Dysfunctional nonprofits

Eliminating the Nonprofit Board’s Addiction to Micromanaging

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Eliminating the Nonprofit Board’s Addiction to Micromanaging

By: Eugene Fram

Micromanaging is the DNA of many nonprofit boards. It all starts with the community model culture of start-up periods. Board members have to assume staff roles to drive the nonprofit operations. But it often continues long after an adequate staff is in place. By habit, the board still focuses on operational details—also known as “reviewing the weeds.”  I recently observed a board that was making a policy decision about the change in timing of an annual development event.   Once the decision was made, the directors continued a “weed type” discussion about about table locations, invitations and other issues that were in the job of management to implement. The nonprofit is about 50 years old and has a budget of $10 Million with a 100 person staff. (more…)

How Can Nonprofit Boards Overcome the Inertia of Certain Directors?

How Can Nonprofit Boards Overcome the Inertia of Certain Directors?

By: Eugene Fram

Making major changes in mission, board structure, management or other significant matters are 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. (more…)

Big Data Are Great—But Imperfect Metrics Work for Nonprofit Boards!

 

Big Data Are Great—But Imperfect Metrics Work for Nonprofit Boards!

By Eugene Fram

Nonprofit boards need to expand their evaluations of nonprofit managers and their organizations adding more behavioral impacts * to their evaluations.

For example, a nonprofit might count the number of volunteers that have been trained. But boards must go to the next level in the 21st century.
In the case of volunteers, they must seek to understand the impacts on those trained. They need, for instance, to understand how well these volunteers are assisting clients and how they are representing the nonprofit to the clients. The training is a process, but it determines their relationships with clients and yields impact data.

Qualitative data must be developed to the next level, and the average nonprofit CEO will argue that he/she doesn’t have the staff or expertise to develop impact data. Engaging an outside organization to complete a simple project can cost thousands of dollars. (more…)

Mismanagement Causes Huge Agency Failure—A Word To The Wise Nonprofit?

Mismanagement Causes Huge Agency Failure—A Word To The Wise Nonprofit?

By Eugene Fram

Rarely do failed for-profit or nonprofit organizations get a posthumous review of what actually went wrong. The collapse of one of the largest nonprofits in the US, the Federal Employment Guidance Service (FEGS) of New York City, is a noteworthy exception. Details of the causes that led to the human service’s demise were aired widely throughout NY media. * This organization had a $250 million budget, with 1900 employees who served 120,000 households covering a range of mental health and disability services, housing, home care and employment services.

Following are my interpretations of what its board should have done to avoid such a tragedy.

Failure of nonprofits: Failure of small nonprofits is rampant for a wide variety of known reasons. For example, “Nonprofits tend to be more trusting of their employees and have less stringent financial controls than their for-profit counterparts.” **

Outside of fraud being involved, the FEGS failure demonstrates that no nonprofit is too big to fail, probably because of a lack of board due care. Boards have to be acutely aware of the professional financial competencies of their CFO and CEO or well-meaning people who naively believed that loans could be easily repaid. There should have been a well-documented financial l strategy. The nonprofit closed with $47 million in loans/liabilities/debts.

Symptoms of impending collapse: Clearly with $47 million being owed, common financial ratios should have alerted knowledgeable board members to the coming catastrophe. But in the nonprofit environment, it is not unusual to that find directors, even business executives, are unfamiliar with the fund accounting approach used by nonprofit organizations.

In addition, contracting city and state agencies failed in their reviews of the organization’s finances. However, some nonprofits, either intentionally on unintentionally, can saddle contract reviewers and directors with so much information that even the most conscientious can’t spot problems. (Humorously, directors in this category are referred to as “mushroom directors” because like growing mushrooms, they are kept in the dark an covered with excrement. But this type of tactic was successfully used against IRS auditors in the Madoff debacle.)

Government or Foundation Contracts: In accepting these contracts, nonprofits must be realistic about whether or not there is enough money to cover full costs. They can’t be blinded by what the contract can do for the organization’s client. If adequate overhead funding is not attached to one or more of these agreements, they eventually can cause bankruptcy, because the nonprofit eventually will have to borrow or seek additional donations to cover them.

