More Than Passion Needed in Prospective Nonprofit Directors
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
What nonprofit selection committee would reject a candidate who demonstrates passion for the organization’s mission? I can attest to the fact that in many recruitment processes, an interviewee who shows strong empathy for the cause is a “shoe-in” for a board position regardless of any obvious weakness in skill areas. By contrast, one who appears less than passionate about the organization’s mission can be overlooked or even eliminated from the list.
Like the Streisand song lyric, nonprofit people who need people must first have the know-how to choose and cultivate those people! If not, the risks to a board can range from modest to substantial. It all begins with making the right choices and vetting board and CEO candidates. Most nonprofit board members know that they are only required to make one hiring decision—the engagement of the CEO. This is a process that always involves some risk factors. Take the case of the university that has expended substantial amounts to engage a CEO. After a brief “honeymoon period” it was determined that the candidate lacked the requisite background to move the organization forward. His resignation was forthcoming, and with it, a disruption that was costly not only in dollars but in board/faculty morale and public confidence.
A nonprofit board is usually confronted with several people risks. Following are some that should be noted by board members.
Nonprofit CEOs and Board Directors: How Expert Is Your CFO?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
When hiring a chief financial officer (CFO), nonprofit organizations often find themselves with a major challenge, since many financial and accounting functions and compliances are identical with those of for-profit organizations. To compete, the nonprofits may need to offer higher salaries than typical for nonprofit organizations. Some may trim the level of expertise required to fill the position. They hire a person with a bookkeeping background when the organization needs somebody with financial analysis skills. This is a dangerous move, especially when the organization is growing. It is difficult to terminate a financial person who is satisfactory for a startup, but isn’t able to navigate the challenges of rapid growth. Also it is a continuing challenge for the Board and CEO, to make certain that the person in the position now has the requisite skills. A mistake by a person who is not current with financial changes and compliances can make a major error that will harm the organization’s reputation, leading to a board restructuring and/or firing the CEO.
Both the nonprofit CEO and the board need to assess the CFO’s expertise annually by:
*Asking knowledgeable board members if they are receiving financial data and analysis in a format helpful for decision-making.
*Having an executive session with the external auditors yearly to obtain the firm’s assessment of the expertise of all financial personnel with whom they had have contact.
*Keeping track of reports that are submitted late. Something might be radically wrong. (I know of one case where the Board and CEO were only receiving a subsidiary report intermittently. The problem was the data reported involved old accounts that should have been written off months ago. The organization had to hire forensic accountants to determine what needed to be done to resolve the situation. The board terminated the CFO and then the CEO.)
*Making certain all financial personnel take two weeks vacation each year, so that a substitute needs to handle the duties.
*Having the CEO review the CFO’s expertise annually with knowledgeable board members, external accountants or others. Acknowledging the growth point when the nonprofit needs a CFO with analytical abilities as opposed to bookkeeping ones.
*Reviewing the causes for a high turnover rate among financial personnel.
*Providing local financial support for the CFO and others to stay current with accounting and compliance regulations.
For a current case of a board that evidently failed to adhere to such guidelines see:
The Nonprofit CEO–How Much Board-CEO Trust Is Involved?
By; Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
The title, CEO for the operating head of a nonprofit, clearly signals to the public who has the final authority in all operating matters and can speak for the organization.* .
The CEO designation calls for an unwritten trusting contact with the board based on mutual respect, drawing from the symbolism that he or she is the manager of the operating link between board and staff. It is a partnership culture. However, a solid partnership does not allow the board to vacate its fiduciary and overview obligations. The board has moral and legal obligations to “trust but verify” and to conduct a rigorous annual evaluation of outcomes and impacts CEO has generated for the organization.
While the trust the board has in its chief operating officer can’t be described in exact quantitative terms, viewing it through the lens of a set of CEO and/or Board behaviors can provide an idea that a significant level of trust is involved in the relationship.
Following are some of the behaviors that signify a trusting partnership is in place:
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.
It’s no secret that some nonprofit board members cruise through their term of board service with minimal involvement. McKinsey Company, a well-known consulting firm, has suggested five steps that can be used to counteract this passivity in for-profit boards. * With a few tweaks, McKinsey suggestions (in bold) are relevant to the nonprofit board environment where director engagement is often a challenge.
Once Again: How to Keep Nonprofit Board Members Informed.
By: Eugene Fram. Free Digital Image
With high performing nonprofit organizations, board members will rarely be invited by the CEO to participate in operational decisions. As a result, management will always have more information than board members. Yet the board still needs to know that is happening in operations to be able to perform their overview process. The name of the game is for the CEO to communicate the important information and to keep board members informed of significant developments. Still, there’s no need to clutter regular board meetings by reporting endless details about operations.
Once Again! What Are the Best Risk Levels for Your Nonprofit’s Investments in a COVID 19 environment and after it?
By Eugene Fram Freed Digital Image
Some nonprofits have significant investment accounts. The following are some guidelines to help develop investment policies during and after COVID 19. These funds may have been accrued through annual surpluses/donations or have been legally mandated to cover future expenditures through a reserve account.
How does your committee define risk, and how much are you willing to take? * Most nonprofit by-laws require a nonprofit to conservatively manage and invest its funds. This give the investment committee a wide range of policies to employ.
I have encountered ultraconservative nonprofits that invest all funds in several bank savings accounts that are protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC). Those that advocate this position feel that they don’t want to assume responsibility for loss of donor or membership funds that might occur, even temporarily, with investments in a mix portfolio of investment opportunities such as stock funds and/or rated bonds. (more…)
Whenever the time is ripe to select a new nonprofit CEO, I think of the old joke that says “…every person looks for the perfect spouse… meanwhile, they get married.” By the same token, nonprofit directors seek perfection in a new ED/CEO– and find that they must “settle” for less. But there are certain definitive attributes that are essential to his/her success in running the organization. With the pressures of increasingly slim budgets, fund development challenges and the difficulty of recruiting high quality employees, the 21st century ED/CEO must be action oriented and come equipped with at least a modicum of the following abilities: *
Once Again! Nonprofit CEO: Board Peer – Not A Powerhouse
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Some nonprofit CEOs make a fetish out of describing their boards and/or board chairs as their “bosses.” Others, for example, can see the description, as a parent-child relationship by funders. The parent, the board, may be strong, but can the child, the CEO, implement a grant or donation? Some CEOs openly like to perpetuate this type of relationship because when bad decisions come to roost, they can use the old refrain: the board made me do it.
My preference is that the board-CEO relationship be a partnership among peers focusing on achieving desired outcomes and impacts for the nonprofit. (I, with others, would make and have made CEOs, who deserve the position, voting members of their boards!)