Ethics & Compliance

21st Century Nonprofit Boards Need to be Proactive in Strategy Development

21st Century Nonprofit Boards Need to be Proactive in Strategy Development

By: Eugene Fram        Free Digital Image

Most Boards do not excel at strategy planning. In fact, when the subject is included on a meeting agenda, it usually produces a general lack of enthusiasm. A McKinsey study * cited weakness in for-profit boards dealing with the topic. And in my opinion, similar deficits are endemic to nonprofit boards whose response to strategic proposals is often simply– “ to review and approve.”

What causes these vital governing bodies to be passive when the future of the organization is obviously at stake? First, most nonprofit boards meet between 8 and 12 times a year, for what averages to about 1.5 hours monthly. With an agenda crammed with compliance issues and staff reports, there is little time left for board members to dive deeply into a discussion of future transformative efforts on behalf of the organization. When a new strategic plan is developed (that may only occur once every 3-5 years, with a limited perspective), its implementation is not as rigorous as it should be—even in high performing boards.

According to the McKinsey study, only 21% of business directors claim to fully understand the firm’s total strategy. Because of their diverse backgrounds, the percentage of uninitiated nonprofit board members is probably similar or even lower!

Next, the study also reports: “…there is often a mismatch between the time horizons of board members and that of top management.” Since the median tenure for a nonprofit board member is between four and six years, it follows that management‘s experience with the mission environment exceeds the vast majority of board members. Since the outset of the 2009 recession, it becomes critical that a dialogue between board and management brings focus to economic priorities. When the economic environment remains more dynamic, it requires much more discussion.

Questions that board and management need to consider to overcome these issues.

• How well do board members understand the mission dynamics? In terms of nonprofit experience, management has a better understanding of the mission’s environment. As a result, management needs to be proactive in educating board members about the dynamics involved. This can take place at meetings, retreats or engaging outside experts to interact with board members. Where it is possible and appropriate, management should invite board members to join them at local or regional conferences.

• Has there been enough board-management debate before a specific strategy is discussed? “Board members should approach these discussions with an owner’s mind-set and with the goal of helping management to broaden its thinking by considering new, even unexpected, perspectives.” During these debates management should provide information on key external trends affecting the mission. It also needs to review: strengths and weaknesses of staff talent to achieve the mission, the abilities of the nonprofit to differentiate itself and to increase services to its clientele. All of this can keep the organization from perpetuating the status quo—providing small budget increments and keeping current clients satisfied, not seeking growth.

• Have the board and management discussed all strategic options and wrestled them to the ground? Nonprofit board members and their managers may not be used to having high-quality discussion like these. To provide bases for these types of conversations the board must view management as a set of peers with different responsibilities. “Creating a participative, collaborative dynamic while maintaining a healthy tension is critical.”

“Developing strategy has always been complex—and becomes more so with a board’s increased involvement, which introduces new voices and expertise to the debate and puts pressure on management teams and board members alike to find the best answers.”

http://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/tapping-the-strategic-potential-of-boards

THE ART OF THE “ASK”: SIX TACTICS FREQUENTLY IGNORED BY NONPROFIT BOARD MEMBERS, CEOS AND FUND DEVELOPERS

By: Eugene Fram       Free digital image

Nonprofit board members and managers have acquired a measured of savvy when it comes to raising funds for their organizations. They have learned that building trust with current and prospective donors is the key to maintaining meaningful support. Here are some overlooked tactics to further strengthen relationships. *

  1. Show the donors “what’s in it for them:” Some development officers still lead by focusing on what is of interest to them—the construction of a new building, providing funds for the nonprofit’s strategic development plan, etc.   But they often lack certain perspectives. These are the skills to effectively interact with business executives like those holding C-Suite positions. These senior managers value evidence that the nonprofit representatives have “done their homework.” Pre-meeting preparation must include generating information on the executive (s’) professional and career background(s) that is readily available from LinkedIn. Also it is necessary to have some information about the challenges the firm or its industry are encountering. This level of preparation helps set a basis for better communications and managerial discussions that C-Suite personnel value.

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Once Again! What Are the Best Risk Levels for Your Nonprofit’s Investments in a COVID 19 environment and after it?

 

Once Again! What Are the Best Risk Levels for Your Nonprofit’s Investments in a COVID 19 environment and after it?

