you can be creative in and then things you shouldn’t be creative in. Controls how your transactions process and function.

There are a lot of aspects of the finance function that are a little more set. But when it comes to things like how are you supporting decision-making? How are you analyzing your data? And Scott talked earlier about the finance function has evolved from reporting history more towards helping to set the path for the future.

There’s a lot of creativity in how you think about your data. I can’t give you the exact example, but I’ll give you a general example. Right now, we have a board meeting next week and even now we’re finalizing kind of what’s the story behind a lot of the data we’re looking at with this certain aspect of our donation and our staffing models and what that means and how then might that impact what we do in the future?

So, there’s creativity in that. It’s not, we’re not artists or anything like that, but I will say this. It’s not just accounting and finance majors working in finance, right? We have a lot of people that don’t have those degrees, and one of the degrees that I have found has been super helpful are economics degrees, because economists, that’s what they do.

They’re really looking at data and they’re trying to interpret things and say what in essence is really happening. And, that mindset and that thinking is really helpful for us in finance as well.

Two words that I never like hearing together are creative and accounting.  That’s not a place where I like to have people doing too much creativity.

[00:14:08] Scott Brill: Two words that I never like hearing together are creative and accounting.  That’s not a place where I like to have people doing too much creativity. 

For me, it comes down to asking why. When I joined Young Life five years ago the controller would tell you after the first three months of coming in, he started to come in with, okay, I’m going to start with, here’s the why. And that really drives the, wait, I’m thinking about this differently. I’m not sharing you. This is what we do. This is how it’s been done in the past; this is the result of that. It’s the, okay, why are we doing this? Why are we looking at this? That helps you start thinking okay, like now I can think about how I want that work going forward, which sparks the creativity. Oh, I get to change how this is working. How should it work going forward? 

[00:15:02] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most ambitious project you or your department has taken on and how did it come out? 

[00:15:13] Scott Brill: I’ll go first. We’re in the middle of it. I don’t know how it’s going to come out. But we’re implementing Workday to replace Lawson as our general ledger software package.  It’s going to include human resources and a lot more of the typical enterprise infrastructure. So I did not want to do that. But we didn’t have a choice because Lawson is no longer going to be supported. I’m going to foreshadow that it’s going to come out great or you’re going to die trying one of the two, like those system projects are a bear, like they just are.

[00:15:50] Mark Tjernagel: I’ll take a little bit different angle and I’ll say this. When I took over the leadership of the finance team, I think it’s safe to say it was in disarray. We had a very low tenure. We had high turnover rates. There was a lot of pressure that we were understaffed.

And so there’s a lot of pressure to get stuff done. And it wasn’t a very fun place to work. And one of the first things I did was I gathered a small group of leaders and I just said, all right we’ve got to figure out how to make this a better place to work. Like, how do we change a culture and, it’s not going to happen overnight, but what do we do?

And we worked a lot together. We didn’t get an answer. The answer didn’t just come to us in the first meeting. We collaborated and we prayed. We did a lot of activity, put a lot of effort into how we change the culture, and tried out different things that worked, some worked great, some didn’t work so great, the theme of what really worked well and undergirded a transformation to which what I would say now is, we do have a great culture now in the finance function. We tried to change towards just really leading with our values.

We have the values within Cru of faith, growth, and fruitfulness. My team added a fourth value called community, because we really needed to work on that. And we just, we said, what does that mean? The slogan for the wall, but what does it actually mean? How do we do that? How do we infuse within how we lead the value of faith?

What does it mean to have a value of faith, the value of faith if you’re in finance and what does growth mean for us as professionals and as missionaries and as, doing our work unto the Lord? And if we really value fruitfulness, how do we do our schedule in our everyday lives?

And that was daunting because finance just stunk. Nobody wanted to work there. So I would say that was probably the biggest scary thing that we took on. And thankfully, looking right now, we’re always growing and learning and changing, but it’s much, much better than it used to be.


[00:18:05] Tommy Thomas: If I had the privilege of traveling to Orlando and then out to Colorado here in the next couple weeks, and you let me attend one of your staff meetings, and at some point, we ask you to leave the room and you left me alone with your staff, first, what would they say would be the most difficult thing about working for you?

[00:18:25] Tommy Thomas: And on the flip side, what do you think they’d say would be the most rewarding aspect of working for you? 

[00:18:32] Mark Tjernagel: I’ll let Scott go first on that one. 

[00:18:37] Scott Brill: You mean what I want them to say? You’re asking what they’re going to say.

