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
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.
Fund development should be a partnership between board members and CEOs/Development Officers, if the latter is available. However, I have noted that board members don’t take sufficient responsibility to make certain that CEOs and Development directors are well prepared when they approach potential business donors. This, in my view, is the first step in building a relationship fundraising approach.
Many involved with NFP fundraising or management have spent their entire careers in the nonprofit environment, resulting in a gap in communicating with those in the business environment. Some may even privately believe that those in business contribute less significantly to society. * While little can be done about the latter, here is what I think can be done to fill or reduce the unfortunate gap in cultures often found between for-profits and nonprofits, especially when it relates to fund development.
Homework: Development officers, executive directors and others meeting potential business donor have an obligation to know a great deal about the potential donor’s firm. The worst opening for those seeking a business donation or grant is, “Tell me about what XXX produces.” It appears the solicitor has no interest in the environment in which the firm operates. In the Internet age, there is no excuse for such lapses. A Google or LinkedIn search is also critical in preparing to understand each of the persons who might be involved in initial contacts.
With this information, a conversation can be appropriately opened with “How’s business been recently?” It can be followed by a discussion of the donor’s industry trends and challenges, establishing a level of comfort for the donor.
What can your nonprofit do for the donor? Sophisticated development officers have ways of asking this important question. Some examples: (1) In the case of a university, this may range from suggesting capable entry-level employees for the firm to answering personal questions such as guidance on seek a relative’s admission to a selective university. (2) In the case of a nonprofit whose mission to assist qualified persons to find locate new employment, its work can be related to the firm when the firm has significant layoffs.
A Business Posture: A development officer or executive director needs to convey they have grounding in the business world and its basics, especially to be able to quickly show that their nonprofit is well managed. A recent study of Silicon Valley donors and nonprofit leaders cited an empathy gap between the two. “Generally speaking, nonprofit leaders and new philanthropists don’t move in the same social circles. For the latter, community is increasingly defined not by physical place but by socioeconomic class: a particular psychographic and a set of shared experiences that only wealth can buy.” *
The objective is to develop a continuing conversation with the donor related to his/h business interests and outlook. This offers a connection to show that the nonprofit fulfills a human service, professional or social need. These may include:
• Explaining the scope of the “executive director” title directly or indirectly if the operating CEO does have the well-known title “president/CEO.” The ED title puzzles many in the business environment, since the top operational person in a business firm most often is the “president/CEO.” ** • Showing the nonprofit has a viable mission that is being carefully shepherded and the organization doesn’t engage in mission creep. • Clarifying that an achievable business plan is available. • Having well managed internal structure that can achieve impacts for clients. Like the Zuckerberg gift to Newark schools, many business people are aware that process goals can be achieved without having client impacts.
Unfortunately nonprofit organizations have a reputation among many members of the business community as being less effective and efficient. These people may not have encountered many local nonprofit leaders, as I have, with significant management savvy. Consequently, nonprofit representatives, need to be sure they begin their relationships with donors by showing interest in their business, industry, or firm. This then offers the opportunity to demonstrate that the nonprofit’s mission is managerially strong and looks to impacts, not processes, as measures of success.
A Nonprofit Board Must Focus On Its Organization’s Impacts
By: Eugene Fram
“One of the key functions of a (nonprofit) board of directors is to oversee (not micromanage) the CEO, ensuring that (stakeholders) are getting the most from their investments.” * State and Federal compliance regulations have been developed to make certain that boards have an obligation to represent stakeholders. These include the community, donors, foundations and clients, but not the staff as some nonprofit boards have come to believe. The failure of nonprofit boards, as reported frequently by local national blog sites, show something is wrong. Following are some inherent problems that derail boards from focusing on impacts.
The Enron Debacle, 20 years Ago—2021 Lessons for Nonprofit Boards?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
In 2001 Enron Energy collapsed due to financial manipulations and a moribund board. It was the seventh-largest company in the United States. Andrew Fastow, the former CFO and architect of the manipulations served more than five years in prison for securities fraud. He offered the following comments to business board members that, in my opinion, are currently relevant to nonprofit boards. (http://bit.ly/1JFGQ6T) Quotations from the Fastow article are italicized.
• One explanation of his downfall was he didn’t stop to ask whether the decisions he was making were ethical (moral).
Nonprofits directors and managers can find themselves in similar situations. One obvious parallel is when a conflict of interest occurs. In smaller and medium sized communities, it is wise to seek competitive bids, especially when the purchase may be awarded to a current or former board member or volunteer.
Board members and managers themselves can be at personal financial peril, via the Intermediate Sanctions Act, if they wittingly or unwittingly provide an excess salary benefit to an employee or an excess benefit to a volunteer or donor. Examples: The board allows a substantial above market salary to offer to the CEO. Also the board allows a parcel of property to be sold to a volunteer or donor at below market values. See: https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/intermediate-sanctions
One subtle area of decision-making morality centers on whether a board’s decision is immoral by commission or omission. Examples: In its normal course of client duties, the board allows managers to travel by first class air travel. Obviously, resources that are needed by clients are being wasted and morally indefensible. On the other hand the moral issue can come in to play, if the nonprofit is husbanding resources well beyond what is needed for an emergency reserve. The organization, in a sense, is not being all it can be in terms of client services or in seeking additional resources. Overly conservative financial planning, not unusual in nonprofit environments, can result in this latter subtle omission “moral” dilemma. Overtly, universities with billions of dollars on their balance sheets have been highlighted as having the issue, but I have occasionally noted smaller nonprofits in the same category.
