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.
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:
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.
Must Nonprofits Develop Employee Benefits That Substitute For Annual Raises?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
An analysis in the Washington Post reports that a tsunami-style change has been taking place in the manner in which United States employees are being paid—benefits are being offered in place of annual salary increases. (http://wapo.st/1MwoIBZ) Driving the change are the needs of a substantial portion of millennials who appreciate immediate gratifications in terms of bonuses and perks, such as extra time off and tuition reimbursement. Employers like the arrangement because they can immediately reward their best performers without increasing compensation costs. Example: One sales employee spent weeks reviewing dull paperwork, was very diligent in the process and was given three extra days of paid leave. She said, “I think everybody would like to make more, but what I liked about it was the flexibility.”
The Outside Advisory Board: Boon or Bother to Nonprofit CEOs?
By: Eugene Fram. Free Digital Image
I have established or served on a number of nonprofit outside advisory boards. As a result I strongly recommend their usefulness to nonprofit CEOs. The counsel provided by a group of unaffiliated members of the community or industry will, in my opinion, complement the existing board, helping to deliver services or products to clients with greater effect. The objective of assembling such a body would be to seek advice and expertise regarding a current major project or issue and/or to provide ongoing support and guidance to the CEO. Advisory board members have no legal responsibilities, nor have authority to require the elected board or staff to act on its advice. However, when advice is not followed, the CEO has a professional responsibility to show how the suggestions were seriously considered and to carefully report on what had transpired in making the decision process. Too many useful volunteers become disillusioned with advisory committees when this step is omitted.
Do Today’s Business Leaders Make Effective Nonprofit Directors?
By: Eugene H. Fram Free Digital Image
The names of the new board nominees have been announced. They include several outstanding recruits from the business community. Will these new formidable board members perform well in the nonprofit environment? William G. Bowen, a veteran director in both the for-profit and nonprofit environments, raised the following questions about such beginnings in a 1994 article:* Is it true that well-regarded representatives of the business world are often surprisingly ineffective as members of nonprofit boards? Do they seem to have checked their analytical skills and their “toughness” at the door? If this is true in some considerable number of cases, what is the explanation?
Nonprofit board members often become frustrated with the moderate pace for change that is characteristic of nonprofit boards. Most resign or remain on the board as passive directors, not wanting to create internal conflict in organizations that are dedicated to developing positive programs. Here are some qualifications for unusual board members that want to become change agents and lead boards and/or organizations to making substantial positive changes. * (more…)
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.
How Prepared Are Board Members for the Challenges of the Nonprofit Culture?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Given that the typical tenure of a new board member is six years. In addition,a new director’s intention may beto make his/her unique contribution to the organization’s progress before he/s rotates off the board and is supplanted by another “new” director. With these factors in mind, I estimate that many volunteers enter the boardroom with little understanding of nonprofit culture. Even those who have served previously on business boards may initially spend valuable time in accommodating to the nuances of nonprofit practices and priorities before being poised to make contributions to the “greater good” that nonprofit create. Following are some areas that are endemic to nonprofits: