Greening Nonprofits with Connect the Dots’ Maikhanh Nguyen

February 16, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have Maikhanh Nguyen on, who is the founding director of Connecting the Dots, and she has connectthedotsnetwork.org, a wonderful website in the green nonprofits. Welcome to Green is Good, Maikhanh Nguyen. MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I appreciate your time. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh yeah, and this is the California show because the first half of the show, we had Bryan Au on from Los Angeles, and the second half we have you on from San Francisco. So, we’re staying in California today, Maikhanh. MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Great. It’s a great place to be. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Listen. Connect the Dots, that’s what Mike and I like to do here on Green is Good, and we love the mission you’re on. Can you give our listeners a little background and sort of the elevator pitch on how you founded Connect the Dots, and what you really do? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Sure, of course. So, Connect the Dots, we’re a nonprofit where we work with other nonprofits to help them be green, to help them reduce their environmental footprint. Basically, we’re looking at nonprofits that overall have their own buildings, so the soup kitchens, the shelter homes, the supportive low-income housing facilities, and we help them to reduce in the areas of energy, water, and waste. I think when we talk about green, everybody has different ideas of what that is, green rooftops, urban gardening, organic farming, and so many other things, and we’ve chosen those three things, water, energy, and waste, as a way to not only reduce the ecological footprint, but also the utilities costs of the budget. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Beautiful. So, that’s a wonderful mission. Talk a little bit. Our listeners love to hear the journey of our guests. Can you share a little bit about how you came to be in this space, your childhood a little bit, where you got the green bug from, and then as a professional, how you evolved to come to have this wonderful organization? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Yeah. Interestingly enough, my training is in IT and information technology, and actually I’ve worked in providing information technology consulting in the private sector for about 12 years or so, before branching out and starting my own consultancy to provide the same services to the nonprofit for six years. So, the greening part, though, didn’t come to light until I think in all the time I was working as a consultant, I was able to see the different cultures and work environments of a company, and I saw how much abundance of resources that we have and how much we go through within an office – the paper, the toners, the printers, and I think that the misalignment between that and then my own. I immigrated to the U.S. back in 1979 from Vietnam, and it’s during that trip, that journey of hardship, that lack of resources, reestablishing our lives here in the U.S., that the idea of wasting anything, especially resources like natural resources or financial resources, is just not something you do. It’s evil in some sense, and to see that within office, there’s so much being gone through, it was a misalignment that didn’t come to fruition until late 2007, when I was volunteering at a nonprofit and seeing how much they were spending in the waste, the trash services, because they weren’t recycling or composting. I think that was the final itch that had to be scratched, so that was why I launched Connect the Dots. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. Good for you. This is so unique. We’ve never had a guest that’s talked about this issue, and this is so important. Your journey is fascinating in that the things that we learn so young become so ingrained and burned in our soul, it’s very interesting how you came to this place. So, you founded this great organization, Connect the Dots. For our listeners who just joined us, if you’ve got your iPad or your laptop in front of you, please go to Maikhanh’s website, www.connectthedotsnetwork.org. Share a little bit about how you started the first couple months, what your mission was then, and how you’ve evolved as an organization. MAIKHANH NGUYEN: I think that when we launched in 2008 with good intentions of wanting this to reach out and go nationwide, I think that’s when the economy of 2008 just happened and there was a dramatic shift in our funding situation, where not only were we impacted by the lack of grants or funding available for our work, but then also the nonprofits we were trying to work with. They were cutting down on their staff to just provide core resources, and to take on a greening effort was just a little bit cumbersome for them. But we were successful in convincing the selected few, the few that were able to see the value of what we bring, and with them, we’ve been able to generate savings that prove the concept and the effectiveness of our program, generating millions of gallons saved per year, or energy reduced, and the amount of money they were saving. I think that helped us to continue our work. I think the question comes up when I look at the numbers that we’ve been able to generate, I feel good on the most part, but there are days when I think we’ve got to work faster. We need to do more. There’s so much more that we can do, and I think it’s that need and that spirit that keeps us going and reaching out to the community to help us reach more nonprofits and convince them that this is the thing to do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s interesting. Mike and I have learned over the last couple of years, as we’ve spoken to great people like you at big corporations and little corporations, at nonprofits, that this whole greening and this whole sustainability movement is a process. So many people like you are very pleased with their results, but they’re not satisfied yet. So, take us through. In 2008, how many nonprofits did you have? In 2009 how many nonprofits? In 2010? Speak about the evolution, how many you’ve landed year after year, and what’s your goals for 2011 in terms of how many nonprofits you’re serving? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Right. Great question. In 2008, I think we started out with a handful of maybe six or so, and in 2009 we doubled it to be 15 nonprofits. 15 nonprofits, but that translates to 31 buildings that we worked on. So, the number of nonprofits and the number of buildings are two different metrics that we try to cover. I think this is where my IT background is about the metrics of what are the tangible things we can measure? In 2010, we’re still working on calculating the numbers for that. We’re sending out last year’s numbers, but we definitely increased the number of nonprofits to be around 24, and the number of buildings increased even to 52 buildings. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, suffice it to say you’re growing every year, and nonprofits need your services. Out of our listener group, we have listeners around the United States and around the world. If a nonprofit hears you in New York, are you servicing also other states yet, or are you still just California-centric? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: We’re very California-centric and very San Francisco Bay Area-centric at this point. We’re still growing, and I think this comes back to your original question of are we growing fast enough? We definitely are not nationwide, but I think we’re looking for different chapters and enthusiastic individuals, motivated individuals, to take the methodology that we have and apply it to their local cities, and build the partnerships with the program there. We’re glad to share any of that, just to shorten the life cycle for those people to get up and running. MIKE BRADY: So, you’re pleased, but not satisfied. That was a good way to put it, John. MAIKHANH NGUYEN: That seems to be the theme. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah. So, share some of the challenges that nonprofits face to green their operations. What are some of the opportunities that you find when you start handling the greening and connecting the dots for the nonprofits that you handle? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Great question. I think I can summarize the two main challenges that nonprofits face, and I think it’s across the board for most things that they always face, which is lack of funding and lack of staff time. So, the staff time is needed to research. With full intention of wanting to do the right thing, you still need to know what is the right thing to do. And so there’s time invested to research the abundance of resources out there, of the different incentive programs that are available and how they’ve changed through time, and who to contact, and the green vendors that are coming up and the services they provide. So, keeping on top of that is one energy for a vast resource, and then actually doing the implementation, like who to contact for energy efficiency proposals. So, these things just require time, and we see ourselves that we have a role to help the nonprofits speed this along. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, having the funding and also having an inside champion, which is so interesting, because even big corporations that Mike and I speak with on this show say they always need an inside champion or champions. So, a nonprofit contacts you, you make a deal, and later on we’re going to talk about how your business model works. How do you go about greening that facility? What’s your approach? Obviously, at this point, now that you’re in your fourth year of operation, you have an SOP. How does that work? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Right. So, our approach is simply in our name, Connect the Dots. We’re not about reinventing the wheel; we’re about connecting to existing resources, like incentive programs and rebates and the inspectors that are available to provide their lifetime knowledge in their specific field. We want to connect those programs to the nonprofits, and have the nonprofits take advantage of them. We help them along in that process. In doing so, they can leverage a lot of the incentives and devices that are given by the program, and put it to use. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, explain now, there’s a lot of people who listen to this show, and they might be in other states, but they’re going to get inspired here to green their organizations. So, good people, like our listeners, donate money to nonprofits all across the United States. So, this is really a function of also nonprofits not letting shrinkage happen, not having any waste in their organization of that precious money and those precious resources that are donated to them. MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Right. Exactly. I mean, this starts the rippling effect, where one donation or contribution to us, it can ripple out to be savings that can be generated to multiple nonprofits, that can then be reinvested into additional activities that take them further down the greening path. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re right over the center of the plate in a baseball analogy. Who’s the best kind of nonprofit that’s suited for your services? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Great question. Three things that would make the nonprofits the best profile for us would be a nonprofit that has the authority to authorize facility changes, because a lot of the recommendations that we’re making is to upgrade water fixtures or lighting equipment, so we’re more looking towards nonprofits that can make that call versus those that rent out of the building to several other tenants. Number two is that they have the support of their senior management team. I think that we don’t necessarily need the senior management team to be gung-ho environmentalists, passionate about the environment, just that they recognize it as an issue and want to be more optimized about how they operate. Number three would be that they have a little bit in their budget to actually invest in the upgrades, the recommendations that we make to them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK. So, these are all great points. Let’s go back to what we were talking about earlier. Do the nonprofits have to actually own the building, or are these upgrades possible if they have a long-term lease and they want to be greener and save more money? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Exactly. They don’t need to own it, just that they have the authority to make those calls, so the long-term lease would give them that authority, or the master lease, and that’s another situation. We’ve learned a different variety of ownership levels, so good point. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Maikhanh, this is so fascinating. Mike and I have been so lucky to have so many great guests doing so much good, and this is a whole separate and new paradigm. Have you created a paradigm that is very replicable in different cities and in different countries? Can you take it on the road, or can you partner up with other great people like yourself to do this in New York and to do this in Boston and Miami and across the continents? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: That’s the dream. We definitely feel that this is a replicable model, and we want to take it on the road. We want to partner with those who are enthusiastic and want to take on the challenge. MIKE BRADY: Maikhanh, you sound like you are so humble as a human being. You’re probably never going to get to these figures, but we got some wow numbers I got on your website, which if you’re following along on your iPod or your iPad or your laptop, you can access by going to connectthedotsnetwork.org. Just a couple of things. In 2009, Connect the Dots partnered with 15 Bay Area nonprofits, guiding their 31 direct service and supportive housing facilities towards sustainability. John, you’re going to love these numbers. Annually, these nonprofits will collectively conserve 2.9 million gallons of water. To put it another way, that’s enough to fill 45,000 bathtubs. Collectively, it will divert 356,000 pounds of waste, enough waste to fill more than 25 garbage trucks, and this is just in the Bay Area. Reduce 94,035 kilowatt hours in electricity, saving enough energy to power the average American home for over a decade. The final number, a wow number. Save $187,540 within the first year, and $788,141 in total over the next five. Maikhanh, you’ve got to be doing something right. MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Thank you so much. That’s great. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I mean, this is really, truly great news, what you’re doing because if I’m donating to a nonprofit and I know they’re using your services, and they should be advertising, which I want you to explain. Are they advertising that they’re using your services? Because that means more of the money that I donate is going to the cause that I donated, instead of being wasted as you’ve pointed out. Energy, water, waste, and other things like that. MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Excellent point. I think this is where we can definitely do better to market information like this with our clients. I think we’ve been working to generate these numbers or to get these impact savings, rather than telling the story about it, but I think that’s definitely a key area. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So well done. Share some of the stories. If you can, share some of the names and the brands, or at least some of the stories, how they work, so our listeners can hear the success that you’ve had, so they can get motivated and inspired to do the same for themselves or for their organizations where they’re listening to this. MAIKHANH NGUYEN: As far as the groups we’ve worked with, we’ve worked with Walden House, where they provide substance abuse treatment programs for the community, Compass Community Services, a variety of additional community services, a lot of treatment centers and housing facilities and soup kitchens and what not. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. So, this year, compared to last year, how much are you going to grow? Are you going to grow 10%, 20%, 30%? What’s your thought? What does your pipeline of new business look like? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Right. I think our goal is to try to manage the growth as well as just not growing so wild that we lose the methodology. I think it’s more also that we’re looking to grow into different counties now, beyond San Francisco and beyond the region. So, I think it’s less about the number of buildings, and more about where we can strategically place our time and our commitment. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. That is just fascinating. With regards to connecting the dots, and for our listeners who just tuned in, like Mike said earlier, www.connectthedotsnetwork.org. How many people do you have working for you now, Maikhanh? Obviously when you started, it was the vision of a special person, you, who was the founding director. How many people did you have back in 2008, and how many do you have today? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Right. So, to tell you the truth, we’re keeping our operations small, so up until now, it’s been me and volunteer time from others, very dedicated, passionate folks. This year, we are planning to grow for three people. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Good for you. Without giving any secret sauce or secrets, obviously you have groceries to buy. Obviously, you have phone bills to pay and rent to pay. How do you make money in saving others’ money and resources? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: I will share the secret sauce, if the secret sauce will bring more savings to nonprofits. Basically, our model is that we do raise our own money. We do go for grant funding from different sources like foundations and even have contracts with the city to provide these services to the nonprofits that they give money to. Our business model is also that we can then subsidize our cost to the nonprofits, so our time is free with some nonprofits, and then there’s also a little bit of a fee-based charge for others, so we have a little bit of earned income as another income source, and then individual donations is another area. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is there a way to donate on your site? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: There is, definitely. Please go to our website, connectthedotsnetwork.org, and there’s a Donate button that you cannot miss. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, let’s talk about this. Is there ever a type of a business model that you could evolve into where if you work connecting the dots for a nonprofit and save them X amount of money and resources, you get a percentage of that? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Yes. I mean, I think we explored those business models, and also approached the nonprofits with that, and given that as an option, we haven’t had any actual nonprofits wanting to invest in that. I think it’s a combination of the economic environment and challenge during this time, but I think every year we want to try new strategies to help us be a little bit more sustainable. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’ve authored a chapter in a book, A Nonprofit Guide to Going Green. Speak a little bit about authoring that chapter and what has that done for you professionally and for your organization? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Right. So, the book is a collection of different authors contributing different content and chapters into one collaborative resource book. My chapter was on demonstrating to others that there is quite a bit of saving involved. We did a case study of the Jordan Apartments. I think from being published in that book, we got a little bit more attention of what we’re doing and more nonprofits were calling us to explore a little bit more of what they could do for their buildings. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Maikhanh, what you’re doing is special work. Have you run into, now in your travels and in your profession that you’ve chosen, and it’s just wonderful stuff, have you run into other Maikhanh Nguyens in other cities or other countries? Are there other people like you doing similar stuff, or have you really created something that really wasn’t thought about before? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: I like to think that I’m unique. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For sure you’re unique. MAIKHANH NGUYEN: But I think there are very fantastic, creative, wonderful folks in every part that I meet, and I’m also blown away, always blown away, by what they’re doing. I think that gives me the motivation to push more and be a part of that group. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Two last questions, Maikhanh. Best moment since you’ve started this organization, favorite moment that you wish you could relive and you want to relive over and over again since you’ve started this great organization, Connect the Dots? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: I think what’s hard for me to convey to folks who aren’t there or aren’t going through it is just the energy that you feel when you’re talking to the nonprofit staff or to the clients that they serve, when you talk about why folks should care about the environment even when there are so many other priorities in their lives and issues that they’re going through, and then to have that connection about the environment and seeing the shift in their behavior and checking back in a few months later or years later, and they’re still doing those things. I mean, I think that is always a moment when I feel that I’m on the right track. This is what I was supposed to do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. I like it. On the right track. We all want to feel like we’re on the right track. You know, we’re down to the last minute-and-a-half or so, Maikhanh. Can you share any other pearls of wisdom? Because we get so many people, Mike and I, we get letters or e-mail more particularly, and messages from people. How do I do that? How do I become the next Maikhanh Nguyen? A lot of college students listen to this, a lot of high school students, and a lot of people looking to recycle their career. What pearls of wisdom can you share with them in the last minute-and-a-half or so? MAIKHANH NGUYEN: Wow. I think it’s just asking what’s stopping you? I think there’s a lot of fear that we have about ourselves, about what we can do or can’t do, about whether we have the right training to do it, and I think that those things can’t really be discovered until you try it. And, I think it comes back to what I found with Connect the Dots, that once you take some sort of action, if it’s something as simple as changing a light bulb or changing a showerhead, that action that leads you to think about some things in a different way that leads to future action. I think it’s just do it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. Do it. That’s great, great advice, and simple advice to do it, and that’s from Maikhanh Nguyen. We’re at the end here just for today. Mike and I are so honored that you came on our show today, Maikhanh, and we just wish you continued wonderful success. For our listeners out there, please go to her great website, www.connectthedotsnetwork.org. You can also decide to support her organization because you can donate right while you’re on the website, or you could hire her to help your nonprofit go green if you’re up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Maikhanh Nguyen, you are an eco-visionary on a wonderful mission, and truly living proof that green is good.