• He (Fastow) said he ultimately rationalized that he was following the rules, even if he was operating in the grey zones (area).
There can be grey zones for nonprofits. Example: IRS rules require that the nonprofit board be involved in the development of the annual Form 990 report. But what does this involvement mean—a brisk overview when the report is finished, a serious discussion of the answers to the questions related to corporate governance, a record in the board minutes covering questions raised and changes suggested, etc.? A nonprofit boards needs to make a determination on which course is appropriate.
Boards implementing government-sponsored contracts can get into grey areas. Example: Some contracts require the nonprofits to follow government guidelines for travel expenses. I wonder how many nonprofit audit committees are aware of their responsibilities to make certain these guidelines are followed?
According to Fastow, a for-profit director can ask the wrong question—“Is this allowed?” A nonprofit director can make the same mistake. Instead, in my opinion, the better question for a nonprofit should be “Will this decision help the organization to prosper long after my director’s term limit?”
As Fastow did, human service boards can invite trouble if they falsely rationalize an action as being taken for client welfare, and then conclude they are following the rules.
• Mr. Fastow said one way to start changing an entrenched culture is to have either a director on the board, or a hired adviser to the board, whose role is to question and challenge decisions.
Nonprofit directors are often recruited from friends, family members and business colleagues, etc. This process creates an entrenched board.
When elected to the board, a process begins to acculturate the new person to the status quo of the board, instead making best use of the person’s talents. Example: An accountant with financial planning experience will be asked to work with the CFO on routine accounting issues, far below her/h professional level. One answer is to accept Fastow’s suggestion and to appoint a modified lead director or adviser to a nonprofit board. (For details: see: http://bit.ly/13Dsd3v)
An old Chinese proverb states, “A wise man learns by his own experiences, the wiser man learns from the experiences of others. Nonprofit can learn a something from Andrew Fastow’s post conviction recollections to hopefully help avoid significant debacles.
Enlarging the Nonprofit Recruitment Matrix: The art of selecting new board member
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
There’s never enough to say about the selection of nonprofit board members. Following my last post on board behaviors and cultures I ran across a guide fo desirable skills/abilities for “for-profit” directors. From this list, I suggest the following additions to the recruitment matrices of 21st century nonprofit board candidates to improve board productivity. * Those included will have:
• Executive and Non-Executive Experiences: These include planners with broad perspectives needed to have visionary outlooks, a well as persons with unusually strong dedication to the organization’s mission. It may include a senior executive from a business organization and a person who has had extensive client level experience. Examples for an association for the blind could be the human resources VP for a Fortune 500 corporation and/or a visually impaired professor at a local university.
• Industry Experience or Knowledge: An active or retired executive who has or is working in the same or allied field. However, those who can be competitive with the nonprofit for fund development could then present a significant conflict of interest.
• Leadership: Several directors should be selected on the bases of their leadership skills/abilities in business or other nonprofit organizations. Having too many with these qualifications may lead to internal board conflict, especially if they have strong personalities.
• Governance: Every board member should have a detailed understanding of the role of governance, their overview, financial/due diligence responsibilities and the potential personal liabilities if they fail to exercise due care. In practice, nonprofits draw from such a wide range of board backgrounds, one can only expect about one-quarter of most boards to have the requisite knowledge. But there are many nonprofit boards that I have encountered that even lack one person with the optimal board/management governance knowledge. Some become so involved with mission activities that they do what the leadership tells them when governance issues are raised. Example: One nonprofit the author encountered, with responsibilities for millions of dollars of assets, operated for 17 years without D&O insurance coverage because the board leadership considered it too costly.
• Strategic Thinking & Other Desirable Behavioral Competencies: Not every board member can be capable of or interested in strategic thinking. Their job experiences and educations require them to excel in operations, not envisioning the future. Consequently, every board needs several persons who have visionary experiences and high Emotional Quotients (EQs.) Those with high EQs can be good team players because they are able to empathize with the emotion of others in the group. Finding board candidates with these abilities takes detailed interpersonal vetting because they do not appear on a resume.
• Subject Matter Expertise: Nonprofit Boards have had decades of experience in selecting board candidates by professional affiliations like businessperson, marketing expert, accountant, etc.
• Other Factors Relevant to the Particular Nonprofit: Examples: A nonprofit dedicated to improve the lives of children needs to seek a child psychology candidate. One focusing on seniors should seek a geriatric specialist.
The “Compliant” Nonprofit Board—A CEO Takes Charge Like a Founder!
