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Can Small Experiments Test Nonprofit Strategic Validity?

Can Small Experiments Test Nonprofit Strategic Validity?

By: Eugene Fram        Free digital image

When given a series of potential mission changes, modifications or opportunities, most nonprofit boards take the following steps: (1) Discuss alternatives (2) Develop working plans, board/staff presentations and funding proposals (3) All three usually are packaged into a three or five year strategic plan for implementation. Typically the process can take about six months to “get all stakeholders on board.” When something new is suggested, the conservative board and nonprofit management immediately respond, “Great idea, let’s consider it in the new strategic plan.” Results: It can take three to five years to implement the idea, assuming the plan actually gets off the shelf, not an unusual occurrence for nonprofit organizations!


Another alternative being implemented by some nonprofit is to use a rapid experimentation approach called Lean. “First developed for use in the for-profit world,(especially startup ventures) … the method focuses on new ideas for products/services through iterative experiments. Lean practitioners build simple prototypes ‘called minimum viable products/services (MVPs),’ …move quickly to get feedback on these items from constituents/stakeholders.” * As long as they have some positive iterations they continue to full product development.

Example:  The small software division of a larger firm suggested a program that it felt certain would have great marketability because of it perceived uniqueness.

As an initial part of a  Lean process, the software developers were required to present it personally to a small group of potential customers. As a result of the interviews, both marketing and development executives dropped it.



How Can Nonprofit Boards Utilize Lean Experimentation?

These lean experiments can be conducted at minimum costs and with small samples that initially may not be statistically significant. (For example, in the software case cited above, there were only four customers in the sample, but they were significant ones.)

Not being able to afford the time and money to develop excellent metrics, nonprofit boards, especially in assessing ambiguous and qualitative impacts, need to initially glean what they can from the use of imperfect metrics. (http://bit.ly/OvF4ri). The metrics can be anecdotal, subjective, interpretive or qualitative. For most nonprofits, it is a great leap forward from doing nothing or taking years to implement action. Also losing time invested in offering a client centered opportunity? The most critical requirement is that the directors and management agree that the process is reasonable and that outcomes from each experimental iteration constitute fair and trustworthy information.

A Current Example

There seems to be a growing body of knowledge of how to apply the art of lean in the nonprofit environment. * The use of lean to assess the proper venues to select social media by which to communicate with donors and other stakeholders is an example. All agree that the use of various social media venues is difficult to assess for both for-profits and nonprofits.

Here, as an example, is what might be done to obtain some directions on using social venues to reach millennials. Charitable nonprofits are seeking ways to communicate with this group as potential volunteers and future donors. Instead of a board waiting to take action on a broad social media strategy before taking some action on social media, it might start with some small-scale, low cost experiments. The information it obtains from one or two MPVs would be useful in backing into a comprehensive social media strategy when a new strategic plan is needed. But an early MPV also might provide some information for immediate action.

Summary: Like any management process lean is not a panacea for either the business or nonprofit sectors. It has its advantages and disadvantages and will not replace more rigorous process, when required–longitudinal studies and strategic planning. However, its experimental design feature can help drive the nonprofit decision process to be more effective and efficient. That alone can help to recruit more able directors, who because of time-compressed lifestyles, now are impatient with the traditional pace of nonprofit decision-making.

* For a robust report on the use of lean in the nonprofit sector see:  (http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_promise_of_lean_experimentation)

Identify Nonprofit Staff Groups To Help Drive Organizational Change

Identify Nonprofit Staff Groups To Help Drive Organizational Change

By Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

Nonprofit executive directors tend to think of the staff professionals as individual contributors. These individuals are persons who mainly work on their own and but increasingly also have to contribute as team players – for instance, counselors, health care professionals, curators and university faculty. However, many executive directors fail to recognize that these individual contributors can be grouped according to identifiable types, with differing work-value outlooks. Each group needs to be motivated differently to drive change in today’s fast moving social, political and technological environments. Nonprofit board members, working with the ED, can use these groupings in their oversight responsibilities to better understand the bench strength of promotable staff.   

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Once Again! Should Nonprofit Chief Executives Should Have Title: President/CEO?

Once Again! Should Nonprofit Chief Executives Should Have Title: President/CEO?

By Eugene Fram        Free Digital Image 

This post, over several years, has developed a record of continued viewing or comment interest. Rarely a day passes in which the data doesn’t include several views.  Perhaps the controversial nature of topic causes the longevity of interest?

