Once Again: How to Keep a Nonprofit Board Informed.
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
With high performing nonprofit boards, its members will rarely be invited by the CEO to participate in operational decisions. As a result, management will always have more information than the board. Yet the board still needs to know what is happening in operations to be able to overview them. The name of the game is for the CEO to communicate the important information and to keep directors informed of significant developments. Still, there’s no need to clutter regular board meetings by reporting endless details about operations.
“Ideally, change takes place only when is “a critical mass of board and staff want … it. A significant … portion of leadership must realize that the status quo won’t do” * Based on my experiences, this ideal is rarely achieved because:
The CEO needs to support the changes being suggested and/or mandated by a majority of the board. But, if not fully invested in the change, he/s can accede to board wishes for action but move slowly in their implementations. The usual excuse for slow movement is budget constraint.
How do people see your organization? Is your nonprofit clearly perceived, and the unique nature of its work, fully understood in the community or industry?
Nonprofit board members occasionally talk about the organizational brand image but rarely take tangible steps to define it. Yet the creation of a strong brand is a major factor in generating public respect, support and significant funding sources. Potential donors need to believe implicitly in the impact of the nonprofit on its clients. They also need to understand the realities implied in the brand image that fail to match the realities of the organization’s operations. For example, some family services agencies (actually multi-human service groups), have long struggled with a brand perception that they offer only family reproduction services.
Following are some guidelines that may help improve a current image or further clarify the mission which fuels the dedicated efforts of boards, staff and volunteers:
Onboarding the New Nonprofit CEO: Who’s In Charge?
By Eugene Fram Free Digital image
When the chair of the search committee announces that a new CEO has been selected, there is visible relief in the boardroom. After the stress of a waning—or even absent executive at the helm, directors tend to relax, engaging in a series of social events that provide a pleasant if superficial acquaintance with the new executive.
What actually lies ahead is much more serious and vital to the future of the organization. Call it orientation, acculturation or transitioning; it is the board’s responsibility to see that the CEO is grounded in every aspect of the organization. And that requires a plan that is carefully structured and may take a year to complete. Major responsibility for the plan and its implementation rests with the board chair and one or more senior board members. While there are many formats to achieve this goal, the best, in my opinion, is what has been described as a customized format.
Why Are Some Nonprofit Boards Missing the Mark? What to Do?
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Stephen Miles of the Miles group (https://miles-group.com/) recognizes that many business boards are coming up short in performance. As founder and CEO of a strategy and talent development agency, Miles has identified five areas of potential improvement for commercial boards. I believe these categories are also quite relevant to nonprofit board operations in the following ways:
Many new board members are in the dark about some of the operating issues facing their organizations. Such information gaps are less prevalent in trade and professional associations because most board members are in associated fields or are in practitioner positions. However, new directors of community based charitable organizations and human services focused nonprofits should be much more attuned to discussions at initial board meetings. Current methods of orienting new directors don’t seem to be doing the job. This is critical for those boards with rapid turnover. For example, one board with which I am acquainted has 80% of its membership turnover with no more than 18 months tenure.
Orientations can take a variety of forms, ranging from brief pre-board session to pre-meeting phone calls from the CEO or Board Chair. These updates will provide the new board member with information that should make his/her participation in the board meeting more meaningful.
Lack of Self-Assessment
“When it comes to the (business) boards (assessing their) own performance, this is often done by using the check-in-the box exercise, (along) with some form of gentle peer review,” reports Miles. In the nonprofit environment, board self-assessments are not usually a priority because nonprofit directors often have time constraints. In addition, nonprofits need to more broadly examine qualitative outcomes, such as community impacts. But business boards are also beginning to move in the same direction, and at this time seem to be behind nonprofits!.*
The media, Internal Revenue Service, foundations and accreditation organizations are asking for more information and transparency to ensure that nonprofits have quality processes to overview management impacts. Few nonprofit boards can afford rigorous third party directed board self-assessment, the gold standard. However a self-review deficit might leave some board members with significant personal liabilities.** Consequently, it is my personal opinion that nonprofit boards need to make good faith efforts to have reasonable self-reviews, understanding that management and board members may hesitate to negatively reflect on volunteer directors been poor decision makers.
