Good governance

6 Approaches to Innovation for Nonprofit Boards

6 Approaches to Innovation for Nonprofit Boards

By Eugene Fram                     Free Digital Image

The Bridgespan Group, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation,  completed an exciting research study. The results identified “six elements common to nonprofits with a high capacity to innovate” * Following are some suggestion how to implement these elements.

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When a CEO Exits (or should)—what are the Board’s Succession Options?

When a CEO Exits (or should)—what are the Board’s Succession Options?

By Eugene Fram                  Free Digital Image

CEOs of for-profit and nonprofit organizations typically come and go. Those executives that remain in place for an extended period may be highly valued for their demonstrated skills and accomplishments. One CEO I know has reached a 30 year anniversary and is still innovating. Other CEOs, including organization founders, may remain on the job past the point of growth. The nonprofit environment can be a comfortable workplace—a board member I once interviewed remarked that his long-serving CEO had a great “deal.” He meant the nonprofit wasn’t even close to its potential   I’ve even encountered CEOs who admit that they can run the organization on automatic, convinced that new challenges will be similar to those of the past.

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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.

Can Small Experiments Test Nonprofit Strategic Validity?

Can Small Experiments Test Nonprofit Strategic Validity?

By: Eugene Fram        Free digital image

When given a series of potential mission changes, modifications or opportunities, most nonprofit boards take the following steps: (1) Discuss alternatives (2) Develop working plans, board/staff presentations and funding proposals (3) All three usually are packaged into a three or five year strategic plan for implementation. Typically the process can take about six months to “get all stakeholders on board.” When something new is suggested, the conservative board and nonprofit management immediately respond, “Great idea, let’s consider it in the new strategic plan.” Results: It can take three to five years to implement the idea, assuming the plan actually gets off the shelf, not an unusual occurrence for nonprofit organizations!


Another alternative being implemented by some nonprofit is to use a rapid experimentation approach called Lean. “First developed for use in the for-profit world,(especially startup ventures) … the method focuses on new ideas for products/services through iterative experiments. Lean practitioners build simple prototypes ‘called minimum viable products/services (MVPs),’ …move quickly to get feedback on these items from constituents/stakeholders.” * As long as they have some positive iterations they continue to full product development.

Example:  The small software division of a larger firm suggested a program that it felt certain would have great marketability because of it perceived uniqueness.

As an initial part of a  Lean process, the software developers were required to present it personally to a small group of potential customers. As a result of the interviews, both marketing and development executives dropped it.



How Can Nonprofit Boards Utilize Lean Experimentation?

These lean experiments can be conducted at minimum costs and with small samples that initially may not be statistically significant. (For example, in the software case cited above, there were only four customers in the sample, but they were significant ones.)

Not being able to afford the time and money to develop excellent metrics, nonprofit boards, especially in assessing ambiguous and qualitative impacts, need to initially glean what they can from the use of imperfect metrics. (http://bit.ly/OvF4ri). The metrics can be anecdotal, subjective, interpretive or qualitative. For most nonprofits, it is a great leap forward from doing nothing or taking years to implement action. Also losing time invested in offering a client centered opportunity? The most critical requirement is that the directors and management agree that the process is reasonable and that outcomes from each experimental iteration constitute fair and trustworthy information.

A Current Example

There seems to be a growing body of knowledge of how to apply the art of lean in the nonprofit environment. * The use of lean to assess the proper venues to select social media by which to communicate with donors and other stakeholders is an example. All agree that the use of various social media venues is difficult to assess for both for-profits and nonprofits.

Here, as an example, is what might be done to obtain some directions on using social venues to reach millennials. Charitable nonprofits are seeking ways to communicate with this group as potential volunteers and future donors. Instead of a board waiting to take action on a broad social media strategy before taking some action on social media, it might start with some small-scale, low cost experiments. The information it obtains from one or two MPVs would be useful in backing into a comprehensive social media strategy when a new strategic plan is needed. But an early MPV also might provide some information for immediate action.

Summary: Like any management process lean is not a panacea for either the business or nonprofit sectors. It has its advantages and disadvantages and will not replace more rigorous process, when required–longitudinal studies and strategic planning. However, its experimental design feature can help drive the nonprofit decision process to be more effective and efficient. That alone can help to recruit more able directors, who because of time-compressed lifestyles, now are impatient with the traditional pace of nonprofit decision-making.

* For a robust report on the use of lean in the nonprofit sector see:  (http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_promise_of_lean_experimentation)

Nonprofit Board Discourse: a Meeting of the Minds??