What they tell me they would say is… the hardest thing is I don’t let things slide. If I ask them why we’re in a meeting today and it’s why is this, different here? And they’re like, Oh. I’m not sure why. And they’re like, Oh, hard to believe we actually ran through this ahead of time together and yeah, we’re stuck on this, this why.

And so that is what I think they would say is I’m always like finding the little discrepancies or, and I’m always looking for, why does this make sense or why care about this? I think that the thing that I hear that they enjoy the most is that I’m forthright, I tell them exactly what I’m thinking or, what I’m seeing.

And so they know where they stand on an initiative or what they’re doing, with their team and what I think about it, but I let them do it. One of my better coaching moments was with somebody who worked for me. I was like, you need to stop telling your team what to do. Then you can ask questions about why they’re doing something a way, but don’t tell them to do it differently.

Let them figure out why they should be doing it differently. Otherwise, you’re not getting commitment to what you’re doing. You’re just getting compliance with the methodology you are forcing upon them.

[00:20:07] Mark Tjernagel: The hard part of working for me is similar, high expectations, right? And it’s not necessarily demanding excellence.  There can never be a fault, but just really demanding high expectations and pushing people to do things beyond what they think they can do. 

I think the thing they might say that they appreciate the most about me is they know I have their back and I will go to bat for them. I will take the blame.  On their behalf, I’ll try to shield them from a lot of the politics and the things that happen up in the other realm of the organization and defend them a lot. 

[00:20:51] Tommy Thomas: You guys appear to be on the screen here, probably 10 to 15 years my junior. But I want to ask you a question about supervising generations.

So, you may have some boomers on your team, you may have some Gen Xers, you may have some Millennials, and you might even have some Gen Z people. What have you noticed about the difference in the way you, I’ll use the word, manage and or lead? 

[00:21:20] Mark Tjernagel: I wish I was better at this. I don’t know that I’m great. I think there are certainly different ways that we interact. I will interact with different generations, not playing favorites with one or the other. Some of our older staff are more experienced and mature staff. There’s one gentleman in particular who I remember when I asked him, I challenged him to a different role because I wanted him to have something that was less intense than the work that he had, but that could allow him to work for a longer period. And so just working with him on that. But I think I’d say this across generations. People are still motivated by a few things.

And I think one of them is knowing that the work that they’re doing is important. And that they are seen and valued and so whether you’re a brand-new staff member or an intern. I had we have some interns work in the summer. We took them out to lunch earlier this week, But then I’ve got people that are in their 70s still, you know working full-time jobs with us and everybody is the same.

They want to know that their work matters and that they matter. And so how I can communicate that sometimes you can communicate differently to different generations, but it’s that similar message.

[00:22:48] Scott Brill: And the generational groupings are helpful when you’re doing mass research and really understanding okay, what’s changing with the thousands of kids that are showing up at a Young Life camp and what’s happening out there? When you’re dealing with teams of 50 you should be dealing with them as individuals within your leadership team.

And I have somebody who’s 26 years old but has a lot more of the characteristics of a boomer. Don’t treat them like, oh, you’re Generation Z and I need to give you this and treat you this way. You should be tailoring your leadership to the individuals on your team. 

And I think that’s really the focus, from a leadership standpoint, I think the generational consistencies help you with the big broad strokes on, do you have to have more digital community environments available?

[00:23:45] Scott Brill: Yes. Will that continue to grow? Yes. But don’t put that on everybody just because of their age group. 


[00:23:54] Tommy Thomas: What was the most important lesson you think you learned during the pandemic that you’ll take forward? 

[00:24:02] Scott Brill: We can get work done without having everybody physically in the same office. 

[00:24:08] Tommy Thomas: And you think y’all will continue that as you move forward?

[00:24:13] Scott Brill: Yes, I think we’ve learned where that can be done just as efficiently, sometimes more efficiently and where it can’t. So, I think, going forward, we’ll be able to have that better balance of, hey, these things can happen very easily remotely, and these teams can be much more geographically diverse and still be very productive.  These functions and these activities require a lot more physical presence to be as.

[00:24:45] Mark Tjernagel: I would say I totally agree, and I’ll add something that’s going to sound contradictory. But I think it’s true as well, which is the importance of personal face-to-face interaction, right? We can get so much more work done differently now, and we learned how to do that in a hybrid setting.

But man, we also found how important it is that our people get together and have time and opportunities to interact with one another. And not everybody wants it, some people crave it and some people don’t, but everybody needs a dose of it. And so finding ways you can balance that is going to be really important going forward.

