Author: eugenefram

Dr. Eugene Fram has over 25 years experience as a non-profit board member, consultant, and author. His model of nonprofit governance has been adopted by thousands of organizaations.

Establishing Effective Nonprofit Board Committees – What to Do.

Establishing Effective Nonprofit Board Committees – What to Do.

By Eugene Fram                      Free Digital Image

Following are ways that many nonprofit boards have established effective board committees using my governance model as described in the third edition of Policy vs. Paper Clips.

https://goo.gl/j4EK5P

• In the planning effort, focus board personnel and financial resources only on those topics that are germane to the organization at a particular time. For example, financial planning, long-range planning or short-range planning. However the board needs to be open to generative planning if new opportunities present themselves or are developed via board leadership. (more…)

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Dysfunction in the Nonprofit Sector—Reality or Myth?

 

Dysfunction in the Nonprofit Sector—Reality or Myth?

By: Eugene Fram         Free Digital Image

Judging from the vast literature on dysfunctional nonprofit boards and organizations (my own posts included!) one might conclude that the majority of nonprofits are struggling, incompetent and/or in crisis. I argue that this is not the case. Decades of experience lead me to believe that nonprofits have the same functional variables as profit making organizations—dysfunctional at times like Target or GM; efficient like Apple or Amazon. Everybody doesn’t get it right all the time.

Perceptions become reality to those who are quick to embrace popular labels such as the overused term, “dysfunctional.” Obviously, in the case of nonprofits, such perceptions are harmful. Once evaluated in this way the stigma persists and can seriously reduce the level of support that is so critical to the work of these organizations. (more…)

Oversight Needs Tightening in Nonprofit Boards

Oversight Needs Tightening in Nonprofit Boards

By: Eugene Fram          Free Digital Image

Clearly the purpose of a nonprofit board is to serve the constituency that establishes it—be it community, industry, governmental unit and the like. That said, the “how” to best deliver those services is often not so clear. An executive committee, for example, can overstep its authority by assuming powers beyond its scope of responsibility. I encountered this in one executive committee when the group developed a strategic plan in an interim period where there was no permanent ED. The board then refused to share it with the incoming executive. In another instance, an executive committee took it upon itself to appoint members of the audit committee—including outsiders who were unknown to the majority on the board.

The fuzziness of boundaries and lack of defined authority call for an active nonprofit system of checks and balances. For a variety of reasons this is difficult for nonprofits to achieve:

  • A typical nonprofit board member is often recruited from a pool of friends, relatives and colleagues, and will serve, on a median average, for four to six years.   This makes it difficult to achieve rigorous debate at meetings (why risk conflicts with board colleagues?). Directors also are not as eager to thoughtfully plan for change beyond the limits of their terms. Besides discussing day-to-day issues, the board needs to make sure that immediate gains do not hamper long-term sustainability.
  • The culture of micromanagement is frequently a remnant from the early startup years when board members may have performed operational duties. In some boards it becomes embedded in the culture and continues to pervade the governmental environment, allowing the board and executive committee to involve themselves in areas that should be delegated to management
  • The executive team is a broad partnership of peers–board members, those appointed to the executive committee and the CEO. The executive committee is legally responsible to act for the board between meetings–the board must ratify its decisions. But unchecked, the executive committee can assume dictatorial powers whose conclusions must be rubber-stamped by the board.

Mitigating Oversight Barriers: There is often little individual board members can do to change the course when the DNA has become embedded in the organization. The tradition of micromanagement, for example, is hard to reverse, especially when the culture is continually supported by a succession of like-minded board chairs and CEOs. No single board member can move these barriers given the brevity of the board terms. But there are a few initiatives that three or four directors, working in tandem, can take to move the organization into a high-performance category.

  • Meetings: At the top of every meeting agenda there needs to be listed at least one policy or strategy related item. When the board discussion begins to wander, the chair should remind the group that they are encroaching on an area that is management’s responsibility. One board I observed wasted an hour’s time because the chair had failed to intercept the conversation in this manner. Another board agreed to change its timing of a major development event, then spent valuable meeting time suggesting formats for the new event—clearly a management responsibility to develop.
  • “New Age” Board Members: While millennial managers are causing consternation in some nonprofit and business organizations, certain changes in nonprofits are noteworthy. Those directors in the 40- and- under age bracket need some targeted nurturing. I encountered a new young person who energized the board with her eagerness to try innovative development approaches. She was subsequently appointed to the executive committee, deepening her view of the organization and priming her for senior leadership.Board members who understand the robust responsibilities of a 21st century board need to accept responsibilities for mentoring these new age board people, despite their addictions to their electronic devices.
  • Experienced Board Members: Directors that have served on other high-performance boards have the advantage of being familiar with modern governance processes and are comfortable in supporting change. They are needed to help boards, executive committees and CEOs to move beyond the comfortable bounds of the past. They will be difficult to recruit, but they are required ingredients for successful boards.

 

The Enron Debacle, 17 years Ago—2018 Lessons for Nonprofit Boards?

The Enron Debacle, 17 years Ago—2018 Lessons for Nonprofit Boards?

By: Eugene Fram                Free Digital Image

In 2001 Enron Energy collapsed due to financial manipulations and a moribund board. It was the seventh-largest company in the United States. Andrew Fastow, the former CFO and architect of the manipulations served more than five years in prison for securities fraud. He offered the following comments to business board members that, in my opinion, are currently relevant to nonprofit boards. (http://bit.ly/1JFGQ6T) Quotations from the article are italicized.