By Eugene Fram

Some nonprofits have significant investment accounts. The following are some guidelines to help develop investment policies during and after COVID 19. These funds may have been accrued through annual surpluses/donations or have been legally mandated to cover future expenditures through a reserve account.

  1. How does your committee define risk, and how much are you willing to take? *  Most nonprofit by-laws require a nonprofit to conservatively manage and invest its funds. This give the investment committee a wide range of policies to employ.

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Why Are Some Nonprofit Boards Missing the Mark? What to Do?

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:

Knowledge Gaps

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.

Self-Delusion

“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.

Developing A Sustainable Nonprofit–Post Covid-19

Developing A Sustainable Nonprofit–Post Covid-19

By: Eugene Fram         Free Digital Image

An analysis of the current pandemic environment should be a clarion call for nonprofit board members. It can be summarized in a couple of sentences:

Great crises tend to bring profound social changes, …. . We seem to be at another point when society will make adjustments for good or ill. * 

As nonprofit board members or managers, are you ready to identify and confront these adjustments as they already have developed or will challenge your nonprofit within the next 10 years? Hopefully, a large portion of nonprofit boards will accept the challenge and begin strategic planning for the post Covid 19 period now!  

Board Challenges – Post Covid-19

As I view the situation, the pandemic has already brought about changes in four areas that can impact the long-term sustainability of a nonprofit. There are others that can be added to my four, for example Fund Development—but this topic has been well covered elsewhere. 

Advocacy 

Advocacy for Post Covid 19 needs to be more than an occasional Tweet or two. Some nonprofits will continue to advocate for issues that relate to its mission, vision and values. But they may have to take substantial stands on broader topics.

With 5G communications expanding the connections in the world, the post Covid-19 period will present opportunities for nonprofits to advocate, where appropriate, on social topics that may not be strictly germane to their mission—e.g., health care, social justice and “Me Too” issues.

At the least, each nonprofit should have reviewed policies that enable management and boards to respond quickly to pandemic generated movements that are not currently on the horizon.

Information Security

Board members have an obligation to make certain critical information is secure. It requires more specific policies than the requirement to have an insurance policy in the event a hacker steals a membership list.

Developing these policies requires some basic IT knowledge. If some board members need a “review” of these basics, the board should offer an educational opportunity to upgrade their knowledge. 

Generation Z (Gen Z) 

Gen Z, born between 1995 and 2015 (2020 in some reports) has already started to impact the workforce. The Gen Z population is currently 86 million and is expected to grow to 88 million in the next 20 years due to migration. **

In comparison with the millennial cohort, Gen Z:

  • Wants more autonomy and independence. A Gen Z staff will readily accept positions that allow them to work from home, especially if it yields a healthy work-life balance. This will cause nonprofit boards to review policies related to office space requirements while evaluating “at home” productivity. Some staff may choose to be located elsewhere in the United States or internationally.
  • Are less team-oriented than millennials. Being more competitive than the previous  generation, financial compensation is more important. They have been raised in some difficult economic times, and their Covid-19 experiences will no doubt heighten their motivations to seek higher financial compensation. To engage the best and the brightest of the Gen Z cohort at nonprofit salary scales, organizations will have one other major attraction. Nonprofits are mission (or purpose) driven, “Showing the positive impact their work will have on society can be (an attraction) for Gen Z when it comes to choosing a job.” ***

Cultural or Technical Vulnerabilities

These are the challenges that may be in an infant stage but can have significant impact on the organizations polices. The March of Dimes movement changed its focus to healthy moms and strong babies after the development of a polio vaccine. As psychiatric drugs improved, the boards and managements of a number of face-to-face counseling nonprofits declined or they broadened their missions. After simmering for years, the “Me Too” movement has caused colleges and universities to be modify their policies, sometimes in a rapid manner.

Many of these vulnerabilities can emerge quickly and affect a nonprofit’s sustainability. CEOs should lead with a visionary manner and boards need members who can think broadly to respond with financial or intellectual support.  This process has been described by a Harvard Law publication as future-proofing.**** “This involves thinking though the impact of today’s changes on future outcomes and future needs.” The authors admit asking management to take on this planning effort within unprecedented uncertainty may hinder its ability to react short term.   But they feel it is worth the risk to provide the challenge to management’s long-term thinking.

