Most nonprofit boards are being faced with huge pressures—reduced financial support, challenges in integrating new technologies, recovering from Covid impacts and difficulties in hiring qualified personnel who will consider “nonprofit” wages. To survive long term, board members need to be alert to potential opportunities. These may be far from the comfort zones of current board members, CEOs and staff.
Once Again! What Are the Best Risk Levels for Your Nonprofit’s Investments in a COVID 19 environment and after it?
By Eugene Fram Freed Digital Image
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.
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.
I have encountered ultraconservative nonprofits that invest all funds in several bank savings accounts that are protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC). Those that advocate this position feel that they don’t want to assume responsibility for loss of donor or membership funds that might occur, even temporarily, with investments in a mix portfolio of investment opportunities such as stock funds and/or rated bonds. (more…)
Whenever the time is ripe to select a new nonprofit CEO, I think of the old joke that says “…every person looks for the perfect spouse… meanwhile, they get married.” By the same token, nonprofit directors seek perfection in a new ED/CEO– and find that they must “settle” for less. But there are certain definitive attributes that are essential to his/her success in running the organization. With the pressures of increasingly slim budgets, fund development challenges and the difficulty of recruiting high quality employees, the 21st century ED/CEO must be action oriented and come equipped with at least a modicum of the following abilities: *
Nonprofit organizations can’t have a traditional bottom line profits. If they did, CEO productivity determination could be less complicated. Determining a fair CEO salary or benefit based on productivity, can be a complex issue for a nonprofit board. Providing too little or too much can be dangerous for the organization and possibly the board members. Although the spadework for salary and benefits need to be done by a small committee, the entire board needs to fully agree on the rationale for the final decision.
Following are some of significant challenges that I have noted nonprofit boards face when determining what is a fair system.
• Evaluation Failure: Some CEOs might receive high salaries because a series of boards have not effectively evaluated her/h performance. It is not unusual to find CEOs who have not been formally and effectively evaluated for years. They are held in position because they are “minding the store,” not being professional managers. It isn a comfortable position for both board and CEO. As one CEO commented to me, ” I present the board with alternatives, they make the decision that I must implement.”
Market Forces: Nonprofit organizations are restricted by law from providing their CEOs with excess benefits. (Section 4958 – IRS Code) As a result, the benefits offered the CEO must reflect a market level found in the geographic area and/or the person’s professional qualifications. For example, nonprofit health insurance organizations may have to compensate CEO at levels that are competitive with for-profit organizations. In my opinion, unusual CEO benefits (e.g. luxury cars) that are hard to justify market-wise are invitations for an IRS inquiry
• Board Relationships: Obviously having a good, not perfect, interrelationship with the constantly changing board membership is critical to support a reasonable compensation level. It is especially important in association type nonprofits where the person holding the board chair position changes annually. I recently encountered one board chair who, although being very pleased with the CEO’s performance, expressed a concern that the CEO did not have good communications with board members. The chair welcomed a suggestion that the board might engage a professional coach to help the CEO work on the issue.
• Additional Benefits: Although not usual in the for-profit environment, special benefits can be offered the nonprofit CEO, especially if they relate to job performance. These can range from special insurance coverage to extensive travel benefits , educational opportunities. or even housing and entertainment allowances. If involved with fundraising, like a college president, housing and entertainment benefits may be appropriate. In some unusual instances the person’s spouse or significant other may also receive compensation for time spent to benefit the nonprofit.
• Nonprofit CEO: It is not unusual for the nonprofit CEO to undervalue his/h own worth, especially when associated with a human services type of organization. This then keeps a cap on the whole salary scale and can make it difficult to hire capable people. Example: I encountered one CEO with degrees in human services and management areas plus 30 years of excellent experiences. Admired for his performance by peers in a nearby university, he refused to use that leverage to seek equitable compensation.
• Personality: Now doubt a positive CEO personality can be an attribute in working with boards and staffs.mAt an extreme, some nonprofit boards continue to support well-liked CEOs, even after they have been found to be involved with fraud. The board then has to be removed by state attorneys’ actions.
Summary: Nonprofit boards can do a poor job of determining nonprofit CEO salary and benefits because of inherent challenges. Evaluating critical qualitative outcomes and impacts, like improving life quality and successful advocacy, can be daunting. Nonprofit compensation must in line with market levels and professional qualifications, or the board members may acquire an IRS personal liability if they provide excess salaries and benefits!
Do Your Board Members View Their Board Work As Being Meaningful?
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
For several decades, I have suggested that nonprofit Board Chairs and CEOs have a responsibility to be sure that each board member perceives his/h continuing relationship as being meaningful. Following are some organizational guidelines that can assist Board Chairs and CEOs in this effort.*
Developing or hiring strong executive leadership: Obviously when hiring externally it is necessary to engage a person with a managerial background. But many nonprofit CEOs can be appointed after years of being an individual contributor or leading a small department. These experiences condition them to do too much themselves, rather than to assume a strong management posture. This involves focusing more on strategy, on talent development, interacting more with the board/community and creating a long-term vision.
A strong CEO, if appointed internally, should understand the role changes that take place once appointed. He/s must delegate activities that was once performed was once performed within a comfort zone and seek new challenges. Examples: The new CEO needs to be enthusiastic about becoming a fundraiser. She/h must become well acquainted with peer CEOs regionally and nationally to stay abreast of the state-of-art in both management and mission areas. He/s needs to become acquainted with cohorts in the business and public management communities. Over time, those involved with the nonprofit internally and externally must perceive the organization is lead by a capable executive.
