Getting to Know the La Piana Team: An Interview with David La Piana
This blog post is part of our series getting to know the La Piana team. This week we spoke with David La Piana, Managing Partner. David founded the firm in 1998 and is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has lived since the 1970s.
Many may know from your online bio that you were a community organizer — and later the executive director of a mental health nonprofit — before becoming a consultant. What would you say is the biggest difference in leading a nonprofit today vs. 20+ years ago?
In some ways, not a lot has changed — it’s still about recruiting and motivating a good board and staff, and raising the money to serve the mission. But today there are higher expectations for transparency, accountability, inclusion, reporting. Back in the Dark Ages when I started my career, we were content with “doing good as best we could. We didn’t have a theory of change. We didn’t even have Excel!”
As a community organizer in a migrant farmworker community, lobbying the school board to provide federal food programs for kids (legally required but that didn’t seem to matter) we lost nearly every battle we fought, but it still felt like we were doing good work. Now there is more focus on outcomes. And a lot of interest in systemic solutions, though we haven’t seen much progress there yet. With all the talk about developing these systems-level interventions, we’re still struggling to solve or even make progress on big social problems. In many ways, such as income inequality, things are worse today. I attended a terrible low-income school system in L.A. but we had more resources than post-Prop 13 California schools do today.
What advice would you give new and emerging nonprofit leaders?
I talk to a lot of young people interested in the nonprofit world, and it’s clear that the time has passed when a neophyte could just drop into a position running a nonprofit like I did (I couldn’t even read a financial statement). Today, we see more people coming to the sector with advanced training, MBAs, and solid management skills. I think that’s good: Get that rigorous management education so that you’ll be prepared. But also know that it will only prepare you to do the job in a very basic way — you still need to build the relationships with your staff, board, funders, and communities to be successful.
How has capacity building changed since you began consulting with nonprofits and foundations?
It has changed dramatically. In the beginning, we called it technical assistance, and it was about basic stuff like learning how to create an accounting system or fundraising database, or how to write fundraising letters. Very tactical and nuts-and-bolts, which was good because that’s where leaders were at and organizations were far less sophisticated. Then in the 90s we had funders like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and leaders like Barbara Kibbe, which gave birth to the organizational effectiveness field and a broader definition of success.
That’s when we started going beyond strategic planning to look at how organizations really work, the growing interest in mergers, board effectiveness, and more. Now, there’s a ton more literature and resources. From a consultant perspective, that makes things more challenging, you have to keep up, but it’s good that now we have better informed consumers. A lot of nonprofit leaders are now more engaged and proactive in pursuing new knowledge, tools, and models. In the last few years, diversity, equity and inclusion have been taken more seriously and racial justice has moved from being just nice words to the center of the conversation. That’s long overdue. So is having a lot more leaders of color across the sector. They are changing the field.
Is there a particular consulting project that has been most memorable or that you are most proud of?
The Strategic Solutions project was definitive for the firm. That’s when we developed our approach to mergers. It was five years of research, training, and field-building. We followed that with the four-year Strategy Formation project, where we successfully defined a new way of looking at strategy. Lots of people use Real-Time Strategic Planning now, and it helped to define the firm as being about more than mergers.
We’ve had so many great clients over the years. People facing huge challenges with courage and dedication. I worked with Ben Jealous when he was President of the NAACP to create a strategic plan for the Association’s one hundredth anniversary. We helped the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation invest $140MM in youth development and shepherded the project to maturity. The Foundation had a planned sunset in 2020 but I still facilitate a supportive community of the CEOs from most of the largest youth development organizations in the country. And, there was PONO, a ten-year effort with the Hawai’i Community Foundation to develop the capacity of nonprofit leaders across the state. I met so many terrific fellows each year and came to know and understand the aloha spirit.
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
Before getting into nonprofits, I was at Berkeley studying Comparative Literature, both graduate and undergraduate. I studied English, Spanish, and Italian literature from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Nowadays, I have a second career as a novelist. Only one has seen the light of day. First Generation is semi-autobiographical and was awarded a Bronze Medal for Multicultural Fiction from the Independent Publishers’ Association. Our work is so analytical and inherently interactive working with clients…and writing is such a solitary thing. Believe it or not, secretly I’m an introvert. I treasure my time to just sit and write. (pictured left, David La Piana and wife, Mary McFarland, at Stinson Beach)
If you could have lunch with anyone, who would it be and why?
This may sound weird and I don’t know if they even “did lunch” back then, but I would love to sit down and talk with the historical Jesus. Did he really have a theory of non-violent revolution or is that something later generations put on him? Did he know he was going to be executed? And, did he really believe he was the son of God? Of course, lunch would include bread, and we’d have to order some wine, which might lead to a whole other turn in the conversation!