Sonoma County Family YMCA's Charlene Garrison wins North Bay CFO award

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Charlene Garrison of Sonoma County Family YMCA in Santa Rosa wins one of North Bay Business Journal's CFO awards.

Professional Background: I have worked in accounting for my entire career. I have held nearly every position in an accounting office starting out as a file clerk while in college. I have experience in audit, advertising, educational film, broadcasting, entertainment and nonprofits. Companies I’ve worked for include Ernst & Young, KABC-TV, Pyramid Films, RPA, Girls Scouts of Greater Los Angeles, and the YMCA (in that order!)

Education: Bachelor of Science, California State University, Northridge

What do you see as the essential role of a financial leader in the current environment?

Providing the extra layers of protection and fiscal responsibility so that program leaders can deliver on the mission of the organization.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your industry?

There is a growing number of nonprofits and a need for more diversified revenue streams. Low unemployment and the high cost of living in Sonoma County makes it more difficult to attract and retain employees. Mandatory increases in the minimum wage creates a multitude of challenges to navigate. Demonstrating the mission and impact has become critical when sharing the financials with members, boards and donors.

Tell us about the particular challenges and opportunities your organization has met in the recent past.

During the fires, our Y closed for two days and quickly opened our doors to provide over 1,000 showers to individuals in need, including first responders from out of town. Additionally, we raised funds, had a toiletries drive, and provided emotional and physical support for anyone walking through our doors. To this day, we continue to support victims both directly and indirectly effected by the fires. In response to the fires and because so many childcare seats have been lost in the city, First Five Sonoma County has given us a grant to open a new infant/toddler center on Piner Road.

What advice would you give to young emerging financial leaders?

Always look at the big picture and don’t sweat the small stuff. Be open to new ideas and the ideas of others. Never assume anything. Be kind to others.

What’s the best advice for weathering today’s economic environment?

Plan, budget and be nimble. Don’t be afraid to make changes in the moment and don’t fall asleep at the wheel.

How do you think your business will change in the next five years?

At the Y we are embarking on a new strategic plan that focuses on inclusivity and diversity. We plan to have an employee base and a board of directors that mirrors the population of Sonoma County with an emphasis on the Latino community within the next two to three years.

What is a decision you wish you hadn’t made? What did you learn from it?

I think the hardest decision I ever made was to leave KABC-TV. At the time, it had mostly to do with the commute more than anything else. I know in the end I made the right choice for my family, but it was tough to leave a bright future there.

What is your most memorable business experience?

Working at Ernst & Young out of downtown Los Angeles. I really enjoyed the engagement with clients at the largest CPA firm in the world. (I was there during the merger!)

What is your greatest business success?

Switching from the for-profit world to the nonprofit arena mid-career. Being able to help support organizations whose sole purpose is to help others has been a very fulfilling choice for me.

What was your toughest business decision?

To pull the plug on a project that I helped spearhead which was not going as planned after six months of effort.

What would your friends be surprised to find out about you?

I have a crush on Justin Timberlake.

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