Board agendas

Is An Agile Approach Appropriate for Nonprofits?

Is An Agile Approach Appropriate for Nonprofits?

By: Eugene Fram             Free Digital Image

Many nonprofit organizations are going to have to transform themselves. They are required to adapt to shrinking donor funding sources related to the new tax law, shrinking state and local revenue sources and increased costs, often to serve larger groups of clients. One new potential approach to meet these challenges can be adapted from Agile Project Delivery Approaches. * Nonprofits may find they are venues for making faster decisions to seizing opportunities and reducing costs. Agile Project Delivery (APD) helps address these challenges by disciplined proven practices and through continuous stakeholder feedback.

Agile projects are based on four basic concepts: * (more…)

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Want Better Nonprofit Board Cultures? Look for Four Board Behaviors–Part I

Want Better Nonprofit Board Cultures? Look for Four Board Behaviors–Part I

By Eugene Fram                Free Digital Image

Board cultures can be difficult to modify or change in for-profit and nonprofits. A recent McKinsey study demonstrated the strength of the board culture in three different levels of board operations—ineffective, complacent and striving. * Differentiated achievement seems to be largely dependent on four behaviors. (See bold type.) Centered on my experiences, they can be applied to nonprofit boards. At the least, the behaviors can motivate considerations for board modifications.

There is a culture of trust & respect in the boardroom: Study data showing respondents’ agreement with the statement: 39% of ineffective boards; 66% of complacent boards and 88% of striving boards.
Trust and respect are also critical for nonprofit boards, but they are probably more difficult to achieve for several reasons. First, nonprofits are often seen as lacking efficiently and effectiveness because they operate on smaller budgets and are often housed in marginal physical facilities. In addition, a long-standing nonprofit tradition is for board members to become directly involved with operations. This leads to external perceptions of nonprofits needing managerial support.

Boards will trust management to a higher degree when managers can demonstrate they have the necessary abilities to meet challenges with care and insight.

Finally, nonprofit boards are less homogeneous in terms of director backgrounds since they represent a much broader base of society.

Board & management-team members constructively challenge each other in meetings: Study data showing respondents’ agreement with the statement: 44% of ineffective boards; 53% of complacent boards and 76% of striving boards.
Nonprofit board environments are not well known for being challenging, but the potential really stands out in the for-profit sector—striving boards are about 31points ahead of ineffective ones on this behavior. But with nonprofit directors being comprised of volunteers, this will require a huge cultural shift. “Going along to get along” is a common mantra in the nonprofit sector. Few nonprofit directors, through rigorous discussion, possibly leading to “no” votes, want to be the cause of internal conflict.

The chair runs meetings efficiently and effectively: Study data showing respondents’ agreement with the statement: 37% of ineffective boards; 56% of complacent boards and 69% of striving boards. Among dozens of nonprofit boards with which I have interacted, the chairperson’s views receive a great deal of deference to avoid conflict. But note that there is value in choosing a chair who can lead meetings in an efficient and effective manner—69% of striving directors thought this a factor of success versus only 37% of those on ineffective boards.

Board members seek out relevant information beyond what management provides, to deepen knowledge: Study data showing respondents’ agreement with the statement: 31% of ineffective boards; 59% of complacent boards and 62% of striving boards.
The tenor of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (2002) called for for-profit directors to seek information beyond that which management provides. Again, note the wide data differences between ineffective and striving. In my experiences with nonprofit boards, the openness of management to having board members interact with staff below the C-Suite levels varies significantly. Some are open to it. Others who fear that such contact will lead to “end-runs”–staff will take grievances directly to board members. Since transparency and openness are board values in the 21st century, every nonprofit should have provisions for directors seek information below the C-Suite level.

* http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/toward-a-value-creating-board Note: The study does not list the criteria used to determine the three categories—ineffective, complacent, striving.

 

 

Reversing Traditional Nonprofit Board Barriers

 

Reversing Traditional Nonprofit Board Barriers

By: Eugene Fram          Free Digital Photo

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 that service 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. 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 directors 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 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.
  • NEW Projects: Boards and the CEO must be bold and try new approaches to meet client needs. For example instead of going through a complete planning process for a new program the board must ask management to complete a series of small experiments to test the program. When a series of results are positive, the nonprofit can work on a plan to implement the program.

Conclusion: Individual board members working alone will probably become frustrated in trying to contend with the three overview barriers discussed. But working with three or four colleagues, over time, on a tandem basis, they can make inroads on the barriers. Meetings can become more focused on policies/strategies, new age board members can become more quickly productive, experienced board members can become role models and new programs and other projects can be more quickly imitated via the use of small scale experiments.

 

 

Can A Nonprofit Board Change Its DNA?

Can A Nonprofit Board Change Its DNA?

By: Eugene Fram        Free Digital Image

Genetic codes aside, the term DNA is now commonly used to describe distinctive characteristics and qualities in almost anything –living or inanimate. Every nonprofit has a DNA! And every board member, if questioned, will probably have a different take on that invisible life blood which — for better or worse—impacts the  actions of his/her board. One author goes so far as to suggest that   “…one common element to create sustainable success is evaluating and interjecting the right DNA.”

 He goes on to recommend three steps to make the necessary changes in the nonprofit culture: Assessment, New Genetics and a Gestation period— the last step being essential …“for the new approach to take hold and grow.” * Here, as an example, is how it might apply if a nonprofit board needs to move from a traditional Community Board to a Policy/Strategy Board.  This is a situation where the board increases its overview responsibilities and decreases or eliminates its involvement in operations, i.e. micromanagement.    (more…)