foundation boards

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 (http://milesgroup.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 directors 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 directors 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 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 who have adopted poor decisions.

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 directors 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 new questions related to nonprofit governance.

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Nonprofit Board Members Can Be Change Agents

 

Nonprofit Board Members Can Be Change Agents

By: Eugene Fram     Free Digital Image

Nonprofit boards should always support policies that will allow the organization to drive innovative actions. Following is a list developed from successful for-profits (in italics) that can be easily adapted to the nonprofit environment. *

Having a Succession Plan: This includes two elements: The first is a plan to avoid disruption in the event that he CEO is temporarily incapacitated. Hopefully it allows designating someone internally who may be capable to take the position. However in many nonprofits, I have encountered, the CEO has not developed this staff talent because of budget limitations. When this occurs, the board should have an experienced consultant in mind to fill the position for an interim period.   In my opinion, it’s not usually desirable to have a board person replace the CEO on an interim basis.   This can tend to blur the line between board and management when the position is permanently filled. The new CEO may hesitate to modify changes instituted by an interim board CEO. (more…)

NONPROFITS NEED A BRAND THAT RESONATES!

NONPROFITS NEED A BRAND THAT RESONATES!

By: Eugene Fram       Free Digital Photo

How do people see your organization? Is your nonprofit clearly perceived, and the unique nature of its work, fully understood in the community or industry?

Nonprofit board members occasionally talk about the organizational brand image but rarely take tangible steps to define it. Yet the creation of a strong brand is a major factor in generating public respect, support and significant funding sources. Potential donors need to believe implicitly in the impact of the nonprofit on its clients. They also need to understand the realities implied in the brand image that fail to match the realities of the organization’s operations. For example, some family services agencies (actually multi-human service groups), have long struggled with a brand perception that they offer only family reproduction services.

Following are some guidelines that may help improve a current image or further clarify the mission which fuels the dedicated efforts of boards, staff and volunteers: (more…)

Does the Nonprofit CEO Need to Go?

Does the Nonprofit CEO Need to Go?

By: Eugene Fram   Free Digital Image

Recognizing and acknowledging that the current CEO is no longer helpful to the nonprofit organization is never easy to come by. Beyond malfeasance and under-performance, obvious reasons for initiating such a discussion, there are often other indicators: his/her modest leadership skills, ineffective discussions between the CEO and the board chair, criticism from external stakeholders, overemphasis on tactics unbalanced by a focus on strategies, etc.

Volunteer directors are loathe to be confrontational when a CEO has been marginally satisfactory for a number of years, preferring to avoid the “drama” that inevitably accompanies the “changing of the guard.” Directors know such a change may be confrontational and the action of the majority may even split the board. They also inherently know that a termination will require more board meeting time and negotiations, something that can interfere with job and personal commitments.

Yet this type of change can’t be accomplished in a clear and pristine manner — a textbook change is usually not the case. The board first needs to take three major steps.

Work with the CEO – In the best of all scenarios, the CEO’s contract may be expiring and/or she/h may be ready for a transition. The two parties can then arrive at an amicable agreement and timetable for change. Even in this less painful circumstance, there is the possibility that there may be resistance from some board members and staff. If the best scenario is not realistic, arrangements need to be made for the CEO’s termination, hopefully in a mutually satisfactory process.

Board to have its “boots on the ground” — The board needs to make an initial assessment of the qualities necessary for a successor and then move forward and decide to identify potential candidates internally or start to contact employment sources. This requires the board to have comprehensive knowledge of strengths and weaknesses of all managers now reporting to the CEO. It also assumes that the board, in succession planning, knows the capabilities of all personnel who may become successor candidates.

Board consensus – Volunteer directors, not having a financial stake at risk, may be swayed by a jumble of emotion and loyalties. Even though there is a respectable consensus as the process begins, it is not unusual to have some fallout among the directors who may change their minds prior to taking action. In addition, be prepared with a backup plan to address the outbursts of protest from staff, outside community and possibly industry.

The change at best will be disruptive, but the board must remain resolute, never losing sight of the overall rationale. The CEO position needs to evolve as the board reviews opportunities to grow and increase the level of the organization’s services. If the CEO is a “C” Level player, the board has an obligation to seek a “B” level candidate who will be comfortable with the nonprofit’s expanded scope. And if a strategic goal requires a merger or acquisition along with a mission modification, the board would need an “A” level player. A realistic vision of the organization’s growth direction will dictate the strengths required to effectively recruit a new executive leader.

