Paul Birtel is a professional nonprofit executive. He obtained his Master’s degree in Recreation Services Management and a Master’s level certificate in Nonprofit Administration while working part time with the YMCA as a member engagement specialist in Rochester, New York. Paul fell in love with the YMCA and working with nonprofits. He truly enjoys the opportunity to engage with the community, work with volunteers, and help people live healthier and happier lives. Previously, he was involved in teaching, but he realized he could use those same skills in a leadership role within a nonprofit organization and still have a positive impact on the community. Initially, he was offered positions in struggling branches of the YMCA that were experiencing severe declines in membership and community engagement. Paul worked his way up to become the director of a location that had a lot of active, older adults, engaged with them, and created new clubs and programs and new volunteering options. After working on improving customer service and partnerships, he was eventually offered a larger leadership role overseeing all of the YMCA branches in the state of Delaware, managing strategic planning, employee training, and membership growth and retention programs.
Following that, Paul Birtel began working for the Children’s Museum of Philadelphia, handling a lot of the same strategic planning and operations responsibilities that he had at the YMCA. After some time, he was recruited by the city of Philadelphia to be the General Manager of the outdoor ice rink in front of City Hall. He then got his dream job at Music and Gaming Festival (MAGFest), which was one of his favorite nonprofit organizations, whose main function is to hold events that combine music festivals with video game conventions. These events are almost entirely volunteer driven. MAGfest has over 2,500 volunteers within its organization, but only six employees. The festivals are a large hub for sharing knowledge and bringing together like-minded individuals to share art and creative projects.
Paul Birtel moved to Baltimore to become the Executive Director of MAGFest, but as luck would have it, his first week on the job was the same week that Baltimore went into shutdown because of the rising medical threat of COVID-19. His very first project was to shut down the offices and figure out how to cancel the events for the year, how to go a year without revenue, and how to furlough all employees. MAGFest has yet to return to its pre-pandemic status. Since then, Paul has been spending his time taking care of his new baby and looking for the next nonprofit he would like to lead.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
Before my child was born, MAGFest was my dream job. It was exactly the type of organization I wanted to lead. It matched my passion. As an organization that manages over 2,000 volunteers with six employees, it required a lot of effort. It has a long history and a lot of diehard fans. A lot of people joke that MAGfest is a religion because of the fanaticism of its fans and followers. Consequently, they really expect the leader of the organization to give a lot.
But honestly, when my daughter was born, my idea of a dream job changed because I couldn’t do the 12-hour days anymore. I could no longer sacrifice my weekends. I really couldn’t do the late meetings with California volunteers every night. Especially because my wife has her own business, I didn’t want her to have to sacrifice her dream for mine, and so my dream shifted a little bit.
That being said, I would still love to lead a nonprofit. I would love to be an executive director, CEO, or maybe even a COO handling operations for a nonprofit that impacts people with a bit more of a focus on healthy living initiatives, or maybe some support to the community, or awareness to underserved groups, particularly in the recreation field. It is my passion to provide opportunities for people to bring a community together to enjoy each other’s time.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day has always been run by a schedule. I fell in love with using Google Calendar and then the entire Google suite of software to help organize my life. My life has been very chaotic, especially with all the meetings and with all the issues at home. So, to help bring balance between my wife and myself, what I normally do is schedule everything. I’m a very particular person. I have to stay on my schedule. I have to prepare for things coming up. I schedule little breaks in between to make sure I have transition periods, or in case any of my daily tasks goes over time. It’s all about calendaring and scheduling for me. In the current business climate, with many people working remotely, being very purposeful with your schedule is really essential because life can throw so many distractions at you.
In my previous organization, we had a lot of meetings because it was volunteer-based. MAGfest couldn’t exist without volunteers. We had to make sure that our schedule was organized around what was convenient for them. For example, for the volunteers in California, we wanted to make sure we were available in the evenings in order to have meetings with them. A lot of our volunteers had to work during the day or had other responsibilities, and so a lot of meetings took place in the late evening. I would wake up typically later in the day and start our employee meetings around noon just because we knew we had so many night meetings with our West Coast volunteers.