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
According to BoardSource, “ ‘Founderitis’ and ‘founder’s syndrome’ are terms often used to describe a founder’s resistance to change. When founderitis surfaces, the source of the dilemma often is a founder’s misunderstanding of his or her role in an evolving organization.” * I would like to suggest that a nonprofit CEO also might suffer from the “founderitis illness,” sometimes with the board only being mildly or completely unaware of it. (more…)
How A Nonprofit Board Member Can Initiate Positive Change
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
A nonprofit board member comes up with an idea that he thinks will do wonders for the organization. He is convinced that establishing a for-profit subsidiary will not only be compatible with the group’s mission but may even bring in new sources of revenue. It’s his ball–now what’s the best route to run with it? All too often in the nonprofit environment, initiating change can be as daunting as trying to get consensus in the US Congress! There are, however, certain interpersonal levers, which, if pushed, can accelerate the process–although one hopes that not all the levers will be needed in any specific situation.
Good News for Nonprofit Board Members & CEOs—Examples From The Behvorial Sciences
By Eugene Fram Fee Digital Image
Behavioral economics, finance and marketing apparently are making significant strides in helping nonprofits to understand how to maximize their development efforts. Following are three studies that appear to have significant nonprofit interest.
Is there truth in the statement that ALL nonprofits are actually businesses, and they need to be run like businesses?
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
In my opinion, too many board and staff members in the nonprofit environment:
Do not realize that a nonprofit can focus even more effectively on “caring” missions, visions and values while operating under a business model. Many functions of a business and are the same for both types of organizations — financial operations, human resources, marketing, board governance, etc.
Clearly the purpose of a nonprofit board is to serve the constituency that establishes it—be it community, industry, governmental unit and the like. That said, the “how” to best deliver that service is often not so clear. An executive committee, for example, can overstep its authority by assuming powers beyond its scope of responsibility. I encountered this in one executive committee when the group developed a strategic plan in an interim period where there was no permanent ED. The board then refused to share it with the incoming executive. In another instance, an executive committee took it upon itself to appoint members of the audit committee—including outsiders who were unknown to the majority on the board.
The fuzziness of boundaries and lack of defined authority call for an active nonprofit system of checks and balances. For a variety of reasons this is difficult for nonprofits to achieve:
A typical nonprofit board member is often recruited from a pool of friends, relatives and colleagues, and will serve, on a median average, for four to six years. This makes it difficult to achieve rigorous debate at meetings (why risk conflicts with board colleagues?). Directors also are not as eager to thoughtfully plan for change beyond the limits of their terms. Besides discussing day-to-day issues, the board needs to make sure that immediate gains do not hamper long-term sustainability.
The culture of micromanagement is frequently a remnant from the early startup years when board members may have performed operational duties. In some boards it becomes embedded in the culture and continues to pervade the governmental environment, allowing the board and executive committee to involve themselves in areas that should be delegated to management.
The executive team is a broad partnership of peers –board members, those appointed to the executive committee and the CEO. The executive committee is legally responsible to act for the board between meetings–the board must ratify its decisions. But unchecked, the executive committee can assume dictatorial powers whose conclusions must be rubber-stamped by the board.
Mitigating Oversight Barriers: There is often little individual board members can do to change the course when the DNA has become embedded in the organization. The tradition of micromanagement, for example, is hard to reverse, especially when the culture is continually supported by a succession of like-minded board chairs and CEOs. No single board member can move these barriers given the brevity of the board terms. But there are a few initiatives that three or four directors, working in tandem, can take to move the organization into a high-performance category.
Meetings: At the top of every meeting agenda there needs to be listed at least one policy or strategy topic. When the board discussion begins to wander, the chair should remind the group that they are encroaching on an area that is management’s responsibility. One board I observed wasted an hour’s time because the chair had failed to intercept the conversation in this manner. Another board agreed to change its timing of a major development event, then spent valuable meeting time suggesting formats for the new event—clearly a management responsibility to develop.
“New Age” Board Members: While millennial directors may be causing consternation in some legacy-bound nonprofit and business organizations, certain changes in nonprofits are noteworthy. Those board members in the 40- and- under age bracket need some targeted nurturing. I encountered a new young person who energized the board with her eagerness to try to innovative development approaches. She was subsequently appointed to the executive committee, deepening her view of the organization and primed her for board chair leadership.
Board members who understand the robust responsibilities of a 21st century board need to accept responsibilities for mentoring these new age board people, despite their addictions to electronic devices.
Experienced Board Members: Board members who have served on other high-performance boards have the advantage of being familiar with modern governance processes and are comfortable in supporting change. They are needed to help boards, executive committees and CEOs to move beyond the comfortable bounds of the past. They will be difficult to recruit, but they are required ingredients for successful boards.
NEW Projects: Boards and the CEO must be bold and try new approaches to meet client needs. For example instead of going through a complete planning process for a new program the board must ask management to complete a series of small experiments to test the program. When a series of results are positive, the nonprofit can work on a plan to implement the program.
Conclusion: Individual board members working alone will probably become frustrated in trying to contend with the three overview barriers discussed. But working with three or four colleagues, over time, on a tandem basis, they can make inroads on the barriers. Meetings can become more focused on policies/strategies, new age board members can become more quickly productive, experienced board members can become role models and new programs and other projects can be more quickly imitated via the use of small scale experiments.