Calming the waters associated with CEO change:

Keep the board resolute! – As stated earlier, volunteer directors can become emotional and succumb to outside pressures and protest. Be sure that they stay “on message” whether or not the vote was unanimous. Pay special attention to the relatively new board members who may not have internalized the organizational history as deeply as others.

Keep the CEO informed — Once the decision is firmly approved, inform the CEO as soon as possible and in person. Do not notify by letter or email. Be mindful of the contributions he/s has made to the organization and provide reasonable incentives (bonus, references, etc.) to help during the transition. Determine if it is politically and staffing wise to keep the outgoing CEO in a subordinate position, should some specific skills are needed.

Treat outgoing CEO with respect – She/h has made contributions and needs to be credited for them.

Move quickly – Even if the outgoing CEO stays in place for a while or an interim CEO is appointed, set a goal for finding the replacement in a matter of a few months.

Avoid litigation – Legal counsel may be needed to review the termination process to be certain all legal bases are covered.

A change of CEOs is a complex and emotional process. But when the board has identified a significant deficit in the CEO’s intellectual and/or managerial skills that may impede stability and/or further growth, it is of paramount importance that a new CEO be engaged. And it is the right time to make that happen.

 

 

Board Member Networking Pays Off for Nonprofits

Board Member Networking Pays Off for Nonprofits

By Eugene Fram    Free Digital Image

Over decades of nonprofit board membership and consulting, I have rarely observed volunteer board members effectively networking with their peers to develop best board practices. Also rarely do I see them accompany management to regional or national conferences related to the nonprofit’s mission. These types of exposures are necessary to have groups of board members capable of making generative suggestions.

For directors who are willing and able to network, I suggest the following: * (more…)

Major Donor Has Remorse — Nonprofit Board/CEO Failed to Meaningfully Engage Him?

Major Donor Has Remorse — Nonprofit Board/CEO Failed to Meaningfully Engage Him?

After the gift is received, announced and celebrated, where does a nonprofit board and its management go from there? And whose job is it to see that the donor remains engaged and involved in the organization? These are questions that I have been thinking about after a friend brought facts of his donor experience to my attention.

A sad donor story begins with this friend who had been a longtime participant on the board of a nonprofit, eventually serving as board chair; he was also a modest contributor to the organization. During his tenure on the board, he developed a close professional relationship with the very innovative chief operating executive. Even after his term of board service had ended, the friendship between the two continued — as did the former director’s modest gifts to the nonprofit. In a decision to more generously support the organization’s innovative mission the now ex-board member made a substantial financial pledge — unrestricted — to be paid over several years. During the second year of the sustainable pledge the CEO left the organization and moved on to another job; the donor, unfortunately, was never contacted by the CEO’s successor. The donor’s calls to request phone appointments were returned weeks later and abruptly terminated. A staff member was delegated to service the donor, and other than letters of thanks for his annual contribution and copies of routine communications, there was no personal contact.

End of story. My friend, a business consultant, was suffering from donor’s remorse, more formally known as cognitive dissonance. He has not remained in touch with the nonprofit and knows little about any innovative activities. No surprise ending here — his strong support is now welcomed at a number of other nonprofits.

Whose job is it anyway??

After a major grant or gift has been received, many nonprofit delegate relations with the donors to the CEO, other senior officers or a development director. But there’s many a slip between cup and lip — and nonprofit boards have to be sure that future funding is not jeopardized. My thought is that a plan of board oversight might be a solution to unusual situations such as the one described above where the necessity of donor meaningful engagement probably slipped through the cracks. Here are my further thoughts on the subject:

• Since it is widely known that “people give to people, not causes,” the board should have policies or guidelines relating to interpersonal contacts with major donors. Who in management and/or board should be responsible for these contacts? How frequently should the contacts take place? And whose problem is it if things go wrong?

• The topic of major givers should be on the board agenda every three or six months at which time the contact person can update the board on the interaction or any problems that might occur.

• If the contact is a board member, he/she must be thoroughly briefed on the mission and management challenges. If it is a development director, he/she must be articulate on every subject relating to the organization.

• The CEO needs to make qualitative assessments of contact progress. When there is a change in executive leadership, the new CEO must immediately be briefed on the interpersonal status of relations with all major donors.

Donor Remorse should be nonexistent in nonprofit organizations — it can affect both current and future funding. In my opinion, the board should take a more active strategic and policy oversight role in this area. I recommend inclusion of the topic on your upcoming agenda.

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. (more…)