Job Hunting

CORRECTION: A CFO’s Quest for Meaning

At 22, Gretchen Nickel was globetrotting for Citicorp. Why is she now involved in charitable giving?
Michelle GabrielleJune 6, 2001

(Editor’s note: The version of this story that initially ran on on May 21, 2001, contained several errors. This is an updated, corrected version. We regret any inconvenience or confusion this may have caused.)

At 30 years old, Gretchen Nickel was on the fast track.

She had quickly moved up the corporate ladder at Citicorp before becoming CFO of the Outsourced Services Division of Fiserv, Inc., a financial services firm that boasted over $1.6 billion in revenues in 2000.

But, in 1994—three years later—Nickel abruptly quit. She insists she wasn’t fired or asked to leave. Nickel says simply that the job had become “too routine.”

Today, she is president and CFO of GivingCapital, a small, private, Philadelphia-based company. It’s here where she finally found the variety of tasks she craved while she was at Fiserv. “I don’t do the same thing twice any day in a row at GivingCapital,” says Nickel.

GivingCapital is partnered with The National Philanthropic Trust (NPT), an independent public charity, to provide large financial services companies with charitable investment products, including donor advised funds.

GivingCapital also offers an online fundraising system for nonprofit organizations.

The company has grown from six to 25 employees since September 1999. Currently, the company has 400 nonprofit clients through its online fundraising system. In addition, the company has three financial service company clients with its Donor Advised Fund product.

Clearly, this new company is worlds apart from the organization she encountered in 1986 when she graduated from the University of Connecticut with a B.S. in finance.

Nickel immediately went to work for Citibank’s accounts payable division. At 22, Citicorp’s CFO sent her to Europe for six months to review the bank’s entire London operations.

When she returned from London, Nickel was promoted to controller for Citicorp’s Asia, Pacific, and Latin American division of the Financial Institutions Group at the company’s world headquarters in Manhattan. She was responsible for managing approximately 40 countries. “I did a boat load of traveling,” she recalls.

While overseas, Nickel was also able to appreciate the “substantial difference” in value placed on women in foreign countries as compared to the U.S. “I actually had someone in Korea tell me that if you were a woman in my country you would be working behind me,” says Nickel, who added that Citicorp, however, was “very progressive with promoting women.”

Then in 1991, Fiserv purchased Citicorp’s Information Resources Business and Nickel was promoted to CFO of the Outsourced Services Division. Nickel served as a “point person” on the company’s corporate due-diligence team, focusing on mergers and acquisitions. “Basically, I would try to come up with a valuation on properties through the bid, negotiation, and closing process,” explains Nickel.

On a daily basis, Nickel was in charge of strategy and business forecasting, compensation planning, compliance, and monthly reporting. “My job included the reporting for fairly established companies and business units,” says Nickel, “so it was a fairly similar process from month to month.”

Thus, in 1994 Nickel, who says she “handled everything except cash management,” made her fateful decision. She resigned from Fiserv as a permanent CFO, working as an interim CFO, or as she likes to call it, as a “gun for hire,” until she could find what she imagined would be the job of her dreams.

“I just wanted more challenging opportunities and project-oriented work,” especially in Internet startups, she recalls.

One of her other hired-gun jobs involved working as the interim CFO at Stockpower, Inc., a San Francisco-based financial services/E- commerce firm. Nickel participated in a wide range of tasks, including working with the operations department daily to help insure that the company overall was running as smoothly as possible.

“Stockpower was less than two years old when I joined,” says Nickel. “It was clearly in need of financial oversight and help,” considering the company was anticipating going public in the near future.

Nickel says she reorganized Stockpower’s financial processes and helped to redefine the company’s business plan. In addition, she worked to secure early stage funding of “about $25 million at a decent valuation,” before she left the company in 1999, after working there for about a year.

Her quest for full-time fulfillment finally ended in October 1999, when Nickel was tapped as CFO of GivingCapital. Nickel says she’s finally found the variety she craved while at Fiserv. “I don’t do the same thing two days in a row at GivingCapital,” she notes.

Of course, raising capital at the firm “never stops,” given that it’s still small and in its infancy, says Nickel. Indeed, she secured a second round of financing–$9.1 million in venture capital–in October 2000. “It was a long, challenging process,” she recalls, considering that “the market was extremely tough. It was very time-consuming for myself and our CEO.”

At GivingCapital, where Nickel added the title of president in June 2000, she says she’s always wearing her “CFO hat”—and indeed still retains the CFO title. But she’s involved in many other aspects of the business.

For instance, she works with sales teams to devise pricing strategies and participates in client contract negotiations. She also works with the firm’s operations group to review its processes, “always keeping in mind risk-analysis and making sure the company is protected, by identifying potential liabilities that may occur with financial processes.”

“Underneath all of that are budgeting, forecasting, and reporting responsibilities and dealing with investors,” says Nickel. “But, every day is different. For example, she said during a recent interview, “Today, I reviewed our Web site design.”

As a founding employee of GivingCapital, Nickel takes great pride in the program that the company offers to its clients.

Here’s how the Donor Advised Fund program works:

An individual first makes a contribution of at least $25,000 to the fund, which is tax-deductible. NPT then administers the program by housing the fund and reviewing grant recommendations online to benefit philanthropic institutions that donors wish to support.

GivingCapital provides the infrastructure and technical platform, which include solutions for online access, account management, grant distribution, and back-office support. That, in turn, enables the charitable funds to be set up quickly and efficiently within each financial institution.

GivingCapital also develops an online fundraising and membership system that enables charities and nonprofit organizations to receive and process online donations and manage membership campaigns on-line. The company offers a tool that nonprofits can use to create and manage matching gift campaigns online. The campaigns enable nonprofits to match each online contribution with funds donated in advance by a foundation, corporation, or individual.

Working at GivingCapital means more to Nickel than “just a job.”

Nickel had grown up with parents who were firm believers in philanthropy, especially her mother. “She did a lot of volunteer work, working in such places as hospices and soup kitchens. When we were kids, she dragged us along. We all sort of inherited the same skills and appreciation for that kind of work,” says Nickel.

The death of her mother from cancer when Nickel was a young woman only makes her appreciate more the charitable work that GivingCapital offers, she says.

Speaking of her job, she says, “Granted, there is always a profit motive at the end of the day.” But because the company aims to “promote philanthropy throughout the country,” it’s particularly meaningful for her to work there.