October 23, 2017
    Extraordinary Executives: Meet Jason Daisey, the star nonprofit CFO (who raises horses to relax)

    Was the CFO Rising Star in 2012, now at PBS station

    09/14/2017

    Actually, you probably know Jason Daisey. He was named a Rising Star at the 2012 Nonprofit CFO of the Year Awards. Daisey has been wowing the nonprofit community with his financial prowess since he was named finance and planning VP at PBS (National) in 1996. From there he moved to KERA-TV/FM, the public broadcasting station in Dallas, where he was CFO, and in 2009 he was named CFO at Associated Builders and Contractors, a strong association lobbying group on Capitol Hill. Daisey recently left ABC to become CFO at WETA, arguably the most influential of all the PBS stations, producing such programming as PBSNewsHour, Washington Week and documentaries by Ken Burns. When he’s not keeping nonprofits afloat financially, he’s working on his historic horse farm that he owns with his partner in rural Maryland, or foxhunting. TRENDS caught up with Daisey during this transition.

    You went from directing finance operations in public television, to an association, and now you’re back in public television. What are a few of the biggest differences/similarities, if any, in financial planning and oversight between these two types of nonprofits?

    In the nonprofit world, our goal is to maximize the value of every dollar in terms of how it benefits the organization’s members or key constituencies. At ABC, that means using resources to bring the maximum benefit to more than 21,000 members. If they see a return on their investment, they will renew their membership. In public broadcasting, it means using every dollar to bring compelling programming and content to the devices, hearts and minds of our community. To me, the CFO job is really the same – you are the person charged with ensuring a direct link between resources and the core mission and strategy of the organization.

    What did you learn from working at PBS and KERA that you applied at ABC, and what lessons did you learn at ABC that will help you in your position as CFO of WETA?
    At both PBS and KERA, I learned to use the lens of strategy, mission and value for rightsizing the organization’s cost structure. That came in handy at ABC, given that I joined the staff in 2009, right as the economic downturn was beginning to impact the construction industry. ABC taught me many things that I will carry forward in the same way. The first is that when you use data or facts and a win-win approach to address an issue, it lessens the politics and the people dynamics and can level the playing field for decision-making. My CEO at ABC, Mike Bellaman, has a resolute and uncompromising focus on safety and ethics. These values and perspectives will stay with me for the rest of my life; I admire Bellaman’s passion for what is fundamentally right. 

    A lesson I learned and lived at PBS, KERA and ABC – and one that will stay with me in my new role – is that there will always be some level of tension in a model with a national organization and local affiliates. These organizations are built on a passion for a cause – whether it’s the construction industry or viewers of quality programs – and passion stirs strong perspectives and feelings. I remember walking into KERA after seven years at PBS (National). I felt like I knew how it all worked and I was eager to help the local station understand how right PBS was on so many issues. I quickly relearned the lesson that there are two sides to every story. That experience allowed me to walk into ABC, where the same dynamic takes place, and think through each issue from a variety of angles. I now see my role as that of a diplomat, a convener of conversations that can advance strategic and business issues in a way that furthers the mission and purpose of my organization. 

    What is the professional accomplishment that comes to mind when someone asks you to name one?

    I have a couple of accomplishments that come to mind. I was hired for my first CFO job by a board member who thought a lot of my contribution and was willing to move me halfway across the country. I was also very proud of leading the effort to move ABC’s headquarters to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. There’s nothing like building out the headquarters of a builders’ group, and when it went off virtually without a hitch, you have to feel pretty darned good about it!

    It’s also important to mention that I learned that failing is OK. Too often in the executive ranks, we are expected to succeed in everything we do. We are not perfect. We have to give ourselves and our staff room to experiment and sometimes that means failing in order to truly accomplish success for our organizations. At ABC, we had a big IT project – the acquisition and implementation of a large membership management solution. The project was a struggle from Day One. Ultimately, after years and millions of dollars spent, we decided to pursue an alternate path. I regularly remark that someday I will teach an MBA class on that project and all the things we learned. That project – a failure in many respects – taught me more than I could have learned in almost any other endeavor. 

    Tell us about life as a horse farm owner and breeder of Cleveland Bay horses. How did you ever come to love and support that particularly breed?

    I didn’t grow up with horses or farm life. I eased into it in my 20s because of a relationship and became a fox hunter in 2005. A friend had a rare Cleveland Bay stallion – the breed the Queen of England uses to pull carriages – and I liked the idea of its sturdiness combined with the athleticism of a thoroughbred. I quickly became enthralled with the breed, and today I own several stallions and purebred mares and breed three to five foals per year. My horses help cancel the stress in my life. Getting up early to feed them or watching all night long, waiting to help a mare foal, seems to counter the daily routine of numbers, dollars, people and problems. The hard work and manual labor of a farm offsets the mental labor of my career and keep me balanced. 

    You were named a Rising Star at the CFO of the Year Awards while CFO at ABC. What was that like for you?

    This will sound cliché, but it was a truly awesome experience for me. It felt like a lot of hard work and effort was being rewarded. What I remember most was my dad coming to D.C. for the luncheon. He sat with my association treasurer at the lunch and beamed as I was recognized. It was that day that I realized how proud my dad was of me. Dad was an engineer and a corporate executive who ruled pretty decisively. I would easily have described him as stern, almost harsh. I saw a totally different side that day. He wrote a full page letter to all my family members that night and sent me a copy. On tough days, and there are always some, I re-read that letter. My Dad passed away about a year later. That is my most vivid and poignant memory of Dad. 

    The Nonprofit CFO of the Year Awards luncheon will be Oct. 24 in Washington. The awards will feature the nonprofit community’s most prestigious honors for finance executives. The honors were reorganized this year and now consist of the Nonprofit CFO of the Year, Association CFO of the Year, Philanthropic Organization CFO of the Year and Rising Stars. For details and to register, go to www.nonprofitcfoaward.com.

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