The Professional Altruist
By Art Martori, January 2017 Issue. | Meet Katie Hobbs, Echo‘s other 2016 Leader of the Year.
The language of business has always been native to Nate Rhoton, and in that world he’s enjoyed much success due to an innate ability to crunch numbers, juggle RFPs and close deals.
But that has always left him just short of completely fulfilled, which is what prompted Rhoton to pursue volunteering as a way to scratch his altruistic itch.
That is until last November, when Rhoton realized it was time to leave the for-profit world to become development director at the Phoenix nonprofit one•n•ten.
In this role, where he’s responsible for the organization's fundraising lifeblood, Rhoton represents the merger of two juxtaposed forces: success as business would define it and success in the philanthropic sense. With his formidable business acumen, merged with a passion for one•n•ten’s mission of serving LGBTQ youth and young adults ages 14 to 24, he’s a new kind of nonprofit professional.
“Working with donors and being a donor myself, I saw how powerful it can be to work one-on-one with those donors and facilitate greater giving,” Rhoton said. “Just to further engage them and make them feel connected to our mission.”
It was Linda Elliot’s style of running the organization that Rhoton said first resonated with him, when this opportunity presented itself. And, of course, he was eager to meet her for dinner and a serious discussion about the future possibilities.
From there, a few formal interviews took place before Rhoton was notified that he was the best candidate for the position. When he formally started at one•n•ten in November 2015, Rhoton remembers the feeling of knowing this decision changed the course of his life.
“Within the first week of coming [to one•n•ten], I just felt so much more challenged – in a good way – than I had in a long time,” Rhoton said. “So it was well worth it.”
Photo by Scotty Kirby.
The Show Stopper
Among his accomplishments since joining one•n•ten, Rhoton said he especially proud of Dancing with the Bars 2016, a dance competition held in August with proceeds benefiting the organization. In its ninth year (but the first since one•n•ten acquired it from SWAY Events), the event raised more than $53,000 – tripling the record set in previous years.
This success, Rhoton credits to several new approaches. One such example was an effort to bridge the gap between participating bars and event attendees by creating pop-up versions of such gayborhood hotspots as Stacy's @ Melrose and BS West.
“It really created that fun atmosphere of going up to a bartender who knows you,” Rhoton explained. “And you have that banter back and forth that you typically don’t get at an event. We need more of that. We need that sense that it’s the community putting on an event, rather than just, ‘This is Nate at one•n•ten putting on an event.’”
This, Rhoton explained, was all made possible due to careful planning and preparation, and securing an event license from the city of Phoenix
Return on Investment
Today, one•n•ten operates on a $1.875 million annual budget, Rhoton explained, about quadruple the organization’s cashflow of four years ago.
According to Linda Elliott, one•n•ten’s executive director, Rhoton was her choice for nourishing that growth due to his professional experience and active participation in the community surrounding her organization.
“Nate was the best candidate for the job because he brought a rich network of community and corporate contacts, a wealth of experience in fundraising and PR and, most importantly, a passion for the mission of one•n•ten,” Elliott said.
For Rhoton, it’s a responsibility that remains top of mind. His salary comes via a grant from The Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation, which he said allows him to feel more impactful knowing the money he raises never funds his own paychecks.
“It also makes me feel accountable and energized to do my best job, because, at the end of the day, this is a foundation that believes in our mission and wants to make a difference in our organization,” he said. “I feel like I need to have a return on investment for each one of those dollars.”
Today’s Youth, Tomorrow’s Future
Indeed, big things are happening at one•n•ten as the organization heads into its 24th year enhancing the lives of its youth by “providing empowering social and service programs that promote self-expression, self-acceptance, leadership development and healthy life choices.”
Now in its fourth year, one•n•ten’s Promise of a New Day housing program, for example, puts roofs over the heads of otherwise homeless LGBTQ youth in Arizona.
According to Rhoton, one•n•ten has already secured the money necessary to build a new, larger housing facility in Phoenix. It’s been challenging, he explained, because the facility needs to be near the light rail, and that kind of real estate is typically prohibitively expensive.
“I love that I can solve these problems, whereas before I was using my mind to work out a change order,” Rhoton said. “I love that now it’s a marriage of what I used to do as a volunteer with what I do for a living. It makes it not feel like work.”
Rhoton landed at one•n•ten after more than 15 years in corporate jobs, which included roles as a business planning manager at General Mills, a Fortune 500 company, and operations director at SKY Construction & Engineering, Inc. The latter is his family’s business, which Rhoton said had an annual budget of $25 to $30 million.
Fresh-faced and yet to turn 40, Rhoton laughs remembering one of his first meetings at General Mills, back when he had just graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in economics and business administration (and looked even younger than he does today). At the meeting, a grocer eyed him suspiciously, possibly wondering how much business savvy he could expect from this young man.
“He said to me, ‘Are you even old enough to drive?,’” Rhoton recalled.
But, like most people he’d meet over the next 15 years, Rhoton earned his respect. He credits that to the role model his father provided, who, he said, is best described as charismatic.
“How I connect with people I would definitely attribute to my dad,” Rhoton explained. “My dad can be a little crazy, but at the end of the day, he’s a really good, charismatic person. His belief is that everyone has a story, and he wants to hear it. And I am completely like that. I love hearing other people’s stories.”
But despite his business pedigree and inherited ability to make friend and influence people, Rhoton said there was still a part of him that wanted to do something different, something more.
Over the years Rhoton learned that volunteering provided him an avenue to fill that void and, as a result, he’s held various leadership positions with such nonprofits as Equality Arizona, Human Rights Campaign, Melonhead Foundation and the Greater Phoenix Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
It Takes a Community
Travis Shumake, now fundraising chair for one•n•ten, remembers working with Rhoton at events for Human Rights Campaign, Equality Arizona and one•n•ten. Shumake agrees Rhoton is excellent at executing projects while energizing people involved at the same time.
“He does a great job of highlighting the strengths of a person. That’s very rare in a volunteer network,” Shumake said. “You can’t really coach people. You get what you get. However, he’s an extremely effective nonprofit leader and special events taskmaster. He can pull out strengths and passions for a task. He makes you want to come back again.”
This year also marks another milestone for the young professional, Rhoton applied for and was accepted into Valley Leadership, a nonprofit dedicated to equipping community leaders with the tools to transform the greater Phoenix area, as part of its Class 38.
“We consider Valley Leadership a lifetime commitment to our alumni,” said Christy Moore, VL president and CEO. “We’re here to link them up with opportunities that align with their passions.”
Upon completion of the yearlong program next August, Rhoton will join the ranks of more than 2,000 VL alumni, including many LGBTQ community leaders.
As Rhoton heads into his second year with one•n•ten, he’s focusing his efforts and energy on the organization’s eighth annual Fresh Brunch, scheduled for Feb. 19, 2017, at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa.
“Through this special event, we are able to invite donors to be a part of our truly special story and unique impact on the lives of nearly 1,000 youth ... I measure our success in lives saved and our donors make that possible,” he said. “Fresh [Brunch] is different ... [It’s] the perfect mix of laughs, smiles, possibly some tears … the ideal recipe for the perfect Sunday!”