How do you bring ideas to life?
In an organization that’s driven by the work of volunteers, ideas are what brings them into the fold—they dream up a great idea, they want to run an event, or they want to implement a cool program. Then, after that, it’s the employees, including myself, who figure out the logistics or the practicality of these ideas. We ask ourselves, “Can we do it? Is it worth doing? How do we make this idea into a reality? What are the logistics to get it to completion?”
I always stressed with my volunteers and employees that if you have an idea, you have to figure out how it fits within the organization’s mandate. How does the idea fit within the setting of an event? Have you considered some similar competing events and their timing on the calendar? What can you learn from those other events? What are some of the successes and failures of those events? Understanding the full implications of the idea, how it impacts the environment and proposed setting is really paramount in making a successful first pitch for why that idea ought to be implemented.
The next thing is figuring out what makes it unique. How does it stand out? How does it provide a service or an experience for people? Maybe it does something better than other events are doing, or it does something completely unique? It has to have what I call a hook. If it doesn’t have a hook, it gets lost in the mediocrity and the white noise of all the other ideas out there. Once you have the idea, the setting, and the hook, then you have to figure out the logistics. Is there a cost to this? Does it need staff support? Does it need supplies? How long is it going to run? If you don’t really have that part figured out, you can hit a lot of roadblocks, most of which center around money and time. Another really important aspect to consider is understanding what the ideal outcomes are with this idea, with this program, or with this event? What is meant to be achieved with this? Will the participants leave this program or event having gained knowledge or a new perspective? Will they walk away with a new sense of community involvement or a feeling of belonging? Or are they just going to have a lot of fun? Are they going to be able to relax, create, or turn on that left side of their brain and just enjoy life?
To sum all that up, it’s all in the planning. Ideas can be an inspiration—they can even be strokes of genius—but they have to be fleshed out, because nothing is worse than an idea that wasn’t given a proper shot. Say someone has a brilliant idea, but they didn’t think it through or put enough planning and support into it, and then the idea fails. In my mind, that’s doubly bad. Not only because the idea fails, but now we don’t even know if it was a good idea or not because it was never given a real chance.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I have noticed people being more observant and more aware of using critical thinking skills. You hear time and time again, use critical thinking, use your critical thinking skills in this essay, or use your critical thinking skills solving this scientific problem. In the past, I think people just got too used to hearing that and it became white noise. But these days, people are getting better at spotting scams and misinformation, or things that are sensationalized, or something that’s deliberately inflammatory. I really like how the younger generations are starting to take a step back, do the research, and look at sources. They are challenging the status quo. They’re not taking things at face value.
Nothing is harder to change than something that is successful. If something is successful, people are very resistant to change. “We have always done it this way. It’s always been good. We’ve always grown. We’ve always been leaders. So why change anything?” That attitude usually precedes a decline. Historically, there are many examples of things failing because of resistance to change. But the world changes all the time, and if you don’t change with it, then you’re going to get left behind. You’re no longer going to be a leader. So, I really like the trend of people being much more critical, questioning things more, challenging things that have been around for generations or even hundreds of years, and doing their own research.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I think one productive habit of mine is being honest. A lot of people avoid honest conversation because it’s uncomfortable. If something isn’t sitting right, or a process seems backwards or isn’t as efficient as it could be, or maybe there’s some communication that seems unclear, a lot of times people will simply keep quiet for fear of confrontation. They just grumble under their breath, carry on, and do it over and over again because it’s easier than being honest.
I always like to have an honest dialogue. When I’m in meetings with people, for example, one thing I usually say is, “Okay, well what’s the goal of this meeting? And does this have to be a meeting moving forward?” A lot of times what I find out is a committee was formed to address a problem that emerged two years ago, has since been solved, and now it’s still meeting every two weeks to discuss small, operational issues that could be handled via email, or handed off to another group. At that point, I will challenge the group and ask, “Why are we doing this? What is the goal of the current process? What is the desired outcome of it? Is this still a necessary part of our work routine?” I think being honest and really questioning these processes has helped me to be more efficient.
