How Often Do Nonprofit Board Members Need to Question Strategic Norms?
By Eugene Fram
A new nonprofit director has a lot to learn. Considering that his/h term of service will be relatively short (typically four to six years), he/s must quickly learn the “ropes” to participate in a meaningful way. In this process, colleagues and leadership will acquaint him/h with prevailing board systems and culture—often ignoring the depth of expertise she/h can employ. Example: An expert in financial strategies may be asked to assist the CFO with accounting details, far below the person’s skill level. Oftentimes the new board member also is greeted with a mantra that says, “We’ve always done it this way.” As the director moves in his path from novice to retiree, during a short tenure, there is little opportunity to suggest innovations that differ from the accepted fundamentals and to successfully advocate for change.
Following are four nonprofit areas that call for strategic scrutiny and, if recognized by several other current board members as constraints on the future of the nonprofit, the process may allow individual directors to seek positive change:
Can Mission Creep be Good?? Dedication to the organization’s mission should be the board and staff’s primary focus. Often this focus can limit a conservative board’s vision if long-term risk may be involved. But nonprofits have an obligation to keep current in addressing emerging needs and may veto a client venture that has reasonable potential. This hard and fast adherence to mission parameters can be used as an avoidance mechanism to maintain the status quo. How do directors determine the initiative’s positive/negative impact on the organization? Boards need to wrestle with tough questions such as the following: With baby boomers retiring there will be an increased need for elderly housing. Should those nonprofits whose mission is to operate homes for children feel morally obliged to extend both their mission and operational expertise to develop separate or operationally related homes for the low-income elderly?
Nonprofit boards, in my opinion, try hard to acculturate new board members to the mission, as the current group of directors views it. The disadvantage is that expansion or even modification of the program implementation becomes difficult or even unacceptable. A field case: A moribund human services agency offered counseling services on weekdays from 9 to 5 and on Thursdays 9-8pm. The nonprofit had no provision for emergency services. For decades board members had been acculturated to the rigid service schedule and were resistant to change. Finally, a group of new board members, recognizing the urgency of the clients’ requirements was able, with support of new a CEO, to develop a cost-effective way to increase service to a 24/7 model.
The Ethos of Overhead vs. Development: When the need for a new staff-type management person arises, it is often hotly contested. Nonprofit organizations have usually operated on the ethos that about 80% of budgets need to be expended for direct customer services. This ignores the fact that an increase in overhead costs, if carefully planned, can yield substantial increases to program budgets. One CEO who was adept at fundraising refused to engage a COO, citing increased overhead as the reason. After four years of board prodding, he relented and made the appointment. The result was positive on two counts—he was able to expand his fundraising prowess and internal operations improved significantly.
Board Culture: Many boards have a tendency to be a rubber stamp for management. This can be a significant danger with nonprofit boards whose culture encourages directors to “go along to get along.” Directors, as volunteers, often view the political and friendship costs of rigorous debate as being too high. Others surmise that management has more information in the field and are uncomfortable in challenging its expertise. This malaise in the nonprofit sector can have disastrous results, evidenced in the frequent reports of fraud due to board laxity. Occasionally, a board may even refuse to fire the perpetrator and the state attorney general must intervene.
There is nothing tactically sacred about the monthly two-hour board meeting and yet limited discussion and crowded agendas can inhibit any type of rigorous discussion at them. Board members who would like to suggest new ideas or question accepted norms are usually frustrated and discouraged from doing so. Although obsolete, the meeting format is rarely challenged. There are, however, alternative options. Board meetings, in my opinion, should be scheduled for longer periods such as 1½ – 2 days–or bimonthly meetings of 3-4 hours. Instead of merely current updates, the format, if carefully structured, could then accommodate substantive policy/strategy issues and allow board members to be heard.
Alternative Data Measurement Systems: Nonprofits often fail to develop impact data that one could deem reliable. In our view, too many nonprofits fail to appreciate the benefits of rigorous performance basis measurement. This failure is caused by the substantial cost of developing some qualitative impact counts, e.g. impact of advocacy efforts. Nonprofits, however, can glean whatever value they can through imperfect metrics, gathering information and data that may be anecdotal, subjective, interpretive, qualitative or developed through small size samples. Over time, imperfect metrics can be continually improved and become useful in tracking progress and driving change. (http://bit.ly/OvF4ri)
Challenging the Nonprofit’s cultural DNA is daunting. Ties to traditional modes of governance are hard to sever. But with sensitivity and persistence, a board member can help move the organization forward, if at least several other directors also understand the need to question strategic norms.