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!)
Over decades of service on nonprofit boards, I have interfaced with board colleagues who possess a variety of performance styles and behaviors. Certain of these types seem to be common to all boards. My comments below are based on adaptations of a director classification system suggested by David Frankel, Partner of Founder Collection. *
The Eager Beaver
This board member (30s to early 40s) has probably been successful as an entrepreneur or is, perhaps, rapidly rising through middle management in a larger organization. He/she wants to “get things done”. His/her impatience with the typically slow nonprofit rate of progress can be channeled and directed by the CEO or Board Chair. Discouraged by lack of action, this director may quietly exit the board on the pretext that work pressures have increase. On the other hand, if properly nurtured, this category can offer substantial leadership contributions.
The Checked-Out Check Writer
Serving on a nonprofit board has likely become a family or company tradition for some directors. (Some local nonprofits are now about 100 years old or older.) Regardless of the person’s dedication to the mission, nonprofit board service becomes part of this director’s DNA. Often they develop into respected leaders and can be conduits to modest or substantial donations. In addition, they have access to interpersonal networks that are useful in recruiting other able board members. This cohort should be valued and their contributions, acknowledged.
The Vanilla Director
This is a director who attends meetings regularly, occasionally makes an interesting comment. He/she is dedicated to the mission of the organization and can make substantial financial or other contributions. One such director I observed, volunteered to assist the staff with a difficult field problem. According to Frankel, these directors are “less critical and offer encouragement…. ” However, like many other nonprofit board members, across behavioral types, avoid rigorous discussions at board meetings. If substantial conflict appears between factions of the board on a major issue, they may resign instead of taking an unpopular stand.
The Nonprofit Entrepreneur
This is a director who has a substantial understanding of the nonprofit sector. He/s has served on other nonprofit boards and is dedicated to the nonprofit’s mission. He/s has a desire to help move the nonprofit to its next level of service to clients. He/s often brings bold or different perspectives to the board and management. She/h knows that to achieve growth and improve client services, it is necessary to “sell” ideas to other board members, as well as the CEO. It’s important that the nonprofit entrepreneur and CEO are on the same page in terms of the organization’s future and potential to serve clients. If not, the CEO, unfortunately, may view the entrepreneur with his/h “fast track” style as a disrupter.
An overview of nonprofit boards tends to focus on the unique set of skills and work experience they bring to the table (doctors, professors, accountants, full-time homemakers etc.) A closer look at the board suggests another layer of classification i.e. individual styles, motivation and behaviors. Herein is challenge and opportunity to develop meaningful board experiences for each individual who has said “yes” to the call to service.*
Do Your Board Members View Their Board Work As Being Meaningful?
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
For several decades, I have suggested that nonprofit Board Chairs and CEOs have a responsibility to be sure that each board member perceives his/h continuing relationship as being meaningful. Following are some organizational guidelines that can assist Board Chairs and CEOs in this effort.*
Developing or hiring strong executive leadership: Obviously when hiring externally it is necessary to engage a person with a managerial background. But many nonprofit CEOs can be appointed after years of being an individual contributor or leading a small department. These experiences condition them to do too much themselves, rather than to assume a strong management posture. This involves focusing more on strategy, on talent development, interacting more with the board/community and creating a long-term vision.
A strong CEO, if appointed internally, should understand the role changes that take place once appointed. He/s must delegate activities that was once performed was once performed within a comfort zone and seek new challenges. Examples: The new CEO needs to be enthusiastic about becoming a fundraiser. She/h must become well acquainted with peer CEOs regionally and nationally to stay abreast of the state-of-art in both management and mission areas. He/s needs to become acquainted with cohorts in the business and public management communities. Over time, those involved with the nonprofit internally and externally must perceive the organization is lead by a capable executive.
Creating impact: In the 21st century, funders, board members and other nonprofit leaders are attracted to organizations that create impacts as opposed to outcomes. A nonprofit can have great program outcomes with little long-term impacts on clients. Impact is often hard to measure, but it can be done, only if started with imperfect measures that are improved over time. ** For example, one local human services organization, with which I am acquainted, operates groups of apartments offering social services that allow elderly clients to live independently for years on their own, rather than in an assisted living facility. The impact in this instance is well-defined and an impetus to attracting board members and donors that find the impact meaningful.