One explanation of his downfall was he didn’t stop to ask whether the decisions he was making were ethical (moral).

Nonprofits directors and managers can find themselves in similar situations. One obvious parallel is when a conflict of interest occurs.  In smaller and medium sized communities, it is wise to seek competitive bids, especially when th purchase may be awarded to a current or former board member or volunteer.

Board members and managers themselves can be at personal financial peril, via the Intermediate Sanctions Act, if they wittingly or unwittingly provide an excess salary benefit to an employee or an excess benefit to a volunteer or donor. Examples: The board allows an above market salary to offer to the CEO. Also the board allows a parcel of property to be sold to a volunteer or donor at below market values.  See: https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/intermediate-sanctions

One subtle area of decision-making morality centers on whether a board’s decision is immoral by commission or omission. Examples: In its normal course of client duties, the board allows managers to travel by first class air travel. Obviously, resources that are needed by clients are being wasted and morally indefensible. On the other hand the moral issue can come in to play, if the nonprofit is husbanding resources well beyond what is needed for an emergency reserve. The organization, in a sense, is not being all it can be in terms of client services or in seeking additional resources. Overly conservative financial planning, not unusual in nonprofit environments, can result in this latter subtle omission “moral” dilemma. Overtly, universities with billions of dollars on their balance sheets have been highlighted as having the issue, but I have occasionally noted smaller nonprofits in the same category.

He (Fastow) said he ultimately rationalized that he was following the rules, even if he was operating in the grey zones (area).

There can be grey zones for nonprofits. Example: IRS rules require that the nonprofit board be involved in the development of the annual Form 990 report. But what does this involvement mean—a brisk overview when the report is finished, a serious discussion of the answers to the 38 questions related to corporate governance, a record in the board minutes covering questions raised and changes suggested, etc.? A nonprofit boards needs to make a determination on which course is appropriate.

Boards implementing government-sponsored contracts can get into grey areas. Example: Some contracts require the nonprofits to follow government guidelines for travel expenses. I wonder how many nonprofit audit committees are aware of their responsibilities to make certain these guidelines are followed?

According to Fastow, a for-profit director can ask the wrong question—“Is this allowed?” A nonprofit director can make the same mistake. Instead, in my opinion, the better question for a nonprofit should be “Will this decision help the organization to prosper long after my director’s term limit?”

As Fastow did, human service boards can invite trouble if they falsely rationalize an action as being taken for client welfare, and then conclude they are following the rules.

Mr. Fastow said one way to start changing an entrenched culture is to have either a director on the board, or a hired adviser to the board, whose role is to question and challenge decisions.

Nonprofit directors are often recruited from friends, family members and business colleagues, etc. This process creates an entrenched board.

When elected to the board, a process begins to acculturate the new person to the status quo of the board, instead making best use of the person’s talents. Example: An accountant with financial planning experience will be asked to work with the CFO on routine accounting issues, far below her/h professional level. One answer is to accept Fastow’s suggestion and to appoint a modified lead director or adviser to a nonprofit board. (For details: see: http://bit.ly/13Dsd3v)

An old Chinese proverb states, “A wise man learns by his own experiences, the wiser man learns from the experiences of others. Nonprofit can learn a something from Andrew Fastow’s post conviction recollections to hopefully help avoid signifcnat debacles.

 

Nonprofit Board/Staff Relationships: An Uncomfortable Partnership?

Nonprofit Board/Staff Relationships: An Uncomfortable Partnership?

By: Eugene Fram

I have always been of the opinion that nonprofit directors don’t give sufficient consideration to the relationships between the board and staff. The following passage reasserts the complexity of such relationships and why misunderstandings might occur on either side of the fence. (more…)

The Devil’s Advocate on a Nonprofit Board: Asset or Liability?

 

 

The Devil’s Advocate on a Nonprofit Board: Asset or Liability?

By: Eugene Fram              Free Digiatl Image

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An unwritten rule for nonprofit board membership is that it is best to “go along to get along.” But sometimes a nonprofit director’s “no” vote to an action that has had inadequate discussion can allow him/h to avoid tax penalties that have been levied on other board members for lack of due care.

Stanford University research results indicate that groups with a lone minority dissenter outperform other groups where all members agree. In addition, these groups…”are more successful than (groups) in which all members disagree and fall prey to escalated emotional, difficult-to resolve (group) brawls “ *

The key to success, according to these data, is to,” … have a devil’s advocate (DA) on the nonprofit board. … This is a person or a small board minority that “has the sensitivity to see the differences, perceives them as conflict, and then communicates about the differences in non-confrontational ways.” **

(more…)

How Nonprofit Boards Can Support Management & Staff and Refrain From Micromanaging!

 

How Nonprofit Boards Can Support Management & Staff and Refrain From Micromanaging!

By: Eugene Fram

The dilemma is common to nonprofit organizations. As start-ups, everyone aspires to do everything. Passion for the mission and determination to “get it right” imbue directors with the desire to do it all. But once the organization starts to mature, board roles shift to focus more broadly on policy and strategy issues. With the advent of qualified personnel to handle operations, there are many overview activities, sans micromanaging, available to board members. Following are some ways that boards can assist and demonstrate support for operations, CEOs and staffs without interfering. (more…)