Crisis Management

The Enron Debacle, 20 years Ago—2021 Lessons for Nonprofit Boards?

 

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.

What Attributes Qualify a High Performing Nonprofit Board?

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.

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Do Nonprofit Directors Face Cyber Security Risk?

Do Nonprofit Directors Face Cyber Security Risk?

By: Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

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.

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Nonprofits in Limbo: Preparing for the Unexpected

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Nonprofits in Limbo: Preparing for the Unexpected

By: Eugene Fram          Free Digital Image

 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.”*

*https://www.google.com/search?q=Sevn+ways+to+im%5Bprove+board+effectivness+in+uncertgain+times&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Seven+ways+to+improve+board+effectiveness+in+uncertain+times

**https://npengage.com/nonprofit-management/lean-implementation/

 

More Than Passion Needed in Prospective Nonprofit Directors

 

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…)

Nonprofit Board Recruitment: Can Google’s Process Apply to NFPs?

Nonprofit Board Recruitment: Can Google’s Process Apply to NFPs?

By: Eugene Fram                Free Digital Image

Following are Google’s hiring attributes that might be helpful to consider, if applied to nonprofit board recruitment as well as employee recruitment. * Nonprofits should especially consider them for board recruitment. Although nonprofits traditionally use an attribute matrix emphasizing skills such as finance, marketing and accounting, here are some others to consider.

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A Special Relationship: Nurturing the CEO-Board Chair Bond

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A Special Relationship: Nurturing the CEO-Board Chair Bond

By Eugene Fram              Free Digital Photo

Viewer Favorite – Updated & Revised

Here are tips to assure the best possible partnership between the board chair and CEO.

Keeping boards focused on strategic issues is a major challenge for nonprofit leaders.  This leadership crisis is intensified by the fact that board chairs tend to have short terms (according to BoardSource, 83% stay in office only one or two years). Thus, nonprofit CEOs  and board chairs need to bond quickly. For the good of the organization, they must come together swiftly and create a partnership that works. Here are golden rules for the CEO and board chair to follow:

1. Be sure the CEO and board chair share strategic issues with each other—negative as well as positive ones. A failure by either the chair or CEO to share information, such as a potential cash flow issue, can be disastrous for the nonprofit.

2. It’s critical for the CEO to conduct orientation sessions with a new chair, explaining the challenges facing the nonprofit, and reviewing the fundamentals of the mission. The CEO can help the chair keep the board focused on strategic issues, whether they’re programmatic or financial.  With many nonprofits electing a new president each year, the CEO needs to prioritize these tasks.

3. Make sure staff know who has the final say. Some employees mistakenly view the board chair as the ultimate authority, even when the organizational table lists the CEO as holding that position. As a result, they may try an end run around the CEO, asking the board to overturn the CEO’s decision about salaries, promotions, or programs, for example. Both the CEO and board chair must emphasize the fact that the CEO is the final authority. If they make this message clear enough, they can probably keep staff from attempting any end runs. If an end run still occurs, the board chair must refer the issue to the CEO for resolution, except if the CEO is being charged with malfeasance.

4. The CEO should arrange for individual board members to meet with management staff on occasion so that the board can gather information about how the organization is operated and obtain an understanding of the promotional abilities of managers. The Sarbanes-Oxley act (a federal statute relating to public corporation boards) recommends this process for for-profit boards, and it’s also a good one for nonprofit board members.

5. Give staff members opportunities to participate in strategic planning and to support board committees. The board chair and CEO should work together to arrange such board-staff interactions, including joint celebrations of organizational success.

6. The CEO and board chair need to agree on the use of ad hoc board committees or task forces and their relationship to standing committees. For example, should the HR/personnel committee be a standing one or only an ad hoc one to address major personnel policies? In the 21st century, a board should only have maximum of five standing committees, many can only have three.  If task forces are used to provide provide options for occasional policy issues, for example pension plan changes, there may be little need for a standing board HR/personnel committee.

