How Can Nonprofits Accommodate To External Influences? Some Field Observations
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Ruth McCambridge, former editor of Nonprofit Quarterly, pointed out “Our organizational management, (board) styles and structures are affected by the four external influences.” See paraphrased bolded items below. (http://bit.ly/1HSwrZY)
Following are some specific field observations I have encountered that, over several decades, support her model relating to external influences.
The nonprofit’s mission field: McCambridge points out that arts organizations have dual have leadership models—artistic and business. However, unless specified which has final authority, the system can lead to continual conflict between the two; the artistic leader wanting the most authentic productions and the business leader concerned with budget realities. The final authority is often determined by which leader has the CEO title.
The wise person learns from his/h own experiences. The wiser person learns from the experiences of others. Chinese Proverb
The CEO Forum published an article covering the governance views of five business board members, known for their wisdom and vision. Following are some of topics in the article that relate to nonprofit boards. *
Good governance is dependent upon well-curated boards. This means that nonprofit boards must look beyond the functional competencies (e.g. accounting, marketing, law, etc.) for candidates. Within these groupings, they need to seek candidates who have strategic outlooks, are comfortable with critical thinking and have documented leadership skills. This requires recruiting and vetting efforts that go well beyond the friends, neighbors and colleagues who traditionally have been the sources for board positions. Also related is the issue of board succession, since that many will leave the board after a four to six year period. The current board(s) has an obligation to make rigorous recruiting and vetting become part of the nonprofit’s culture.
Assessing long-term sustainability. In the past, nonprofits have projected longevity because there will always be a need for the services or products they provide. This is no longer an assured proposition. Nonprofit day care centers now must compete with those that are for-profit. Improvements in medication have decreased the need for individual counseling and many new technologies can quickly solve problems that are embedded in the nonprofit’s mission.
Review governance best practices carefully! Know who is suggesting them and make certain they are appropriate for a specific organization. For example, some experts suggest that executive committees should be eliminated. However an executive committee that is responsible for a slim board committee structure can be effective in driving change and promoting better communications throughout the organization. **
Changing public accounting firms. Nonprofit accounting practice suggests changing public accounting firms about every five years. However one expert suggests, “It is important to ensure that judgment areas such as nonGAAP disclosures are well-defined, supporting calculations are well-documented and that the definitions and calculations are consistent across reporting periods.” At times of accounting firm change, nonprofit board members need to be able to add these issues to their question that they pose to management.
Ethics & Compliance. Like business organizations, nonprofits are subject to significant lapses in ethics and compliance. One study of nonprofit fraud found that it 46% involved multiple perpetrators. *** As shown in the recent Wells Fargo debacle, establishing the tone for rigorous applications of a standard needs to start with the board and flow through all management levels. In the current environment, audit committees have to be especially alert and take immediate actions when red flags arise in either the ethics and/or compliance areas. In my opinion, a nonprofit audit committee that meets only once or twice a year is not doing the necessary job.
Strategy. The nonprofit board has an obligation to help management see “around the next corner.” This involves board members assessing coming trends and sparking civil and meaningful board and committee discussions.
Board member comfort zones. Like their business counterparts, few nonprofit board members are “comfortable testing how to rock the norms.” It is easier to acculturate new directors to the current norms, a process that is inward bound and self-defeating. But a start can be initiated with questions such as, “If we were to start a new nonprofit across the street, what would it look like and who of the present board and a staff members would we ask to join us?
Bob Harris, CAE, suggests a nonprofit’s DNA consists of five elements. ** Following are my thoughts on how they can be applied, if a nonprofit board wants to develop an understanding of the “real world” applications of the Harris DNA elements. This needs to take place prior to the planning efforts.
Board Structure: Nonprofit boards must effectively operate with a series of board committees. The number of committees varies widely. I have observed some with as few as three committees and others with as many as 15 committees. The latter group rationalizes the number by suggesting board member involvement leads to better understandings of missions, vision, and values. More desirable board candidates live time-compressed work and lifestyles and can’t become involved with committees that meet without defined charters or try to micromanage management decisions.
Three to about six committees seems to be optimal for a mature board in the 21st century. A startup board will require more committees to allow board members to assume operational roles. One warning! If this large committee DNA format is allowed to carry over into maturity, it can lead to a dominating board that will be difficult to change.
Strategy: “A Board must act strategically—not tactically” ** In terms of its DNA, strategy must be the “lifeblood” that helps relate all major decisions to the nonprofit’s mission.
Start-up nonprofits often focus on tactical discussions at Board meetings. Founders and board members must address tactical issues because board members have two responsibilities. They must govern and act as part or full-time staff. But as the organization matures it becomes essential to fashion all agendas on policy/strategy issues. The responsibility for action resides with the Board Chair and CEO. The Board Chair, however, has a special obligation to proactively discourage lengthy discussions of tactical issues, frequently characterized as “weed discussions.” It should be emphasized that these are operational and management responsibilities, not Board agenda items.
Sustainability: This factor involves several critical keystones. First is the sustainability of income sources. If, for example, the nonprofit is heavily dependent on governmental funding, to what extent is the nonprofit able to secure private and foundation sources should governmental support abruptly decline? Managers and audit committee members need to be continually alert to seeking new funding sources.
A second keystone involves succession planning. The Board has direct responsibility for CEO succession and must overview staff succession. The latter involves knowing who among staff personnel are promotable, or, with training, be able to fill managerial positions. In my opinion, most nonprofits boards don’t provide significant overview attention to staff promotions.
