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!)
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.
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.
What Attributes Qualify a High Performing Nonprofit Board?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Every Board—whether for- or non-profit –creates its own organizational “stage.” True, there is an ever-revolving cast of characters and variable props. But as any artistic director will tell you, it’s the quality of the performance that can make or break the perceived value of the production.
On a parallel plane, Russell Reynolds Associates, an international executive search firm, lists six key issues (in bold) that can determine the performance level of a for-profit board. (http://bit.ly/1f5Yt7F) Following are my views on how these questions can be applied to nonprofits. Such information may help directors to assess their own organizational impacts.
Solarwinds and Target and others may seem far afield from the concerns of nonprofit directors, except for the giants in the area, like AARP. However, think about this hypothetical scenario.
A group of high school students hacked into the computer system of a local nonprofit offering mental health services and gain access to records of clients, perhaps even placing some of the records of other teenagers on the internet.
The “Compliant” Nonprofit Board—A CEO Takes Charge Like a Founder!
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
According to BoardSource, “ ‘Founderitis’ and ‘founder’s syndrome’ are terms often used to describe a founder’s resistance to change. When founderitis surfaces, the source of the dilemma often is a founder’s misunderstanding of his or her role in an evolving organization.” * I would like to suggest that a nonprofit CEO also might suffer from the “founderitis illness,” sometimes with the board only being mildly or completely unaware of it. (more…)
I happened to read a report from Deloitte Consulting suggesting ways that for-profit organizations can improve their performance in uncertain times. The report centers on key drivers of board effectiveness that, in my opinion, resonate with similar nonprofit situations. * Most nonprofit boards typically live with uncertainty and are perennially “on the edge.”
Conservative leadership: Nonprofit boards are responsible for donor and charitable types of revenues that place directors in a public trust position. In addition board members typically will only be active for a median tenure period of four to six years. As a result they often become overly conservative in their strategic views and may accept CEOs that “mind-the-store” with modest incremental growth annually.
To prevent the organizational boat from capsizing in the perpetual seas of the pandemic and beyond, the board needs to rely on the best forward looking information about strategy, people, culture and clients. All of this must be in solid alignment with a substantial mission, or a modified one if the external environment requires it. This allows the nonprofit to cut through the barriers that impede strategy development.
Opportunities & Strategies: Even when the organization is prospering, the board has a responsibility to press for innovations and to support small-scale experiments as called for in a “Lean Management” structure. Within this structure, the staff can test the waters via experiments to move more boldly, as long as the experiments yield positive results. ** At a minimum, the the board and management, need to focus on near-term planning during the pandemic period. They then need to move to a “north star” approach, with a ten year framework, once the pandemic recedes. This requires management to balance the needs of the various client groups that can call for heartbreaking decisions. For example, should revenues be allocated to marketing or used for client programs?
Match fit: Boards have a responsibility to motivate the nonprofit to realistically evaluate the tensions between new models and existing ones, for example between face-to-face meetings and virtual ones. It is already clear the virtual format has caught the attentions of nonprofits. If nonprofits plan to rely on virtual meeting to a significant extent, board and managements will need to improve their technologies, presentations and develop better ways for participants to become involved in discussions.
Culture, culture, and culture: As Peter Drucker has noted, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast every morning,” Nonprofit boards’ cultures play a key role in determining the level of risk the board is willing to take. With key drivers, nonprofit boards will have to take reasonable risks to survive the impacts of the pandemic, and work with management to take some crafted entrepreneurial risks. It now appears that fund raising, for example, will emphasize greater focus on major donors, and board members will need to provide more time and effort
Diversity and inclusion: Board diversity is a well established need. Inclusion not only means differences by demographics but recruiting new board members and maximizing the best they have to offer. Nonprofit boards traditionally try to acculturate new board members to the current culture instead of maximizing their potentials. For example, a person with financial strategy and accounting backgrounds will be asked to work with the CFO on accounting related problems because this has been the prior process. Instead, he/s should be asked to develop a long term-term financial plan. This should be more meaningful work for the new board member and of significant benefit to the organization.
Meeting format: For the thousands of nonprofits that have had to suddenly change meeting format from face-to-face to a virtual format, it is time to consider what is best for the organization post-Covid. Can the board, management and staff be productive working from home? Will a virtual-face-to-face process be acceptable in terms of productivity and client satisfaction? How can productivity be assessed under the virtual format?
Curiosity is Key: To keep a nonprofit sustainable in the long term beyond the pandemic, Deloitte Consulting concludes, “Directors should get out of the ‘same old’ board room, and should even look across borders to learn from approaches in (different nonprofits) and companies… . Developing news skills and insights are essential for innovation and should be sought to create the questioning and challenging environment needed to imagine, inspire and deliver better outcomes (and impacts). Complacency (in uncertain times) can be a killer.”*
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 other skill areas. By contrast, one who appears less than passionate about the organization’s mission can be overlooked or even eliminated from the list. (more…)
How Do Nonprofit Boards Keep Stakeholders Engaged?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Photo
First, exactly who are the “stakeholders” in the nonprofit environment? Most board members would readily define the term as clients, staff, donors and board members. But what about other participants such as external auditors and significant vendors? Surely a nonprofit that depends on a vendor to supply groceries can be hobbled if the food is not delivered properly. And, last but not least, the backbone of the organization — the volunteers! Many cogs in the wheel make the nonprofit world go around and need consistent and careful attention. Following are some guidelines for engaging all types of stakeholders:
Don’t marginalize, dismiss, or ignore a stakeholder: Unfortunately, for example, termed-out board members * are often dismissed in more than one sense of the word. After serving the typical tenure of four to six years, the retired board members may only receive boilerplate materials or fund solicitations. Any residual interest or enthusiasm for the nonprofit is not encouraged unless the retiree initiates a desire to remain connected. The assumption is that the past board members are content with the disconnect.
For those board members who have been active participants during their term, this tactic may actually be counterproductive from many points of view—talent, expertise and development possibilities. I have observed several cases in which this unintended marginalization has resulted in losing substantial financial support and needed talent. In each case, the retirees have declined to help, using the excuse that they have been too far away from the activities of the organization. Boards must be creative in finding ways of reigniting the former directors’ commitment to the organization’s mission. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways—in an advisory capacity, forming “alumni” groups and/or by including them in social events and other occasions.
Recognize who may be a true partner: Such a partner can range from a vendor that has supplied the organization or a volunteer whose interests have moved to another nonprofit to a legacy board member who has developed new insights. “It is generally easier to build consensus, request help and engender trust when those who support you are well-informed, candidly and truthfully.” **
Stakeholders must know about the nonprofit’s challenges and needs: Even the best-managed nonprofits have their ups and downs. During the latter periods, educating stakeholders about the issues can help to dissuade some to avoid posting job cuts and other actions.
Self–perpetuating boards can became insular and lose touch with other stakeholders: “These boards tend to retreat into a silo-or bunker-mentality that only serves to intensify bad habits and practices, as well as preclude consideration of other perspectives.” ** At difficult times, the board can tend to lose trust in the ED even when the problem is beyond the EDs control. If the board is at fault, it may look for a scapegoat on which to hang the root cause of the problem, often people in senior management.
In the best of all nonprofit worlds, every board member is an independent agent whose ability to make critical decisions on behalf of the organization is regularly uncompromised by outside pressures. This, unfortunately, is not always the case. Based on field observation I have concluded that questionable practices can plague nonprofit boards when social or political pressures are brought to bear on a board member. In governance terms nonprofit decision-makers should be “outside directors,” not overtly or covertly susceptible to management or board colleague personal pressures. (more…)