Nonprofit board barriers

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  (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:

Knowledge Gaps

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.

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 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.

Nonprofit Board Disruption—A Board Member’s Reflections

Nonprofit Board Disruption—A Board Member’s Reflections

By: Eugene Fram. Free Digital Image

A tsunami can suddenly erupt on a nonprofit board. Or, instead, dissension can smolder within the organization, and finally burst into flame. In any case, polarization of opinion can damage an organization unless skillfully managed. It can occur on many fronts: fraud, sharp division of opinion, staff morale or any number of issues. In turbulent times such as the Covid 19 environment, latent problems can swiftly escalate and create chaos.

Disruption on the Board can only be resolved with strong leadership. In most cases, the Board Chair (BC) assumes the responsibility of addressing the problem. In my 30+ years of board consulting and participation, I have had a number of opportunities to view nonprofit boards in trouble. In this post, I share some of the suggestions that have “worked” to resolve problems and help rebuild broken organizations.

When the BC has to accept the challenge of uprooting the problem, he/she is likely to be met with some resistance. Board members may resign from the board in anticipation of a substantial increase in meetings and time involved. Some may be concerned that their management reputation could be sullied or personal financial liabilities leveled by the IRS, the possibility of lawsuits.

If the BC is unable to persuade the distressed board members that their expertise is needed to achieve the nonprofit’s mission, and has made them aware of the Directors & Officers’ Insurance policy which will protect them from financial liability, it will be difficult to recruit new people in this period of instability.

However, the BC can ask former board members to return for another term or two. In one case, a human service organization persuaded a board member about to be termed out to stay for another two years. He happened to be a senior vice president of a listed firm–and a valuable asset to the nonprofit.   He accepted the offer to stay and agreed to become BC of the weakened organization. During his extended tenure, he successfully recruited some former members dedicated to the organization’s mission.

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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.

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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Measuring Nonprofits’ Impacts: A Necessary Process for the 21st Century

Measuring Nonprofits’ Impacts: A Necessary Process for the 21st Century

By Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

 

Unfortunately, outcomes and impact are often unrelated, which is why a program that seems to produce better outcomes may create no impact at all. Worse, sometimes they point in opposite directions, as can happen when a program works with harder-to- service populations resulting in seemingly worse conditions, but (has) higher value-added impact. … Rigorous evaluations can measure impact (to a level of statistical accuracy), but they are usually costly (a non starter for many nonprofit), difficult and slow. * But how do the medium and small size nonprofits measure actual results in the outside world such as enhanced quality of life, elevated artistic sensitivity and community commitment? (more…)

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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Can A Nonprofit Board Member Ever Wear Two Hats?

Can A Nonprofit Board Member Ever Wear Two Hats?

By Eugene Fram.                  Free Digital Image

Although this is not a good idea for nonprofit organizations, it is not an unusual occurrence, especially among start-ups. A director in a start-up nonprofit will need to assume some staff responsibilities as a volunteer. But he/s will need to organizationally report to the CEO. In the event the position ceases to be a volunteer one, i.e.,the person wearing the two hats is compensated for the staff work. he/s should resign the board position. With two hats, a director would be in conflict-of-interest on important matters like salaries. Although some state statutes specifically forbids a director to hold multiple roles, enforcement of the statues is haphazard, especially among smaller nonprofits that are short of people to carry out staff functions.

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Nonprofit Boardroom Elephants and the ‘Nice Guy’ Syndrome: A Complex Problem

 

Nonprofit Boardroom Elephants and the ‘Nice Guy’ Syndrome: A Complex Problem

By: Eugene Fram            Free Digital Photo

Revised viewer favorite post

A friend serving on a nonprofit board reported plans to resign from the board shortly. His complaints centered on the board’s unwillingness to take critical actions necessary to help the organization grow.

In specific, the board failed to take any action to remove a board member who wasn’t attending meetings, but he refused to resign. His term had another year to go, and the board had a bylaws obligation to summarily remove him from the board. However, a majority of directors decided such action would hurt the director’s feelings. They were unwittingly accepting the “nice-guy” approach in place of taking professional action.

In another instance the board refused to sue a local contractor who did not perform as agreed. The “elephant” was that the board didn’t think that legally challenging a local person was appropriate, an issue raised by an influential director. However, nobody informed the group that in being “nice guys,” they could become legally liable, if somebody became injured as a result of the inferior work and their inaction.

Over the years, I have observed many boards with elephants around that have caused significant problems to a nonprofit organization. Some include:

• Selecting a board chair on the basis of personal appearance and personality instead of managerial and organizational competence. Be certain to vet the experience and potential of board candidates carefully. Beside working background (accounting, marketing, human resources, etc.), seek harder to define characteristics such as leadership, critical thinking ability, and position flexibility.

• Failure to delegate sufficient managerial responsibility to the CEO because the board has enjoyed micromanagement activities for decades. To make a change, make certain new board members recognize the problem, and they eventually are willing to take action to alleviate the problem. Example: One board refused to share its latest strategic plan with it newly appointed ED.

• Engaging a weak local CEO because the board wanted to avoid moving expenses. Be certain that local candidates are vetted as carefully as others and that costs of relocation are not the prime reason for their selection.

• Be certain that the board is not “rubber-stamping” proposals of a strong board member or CEO. Where major failures occur, be certain that the board or outside counsel determines the causes by conducting a postmortem analysis.

* Retaining an ED who is only focusing on the status quo and “minding the store.” The internal accounting systems, human resources and results are all more than adequate. But they are far below what can be done for clients if current and/or potential resources were creatively employed.

* A substantial portion of the board is not reasonably familiar with fund accounting or able to recognize financial “red flags.” Example: One CFO kept delaying the submission of an accounting accounts aging report for over a year. He was carrying as substantial number of noncollectable accounts as an asset. It required the nonprofit to hire high-priced forensic accountants to straighten out the mess. The CEO & CFO were fired, but the board that was also to be blamed for being “nice guys,” and it remained in place. If the organization has gone bankrupt, I would guess that the secretary-of-state would have summarily removed part or all of the board, a reputation loss for all. The board has an obligation to assure stakeholders that the CFO’s knowledge is up to date and to make certain the CEO takes action on obvious “red flags”.

* Inadequate vetting processes that take less board members’ time, especially in relation to family and friends of current board members. Example: Accepting a single reference check, such as comments from the candidate’s spouse. This actually happened, and the nominations committee made light of the action.

What can be done about the elephant in the boardroom?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to use, no pun intended! These types of circumstances seem to be in the DNA of volunteers who traditionally avoid any form of conflict, which will impinge upon their personal time or cause conflict with other board members. A cultural change is required to recruit board members who understand their responsibilities, or are willing to learn about them on the job. I have seen a wide variety of directors such, as ministers and social workers, successfully meet the challenges related to this type of the board learning. Most importantly, never underestimate the power of culture when major changes are being considered. As Peter Drucker noted, “Culture can eat strategy for breakfast.”

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask naive question which forces all to question assumptions, as in Why are we really taking this action? Have we really thought it through and considered other possibilities? http://bit.ly/1eNKgtw

Board  members need to have passion for the organization’s mission. However, they also need to have the prudence to help the nonprofit board perform with professionalism.