Nonprofit Board Discourse: a Meeting of the Minds??

By: Eugene Fram        Free Digital Image

Several years ago, a nonprofit board member complained to me that there was too little “conflict” at board meetings. Too few hands were raised to challenge or simply question the efficacy of certain important agenda items. Having participated in hundreds of nonprofit meetings, I have observed that this laissez-faire response still typifies a significant number of board member’s attitudes, especially for items that deserve vigorous discussion. Why is that? And why can the term conflict be  perceived as an asset to an organization that is determined to move forward?

Below are some answers based on my own experience in the nonprofit environment.

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Identify Nonprofit Staff Groups To Help Drive Organizational Change

Identify Nonprofit Staff Groups To Help Drive Organizational Change

By Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

Nonprofit executive directors tend to think of the staff professionals as individual contributors. These individuals are persons who mainly work on their own and but increasingly also have to contribute as team players – for instance, counselors, health care professionals, curators and university faculty. However, many executive directors fail to recognize that these individual contributors can be grouped according to identifiable types, with differing work-value outlooks. Each group needs to be motivated differently to drive change in today’s fast moving social, political and technological environments. Nonprofit board members, working with the ED, can use these groupings in their oversight responsibilities to better understand the bench strength of promotable staff.   

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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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The Outside Advisory Board: Boon or Bother to Nonprofit CEOs?

The Outside Advisory Board: Boon or Bother to Nonprofit CEOs?

By: Eugene Fram.             Free Digital Image

I have established or served on a number of nonprofit outside advisory boards. As a result I strongly recommend their usefulness to nonprofit CEOs. The counsel provided by a group of unaffiliated members of the community or industry will, in my opinion, complement the existing board, helping to deliver services or products to clients with greater effect. The objective of assembling such a body would be to seek advice and expertise regarding a current major project or issue and/or to provide ongoing support and guidance to the CEO. Advisory board members have no legal responsibilities, nor have authority to require the elected board or staff to act on its advice. However, when advice is not followed, the CEO has a professional responsibility to show how the suggestions were seriously considered and to carefully report on what had transpired in making the decision process. Too many useful volunteers become disillusioned with advisory committees when this step is omitted.

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Does A New Nonprofit Board Member Really Understand Your Organization?  The New Board Member Nurturing Challenge!

Does A New Nonprofit Board Member Really Understand Your Organization?  The New Board Member Nurturing Challenge!

By: Eugene Fram       Free Digital Image

The careful nurturing of a new board member, whether for-profit or nonprofit, is critical. The pay-off of a robust orientation process is an informed and fully participating board director. The following are very similar occurrences in both for-profit and nonprofit boards:

The CEO of a transportation firm agrees to become a board director of a firm developing computer programs. He has risen through the transportation ranks with a financial background, but he knows little about the dynamics of the computer industry.

A finance professor is asked to serve on the board of a nonprofit school serving handicapped children. She has no children of her own and has never had any contact with handicapped children, social workers or teachers serving handicapped children.

In these similar cases, the new board member needs to become reasonably conversant with a new industry or a new human service field in order to be able to better apply policy development skills, strategic planning skills and to allow generative thinking.

On nonprofit boards, the problem is exacerbated when the new director often is asked to immediately join a specific board committee without being able to understand the board perspectives and the organization’s mission vision and values. Following are ways in which the nonprofit board can resolve this problem:

  • Don’t appoint the new board member to a committee until she/h has completed a board orientation program including a review of board procedures, attending several board meetings, has had visits with the staff, as they normally operate, and becomes alert to the major trends in the field. This ideally should take about six months assuming the board member is employed full-time elsewhere.
  • During this time, the chief executive and board president should be available to visit with the new director as frequently as she/h wants in order to respond to questions.
  • Hopefully, the chief executive would informally meet the new director (and each established director) quarterly to review current issues and opportunities. In addition to the information presented at the board meetings, this will provide a better perspective of the board’s mission, vision and values.
  • Ideally, the board volunteer should attend one staff meeting and one outside professional meeting to acquire a feeling for the topics reviewed at these gatherings and the field terminology.
  • During the first year, a senior board member needs be seated next to the new person at meetings to act  as a “host” for the new director

If most of these actions can be accomplished within a six-month period, major blind spots are removed, and the new board member can then join a standing board committee. Now, reasonably understanding the organization and her/h own participation on the board, she/h has a background to make a substantial contribution for years to come.

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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