7. The board chair and CEO should be the active leaders in fundraising efforts, with the CEO as administrative leader. The board chair and other board members must provide the CEO entrée to funding sources. They often need to accompany the CEO on fundraising visits. The CEO should keep the board chair informed of all entrepreneurial development activities being explored.

8. The board has only one major employment decision to make – to recruit and hire the CEO. It’s usually a long and exhausting process. But once it’s completed, the employment of all other staff personnel is the responsibility of the CEO and the CEO’s management team. For senior positions, most CEOs ask their chairs and/or other board members to meet with candidates, but the ultimate responsibility remains with the CEO.  The board also has a responsibility to overview staffing to make certain that adequate bench-strength in in place for succession placements,  at the CEO and the senior management

9. When hiring a CEO, or soon after employment, the board chair and CEO must face a stark reality—the need for emergency leadership should the CEO become temporarily incapacitated. These plans can either be established informally by the chair-CEO partnership or more formally via board resolution. The following are possible interim CEOs: a senior manager in the organization, a semi-retired experienced CEO living near headquarters, a consultant living in a neighboring city. CEO succession planning is an important issue for the partnership should the CEO decides to leave or retire.

10. The CEO can be helpful to the board chair in recruiting new board members by suggesting possible volunteer candidates or other contacts who have demonstrated an interest in the organization’s mission, vision, and values. Board candidates will want to meet with the CEO as part of the interview process. As a result, the two partners must agree on how to present the organization to board candidates.

11. The chair and CEO need to lead in establishing meeting agendas. The two partners must work together to assure there’s sufficient meeting time to discuss and resolve strategic issue While many nonprofits call their top executive the “executive director,” the term CEO or president/CEO is a more leader-focused.

12. For the current environment, board members should be ready and willing to be ready to involved in a heightened level of board activity.   If not, the board chair and board member should determine what constraints the member needs to be in place for his/h activity.

 

 

Errors That Can Cloud Nonprofit Board’s Decision Making–Tread With Care

Errors That Can Cloud Nonprofit Board’s Decision Making–Tread With Care

By Eugene Fram            Free Digital Image

In this age of information overload, nonprofits need to continually scrutinize the quality and source of the material received in preparation for major decisions. Since directors often come without broad enough experience in the nonprofit’s mission arena, they may not be prepared to properly assess its progress in moving forward–and not equipped to make relevant comparisons with similar nonprofits.  In addition, naive or unscrupulous CEOs and highly influential directors may inundate their boards with information and data as a  distraction tactic to keep them busy in the “weeds,” reviewing what has been presented.  Board members need to avoid donning “rose-colored glasses” when assessing proposals from these sources.

I once encountered a nonprofit whose board was about to acquire a for-profit organization, headed by its founder.  Pushing for the “deal” were the nonprofit’s CEO and an influential board member who were not, it turned out, capable of the due diligence needed for a project of this complexity. But the board approved the acquisition without sufficient review.  When the acquisition was consummated, the founding CEO of the subsidiary refused to take directions from the CEO of the nonprofit. In addition, the normal financial settlement of the project requires that a portion of the price be withheld, in escrow, pending adequate performance.  In this instance, the nonprofit paid cash for the acquisition.  Based on  a lack of performance, the operation was finally closed with a substantial loss. (more…)

Unwritten Protocols for Directors Can Boost Nonprofits’ Effectiveness

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Unwritten Protocols for Directors Can Boost Nonprofits’ Effectiveness

By:  Eugene Fram                                        Free Digital Photo

Nonprofit boards are governed by a series of obligations —some are clearly defined as legal responsibilities such as financial actions. Others, however, are less clearly defined and relate to people who are, in some way, associated with the organization. Guidelines to these diverse interactions are not typically archived in policies but are important to the overall professionalism of the board. They include consideration of its: board structure, internal operations, recruitment methods and leadership style.

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People Problems Can Put Nonprofits at Risk

 

People Problems Can Put Nonprofits at Risk

By: Eugene Fram   Free Digital Image

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…)