That’s one vital piece of advice Jerry Askew gives not-for-profit organizations in his role as president of the Alliance for Better Nonprofits (ABN). It’s fitting, then, that it comes from a man who himself has had such an impact on the community, first in academia, then in philanthropy, and now in a position that calls on the whole of his experience.
Askew and his wife, attorney Robyn Jarvis Askew, live in Sequoyah Hills and have two grown children. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Askew earned his doctorate at The Ohio State University and came to Knoxville in 1985 as the dean of students at the University of Tennessee. He stayed with the university until 1998. Feeling the pull of working with philanthropic community, he became CEO of the East Tennessee Foundation before joining the giving arm of St. Mary’s Hospital. That led to his serving as senior vice president of external relations at Tennova Healthcare. He became president of ABN in March 2017.
The Alliance for Better Nonprofits, based in the beautifully rehabbed Regas Building downtown, serves a membership of 300 nonprofit organizations in 25 counties. Membership fees are based on an organization’s budget size. ABN holds two major conferences each year and offers a packed monthly schedule of programs in fund development, human resources, executive leadership, marketing and board development. From grant-writing 101 to maximizing social media, ABN addresses everything that a nonprofit staffer might encounter.
Askew describes ABN as a “university for nonprofits.” ABN was founded by Alex Miller, a professor in UTK’s College of Business, and Chris Martin, CEO of Knoxville Leadership Foundation. Miller was teaching a class in nonprofit management, and Martin had heard from the donor community that something like ABN was needed. The two came together to start ABN in late 2014.
One continuing frustration was a lack of basic business skills among those who had great enthusiasm for an issue but lacked the know-how to keep a nonprofit viable or mission-focused.
“We have an extraordinarily generous donor community,” says Askew. “They were contributing millions of dollars each year to nonprofits and not seeing the needle move.”
Board members and donors refer many nonprofits to ABN, and many organizations are referred by each other. ABN includes organizations devoted to almost everything: access to healthcare, alleviating poverty, animal rescue, and supporting arts and culture. There are local chapters of nationally known charities, and homegrown nonprofit innovations, like SEEED, which has job training programs emphasizing environmental literacy; or the 26-year-old Top Wrench competition, which brings high school tech students together to show off their prowess in welding, engine repair and more.
Faith-based or secular, small or large, “The thing that binds them is a desire to help,” says Askew, who adds that there are definitely opportunities for better coordination of mission across nonprofits.
For instance, “We’re working with 16 different organizations that serve our refugee population. They were founded as independent organizations, and we try to find places where they can work together.”
ABN can also call attention to unmet needs in the community, such as early childhood literacy, which is currently identified as one of the most pressing issues facing our area.
Askew is an ordained deacon for the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee, serving at St. Luke’s, which also moves him to help those in need where and when he can. And as government continues to take a lessening role in meeting societal needs, “The nonprofit sector will be more important than it’s ever been,” Askew says.
Fortunately, the people of East Tennessee are ready to step up.
“The passion to help others is one of the things that makes East Tennessee so special. It’s such a privilege for me to work with that passion. It’s all the people working out there who make all the difference.”