“Management Capture” occurs when a board too readily accepts a delusional view from management that organizational performance is significantly better than reality. As a result, some board self-examinations may take place only after a crisis has been resolved. So it is mandatory that the boards develop rigorous impact measures, both quantitative and qualitative by which to judge organizational and board performance. Models for self-board assessments are available from professional groups and consultants.
Recruitment Shortcomings & Board Inexperience
Miles maintains that most for-profit directors lack real experience in succession planning: this is also true of nonprofit directors. Even in for-profit boards where a chief executive is temporarily incapacitated, there often is no plan for interim succession. Plus there is always the possibility that a CEO will leave quickly for a variety of reasons. Planning for his/her unanticipated exit should be an ongoing board concern.
One root cause for having a nonprofit culture of board inexperience is that often there are too few directors who have served on other for-profit or nonprofit boards and know how to be role models for newer recruits. Also, normally serving one or two terms, lasting three years, some experienced nonprofit board members may not be motivated to serve in this role because there are no financial incentives offered. However, as demonstrated in the Penn State debacle, a director’s reputational risks can be substantial. How a board evaluates and improves its organizational talent pool is critical to performance. Miles characterizes the optimal board as composed of ” … directors who are active in their roles engaging individually and collectively (to engage with) other directors and (overview) management.” It is a tall order in today’s nonprofit environment.
For-profit organizations or nonprofit organizations, in my opinion, have five identical basic board guidelines. For Deloitte Partners, a worldwide accounting and financial advisory firm, these constitute board responsibilities that can’t be delegated to management. The board has responsibilities to have: a viable governance structure, annual assessments of (board and) organizational performance, driven strategic planning, improved management talent and assured organizational integrity.
A relentless pursuit of these lofty goals will enable nonprofits to be “on the mark.”
*For nonprofit qualitative outcomes, see: Jerry Talley & Eugene Fram (2010) “Using Imperfect Metrics Well: Tracking Progress & Driving Change,” Leader to Leader, winter, 52-58. For commercial boards see: Emily Chasan, (2012), “New Benchmarks Crop Up in Companies’ Financial Reports,” CFO Journal Section, Wall Street Journal, November 11th,
** For examples, see the Intermediate Sanctions Act, Section 4958 of the Internal Revenue Service Code. Also see the Expanded IRS 990 form guidelines for board structure and performance–38 questions related to nonprofit governance.
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:
The Bridgespan Group, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, completed an exciting research study. The results identified “six elements common to nonprofits with a high capacity to innovate” * Following are some suggestion how to implement these elements.
Developing Meaningful Relationships Within Nonprofit Boards
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.
When a CEO Exits (or should)—what are the Board’s Succession Options?
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
CEOs of for-profit and nonprofit organizations typically come and go. Those executives that remain in place for an extended period may be highly valued for their demonstrated skills and accomplishments. One CEO I know has reached a 30 year anniversary and is still innovating. Other CEOs, including organization founders, may remain on the job past the point of growth. The nonprofit environment can be a comfortable workplace—a board member I once interviewed remarked that his long-serving CEO had a great “deal.” He meant the nonprofit wasn’t even close to its potential I’ve even encountered CEOs who admit that they can run the organization on automatic, convinced that new challenges will be similar to those of the past.
Nonprofit Board Discourse: a Meeting of the Minds??
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Several years ago, a nonprofit board member complained to me that there was too little “conflict” at board meetings. Too few hands were raised to challenge or simply question the efficacy of certain important agenda items. Having participated in hundreds of nonprofit meetings, I have observed that this laissez-faire response still typifies a significant number of board member’s attitudes, especially for items that deserve vigorous discussion. Why is that? And why can the term conflict be perceived as an asset to an organization that is determined to move forward?
Below are some answers based on my own experience in the nonprofit environment.