What advice would you give your younger self?
My younger self had a lot of pride. I think pride can get in the way of a lot of things, especially when you’re young and you’re growing in your career and you’re achieving some success and you’re taking risks and some of them are even paying off. If that’s the case, it’s possible—even probable—to start getting a distorted image of yourself. That’s pride. I will differentiate it from confidence, though. Confidence goes a very long way in all avenues of life. Whether it’s with work or your personal life, confidence is key, but overconfidence can be a big detriment. When you’re overconfident, you become not as good of a listener, and it becomes harder to admit mistakes, and hence, learn from those mistakes. But it is through mistakes that you really learn to become a better professional. You become a better person when you make a mistake. That is , if you own up to it, reflect back on it, and consider how you could have addressed a situation better. So, I would tell my younger self to dial back the pride.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
America is very attached to some of our own unique customs. But there are customs and systems that the rest of the world has adopted that America has not that are really good ideas. Take something like the metric system. I think the whole planet should use the metric system. Why are we one of the only countries that aren’t on the metric system? It just makes no sense. I get that changing would be hard for us. It’s a switch away from a system that’s been successful and that we’ve used for a long time. But I think the benefits of using the same system of measurement as the rest of the world would outweigh the difficulties of switching. I think we should go for it. Not many of my fellow Americans agree with me, though.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Assess your priorities. Priorities are very important in all aspects of life, professional and personal. I think it’s really useful to take a step back, be honest, and ask yourself, “Okay, what are my priorities? What’s number one, what’s number two, what’s number three?” When the answers come, it will inform you of what your day should look like.
I think a lot of times people look at their day and they’re overwhelmed. They say to themselves something like, “I can’t work out today because I’m busy. I have the baby. I have work. I have to visit my friends.” Those are all priorities, but if you really take a step back and look at your day, there were those two hours that you were cruising Facebook looking up jokes. What about that? Was that the best use of time? If you took one hour of that out and put an hour into working out, you could sleep better and you could feel better during the day, which would make you more productive.
It’s very easy to examine superficial issues or whatever’s right in front of your face—the low-hanging fruit—but it’s much harder to look at the whole tree and really understand what’s happening. Put simply, just because something is low-hanging fruit doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the thing you should address. There may be deeper-rooted issues, or things that you can change that may be a little bit more difficult but could pay off the long run. I think constantly re-evaluating your priorities really helps you to be as efficient as possible.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I think the best strategy is doing research. I really like having conversations with people and conducting focus groups. One of the things I did with the strategic planning for my organization was interview all the different groups of volunteers. We constantly heard from employees and the board about their vision for the organization, but what about volunteers? How do they view the organization? Where do they think we should go?
We routinely heard from the most vocal people in the organization, the people that always have an opinion, whether it’s positive or negative, that always want to share. There was a certain group of people that made sure you listened to their feedback. But I always really wanted to find out what the silent people were thinking. I’m talking about people who are shy, or they don’t think it’s worth sharing their opinion, or maybe they don’t even think their opinion matters very much. I think listening to those people matters immensely.