Relatively short board terms or tenures for most board members (4-6 years) allow the board to introduce new thinking. However, they may not motivate board members to come to grips with issues related to long-term sustainability. Board members are traditionally active for one planning cycle, assuming strategic planning takes place every three to five years. From a sustainability perceptive, this restricts discussions of DNA changes that may impact stakeholders in the seven to ten-year time frames.
Relevance: Two keystones are also important here. First clients and funders must be able to perceive that the nonprofit is fulfilling its mission with integrity and a focus on stakeholder satisfaction.
The second involves maintaining a strongly committed board. To achieve this goal, the Board Chair and CEO must take actions to make certain that each board member perceives that her/h contributions are meaningful. These perceptions can only be determined from candid conversations with each board member. It’s the responsibility of both the Board Chair and CEO to annually assess that each board member is involved with meaningful activities.
Unlike humans, the DNA of nonprofit organizations can change with careful interpersonal adjustments. For example, assumed it is desirable to have emergency client services available 24/7 instead of the normal 40-hour working week. Then management and staff should work together to modify the DNA (fair scheduling hours, etc.,) to accommodate the change.
Performance: The approaches to assessing the value of nonprofits have recently changed. Focus has changed from assessing program outcomes to assessing program impacts. ***
Program objectives can be achieved, but they can have little impact on clients lives. For example, marriage counseling can be helpful in eliminating symptoms of problems to meet client satisfaction, but the results may lack impact because they don’t address the problems’ root causes. Data analysts are being employed by some nonprofits to model impact information that is being requested by foundations and donors. The task, however, can take a long time to implement.
Suggestion: Most well-run nonprofits review their missions, visions, and values every three to five years. A review of their DNA factors, prior to the planning cycle can enhance the process.
*the term is defined as …having fundamental and distinctive characteristics,
The Search For a New Nonprofit CEO Needs To Be Realistic
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Boardmember.com in its October 11, 2012 issue carries an op-ed item by Nathan Bennett and Stephen Miles titled, “Is your Board About to Pick the Wrong CEO.” Although targeted to for-profit boards, all of the five items listed in the article can be applied to nonprofit boards.
A blog developed by an internationally known board expert* raises some pertinent governance questions mainly targeted to for-profit boards. Following are my suggestions how these questions could apply to nonprofit and trustee boards. In addition, field examples show what happened when the questions had to be raised in crises situations.
Does bad news rise in your organization? “You may be the last to know.” For example, the board of a human services organization knew that the professional staff was not happy with a new ED with an authoritarian management style, but the board felt it needed to give him a chance to modify his style. Board members didn’t know that the staff professionals had been meeting with a union organizer for nine months. A labor election resulted, with the professional staff agreeing to work under a trade union contract.
Do your CEO & CFO have integrity? “If the CEO or CFO holds back, funnel information, manages agendas, is defensive or plays…. cards too close to the, vest, this is a warming sign.” For example, a CFO was delinquent in submitting a supplementary accounts receivable financial report. The board and CEO accepted his excuses, but the data, when submitted, had a significant negative impact on the financials. Both the CEO and CFO lost their positions. Should the board have also accepted some responsibility for the crisis?
Do you understand the (mission) and add value? The board members need to seriously answer this question: If this organization were to disappear tomorrow, who would care?
Do you know how fraud can occur in your (nonprofit)? Common wisdom prevails that there is little for-profit or nonprofit boards can do avoid fraud. To review nonprofit boards actions that can be taken, especially for medium and small size nonprofit boards, see; Eugene Fram & Bruce Oliver (2010) “Want to Avoid Fraud? Look to your Board,” Nonprofit World, September/October, pp.18-19.
Do you compensate the right behaviors? “You are at the helm as board members. Whatever you compensate, management will do.” Be certain the organization is compensating for outcomes and,more importantly, today impacts. Too often compensation is given for completing processes that are not tied to client impacts
Do you get disconfirming information? Management is only one source of information. With the agreement of management, visit privately with people below the management level. Set a Google Alert for the name of the organization to see what others on the Internet are saying about your nonprofit’s relationships.
Do you get exposures to key (operational areas) and assurance functions? “Bring key people into the boardroom, without Power Points. See how they think on their feet. It is good for succession planning and is an excellent source of information.”
Do you get good advice and stay current? “Bring tailored education into the board room and stay on top of emerging developments. “ This is especially important for the nonprofit directors or trustees who serves on a board that is out of their area of expertise. For example, bankers might serve on a hospital boards.
Do you meet with (stakeholders) – apart from management? Board members need to join with management in meeting key funders occasionally to determine if their expectations are fully met and what the board might do to foster a continuing relationship. This lets funders know that the board is involved over-viewing the organization’s outcomes and impacts.
*Richard Leblanc, “The Board’s Right to Know and Red Flags To Avoid When You Don’t.” http://www.boardexpert.com/blog, September 14, 2012 Note: Bold & quoted items are from the above blog.
Nonprofit Managers: Be Careful Who to Invite to a Virtual or In Person Meeting!
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Most nonprofit CEOs would agree with the findings of a McKinsey survey that attempts to gauge the productivity of business organizations’ meetings. * The results of the probe showed that 61% of the respondents thought that at least half of the time spent around the table or on a monitor was non-productive.
Nonprofits can benefit from the study by considering the various roles played by the participants while attending virtual or in person operational (not board) meetings. They advise the committee nonprofit chair to think twice before inviting people to attend. Following in italics are the roles recommended in the survey. After each, I project how these can be useful in identifying who should be present at in person or virtual nonprofit meetings.
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.”
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. *
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
“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.