Former nun with MBA now's the go-to exec for struggling nonprofits

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 18, 2010 - 10:00 PM

A former nun with an MBA and Fortune 500 experience has become the go-to executive for struggling nonprofits.

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Linda Tacke, an MBA who has worked in corporate America and for nonprofits, now has her own business, Leadership ­Tactics. She typically serves as interim CEO to get operations turned around at ailing nonprofit organizations.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Linda Tacke learned early in her career the importance of blending business smarts with social justice.

Tacke, a onetime corporate finance manager, also was the first Franciscan nun to earn an MBA, back in the 1970s. For the past decade she has provided triage assistance for struggling nonprofits ranging from WomenVenture in St. Paul to the American Association of Woodturners.

The recession, and the drop in charitable giving that came with the tough economy, has been good for her business.

"Linda has the background and for-profit experience to understand financial systems," said Ann Johnson, director of the University of St. Thomas Center for Nonprofit Management in the Opus College of Business. "What's more nuanced is her ability to get into an organization and get to the concrete details of what's working and not -- in revenue, personnel and core competencies. It's about helping people get the organization to where it needs to be."

In the early 1970s, Tacke spent six months during college studying why some people committed to causes without pay, such as peace work, educating kids from troubled backgrounds or redeveloping dilapidated neighborhoods.

Impressed with the social-outreach work of the Franciscans, she joined the order and spent several years working in education and grass-roots economic development in Guatemala, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and a parish school in a rough section of San Antonio, Texas.

"I even ran a dance hall," she said. "We made a lot on setups. There was a lot of economic development dollars flowing in to some of those places, but little of it got to the people. I was increasingly interested in the tools of business and how economics worked. We had 800 women in the order and not one business major."

So Tacke decided to get a master's of business administration from the University of South Dakota. She left the Franciscans after that, before taking her final vows. She married, started a family and a career in accounting and finance. Tacke had an 11-year run at General Mills and Target in corporate finance and analysis.

"I was the first and second financial professional at General Mills to get pregnant," she said. "There weren't that many women in finance back then."

The farmer's daughter from Iowa also never lost the bug to serve, which eventually led to positions in management at a residential-treatment program for recovering addicts and at Big Brothers Big Sisters during the 1990s. She spent 2000 as a consultant at an accounting firm, placing six-figure executives at big foundations and nonprofits.

But she yearned for ground-level action again. So a decade ago Tacke launched her own business, Leadership Tactics, where she provides interim leadership for boards trying to salvage ailing nonprofits.

Tacke has an easygoing style. She also is known for asking tough questions and giving direct responses.

"At Target or General Mills you are convincing a consumer to purchase a unit of goods," Tacke said. "A nonprofit must convince a donor to fund goods or services that you then give to a deserving third party. There are definitely more moving parts. On top of that, you have individuals on staff and [on the] board who are there because of a set of values and agendas. And it's sometimes tough to get all those aligned. I think it's a lot tougher than corporate life."

In recent years, Tacke has taken over the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center and merged it into the larger national Child Protection Center in Winona, Minn., with the consent of Patty and Jerry Wetterling, the parents of the boy who went missing near St. Joseph in 1989.

She has shut down financially struggling charities such as the Sisters of the Good Shepherd's Transitional Housing Program for homeless women and El Centro Legal.

Tacke usually is hired as a short-term CEO, working 20 to 24 hours per week for several months at an average rate of about $115 an hour, a bargain for a business consultant.

In 2009, Tacke succeeded Tené Wells at WomenVenture, a $2 million business that works with working-poor women and men to improve job skills and also helps finance fledgling entrepreneurs. Wells, the decadelong president and visionary, was struggling to cope with reduced funding and increased demands.

"Tené has a great focus on women's issues and helping women move forward and she gave a ton of leadership to the organization," recalled Mary Blegen, an executive vice president of U.S. Bancorp who chaired the WomenVenture board at the time.

"Linda Tacke understands that you need to connect the budget and all the other components to that mission," Blegen said. "She met with Tené. She listened carefully to the board, the key funders and she also listened carefully to the staff. I've never seen anybody as skilled or on point.''

After reducing administrative staff and lowering expenses without sacrificing the critical programs, Tacke handed off to a new executive at WomenVenture earlier his year.

Several years ago, Tacke shut down a 22-year-old program of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd that provided housing for 750 homeless women who were in transition to better lives with the aid of safe shelter.

"The Home of the Good Shepherd no longer exists," acknowledged Tacke. "The sisters lost hundreds of thousands of dollars over five years. They were living on donations, bequest and the labor of the nuns. We looked at all kinds of alternatives."

In the end, Volunteers of America and another housing nonprofit took over the two residential properties.

"When there is transition in a nonprofit, all hell can break loose," said Tacke. "My job is always to try and move forward.''

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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