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.
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.
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…)
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.
How Can Nonprofit Boards Overcome the Inertia of Certain Directors?
BY: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Making major changes in mission, board structure, management or other significant matters is difficult. The typical nonprofit board will be divided into several groups on the issue: 1) directors who want change, 2) directors opposed to change, some strongly opposed and 3) what I call “process directors,” persons uncomfortable with major decisions who always want more data or information before voting.
The first and third groups (directors who want change and process directors) will be very willing to appoint a committee to review the alternatives, but it’s up to the board chair to satisfy process directors who create obstacles.
Process directors like to sit back and examine issues, often, in my opinion, sincerely feeling that their questions allow them to be on the cusp of showing some insights that others have failed to notice. They always ask, “Have we consulted everybody?” Or say, “Let’s make sure we have considered everything.” Often they are directors who call for postponement of the vote, even after a lengthy discussion.
Process directors are well-intentioned, sincere individuals. However, the board has to be careful that these directors don’t allow the board to continually examine one angle after another until they lose sight of the board’s main job. They can keep action in limbo indefinitely! It is up to the board chair to makes certain that this does not happen. But board chairs want to develop an inclusive board where all who want to voice their views can be heard.
A certain level of board process is necessary to operate efficiently. But when it gets out of hand, it can have a serious negative effect. Boards often lose some of their best volunteers, who get frustrated and quietly resign. Their usual reason for resigning is “the pressure of job obligations.” To me, that’s a covert message that the board is getting mired in minutiae, usually initiated by process directors.
One friend recently resigned from a board, using the “job obligations” excuse. The real reason was that the executive director, a process oriented person, used board-meeting time inappropriately, including asking the full board to review detailed public relations Powerpoint presentations.
In another situation, I watched a board make a strategic decision involving the combining of two programs. Even after a thorough discussion of the decision, the board insisted on discussing the tactical decisions needed, all of which were the responsibility of management. The board was unable or unwilling to shed an imbedded process culture that the status quo nonprofit had used for over 50 years.
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…)
Is there truth in the statement that ALL nonprofits are actually businesses, and they need to be run like businesses?
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
In my opinion, too many board and staff members in the nonprofit environment:
Do not realize that a nonprofit can focus even more effectively on “caring” missions, visions and values while operating under a business model. Many functions of a business and are the same for both types of organizations — financial operations, human resources, marketing, board governance, etc.
How Does Cultural Intelligence (CQ) Impact A Nonprofit Board?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Photo
There are many ways to assess the balance of capabilities on nonprofit board board members. EDs and board chairs are generally familiar with the implications of terms like IQ (cognitive ability) and EQ (emotional intelligence). New research has added a third characteristic— cultural intelligence or CQ. * Obviously, CQ comes into focus when boards are dealing with global or international issues. But its usefulness is still germane to community-based and/or domestically focused professional/trade associations. Making a change in board strategy is at best a challenging process. But when that plan collides with cultural differences, board culture will trump change. To paraphrase Peter Drucker’s well-known pronouncement—“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast Daily.” (more…)
Nonprofit Boardroom Elephants and the ‘Nice Guy’ Syndrome: An Evergreen Board Problem?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Reposting a Viewer Favorite–Best Holiday Wishes to All My Subscribers
At coffee a friend serving on a nonprofit board reported plans to resign from the board shortly. His complaints centered on the board’s unwillingness to take critical actions necessary to help the organization grow.
In specific, the board failed to take any action to remove a board member who wasn’t attending meetings, but he refused to resign. His three-year term had another 18 months to go, and the board had a bylaws obligation to summarily remove him from the board. However, a majority of directors decided such action would hurt the board member’s feelings. They were unwittingly accepting the “nice-guy” approach in place of taking professional action.
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. (more…)