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.

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. 15 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, reporting. Back in the Dark Ages when I started my career, we were content with “doing good.”

As a community organizer, we lost 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 I haven’t seen much progress there yet. With all the talk about developing these systems-level interventions, we’re still struggling to solve the big social problems.

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 when I first got started). Today, we see more people coming to the sector with advanced training, MBAs, and management skills.

I think that’s good: Get that rigorous management education so that you’ll be prepared. But also know that the degree 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 really 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. Then in the 90s we had funders like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation making investments and leaders like Barbara Kibbe getting involved, which gave birth to the organizational effectiveness field.

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, in every area we work in, there’s a ton more literature and other resources. From a consultant perspective, that makes things more competitive, but it’s good that now we have more informed consumers. A lot of nonprofit leaders are now more engaged and proactive in pursuing new knowledge, tools, and models.

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 and strategic restructuring. It was five years of research, training, and building knowledge in the field. The whole staff would decamp to do these three-day trainings for capacity builders around the country. That was probably the first and last time that everybody in the firm worked together on the same project.

And then we broke out of the strategic restructuring “box” 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.

What is something that most people don’t know about you?

Probably my second career as a novelist. I just finished my second novel: The Attachment, an espionage thriller. It’s about an email attachment and a really flawed complicated CIA agent. I think it may have more commercial appeal than my first book. I’ve been working on this one for 30 years.

I started it so long ago that the bad guys used to be the Soviet Union! I really enjoy fiction reading and writing. Everything I do at work is so analytical and inherently interactive working with clients…and writing is such a solitary thing. Believe it or not, secretly I’m a terrible introvert. Really what I like to do is to be by myself and write.

If you could have lunch with anyone, who would it be and why?

Both are dead, but two people I’ve been most fascinated with in the past 30 years of reading about them are Ben Franklin and Winston Churchill. They shared really diverse interests, a love of language, a wicked sense of humor, and being sort of outliers in terms of how brilliant they were. Just to be in the presence of either of them would be a real experience.

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