How Nonprofit Boards Can Avoid Problems

Review Financials: Current financials need to be given to directors monthly, or at least quarterly if the board meets less often. The very detailed budget data can often be difficult for those without budget experience. At the least, everybody on the finance committee needs to be able to intelligently review the income statement and balance sheet. Also they need to be aware that funding accounting permits some unusual twists—food donations, for example, can be included in revenues, based on an estimate of their value. Consequently, cash revenues and expenditures need to be a focus for directors’ analysis.

Make certain that financials are delivered on timely and complete bases. Problem Example: One CFO didn’t submit accounts receivable reports for nine months because he said he was too busy to compile it. Neither the board nor the CEO demanded issuance of the report. When finally delivered, it was clear that the CFO was listing a substantial number of noncollectable accounts as active ones. Both the CFO and CEO were fired, and the nonprofit had to hired expensive forensic accountants to review the impact.

Gaps Between Revenues and Expenditures: This is the ultimate red flag, if not followed carefully. It may vary from period-to-period in a predictable pattern that everybody understands, but if the gap continues, say for four to six months, strong board action is necessary.

Adopt written financial policies: These are necessary to make sure all concerned with finances are on the same page. Since interpretation is often required in financial decisions, nothing should be left open to broad interpretation.

Contracts with governments, foundations and others: Make certain that reimbursements for indirect costs are included. If not included, have a benefactor ready to step in to cover the costs.

An old Chinese proverb, “A wise man (or woman) learns from his/h own experience. The wiser man (or woman) learns from the experiences of others.” One hundred twenty thousands households and individuals lost services from an 80 year old human service nonprofit. There is much to learn from the collapse of FEGS.

* https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/thought-leadership/what-we-learn-when-nonprofit-closes-its-doors

**https://www.blog.abila.com/nonprofit-fraud-facts-2016-global-fraud-study/

Preparing the Nonprofit for the Unexpected Crisis

Preparing the Nonprofit for the Unexpected Crisis

By: Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

Nonprofit boards and management, large and small, can suddenly be subjected to the trauma of an event that will shake the organization to its roots! While I am sure that larger nonprofits like the Red Cross have crisis management plans in place. I have yet to encounter a mature mid-sized nonprofit that has even considered anything beyond a temporary replacement for the executive director should he/she is incapacitated.

Yet it’s essential that every board chair know what to do if the executive director calls at 3AM to report that the nonprofit facility is on fire! With about 16% of all fraud losses emanating from nonprofits, how should the board chair respond when a new auditing firm reports that the executive director has been using thousands of agency dollars for personal expense?

In either of these instances, the board chair and members must be prepared to step into leadership positions that are frequently out of their comfort zones. A plan to deal with a crisis of any sort should be in position and reviewed by board and management on an annual basis. Here are some suggested topics that need annual updating:  (more…)

How Often Do Nonprofit Board Members Need to Question Strategic Norms?

 

How Often Do Nonprofit Board Members Need to Question Strategic Norms?

By Eugene Fram

A new nonprofit director has a lot to learn. Considering that his/h term of service will be relatively short (typically four to six years), he/s must quickly learn the “ropes” to participate in a meaningful way. In this process, colleagues and leadership will acquaint him/h with prevailing board systems and culture—often ignoring the depth of expertise she/h can employ. Example: An expert in financial strategies may be asked to assist the CFO with accounting details, far below the person’s skill level. Oftentimes the new board member also is greeted with a mantra that says, “We’ve always done it this way.” As the director moves in his path from novice to retiree, during a short tenure, there is little opportunity to suggest innovations that differ from the accepted fundamentals and to successfully advocate for change. (more…)

Can A Board Member Ever Wear Two Hats?

Can A Board Member Ever Wear Two Hats?

By Eugene Fram

Although this is not a good idea for nonprofit organizations, it is not an unusual occurrence, especially among start-ups. A director in a start-up nonprofit will need to assume some staff responsibilities as a volunteer. But he/s will need to organizationally report to the CEO. (more…)