[00:25:27] Scott Brill: I totally agree that’s the hardest thing going forward is how you keep that connected, the team environment. So you might be just as productive, but if you don’t feel like you’re part of a team and you’re very connected to people as individuals, that will show up in retention.

I agree with you, Mark. It’s not contradictory at all. It’s what you need to do to make it sustainable.

[00:25:56] Tommy Thomas: I’ve always been a big believer in non-profits working together and ministries working together. And I know you guys have this off-site thing that the different levels of leadership within multiple parachurch ministries do. Tell us about that and, what does the CFO conclave look like?

[00:26:18] Mark Tjernagel: Sure. Our predecessors have been meeting for years. Sometimes the organizations will have a COO, sometimes a CFO, that attends. So, I did actually, our COO attended for a long time and I just started attending a few years ago. But yeah, there are several parachurch organizations.

We get together usually twice a year and we spent about a couple of days together and honestly, a lot of times, we’ll talk about some technical issues, how we’re dealing with things, but a lot of times it’s just great to get together with a peer from another organization and just be able to because the people that can relate to the challenges and the struggles and the things you’re going through.

Those times have been really rich and rewarding for me.

[00:27:09] Scott Brill: Yeah, it was super helpful for me because coming from a for-profit public corporation world and moving into faith-based ministry, I learned a lot in those first sessions from the different ministries. Here are the challenges, oh, wait, that’s the same thing I’m hearing from my team. Where are you already gone through this? And it was super valuable for me as I made that transition. 


[00:27:37] Tommy Thomas:   Let’s try to land this airplane here in the next minute or two. I’ll ask you some possibly short answer questions, perhaps not. What’s the main thing you wish somebody had told you earlier in your career?

[00:27:56] Mark Tjernagel: Being in ministry is not easy.

[00:28:05] Scott Brill:  I wish I had learned earlier that you don’t always have to be 100% right or 100% accurate. Maybe it’s the engineering math in me that I always wanted to get that final accuracy over the edge. And that caused me some issues in relationships because I was too focused on that.

[00:28:33] Tommy Thomas: If you could go back in time and tell a younger version of yourself one thing, what would that be?  

[00:28:40] Scott Brill: That’s easy. Don’t do that. Be directionally correct and focus more on the relationship. I think I’d go back to me and just encourage me to hang in there. That it’s worth it. In the long run, it’s worth it.  The struggle, the challenges, it’s worth it. 

[00:28:58] Tommy Thomas: If you could get a do-over, is there anything in your career you would like another shot at?

[00:29:02] Mark Tjernagel: All the times I’ve messed up and how I’ve led people.

[00:29:10] Scott Brill: Yeah, that’s a good one. I’ll double down on that. 

[00:29:16] Tommy Thomas:   What’s one piece of advice that you might have to those listening that are in some sort of CFO track? What kind of counsel are you giving them? And maybe this is a little bit of a longer answer.

[00:29:29] Mark Tjernagel:  I would say I’ll modify the question a little bit.

I’ll say if somebody is in college, my recommendation or they’re new in their career, I’d say learn everything you can about data and analytics software and tools, like Tableau and Power BI and things like that. Like how to think about information and data and how to visualize it and then also learn as much as you can about automation.   Robotics is really big in accounting and finance now and it’s the wave of the future and so understanding automation early in your career will be really helpful as you grow in your career if you’re on a CFO track. I’d go back to what I said earlier, which is to take communications classes and network yourself right because the process of networking into things like the Christian Leadership Alliance or other events like Missio Nexus or places like that is helpful because it helps you learn how to communicate about who you are and how to communicate with other groups of people but any classes or courses on communication is super helpful because it’s fundamental to a CFO.

[00:30:43] Scott Brill: Organizational behavior relationships. That’s what’s going to matter the most as you progress further up in your career.


I hope you’ve enjoyed learning from these two seasoned CFOs. Their insights have inspired me to have conversations with CFOs from additional nonprofit organizations. Future programming also includes conversations with the Chief Communication Officer, the Chief Information Officer, and the Chief Legal Counsel of nonprofit organizations. So, stay tuned for these episodes. 

We’re getting close to the 100th episode of Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas. This is a huge milestone for us, and we have a very special guest for that episode. 

I’ll give you one clue as to who it might be. This person played a pivotal role in accelerating my career as a nonprofit executive search consultant.

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: 

[00:24:51] Tommy Thomas: If there are topics you’d like for me to explore my email address is [email protected].   

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“Don’t ask the Board what to do.  Present to the Board your proposal of what you’d like to do. If they don’t like it, they’ll tell you.” -Mark Tjernagel

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