*https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/how-pandemics-wreak-havoc-and-open-minds

**https://knoema.com/infographics/egyydzc/us-population-by-age-and-generation-in-2020  

*** https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/hiring-generation-z/2019/how-to-hire-and-retain-generation-z

**** https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2020/07/26/the-boards-role-in-guiding-the-return-to-work/#:~:text=The%20board%20has%20a%20role,operations%20and%20growth%20moving%20forward.

Questions For Nonprofit Board Meetings—And Why They Are Needed 

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    Free Digital Image

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.  

  • What is our one sentence strategy?: It needs be short to convey the essence of the impact the organization is creating—a brief abstract of your mission that is easy to understand. Example from my experiences: “We serve the homeless and seniors by helping them to sustain their lives with healthy food, housing and other support services.”
  • What is our organization’s 10-to-15 year dream?: Not a question frequently asked, but needed to fashion strategies in the intervening period. Traditionally board and management feel that such dreams don’t have practical applications. They do if passed to future generations of boards and managers. To foster continuing discussion, a good idea is to initiate a simple process, which is implemented every few years, to determine whether or not these “dreams” are still relevant and being accepted by board and staff.  
  • What are the non-negotiable core values that dictate how we behave?: Something that needs to be reviewed annually by a group of more visionary board people and management. In rapidly growing nonprofits these may not have been communicated to new managers and employees
  • What are the key priorities we need to focus on in the next three to five years?: Needed as a motivation to asses the impact of strategic planning. Too often operational issues instead of strategic items dominate meeting agendas.  
  • What are the key metrics or key performance indicators we will use to measure our progress? Both quantitative (e.g., financial, clients served) and qualitative (e.g., advocacy, community impact) need to be addressed. Qualitative impacts are much move difficult to access, and often they are not developed for the annual review. **
  • What kind of cash flow do we need to sustain and grow our organization?: A key indicator for both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. The importance of strong cash flow is encompassed in the adage “cash is king.” Having cash puts the nonprofit in a more stable position with better buying power. While the nonprofit can borrow money at times, cash affords the organization greater protection against loan defaults or foreclosures. Cash flow is distinct from cash position. Having cash on hand is critical, but cash flow indicates an ongoing ability to generate and use cash. Nonprofits that include in-kind donations in their revenue streams have an obligation to separate cash vs. in-kind income for financial analysis. and annual reports to stakeholders.

All of these questions need to be reviewed annually, but in my experiences they rarely surface in board discussions.   

*https://mahlab.co/blog/associations-are-you-asking-your-members-the-right-questions/

**https://nonprofitquarterly.org/using-imperfect-metrics-well-tracking-progress-and-driving-change/#:~:text=To%20be%20more%20precise%20about,or%20cannot%20be%20precisely%20replicated.

Must Nonprofits Develop Employee Benefits That Substitute For Annual Raises?

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.”

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Do Today’s Business Leaders Make Effective Nonprofit Directors?

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?

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Can A Nonprofit Board Member Ever Wear Two Hats?

Can A Nonprofit Board Member Ever Wear Two Hats?

By Eugene Fram.                  Free Digital Image

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. In the event the position ceases to be a volunteer one, i.e.,the person wearing the two hats is compensated for the staff work. he/s should resign the board position. With two hats, a director would be in conflict-of-interest on important matters like salaries. Although some state statutes specifically forbids a director to hold multiple roles, enforcement of the statues is haphazard, especially among smaller nonprofits that are short of people to carry out staff functions.

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How Is Your Nonprofit Board Adjusting To “The Great Resignation”?

How Is Your Nonprofit Board Adjusting To “The Great Resignation”?

By: Eugene Fram                Free Digital Image

An article in The New York Times (12/23/2021) reports, In Louisville Ky, nonprofit groups are losing social workers to better-paying jobs at Walmart and McDonalds.  *  With 34.5 million American job resignations reported by, August 31, 2021, it’s reasonable to estimate that by the end of 2021 about 46 million Americans will have left their current jobs during the past year. This is about 25% of the American work force. ** The movement has been named “The Great Resignation.”      

Reasons for change range widely.  Beyond salary, some families may have found living on one salary acceptable, others may have moved to rural areas for quieter living, still others may have used a lay-off bonus to have time to get away from an authoritarian boss. ***          

It appears this robust employment turnover will continue. As a result, nonprofit boards, within their overviewing responsibilities, must focus on recruiting and retaining organization talent, like few nonprofit boards have done in the past. (more…)