Whenever Brian Sleeth decides to do something, he goes all the way.
"I usually wind up falling backwards into whatever it is that I've done," he said of starting the online Master of Science in Nonprofit Administration program at LSU Shreveport. He enrolled after taking a position that called on him to expand his leadership and management skills.
"When I first started my job, it was unlike anything I had done before even though I've started churches, which are nonprofit organizations, in the past and also started an arts council," he said.
Sleeth is the executive director for the Christian Outreach Center of Baton Rouge, with programs focused on helping homeless people become self-sufficient through employment. When he took over six years ago, he quickly felt he'd stepped off the deep end. The center opened its doors in 1991, but even with a host of programs to support the population, it lacked a sense of purpose.
Although he had a doctoral degree in ministry, Sleeth knew he needed a more solid foundation in nonprofit administration to meet the challenges his organization faced. The center lacked a vision for its future, and it had to become more financially diversified.
"I started noticing that there were nonprofit administration degrees popping up everywhere," he said. "My bachelor's degree is from LSU, so I was automatically drawn to LSU Shreveport. And LSU Shreveport was pretty much near or at the top of the list for the best value and quality of the program I was looking for."
With Sleeth at the helm, the center is now adding services and expanding ones that are already successful. He has also worked with four of the main Downtown Baton Rouge churches that make up the center's board of directors to develop the community support and resources this new growth requires.
"We started a second thrift store, and the job class that we use right now is very good for those who are at a low risk of going back to prison," he said.
Sleeth is also in the process of creating a dynamic new program for formerly incarcerated persons with a moderate-to-high rates of recidivism. It will be focused on building life skills, and providing more intensive job training and case management services, as well as transitional work opportunities.
Overseeing two thrift stores, the center itself, and all of its programs, as well as coordinating with all the people who make it happen, has also meant getting a handle on the financial management required of such a large endeavor.
Having worked in the nonprofit sector for the majority of his adult life, Sleeth appreciates the fact that his LSUS classes build on his current knowledge, and connect with his experience.
"There was no class that was a big a-ha! moment, but rather the classes have been tying it all together for me," he said. "Being an executive director, I'd had to quickly learn what I needed to know, so by the time I started taking the classes, things were not completely new."
That is, of course, for everything except finance. With so many moving parts to the organization, Sleeth knew he needed to have a better grasp on how the money flowed — or at least know how to find someone who did.
"Nonprofit financial management was totally not in my wheelhouse," he said. "You look at all of the things we do, and you wonder how we're going to do all of this. I'm not good at all these things. When I started my position, I knew I needed a CFO, a treasurer, an accountant, a good CPA and payroll services."
NPA 761: Nonprofit Financial Management helped Sleeth understand important oversight responsibilities of his role that might have otherwise eluded him. He now feels more comfortable when he is presented with financial information.
"I've grown mentally in terms of being able to understand our financials," he said. "This particular class has really started helping me. When we were presented with a new financial software package at the last board meeting, it had all these graphs and terms, and I said, 'I know what those are!'"
Sometimes the real merit of a master's program lies in how well the classes come together to build the student's confidence to meet professional demands.
"The classes have helped develop my mental capacity and upped my game as far as being a leader in my role," Sleeth said. "One of the board members said, 'I don't know how you get done all the things you get done,' and I responded, 'I work out my body in the gym, and I work out my mind with the classes.'"
This may not have been the career path Sleeth was expecting in the nonprofit world, but now that he has the foundation he was lacking, he feels well-equipped for his duties.
"I got thrown backwards into nonprofit management," he said. "I didn't come up through the ranks in any other role. I've mostly started and pastored churches. This has been a great way to expose myself to every aspect of what it means to run a nonprofit."
While ease, rigor or practical application are common criteria for naming a favorite class, Sleeth has a different perspective.
"I think my favorite class is always the next class, because I'm excited about what's next and what I'm going to be learning next," he said. "This program has really whetted my appetite for education. I'm a big believer in professional development and ongoing education. I don't plan on stopping with this degree. I'm going to try to look for a Ph.D. program that can build on this."
Sleeth believes the online program at LSUS is a good investment for anyone looking to enter the nonprofit sector, or upgrade their nonprofit management skills.
"It will give you the tools that you need to fulfill a role like executive director," he said. "If you want to be an extremely robust board member or if you are in management or executive management of a nonprofit organization, the program will definitely give you everything you need to know."
Learn more about the LSUS online MS in Nonprofit Administration program.
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