Creating impact: In the 21st century, funders, board members and other nonprofit leaders are attracted to organizations that create impacts as opposed to outcomes. A nonprofit can have great program outcomes with little long-term impacts on clients. Impact is often hard to measure, but it can be done, only if started with imperfect measures that are improved over time. ** For example, one local human services organization, with which I am acquainted, operates groups of apartments offering social services that allow elderly clients to live independently for years on their own, rather than in an assisted living facility. The impact in this instance is well-defined and an impetus to attracting board members and donors that find the impact meaningful.
Building relationships externally and internally: Board candidates who have broad contact networks are sought by search committees to enhance community or industry relationships or to strengthen the organization’s fund development efforts. Little effort is directed to fostering closer relationships among current board members who often don’t get to know each other personally because of crowded board and committee agendas. Example: I consulted with one board where some board members complained that they might not recognize their board peers when they meet them in outside social situations.
To solve the problem, both the Board Chair & CEO must acknowledge that it exists—in the above example; it took an extensive personal interview board survey to highlight the problem. Then creative tactics like the following can be employed.
One CEO has a weekly one-hour conference call with the board chair to discuss current issues. Other board members are invited to join the calls if they wish. This is an excellent way for new board members to quickly become attuned to the nonprofit.
Another CEO, each Sunday, sends a one-page e-mail summary of major events to board members. He reports that his high school English teacher would never approve of his grammar or format, but he knows emails are reviewed. They are reflected in the level of discussions at meetings
Low-key self-funded social events for board members and significant others can help board members to become better acquainted and work together.
Another classical approach is to allow 10 minutes each meeting to allow board members to briefly report changes in their personal or professional lives.
Assuming an organization is successful in developing a cohesive board, what can be done to retain these efforts once they have termed-out? The answer is to ask them to join the organization’s “Alumni Association.” The process can be found here: (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ltl.20305)
Organizational stability: Unstable nonprofits have common telltale signs—rapid employees or management turnover, excessive bank borrowing, reserve depletion, late report filings, etc. It’s difficult to provide meaningful board experiences under these conditions. However it is not unusual to find board members who will accept responsibility when the nonprofit is unstable, if they are dedicated to its mission. Some may even “enjoy” the turnaround challenge.
While no nonprofit will be perfect, those with the best opportunity to provide meaningful board experiences will have a well formulated strategic plan that allows it to be stable operationally and financially.
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.
How Seriously Does Your Nonprofit Board Take the Matter of Ethics?
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Photo
Most board members are aware of their obligation to ensure their nonprofit’s compliance with certain standard regulations e.g. making tax payments, submitting IRS Form 990s and/or avoiding potential fraud. But what I have found missing in the nonprofit environment is a sense of board member responsibility to provide for and sustain a viable ethics program.
Can A Nonprofit Find Strategic Ways To Grow in Unsettled Times?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Nonprofits have always had to struggle to meet their client needs, even when economic conditions and social turmoil were much less constraining than today and they have dim prospects for the immediate future. How can mid-level nonprofits uncover growth opportunities in the present environment?
Plan Strategically: Any nonprofit board needs a core of directors and managers who are capable of identifying potential new strategic directions. The CEO must be highly conversant with changes in the mission field. He/s then needs a core of board members to assist in realistically reviewing his/h long-term insights for growth, as well as board insights developed from generative discussions. The CEO, supported by several board members, can then be the keystone for board discussions about implementing change. Should the CEO not have the requisite forward-looking knowledge, the only alternative is to try to replace the CEO, a difficult change even under the best of circumstances.
Capacity Investment: As expected, nonprofits invest their assets in maintaining and improving programs. It seems that client needs will always be there to operate and expand existing programs. But success in nonprofits and elsewhere also involves beginning to solve tomorrow’s problem today. Example: The challenges for serving the aging cohort of baby boomers is clearly showing demographic impact. Those in the field or allied fields serving this cohort need to be concerned with finding new modalities to assist the baby boomers in an efficient, effective and humane manner. Where funding is a barrier to participate in such an effort, foundations and governmental agencies need to be aggressively tapped to fund with small-scale projects, if the foundation can partner with the nonprofit. (See: https://www.snpo.org/publications/sendpdf.php?id=2024)
Impact & Evaluation: Midsized nonprofits should have the capacity to conduct a few small-scale studies every few years, if growth and development are cultural values for the organizations. Resources might come from within the nonprofit and/or from outside sources. Once a small-scale study provides evidence of impact; the nonprofit can find outside interest for more small-scale improvement, additional evaluation and possibly some outside support.
Obviously a small new project won’t be able to have an extensive evaluation component. However, if imperfect metrics are used in the process, the impact findings can be useful in seeking an interest from other sources. (These are metrics that are anecdotal, subjective, interpretive or qualitative. For more details see:http://bit.ly/OvF4ri)
Importance Of the Board & Management: Growth opportunities will be initiated in nonprofits, only if the board constantly asks for them, especially in the current environment. The board, overtly or indirectly, has to ask management about innovations that are taking place or can take place within the organization. Annual questions to management such as “ What do you want to do innovatively or creatively this coming year?” are mandated. When it appears an innovation can be scaled a little or an innovative person has potential to be creative, the nonprofit board has to support this learning culture for testing.
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.”*