Building relationships externally and internally: Board candidates who have broad contact networks are sought by search committees to enhance community or industry relationships or to strengthen the organization’s fund development efforts. Little effort is directed to fostering closer relationships among current board members who often don’t get to know each other personally because of crowded board and committee agendas. Example: I consulted with one board where some board members complained that they might not recognize their board peers when they meet them in outside social situations.
To solve the problem, both the Board Chair & CEO must acknowledge that it exists—in the above example; it took an extensive personal interview board survey to highlight the problem. Then creative tactics like the following can be employed.
One CEO has a weekly one-hour conference call with the board chair to discuss current issues. Other board members are invited to join the calls if they wish. This is an excellent way for new board members to quickly become attuned to the nonprofit.
Another CEO, each Sunday, sends a one-page e-mail summary of major events to board members. He reports that his high school English teacher would never approve of his grammar or format, but he knows emails are reviewed. They are reflected in the level of discussions at meetings
Low-key self-funded social events for board members and significant others can help board members to become better acquainted and work together.
Another classical approach is to allow 10 minutes each meeting to allow board members to briefly report changes in their personal or professional lives.
Assuming an organization is successful in developing a cohesive board, what can be done to retain these efforts once they have termed-out? The answer is to ask them to join the organization’s “Alumni Association.” The process can be found here: (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ltl.20305)
Organizational stability: Unstable nonprofits have common telltale signs—rapid employees or management turnover, excessive bank borrowing, reserve depletion, late report filings, etc. It’s difficult to provide meaningful board experiences under these conditions. However it is not unusual to find board members who will accept responsibility when the nonprofit is unstable, if they are dedicated to its mission. Some may even “enjoy” the turnaround challenge.
While no nonprofit will be perfect, those with the best opportunity to provide meaningful board experiences will have a well formulated strategic plan that allows it to be stable operationally and financially.
How Can A Chief Operating Officer (COO) Advance Your Nonprofit Organization?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
In my decades of involvement with nonprofit boards, I have encountered several instances in which the CEO has failed to engage the services of a COO–when this addition to the staff was clearly needed. In each case and for whatever reasons, this reluctance to act left the nonprofit organizationally starved.
This means that the CEO continues to handle responsibilities that should have been delegated, some of which a predecessor may had assumed during the start-up stage. I once observed a nonprofit CEO with an annual $30 million budget personally organize and implement the annual board retreat, including physically rearranging tables/materials and cleaning the room after the retreat! When top leadership is deflected in situations at this level, client services and the general health of the organization is likely being negatively impacted.
Questions For Nonprofit Board Meetings—And Why They Are Needed
My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions. – Peter Drucker
By: Eugene Fram
Knowing the right questions to ask at a nonprofit board meeting is a critical part of a board member’s responsibility. Following is a list that, as a nonprofit director, I want to keep handy at meetings. * I also will suggest why I think each is important in the nonprofit environment. Compliance and overviewing management alone do not guarantee success.
A Nonprofit Board Must Focus On Its Organization’s Impacts
By: Eugene Fram
“One of the key functions of a (nonprofit) board of directors is to oversee (not micromanage) the CEO, ensuring that (stakeholders) are getting the most from their investments.” * State and Federal compliance regulations have been developed to make certain that boards have an obligation to represent stakeholders. These include the community, donors, foundations and clients, but not the staff as some nonprofit boards have come to believe. The failure of nonprofit boards, as reported frequently by local national blog sites, show something is wrong. Following are some inherent problems that derail boards from focusing on impacts.
The Enron Debacle, 20 years Ago—2021 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 Fastow 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 the 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 a substantial 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 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 significant debacles.
Enlarging the Nonprofit Recruitment Matrix: The art of selecting new board member
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
There’s never enough to say about the selection of nonprofit board members. Following my last post on board behaviors and cultures I ran across a guide fo desirable skills/abilities for “for-profit” directors. From this list, I suggest the following additions to the recruitment matrices of 21st century nonprofit board candidates to improve board productivity. * Those included will have:
• Executive and Non-Executive Experiences: These include planners with broad perspectives needed to have visionary outlooks, a well as persons with unusually strong dedication to the organization’s mission. It may include a senior executive from a business organization and a person who has had extensive client level experience. Examples for an association for the blind could be the human resources VP for a Fortune 500 corporation and/or a visually impaired professor at a local university.
• Industry Experience or Knowledge: An active or retired executive who has or is working in the same or allied field. However, those who can be competitive with the nonprofit for fund development could then present a significant conflict of interest.
