The Devil’s Advocate on a Nonprofit Board: Asset or Liability?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
An unwritten rule for nonprofit board membership is that it is best to “go along to get along.” But sometimes a nonprofit director’s “no” vote to an action that has had inadequate discussion can allow him/h to avoid tax penalties that have been levied on other board members for lack of due care.
Stanford University research results indicate that groups with a lone minority dissenter outperform other groups where all members agree. In addition, these groups…”are more successful than (groups) in which all members disagree and fall prey to escalated emotional, difficult-to resolve (group) brawls “ *
The key to success, according to these data, is to,” … have a devil’s advocate (DA) on the nonprofit board. … This is a person or a small board minority that “has the sensitivity to see the differences, perceives them as conflict, and then communicates about the differences in non-confrontational ways.” **
How Nonprofit Boards Can Support Management & Staff and Refrain From Micromanaging!
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
The dilemma is common to nonprofit organizations. As start-ups, everyone aspires to do everything. Passion for the mission and determination to “get it right” imbue board members with the desire to do it all. But once the organization starts to mature, board roles shift to focus more broadly on policy and strategy issues. With the advent of qualified personnel to handle operations, there are many overview activities, sans micromanaging, available to board members. Following are some ways that boards can assist and demonstrate support for operations, CEOs and staffs without interfering.
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.
The Succession Dilemma: Why Do Nonprofit Boards Fail to Plan Ahead?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
There are many types of crises common to an organization. But one event seems to trigger a large proportion of the ensuing trauma. It frequently happens when a CEO or another top manager retires, resigns or leaves for other reasons. The flow of leadership is about to be disrupted and there is no viable replacement for the departing executive.
This transitional panic happens in both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) reported that 50 % of public company directors concede that CEO succession planning needs to be improved. * In the nonprofit environment, only 27% actually have succession plans to replace a suddenly departing executive. ** This demonstrates the low priority nonprofits place on over-viewing talent succession to prepare for unexpected vacancies.
Here are some insights (in italics) from the NACD report that are applicable to nonprofit succession planning, be it management talent overview or implementing the replacement process.
The Nonprofit Dream Team: a Board/CEO Partnership that Works!
By: Eugene H. Fram Free Digital Image
Rebalancing and maintaining important relationships in a nonprofit organization can be important to its success. Do various players fully understand and accept their specific roles? Is there mutual trust between players? Are communications open and civil?
I encountered an association CEO who complained that his board wants to judge him without establishing mutually agreeable goals, outcomes or impacts. He felt what is needed is a partnership arrangement where the board does not judge the CEO and organization based on political or personal biases but overviews performance in terms of mutually accepted achievements. This, he contended, forms a substantial partnership between board and CEO and staff. If the board thinks it can judge management without these measures he stated, it generates a personal political type of evaluation unrelated to performance. As an example he pointed to an unfortunately common nonprofit situation where a CEO is given an excellent review and fired six months later because there has been a change in the internal board dynamics.
“Ideally, change takes place only when is “a critical mass of board and staff want … it. A significant … portion of leadership must realize that the status quo won’t do” * Based on my experiences, this ideal is rarely achieved because:
The CEO needs to support the changes being suggested and/or mandated by a majority of the board. But, if not fully invested in the change, he/s can accede to board wishes for action but move slowly in their implementations. The usual excuse for slow movement is budget constraint.
Onboarding the New Nonprofit CEO: Who’s In Charge?
By Eugene Fram Free Digital image
When the chair of the search committee announces that a new CEO has been selected, there is visible relief in the boardroom. After the stress of a waning—or even absent executive at the helm, directors tend to relax, engaging in a series of social events that provide a pleasant if superficial acquaintance with the new executive.
What actually lies ahead is much more serious and vital to the future of the organization. Call it orientation, acculturation or transitioning; it is the board’s responsibility to see that the CEO is grounded in every aspect of the organization. And that requires a plan that is carefully structured and may take a year to complete. Major responsibility for the plan and its implementation rests with the board chair and one or more senior board members. While there are many formats to achieve this goal, the best, in my opinion, is what has been described as a customized format.
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.
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.
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.