The fact that it took almost nine months for the Obama Administration to find someone to run the Corporation for National and Community Service (after Nike’s Maria Eitel withdrew due to undisclosed medical reasons) speaks volumes about the challenge for its new leader, Patrick Corvington.

The White House announced Corvington as its choice for CNCS CEO October 2nd after some previous candidates, we’re told, had been offered the position but ultimately declined.

Just putting a name to the CEO’s slot is enormously important for this Administration’s relationship with and support for the nonprofit sector.  Much of the Obama plan for the nonprofit sector as well as new initiatives launched by Congress will be lodged at the Corporation.  The SERVE America Act will quadruple the number of stipended volunteers in AmeriCorps and similar programs.  New initiatives such as the Social Innovation Fund and the Nonprofit Capacity Building Initiative will also be housed under CNCS.  Despite an array of nonprofit-oriented programs spread throughout cabinet offices, the Corporation functions in some manner as the executive branch’s “department of nonprofits.”

Therein lies the challenge for Patrick Corvington. We at Nonprofit Quarterly know Corvington from his work as a program officer at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Baltimore-based $2.8 billion dollar philanthropy, and as the executive director of Innovation Network, a nonprofit evaluation technical assistance provider.  In our estimation, Corvington is smart, studious, and enjoyably candid. He also knows how the sector works through first hand experience and he has positioned himself to take on difficult issues over the years. But the scale and complexity of this leadership challenge at the historic Corporation is, frankly, going to be new for him.

On the other hand, Corvington has a strong background in the content of the work that the Corporation is charged with which includes not just the promotion of service and civic life but, newly, the oversight of some of the Obama administration’s programs aimed at strengthening nonprofits. Amidst an array of programs lodged at Health and Human Services, HUD, Justice, and Agriculture, the Corporation for National and Community Service administers a significant range of resources important to the nonprofit sector. What the Corporation does with these resources will signal the content and depth of the Obama Administration’s commitment to the nonprofit sector.

In terms of the service agenda, Corvington has paid close attention over time to the mix of people involved in our sector and to the need to attract, engage, and employ people in nonprofits across generations. Born in Haiti and raised in Africa, Corvington is also sensitive to issues of ethnic diversity in nonprofits and in philanthropy as is evidenced in his role as advisor to the American Humanics Nonprofit Workforce Coalition.

He also brings a deep appreciation of the challenges in nonprofit capacity-building. He knows how to distinguish between what works and what does not work and for what kinds of nonprofits—and he knows the players in the field of nonprofit capacity building.  He was until last year on the national board of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, a network of management assistance programs and consultants to nonprofits.
But he himself will now be facing a daunting managerial challenge of his own at the Corporation, which is by all accounts something of a mess. Although President Obama dismissed the CNCS inspector general for his review of the use and misuse of AmeriCorps funds by nonprofits controlled by the current mayor of Sacramento, the IG also did a required review this past spring of the Corporation itself and the results, summarized pithily, were devastating: “I regret to report that we have observed a decline in the Corporation’s recognition of the importance of the rules established to protect against misuse of Federal grant funds.”

Whether he was right or wrong about Sacramento, most people think he was on the mark about the Corporation’s operations. As a result, the House Appropriations Committee slashed some of the Obama Administration’s budget recommendations, including moneys for the Social Investment Fund, for the Corporation specifically citing the management turmoil there as justification. According to the House Appropriations report, “the Committee believes that significant steps need to be taken by the Corporation’s management to strengthen its policies regarding budget formulation and execution, human capital management, contracting, and information technology processes. The Committee believes that the Corporation’s ability to effectively manage a significant expansion of service programs and initiatives requires a robust administrative governance process and technological infrastructure.”

In fact, the House demanded a new and convincing management plan for the Corporation, emphasizing deficiencies in financial management, due just about now. They’ll probably give Corvington a little breathing room to come up with a new management plan, but not much.  He’ll have to work fast to put together a team that exhibits integrity, transparency and wisdom about its surroundings and the challenges of this moment. That will not be easy.

Part of the management problem at the Corporation is the array of service organizations that view themselves as entitled, specially privileged, remarkably insightful, and smarter than their nonprofit peers or their federal agency overseers.  They exercise influence right up to the White House. They treat the Corporation as their handmaiden, and the Corporation staff apparently has over the years at times jumped to do their earmark-empowered bidding.

The IG’s report hints at this: “The Corporation’s motivation for cutting corners in policing compliance with its own rules appears to stem from a desire, albeit misguided, to avoid making its grantees unhappy.” To undermine legislative and regulatory standards in order not to displease some powerful grantees is an embarrassing stance for a federal agency entrusted with responsibility for representing the public’s interest in the spending of these funds.

Corvington must be sure to build a team that includes people who have experience in managing complex, multi-faceted, sprawling public agencies and who have the managerial intestinal fortitude to withstand privileged organizations that will attempt to go over his head as he attempts to right the CNCS management ship. In short, the managerial freefall of the Corporation abetted by oversight-resistant grant and earmark recipients will require Corvington to become something of a governmental turnaround expert.  

Corvington also has to turnaround a few recent developments in policy and funding.  His interim predecessors at the Corporation tried to undo the Nonprofit Capacity Building Initiative that was created by legislation. Their focus—and the part of the Administration’s focus—has been on individual volunteerism, and not as much on the infrastructure capacity of the organizations that will use them. This is clearly untenable at a time when many U.S. nonprofits will be struggling to manage increased activities and respond to heightened service demands with a reduced funding stream.

Think of the CNCS as a debilitated, messy business in a downward spiral, and that’s the rescue challenge Corvington faces. This is probably the biggest federal agency resuscitation since the mess that President Bush’s appointees created at the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) which brought us the man-made portion of the Katrina disaster, or left at the Securities and Exchange Commission whose blindness resulted in the financial sector’s 2008 meltdown.

The concerns we would have for Corvington in this important role have to do the scale and complexity of this task. The recent unhappy management history, sheer size, number of powerful stakeholders and pivotal importance of the Corporation to the sector and the Obama vision exceeds in dimension anything that he has taken on previously. We trust that he will take a firm hand in defining a direction and strategy for the Corporation and in surrounding himself with a strong management team whose primary focus is the best interests of communities and the nonprofits that serve them.

Patrick Corvington has an immense challenge in front of him. He has to take firm control of a 600-person agency that has evolved into something of a management shamble. He has to pull together the Corporation’s state offices plus the state government commissions in 52 states and territories so that there is a coherent message, program, and managerial structure for community service resources. He will have to exercise some control over Corporation-funded entities that sometimes act like they own and direct the Corporation relatively free from oversight.

And he will have to convince Congress—and the nonprofit sector—that the Corporation can be resuscitated as a well managed federal agency that helps build and sustain a healthy and functional nonprofit sector.