If a customer leaves, or doesn’t buy your product anymore, or doesn’t visit your facility anymore, they will almost never tell you why. They just stop. They cancel their subscription. They never show up again. You never find out why they stopped. Whereas, if you took the time to actually ask them questions, organize some focus groups, provide some kind of benefit to them for giving you their feedback, and really make an effort to listen, you’ll discover a lot of important information.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
In a previous position, I was both a leader on the volunteer board of directors, as well as the leader of the employees. One of my roles was to represent both parties to each other, to share input from the employees to the board, and to inform the employees about insights from the board. I was informed that there was a long history of conflict and trust issues between the volunteer board and employees and I tried to resolve it as quickly as possible. My mistake was thinking I could heal years of conflict by myself within just the first few months of being on the job. Instead of allowing both groups to have difficult honest conversations that led to conflicts, I tried to filter frustrations from both groups through me to soften the tone and keep disagreements objective. By doing so I was looked upon as “one of them” from each group, the employees thought I was on the board’s side, and the board thought I sided too much with the employees. In reality, I spent most of my time defending and siding with the group that wasn’t represented in the meeting I was in. I often took the employees’ side when I met with the board, and the board side when I met with employees. I did this to make sure each group was equally represented in the decision-making process. But by doing so, it hurt my efforts to build trust with each group and without trust you are often met with defensive walls when trying to overcome conflicts and disagreements. I learned through my mistake that although you might see the solutions in front of you, you must respect the history and depth of the issues you are taking on. Sometimes an issue is too ingrained to handle solo or too quickly. Good intentions and pride can sometimes be roadblocks to success.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
There are a lot of malls not being utilized and closing down due to a lack of business. Retail is on its way out, especially considering the growth of Amazon. But there are these huge malls that have a lot of parking and a lot of indoor space in a lot of communities that are not being utilized. And, frankly, they’re becoming an eyesore because all of the stores inside are closing down. A lot of those malls could become recreation spaces. People have less and less access to green space, less and less access to public spaces where they can hang out. There are a lot of loitering laws, especially for youths and young adults. There’s just not a lot of outdoor spaces for people to hang out and be a community and meet their neighbors. These days, many people are socializing online and the community aspect gets lost in the shuffle. So, I think using old malls as recreational spaces would be fantastic. Some developer could turn a shuttered Macy’s into a hotel. The vacant store spaces inside could be more recreation focused, like miniature golf, bowling alleys, bars, clubs, arcades and the like. People could spend a weekend there, as if it was a tourist attraction or a resort. It would cut down on drunk driving because there’s already a big parking lot right there and people could stay at the hotel inside. I think repurposing under-utilized spaces for recreation and community purposes would be a good business idea.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I always try new things for my daughter. She is my first child. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, so I’m researching everything. I’m very analytical, very nerdy, so I read all these articles, getting advice from people. But every child is different. Just because you have read something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work for your child or that it represents your child. Recently, I spent $100 on a play gym. It’s just a mat with these little arches over top that hold a bunch of little dangly things. It has been a life saver. My daughter gets bored so quickly, but this is something that keeps her occupied for a long time. She can learn and she can engage, and we can change out the rings on it. That’s probably my favorite thing I’ve bought for her since she was born.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I would have to say Google Calendar, but I enjoy the whole Google suite of software. I feel like Google Calendar is one of things I utilize the most to manage my professional and personal life. One of the things I like about it is that the calendar is capable of being shared. I have, like, four different calendars. I have my own personal calendar. I have a calendar that I share with my wife that we both put things on for the baby, like doctor appointments and play dates. My wife has her own personal calendar that she shares with me. Then I have my work calendar, as well. I can blend them all into one calendar that I can pull up on my phone via the app, and it helps keep my life very organized. That way both my wife and I can add new events to it. It helps a lot.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I recommend Tribal Leadership. It’s an older book, but it’s good. It helps develop servant leaders who provide support and encourage a healthy work culture on their teams. It helped me develop my own unique leadership philosophy. When people think of a leader, they have a lot of preconceptions unique to their own mind. But leading and managing people is a lot like educating people in that everyone has a different preference, a different way of communicating, a different way of learning, a different way of thriving, so, as a leader, you have to be adaptable. You cannot come into an organization or business as a leader with just one method of leading or one style of leadership. You have to be able to be flexible and adapt your communication style and your leadership style based on each employee to make sure that they have the best chance of being successful. Some people want to be micromanaged. Some people want more space. Some people need more positive encouragement. Some people need more upfront critical assessments. Taking the time to learn about each of your employees really goes a long way to adapting your leadership style, thus better ensuring that your team achieves success.
What is your favorite quote?
It’s from the book called The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. “We all have our time machines, don’t we? Those that take us back are memories… and those that carry us forward are dreams.”
● Remain adaptable with your leadership style and take the time to understand that each person is unique and thrives better with certain types of leadership and methods of communication.
● In order to give an idea the best chance at success, do the research to make sure you have input from all the different stakeholders, fully appreciate the environment, and be prepared with the appropriate logistics.
● Schedule, schedule, schedule.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.