Christopher Ramsey of USA Water Polo: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization
Are you committed enough to risk failing? In the Olympic movement, the athletes who find are the ones who don’t quit. There are lots of reasons to pack it in with a sport like water polo, where there aren’t huge financial rewards. One of our best examples of this perseverance is Merrill Moses, who was the starting goalie on our 2008 Silver Medal Olympic Team. This was the first team that Merrill made, having missed selection in 2000, and 2004, and he was already in his 30’s, having knocked around the sport as a player and a coach, while working day jobs to pay the bills. He made the 2008 Olympic team and helped lead us to our first men’s medal in 20 years.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christopher Ramsey.
As CEO of USA Water Polo, Chris brings a history of leading major non-profit organizations through turnarounds characterized by tight management and significant revenue generation. Prior to joining USA Water Polo in 2006, Chris was responsible for all revenue and capital projects at the New York City Ballet, where he grew the company’s earned and philanthropic income and established an endowment approaching $200 million. He also spent nearly 15 years in New York and Washington securing sponsorships totaling more than $100 million while also leading public affairs for what is now the PBS NewsHour.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I grew up in Southern California, where I played water polo and studied music and literature. After graduate school, I lectured in Fiction and Poetry at Cornell University, and then worked in NYC for what is now the PBS NewsHour, with Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. My career took an unexpected turn when I moved to Lincoln Center to work with Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins and other artists at the New York City Ballet. My most recent chapter involved a move back to the West Coast, where I lead Team USA’s Olympic Water Polo program. I am happily married and have three sons.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your non nonprofit?
I am drawn to developing value and building community. I joined USA Water Polo simply because, as a parent, I could see the profound impact that sports — when done right — has on the lives of young people and families. Water Polo was ready to expand and improve the athlete experience.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
We recognize that sport is about more than who wins and loses. Sport builds communities, teaches teamwork and leadership, and provides families with tools that help them adapt to unexpected challenges. So although our mission is to win Olympic medals, it is also to grow our sport. In some ways our commitment to growth has expanded our impact far beyond competitive success, because it has established a culture of excellence and hard work.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
One fascinating example is a young man whom I coached (as a volunteer), who discovered he had a gift for opera. Today he has sung for companies all over the world and credits water polo for teaching him discipline, resilience, and — wait for it — breath control!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Provide access for all — to programs, facilities, opportunities
- Treat everyone with respect — because in doing so, we learn to treat one another better
- Set high standards — and hold each other accountable for meeting those standards
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
The difference between leadership and authority became clear to me when I began managing people. Most of us are not inspired by others telling us what to do. We are, however, inspired by being part of a team and knowing that our role makes a difference. The pandemic caused many to question their own life decisions, and some stepped off the treadmill because they were looking for something more. Nonprofits are all about committing to the mission rather than seeking material rewards, and I think that ethos is attracting more people than even before.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
- Are you committed enough to risk failing? In the Olympic movement, the athletes who find are the ones who don’t quit. There are lots of reasons to pack it in with a sport like water polo, where there aren’t huge financial rewards. One of our best examples of this perseverance is Merrill Moses, who was the starting goalie on our 2008 Silver Medal Olympic Team. This was the first team that Merrill made, having missed selection in 2000, and 2004, and he was already in his 30’s, having knocked around the sport as a player and a coach, while working day jobs to pay the bills. He made the 2008 Olympic team and helped lead us to our first men’s medal in 20 years.
- Do you love the day-to-day as much as the audacious goal? There are many examples of this in sport. If you don’t enjoy practice, you are unlikely to succeed come gametime. Great example of this was Sami Hill, backup goalie on the women’s gold medal 2016 team. Her work ethic was an inspiration to her team and helped propel starting goalie Ashley Johnson to MVP status. Sami fully committed every time she jumped in the pool, and that inspired her teammates. So it’s best to do something you like to practice day in and day out.
- Is this a viable business? It is wonderful to be idealistic, but the numbers have to add up or you cannot make meaningful progress on your mission. USA Water Polo had a history of poor financial management when I joined. We put in programs that have quadrupled our revenue and doubled our membership. We have been able to use that revenue to expand members programs, provide organizational continuity, and serve many, many more young people.
- People make the difference. I have learned that we can accomplish anything with the right team. By the same token, it is hard to achieve anything without great partners who have gifts that you do not possess. I personally learned this when we hired a new CFO that was, frankly, overqualified for the job. Yet having his skillset and his wisdom and his experience helped transform the organization, because he could see around corners that we couldn’t.
- The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. When I started at USA Water Polo, we needed a lot of reforms — both in our federation and also in the Olympic movement. My son used to tell me that not everything could be fixed at once…and he was right. We made progress by prioritizing initiatives (from athlete safety to financial controls to fair standards) and tackling them one at a time before moving on to the next ones.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Maestro Dudamel of the LA Philharmonic comes to mind. He is an inspirational figure who has brought art and light to many young people, and I would love to discuss how to do more!
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
The road to paradise is paradise. Keep moving and get on down the road!
How can our readers follow you online?
I write a column in our magazine, SkipShot and try to keep my LinkedIn profile active.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.
Christopher Ramsey of USA Water Polo: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.