When nonprofit organizations reach a budget level of over $1 million and have about 10 full-time staff members it is time to offer the chief operating officer the title of PRESIDENT/CEO. In addition, the title of the senior board volunteer should become CHAIRPERSON OF THE BOARD, and the title of EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR needs to be eliminated. Experience has shown that with a reasonably talented PRESIDENT/CEO at the helm, he/she can provide the following benefits:

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Must Nonprofits Develop Employee Benefits That Substitute For Annual Raises?

Must Nonprofits Develop Employee Benefits That Substitute For Annual Raises?

By: Eugene Fram                      Free Digital Image

An analysis in the Washington Post reports that a tsunami-style change has been taking place in the manner in which United States employees are being paid—benefits are being offered in place of annual salary increases. (http://wapo.st/1MwoIBZ) Driving the change are the needs of a substantial portion of millennials who appreciate immediate gratifications in terms of bonuses and perks, such as extra time off and tuition reimbursement. Employers like the arrangement because they can immediately reward their best performers without increasing compensation costs. Example: One sales employee spent weeks reviewing dull paperwork, was very diligent in the process and was given three extra days of paid leave. She said, “I think everybody would like to make more, but what I liked about it was the flexibility.”

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Measuring Nonprofits’ Impacts: A Necessary Process for the 21st Century

Measuring Nonprofits’ Impacts: A Necessary Process for the 21st Century

By Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

 

Unfortunately, outcomes and impact are often unrelated, which is why a program that seems to produce better outcomes may create no impact at all. Worse, sometimes they point in opposite directions, as can happen when a program works with harder-to- service populations resulting in seemingly worse conditions, but (has) higher value-added impact. … Rigorous evaluations can measure impact (to a level of statistical accuracy), but they are usually costly (a non starter for many nonprofit), difficult and slow. * But how do the medium and small size nonprofits measure actual results in the outside world such as enhanced quality of life, elevated artistic sensitivity and community commitment? (more…)

Eliminating the Nonprofit Board’s Addiction to Micromanaging

By: Eugene Fram.            Free Digital Image

Micromanaging is the DNA of many nonprofit boards. It all starts with the community model culture of start-up periods. Board members have to assume staff roles to drive the nonprofit operations. But it often continues long after an adequate staff is in place. By habit, the board still focuses on operational details—also known as “reviewing the weeds.”  I recently observed a board that was making a policy decision about the change in timing of an annual development event.   Once the decision was made, the directors continued a “weed type” discussion about about table locations, invitations and other issues that were in the job of management to implement. The nonprofit is about 50 years old and has a budget of $10 Million with a 100 person staff.

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The Outside Advisory Board: Boon or Bother to Nonprofit CEOs?

The Outside Advisory Board: Boon or Bother to Nonprofit CEOs?

By: Eugene Fram.             Free Digital Image

I have established or served on a number of nonprofit outside advisory boards. As a result I strongly recommend their usefulness to nonprofit CEOs. The counsel provided by a group of unaffiliated members of the community or industry will, in my opinion, complement the existing board, helping to deliver services or products to clients with greater effect. The objective of assembling such a body would be to seek advice and expertise regarding a current major project or issue and/or to provide ongoing support and guidance to the CEO. Advisory board members have no legal responsibilities, nor have authority to require the elected board or staff to act on its advice. However, when advice is not followed, the CEO has a professional responsibility to show how the suggestions were seriously considered and to carefully report on what had transpired in making the decision process. Too many useful volunteers become disillusioned with advisory committees when this step is omitted.

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Can A Nonprofit Board Member Ever Wear Two Hats?

Can A Nonprofit Board Member Ever Wear Two Hats?

By Eugene Fram.                  Free Digital Image

Although this is not a good idea for nonprofit organizations, it is not an unusual occurrence, especially among start-ups. A director in a start-up nonprofit will need to assume some staff responsibilities as a volunteer. But he/s will need to organizationally report to the CEO. In the event the position ceases to be a volunteer one, i.e.,the person wearing the two hats is compensated for the staff work. he/s should resign the board position. With two hats, a director would be in conflict-of-interest on important matters like salaries. Although some state statutes specifically forbids a director to hold multiple roles, enforcement of the statues is haphazard, especially among smaller nonprofits that are short of people to carry out staff functions.

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What’s  Needed To Be A Nonprofit Change Agent?

