From Corporate America to Nonprofit President: A Look at Linda Zager’s Journey
CNP Talks with Back Office Cooperative President Linda Zager
Nonprofits need employees who are passionate about their mission. To deliver on that mission, they also need sustainable business practices. We caught up with Linda Zager, President and CEO of The Back Office Cooperative, on her journey from Corporate America to serving the nonprofit sector to discuss how her organization improves nonprofits’ performance through increased buying power and expert expense management.
Take us back to your decision to leave Corporate America. What inspired you to begin a career supporting nonprofits?
After spending 28 years at Motorola, I began working with a B2B expense management business, Expense Reduction Analysts (ERA). I learned early on through networking that there was a sizeable nonprofit sector in the Chicago area, to the tune of $1.25 billion. It struck me that if we could apply the same idea of reducing overhead expenses to nonprofits, it could be a great way to free up cash for more money for the mission. So, I decided early on in my business startup that I would focus on the nonprofit vertical. Through that work, I met The Back Office Cooperative (BOC). We both were in the business of helping nonprofits reduce costs, but we had different approaches to doing it. I kept thinking there’s got to be a way to work together toward the same goal. In 2014, BOC’s Board of Directors was looking for new ways to expand BOC’s membership and services. They engaged with my consulting business to suggest ways to reinvent BOC and offer a strategic plan. Through that work, we began a partnership that included me being the Executive Director.
Today, many professionals have causes that they feel passionately about. What’s the key to transforming a 9-to-5 into something you truly love to do?
First, ask yourself, where is your mindset? Is it at making the most money you can whether you’re happy or not, or do you think your quality of life would be better if you were doing something you were truly passionate about? It’s important to understand if you have the financial ability to follow a passion that may not pay as much. Then, look at organizations that align with your mission. Often there are existing organizations that do similar work. If you feel the only way you can meet your passion is to start something on your own, make sure you do a lot of homework.
Keep in mind there are many ways to support the nonprofit community, including volunteer work — being on a board of directors, mentoring, or coaching. I serve on a couple of boards, and I took a hobby of mine, which is sailing, and I am working on a project that will bring underserved young Chicagoans to the waterfront to teach them about sailing and boating. I encourage everyone to consider some kind of volunteer work outside of their professional life. It’s part of our responsibility, living in a community, to give back.
You are now celebrating your 7th anniversary at The Back Office Cooperative in Chicago. How did your mission get started?
In 2007, leaders at the United Way and Chicago Community Trust conducted an environmental forecast that warned of decreasing revenues and rising service demands for Chicago’s human services sector. That led to a study by McKinsey that looked at the Chicago Alliance for Collaborative Effort (CACE), a consortium of human service nonprofits, that predicted their members could save a significant amount of money by pooling their buying power and sharing back-office operations. Based on that study, in 2008, a group of seven nonprofits got together to form The Back Office Cooperative. Since then, we’ve expanded to over 150 members and gone from 4 to 10 group programs.
Your Workplace Essentials group program, provided by Staples, has helped more than 130 nonprofits save 20–30% on office supplies, facilities supplies, IT hardware, and more. How does your program work, and what other financial benefits can nonprofits expect?
For Staples and all of our programs, we provide ongoing management of the programs, ensuring that pricing is stable and that the program providers are consistently delivering the highest level of quality and service. Other popular programs are energy, food supplies, medical billing, human resource management, healthcare insurance, and more.
Our responsibility is to support our nonprofits in the ways they need, and we never suggest that programs are right for everybody. The greatest success in increasing cashflow happens when senior leadership partners with us to figure out and implement the best outcomes. The leaders who are willing to review our programs and give us feedback about what is going on in their worlds, what support they might need now and in the future, and work with us to assess value are the ones getting the most significant financial benefit from our programs.
Do you service nonprofits outside of Chicago? How can nonprofits join the Staples program and start saving?
Our programs are available anywhere in the country. BOC assesses each potential new member to evaluate potential savings and value. We welcome the nonprofit community to access a complimentary consultation to evaluate if membership would be valuable to them or not. Any organization interested in Staples or any program should contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Any new things in store for The Back Office Cooperative in 2021?
In January 2021, BOC launched its 10th group program, Human Capital Management, provided by ADP. We are continuously evaluating the community’s needs, and especially this year, we’re supporting members to emerge in strong financial shape following the pandemic, making sure that providers are consistently available to help our members through any questions and provide the supplies they need as they open up and grow.
BOC also has a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, including both employee and supplier DE&I. We’re offering a series of webinars and trainings on these subjects and supporting all efforts for helping our members reach their DE&I goals.