Durham County

Trudy Smith’s job is to help others do good

Trudy Smith, head of Executive Service Corps of the Triangle, is seen in her Durham office where she recruits executives to work for free helping area nonprofits become more effective.
Trudy Smith, head of Executive Service Corps of the Triangle, is seen in her Durham office where she recruits executives to work for free helping area nonprofits become more effective. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Nonprofits are often formed out of passion for a cause and a commitment to helping others. But operating one requires a host of skills, from managing finances to finding board members.

Trudy Smith helps these do-gooders do better. As head of Executive Service Corps of the Triangle, or ESC, Smith recruits retired executives to volunteer their time to make area nonprofits more effective – filling needs for many groups founded with more vision than business acumen.

A former real estate agent and salesperson, Smith has overseen a decade of growth in the 29-year-old organization, which offers low-cost director coaching, marketing and fundraising help, among other services.

The organization went from a budget of $58,000 in 2007, shortly after Smith took over as director, to $225,000 last year, when 60 volunteer consultants completed 88 client projects in four Triangle counties.

Ed Rose, a retired accountant who has volunteered with ESC for more than 10 years, credits Smith with expanding the group’s services and raising its profile. He says some of the growth in its budget comes from the increased number of clients; the nonprofits pay a fee to cover expenses.

But it also reflects the addition of other revenue sources that fund programs such as a speed-dating event that matches nonprofits with board members, a matchmaking website, and a free “boot camp” for board members.

“Money isn’t the object, but that growth shows the increase in support we’ve seen with Trudy,” says Rose. “We’ve grown in our engagements, and people know and respect us. This is really addressing a need and making an impact on a lot of people’s lives.”

Lifelong volunteer

Smith had never worked at a nonprofit before signing on as director of ESC, but she had been a frequent volunteer throughout her life – a habit she says she inherited from her own parents.

She grew up in Atlanta, where her father was active in the Kiwanis, and her mother was always planning events or selling cookbooks for the Atlanta Music Co.

“I was kind of brought up that way,” she says. “If you grow up in that culture, you feel like if you can volunteer, you do.”

Returning to the Atlanta area after earning her bachelor’s degree at Duke University, she became involved in volunteering with the Atlanta Ballet and a local organization centered on AIDS, mainly by organizing events.

She returned to Durham with her second husband and two young children, who are now teenagers. She says she enjoyed volunteering in her new city, where her time was met with greater appreciation.

“In Atlanta, I felt like if I didn’t show up, nobody would miss me,” she says. “The day I came to Durham and went to the first school picnic, they were so excited to have my help. That’s the kind of community I was looking for.”

Her career before moving to Durham had been mainly in sales, booking casino excursions and later working as a real estate agent.

By the time she took the job at ESC she had worked with several local nonprofits, serving as board chair of Triangle Day School, where her children attended, and with the Durham Art Guild.

And she jumped at the idea of working a part-time, flexible schedule while her children were young.

“I was looking for something meaningful to do while they were in school,” she says.

The importance of screening

ESC has been helping Triangle nonprofits since 1987, part of a network of 22 such agencies nationwide that follow a model of recruiting retired executives first pioneered by David Rockefeller in the 1960s with an eye toward international aid.

“The idea was to find retired people from corporate America and bring their business acumen to the nonprofit world,” says Smith. “It’s sorely needed because a lot people start nonprofits because they’re inspired, but they don’t necessarily think out the business part of it.”

If you’ve been running the marketing department at MasterCard, you can’t walk into the food bank and be shocked when they don’t have a budget or marketing.

Trudy Smith, director of Executive Service Corps of the Triangle

Smith counts among her successes a focus on screening and training volunteers, helping to bridge the cultural gap between nonprofit leaders and ESC volunteers, many of whom have retired from leadership roles in large companies.

“If you’ve been running the marketing department at MasterCard, you can’t walk into the food bank and be shocked when they don’t have a budget or marketing,” she says.

Volunteers are screened both for their skill set and their willingness to be flexible and collaborative.

“If you come to the interview and demonstrate you’re not able to listen, we’re not going to take you,” she says.

Nearly half of their clients have budgets of less than $300,000 a year, while others have multimillion-dollar budgets. ESC’s services are priced on a sliding scale, and are used to cover the overhead of running the program.

What started as a part-time job as director soon turned full-time, and Smith has added several part-time employees devoted to recruiting and training volunteers, managing clients and spreading the word on the group’s work.

The most popular services are coaching for nonprofit directors, board development and retreats and strategic planning.

Among their recent additions is a board leadership boot camp that is free to nonprofits; paid for through a grant, it allows two board members to attend six sessions. Smith says they plan to launch a free, updated version of their matching website for nonprofits and board members next month.

Julie Wells, director of Partners for Youth Opportunity, used ESC to help her organization merge with another nonprofit that was offering similar services for at-risk Durham youth.

For Wells, having a third party to study and negotiate a merger was key. She’s also worked with an executive coach, a communications expert and a specialist on board development over about three years.

“They were really skilled facilitators, and they seemed really comfortable not just leading the work but doing some work,” says Wells. “You often find folks that are willing to tell you how to do something, but not walk with you hand in hand through the process.”

In all, the work cost about $5,000, and she says was able to find an outside funding source in part because of ESC’s reputation. Since the merger with YO:Durham two years ago, her group’s budget has tripled, and its reputation has grown.

Smith continues her own volunteer work as well; she’s a founding board member of Girls Rock NC. She says that while others provide similar services, the voluntary aspect of her organization strengthens its work.

“Our differentiator is the spirit of volunteerism,” says Smith. “The people are doing it out of their hearts and their love for the community.”

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Gertrude “Trudy” Smith

Born: Atlanta, August 1961

Residence: Durham

Career: Director, Executive Service Corps of the Triangle

Education: B.A. history and certificate in nonprofit management, Duke University; M.S. industrial management, Georgia Institute of Technology

Affiliations: Founding board member, Girls Rock NC; past board chair, Triangle Day School; past board president, Durham Art Guild

Family: Husband Stuart; children Rhett, Shane and Rory

Fun fact: Smith had a long career in sales, starting with her first job out of college selling ice cream from a cart at festivals across the South. “Actually the pay was pretty good,” she says, “and I got to wear a bathing suit to work.”

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