imperfect metrics

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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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…)

What Can A Nonprofit Chair Do To Fix A Dysfunctional Board?

What Can A Nonprofit Chair Do To Fix A Dysfunctional Board?

By: Eugene Fram             Free Digital Image

There are times when the governing body of any organization may appear to be “broken.” The directors, whether for profit or nonprofit, may be polarized—progress is stunted – apathy and confusion replace purpose and efficiency.
A listing of ways to resuscitate dysfunctional business firms prompted me to expand on actions for nonprofits in similar condition. When a nonprofit is in trouble, any chair, who is aware of his/ her leadership responsibilities, should aspire to be the “fixer “of the fractured board. But there is just so much he/s can do. Some failures have deep endemic roots such as outdated structure, personality conflicts etc. The following actions are within the chair’s capability, and they can be useful in repairing board disruption. (more…)

Nonprofit Board Cultures Need To Be Defined

Nonprofit Board Cultures Need  To Be Defined

By: Eugene Fram     Free Digital Image

Over several decades of contacts with nonprofit boards, I have yet to find one that has spent any time trying to define the organization’s culture that delivers service. Yet every organization has one. It defines what the organization has done well and what needs to be changed. It can grow over years haphazardly or change quickly when new board members are elected or when a new CEO is appointed. Those newly appointed, for better or worse, can change the organization’s mission as well as its culture. Nonprofit staffs that work a few levels below the board and CEO organizationally are especially sensitive to cultural movements emanating from above. They know that a change in culture can affect their work and livelihood.

The reason that nonprofit boards rarely try to define the cultures of their organizations is that it is an amorphous subject. Ask a group of directors to define the culture of their board or the organization and quite different answers will be given. Yet there are commonalities that arise that can form the culture—conservative vs. liberal policies; legacy vs. future focused programs; operations are clearly defined vs. CEO dominance assumes board powers in a de facto manner; etc.  But cultures need to be defined:  Uber failed in the process, while  Microsoft has an ambition to transform Microsoft  from  “a know it all” to a “learn it all culture” *

I recently found a list of 12 attributes of a strong organizational culture. **  Following are six that I suggest that nonprofit boards should consider in assessing their needs of the organizations. My comments provide some practical ways that each can apply to nonprofit boards and organizations. (more…)

Is An Agile Approach Appropriate for Nonprofits?

Is An Agile Approach Appropriate for Nonprofits?

By: Eugene Fram             Free Digital Image

Many nonprofit organizations are going to have to transform themselves. They are required to adapt to shrinking donor funding sources related to the new tax law, shrinking state and local revenue sources and increased costs, often to serve larger groups of clients. One new potential approach to meet these challenges can be adapted from Agile Project Delivery Approaches. * Nonprofits may find they are venues for making faster decisions to seizing opportunities and reducing costs. Agile Project Delivery (APD) helps address these challenges by disciplined proven practices and through continuous stakeholder feedback.

Agile projects are based on four basic concepts: * (more…)