CFO of the Year: Recognizing a Perle of a CFO

When we think about chief financial officers, an image comes to mind of people who think with the head rather than the heart — analytical, logical, and coldly detached. If Kate Perleberg is any example, it’s probably a bad rap, given her strong people skills in contributing to the successful merger of Community Partnerships and the Center for Families into a new nonprofit entity called RISE Wisconsin.

When you’re the CFO of a nonprofit, especially one focused on early childhood education and the mental health and wellness needs of children, adolescents, young adults, and their families, the heart enters into it. “Definitely, my first inclination when I’m presented with a situation is to think of it from an analytical or a logical perspective,” she acknowledges, “but I really view that as just my starting point. Having worked my entire career in the service industry, I quickly learned that it’s about relationships.”

Good relationships require people skills, and it was Perleberg’s people skills that convinced our Executive of the Year judges to select her as Chief Financial Officer of the Year. Perleberg and seven other Executive of the Year winners will be honored at an awards reception on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the Overture Center for the Arts.

Changing expectations

RISE is the result of a merger, finalized in April 2017, which led to a near doubling in employee count to more than 100 employees and an additional $2.2 million in revenues. The merger came about when the executive director of the Center for Families was retiring, and in its search for a successor, the Center reached out to Scott Strong, the executive director of Community Partnerships at that time, to ask him for potential names of candidates. That conversation precipitated the merger conversations between the two organizations.

As separate organizations, budgeting could be a challenge with the unpredictable nature of the populations served and their reliance on funding from government, the United Way, grants, and donations. Yet in Perleberg’s view, it was in many respects the perfect merger because there wasn’t a lot of administrative duplication, and while there were many synergies in terms of serving early childhood and mental health issues, there wasn’t a great deal of program overlap.

Even though the business case for merging was quite evident, there is always the challenge of merging two cultures. For Community Partnerships, the organization Perleberg served, it was imperative to maintain the culture, employee voice, and transparency in decision making, but combining forces was also an opportunity to review policies and procedures.

Previously, Community Partnerships had been an organization that operated primarily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and it also had on-call crisis support after hours and on the weekends. As part of the merger, RISE Wisconsin obtained a crisis respite center that operates 24/7, and it added a parent-child home program, which employs 10 monthly home visitors. So, switching away from something that was a very traditional office model, with practices and procedures built around that, caused the organization to pause and think about whether its practices still made sense for the unique schedules of employees of the merged entity.

Perleberg’s people skills came into play in communicating forthcoming changes to staff. Since jobs can be on the line during a merger process, it can be a scary time for employees of both merging entities. “Any time you go through a change to this extent, there is a continuum of comfort that people are on during this change,” she explains, “and being aware of that and being sensitive to that, that was crucial to this process. To recognize where we may be at and the amount of time that we’ve had to become comfortable with or familiar with a situation, or adjust to the merger, that is different and that was different for people throughout the organization.”

Rather than take a “my way or the highway” approach to change, Perleberg and her fellow administrators opted for communication and collaboration. “Those people skills also came into account during situations where rather than saying, ‘This is what needs to take place to get this program to a sustainable place,’ we would have some conversations with program leadership,” she explains. “I would sit down with them and say, ‘These are the revenues that are coming in, and these are the expenses,’ and really kind of talk it through, for a lot of them, for the first time. It was the first time that they had anybody educate and explain to them how their financial statement was made up.”

It also was an opportunity for Perleberg to learn more about programming specifics, which helped her suggest funding solutions based on the requirements of programs. “That really created that dialog, and that collaboration really helped program leadership understand how the financial implications can impact their programs and how together we can make the best choices for not only the program but for staff, program participants, and then the community as a whole,” she notes.

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Perleberg, who has worked in accounting for an environmental engineering consulting firm and for an accounting firm that has its finance operations headquartered in Madison, doesn’t believe there is a great deal of difference between a CFO for a nonprofit and a for-profit entity. The scope is different and sometimes the scale is different, and the people to whom a financial officer is accountable are different, but ultimately “we are all accountable to someone,” Perleberg explains.

“The other reason I’m not really that different than other CFOs is just because the roles and expectations of financial leaders have changed,” she adds. “Gone are the days of CFOs being in a back office and just tasked with their input on the financial impact of a decision. Here at RISE and in many organizations, the CFO is at the table with other senior leaders in organizations, and they are really viewed as partners in making that decision.”

As a CFO, she knows that successful financial leaders also need to be thinking about the holistic picture, not only from the financial perspective, but also from the programming and the human sides. “So, at the end of the day, when it comes to adding value to an organization, we need to be thinking about offering input from multiple different angles. That’s where the diversity of thinking comes in and, collectively, we can come to better conclusions when we incorporate all of those different perspectives.”

It’s been almost two years since the merger, and the resulting growth, which is not solely based on combining forces, should serve as a lesson for nonprofits and for-profits, alike. In 2019, RISE Wisconsin is budgeted for just over $9 million in revenue, and while it’s going to stick with what it knows — early childhood education and mental health services — it’s also hoping to expand mental health services to children and families receiving early childhood services throughout Dane County. “In our experience, and based on research, those early interventions not only have the best outcomes for children and families, but they are the most cost effective, as well,” Perleberg asserts. “So, we think it’s a win-win not only from the human side, but also the financial side.”

Village values

Given that EOY winners, including the CFO of the Year, are selected for the honor by peers in the Madison business community — namely, the people who have won an Executive of the Year award in previous years — the award means a great deal to Perleberg. “I don’t take for granted the Madison community that I live and work in,” she states. “There is such a pool of gifted and talented professionals in this community that it’s just really an honor and something that I don’t take lightly. Really, from my perspective, I don’t view this as an individual award, but as a team award because this is an award for the administrative team at RISE. It really speaks to our teamwork.

“There is that saying that it takes a village and, collectively, we contribute to the success of RISE, and we help individuals in the community thrive. So, when it comes to adding value to an organization, we need to think about offering input from multiple different angles. That’s where the diversity of thinking comes in and, collectively, we come to better conclusions when we incorporate all of those different perspectives.”

For more details about the Executive of the Year event and to purchase tickets, visit IBMadison.com/ExecutiveOfTheYear.

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