 

What’s  Needed To Be A Nonprofit Change Agent?

By: Eugene Fram.                        Free Digital Image

Nonprofit board members often become frustrated with the moderate pace for change that is characteristic of nonprofit boards. Most resign or remain on the board as passive directors, not wanting to create internal conflict in organizations that are dedicated to developing positive  programs. Here are some qualifications for unusual board members that want to become change agents and lead boards and/or organizations to making substantial positive changes. * (more…)

Nonprofit Boardroom Elephants and the ‘Nice Guy’ Syndrome: A Complex Problem

 

Nonprofit Boardroom Elephants and the ‘Nice Guy’ Syndrome: A Complex Problem

By: Eugene Fram            Free Digital Photo

Revised viewer favorite post

A friend serving on a nonprofit board reported plans to resign from the board shortly. His complaints centered on the board’s unwillingness to take critical actions necessary to help the organization grow.

In specific, the board failed to take any action to remove a board member who wasn’t attending meetings, but he refused to resign. His term had another year to go, and the board had a bylaws obligation to summarily remove him from the board. However, a majority of directors decided such action would hurt the director’s feelings. They were unwittingly accepting the “nice-guy” approach in place of taking professional action.

In another instance the board refused to sue a local contractor who did not perform as agreed. The “elephant” was that the board didn’t think that legally challenging a local person was appropriate, an issue raised by an influential director. However, nobody informed the group that in being “nice guys,” they could become legally liable, if somebody became injured as a result of the inferior work and their inaction.

Over the years, I have observed many boards with elephants around that have caused significant problems to a nonprofit organization. Some include:

• Selecting a board chair on the basis of personal appearance and personality instead of managerial and organizational competence. Be certain to vet the experience and potential of board candidates carefully. Beside working background (accounting, marketing, human resources, etc.), seek harder to define characteristics such as leadership, critical thinking ability, and position flexibility.

• Failure to delegate sufficient managerial responsibility to the CEO because the board has enjoyed micromanagement activities for decades. To make a change, make certain new board members recognize the problem, and they eventually are willing to take action to alleviate the problem. Example: One board refused to share its latest strategic plan with it newly appointed ED.

• Engaging a weak local CEO because the board wanted to avoid moving expenses. Be certain that local candidates are vetted as carefully as others and that costs of relocation are not the prime reason for their selection.

• Be certain that the board is not “rubber-stamping” proposals of a strong board member or CEO. Where major failures occur, be certain that the board or outside counsel determines the causes by conducting a postmortem analysis.

* Retaining an ED who is only focusing on the status quo and “minding the store.” The internal accounting systems, human resources and results are all more than adequate. But they are far below what can be done for clients if current and/or potential resources were creatively employed.

* A substantial portion of the board is not reasonably familiar with fund accounting or able to recognize financial “red flags.” Example: One CFO kept delaying the submission of an accounting accounts aging report for over a year. He was carrying as substantial number of noncollectable accounts as an asset. It required the nonprofit to hire high-priced forensic accountants to straighten out the mess. The CEO & CFO were fired, but the board that was also to be blamed for being “nice guys,” and it remained in place. If the organization has gone bankrupt, I would guess that the secretary-of-state would have summarily removed part or all of the board, a reputation loss for all. The board has an obligation to assure stakeholders that the CFO’s knowledge is up to date and to make certain the CEO takes action on obvious “red flags”.

* Inadequate vetting processes that take less board members’ time, especially in relation to family and friends of current board members. Example: Accepting a single reference check, such as comments from the candidate’s spouse. This actually happened, and the nominations committee made light of the action.

What can be done about the elephant in the boardroom?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to use, no pun intended! These types of circumstances seem to be in the DNA of volunteers who traditionally avoid any form of conflict, which will impinge upon their personal time or cause conflict with other board members. A cultural change is required to recruit board members who understand their responsibilities, or are willing to learn about them on the job. I have seen a wide variety of directors such, as ministers and social workers, successfully meet the challenges related to this type of the board learning. Most importantly, never underestimate the power of culture when major changes are being considered. As Peter Drucker noted, “Culture can eat strategy for breakfast.”

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask naive question which forces all to question assumptions, as in Why are we really taking this action? Have we really thought it through and considered other possibilities? http://bit.ly/1eNKgtw

Board  members need to have passion for the organization’s mission. However, they also need to have the prudence to help the nonprofit board perform with professionalism.