• Leadership: Several directors should be selected on the bases of their leadership skills/abilities in business or other nonprofit organizations. Having too many with these qualifications may lead to internal board conflict, especially if they have strong personalities.
• Governance: Every board member should have a detailed understanding of the role of governance, their overview, financial/due diligence responsibilities and the potential personal liabilities if they fail to exercise due care. In practice, nonprofits draw from such a wide range of board backgrounds, one can only expect about one-quarter of most boards to have the requisite knowledge. But there are many nonprofit boards that I have encountered that even lack one person with the optimal board/management governance knowledge. Some become so involved with mission activities that they do what the leadership tells them when governance issues are raised. Example: One nonprofit the author encountered, with responsibilities for millions of dollars of assets, operated for 17 years without D&O insurance coverage because the board leadership considered it too costly.
• Strategic Thinking & Other Desirable Behavioral Competencies: Not every board member can be capable of or interested in strategic thinking. Their job experiences and educations require them to excel in operations, not envisioning the future. Consequently, every board needs several persons who have visionary experiences and high Emotional Quotients (EQs.) Those with high EQs can be good team players because they are able to empathize with the emotion of others in the group. Finding board candidates with these abilities takes detailed interpersonal vetting because they do not appear on a resume.
• Subject Matter Expertise: Nonprofit Boards have had decades of experience in selecting board candidates by professional affiliations like businessperson, marketing expert, accountant, etc.
• Other Factors Relevant to the Particular Nonprofit: Examples: A nonprofit dedicated to improve the lives of children needs to seek a child psychology candidate. One focusing on seniors should seek a geriatric specialist.
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. (more…)
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.” * Following,, 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.
Assessment: Evaluations involve defining what the agency is doing well and what systems need to be removed or modified. Listing the former is easy, but dropping long embedded practices can lead to unproductive board conflict. Logically, board members still need to be in their third year of a median four or six-year tenure before sustainability assessment (5 to 10 Years) can be undertaken.Too much legacy culture has been embedded in the Board operations, calling for three to five year strategic plans. At that point, most or all of current board members will have been termed-out of their positions
I once observed, as an example, a board that made a strategy decision about changing the timing of an annual fund raising event. Once the decision was made, the board took the remaining meeting time to review and formulate new platforms for the event, presenting management with implementation suggestions. The prolonged discussion, in effect, was simply perpetuating a standard community board micromanaging process. When I called this to the attention of the Executive Director, he claimed that it is part of the nonprofit’s culture to be operationally involved.
Assuming it will take about two years for a board member to become acclimated to the new board organization, it is clear that no single director can bring about a sustainable long-term approach until his/her third year of a six-year term. There should be two or three other older directors who strongly support the change. Most importantly, the ED must see the value in it. Otherwise, it will have to wait for the appointment of a new ED that may probably take place outside of the tenure periods of current board members. Management and staff leadership who can take a broad view of the future also need to become involved.
New Genetics Include:
Growing the Future. Early adopters are critical to change. These are board members who, for example, fully understand the line between policy issues and operational ones. They can be helpful to the board chair in keeping meeting discussions out of the operational “weeds.”
Equip, empower and encourage: Allow the CEO to have full operational responsibility, with the understanding that a rigorous evaluation of quantitative and qualitative impact impacts will be reviewed each year. The board and CEO should jointly develop these issues. ** Under no circumstances should the board singularly establish them.
Assuming all these changes are in place and board members support them in their fourth or fifth tenure years. it’s then important to make sure that newer board members have a similar mindset. Some new directors who may have had experiences in other more traditional nonprofits might want to revert to the legacy operations because it is the way that “all nonprofits operate.”
Vet New Directors Carefully: Make certain new directors understand the new board environment that is being developed so they are comfortable with it. It can attract highly qualified directors and staff, with the DNA’s focus in creating sustainable long-term success. Some, however, may have quite different views. For example, I once encountered two board candidates, with social work backgrounds, who wanted to supersede management personnel and directly evaluate staff members, because they had field experience.
It takes four to five years to firmly install the new system. These environmental movements do not take place quickly. By then, the original directors leading the change will likely have termedout of their board positions. The recruitment committee will have to seek candidates who are attracted by the new environment and understand the need for substantial operational delegation to management. Most of the problems will have been eliminated from the DNA, and it should set the nonprofit on a course for sustainable success.