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How Can Nonprofit Boards Overcome the Inertia of Certain Directors?

 

 

How Can Nonprofit Boards Overcome the Inertia of Certain Directors?

BY: Eugene Fram        Free Digital Image

Making major changes in mission, board structure, management or other significant matters is difficult. The typical nonprofit board will be divided into several groups on the issue: 1) directors who want change, 2) directors opposed to change, some strongly opposed and 3) what I call “process directors,” persons uncomfortable with major decisions who always want more data or information before voting.

The first and third groups (directors who want change and process directors) will be very willing to appoint a committee to review the alternatives, but it’s up to the board chair to satisfy process directors who create obstacles.

Process directors like to sit back and examine issues, often, in my opinion, sincerely feeling that their questions allow them to be on the cusp of showing some insights that others have failed to notice. They always ask, “Have we consulted everybody?” Or say, “Let’s make sure we have considered everything.” Often they are directors who call for postponement of the vote, even after a lengthy discussion.

Process directors are well-intentioned, sincere individuals. However, the board has to be careful that these directors don’t allow the board to continually examine one angle after another until they lose sight of the board’s main job. They can keep action in limbo indefinitely! It is up to the board chair to makes certain that this does not happen. But board chairs want to develop an inclusive board where all who want to voice their views can be heard.

A certain level of board process is necessary to operate efficiently. But when it gets out of hand, it can have a serious negative effect. Boards often lose some of their best volunteers, who get frustrated and quietly resign. Their usual reason for resigning is “the pressure of job obligations.” To me, that’s a covert message that the board is getting mired in minutiae, usually initiated by process directors.

One friend recently resigned from a board, using the “job obligations” excuse. The real reason was that the executive director, a process oriented person, used board-meeting time inappropriately, including asking the full board to review detailed public relations Powerpoint presentations.

In another situation, I watched a board make a strategic decision involving the combining of two programs. Even after a thorough discussion of the decision, the board insisted on discussing the tactical decisions needed, all of which were the responsibility of management. The board was unable or unwilling to shed an imbedded process culture that the status quo nonprofit had used for over 50 years.

Can A Nonprofit Find Strategic Ways To Grow in Unsettled Times?

 

Can A Nonprofit Find Strategic Ways To Grow in Unsettled Times?

By: Eugene Fram                                Free Digital Image

Nonprofits have always had to struggle to meet their client needs, even when economic conditions and social turmoil were much less constraining than today  and they have dim prospects for the immediate future.   How can mid-level nonprofits uncover growth opportunities in the present environment?

Plan Strategically: Any nonprofit board needs a core of directors and managers who are capable of identifying potential new strategic directions. The CEO must be highly conversant with changes in the mission field. He/s then needs a core of board members to assist in realistically reviewing his/h long-term insights for growth, as well as board insights developed from generative discussions. The CEO, supported by several board members, can then be the keystone for board discussions about implementing change. Should the CEO not have the requisite forward-looking knowledge, the only alternative is to try to replace the CEO, a difficult change even under the best of circumstances.

Capacity Investment: As expected, nonprofits invest their assets in maintaining and improving programs. It seems that client needs will always be there to operate and expand existing programs. But success in nonprofits and elsewhere also involves beginning to solve tomorrow’s problem today. Example: The challenges for serving the aging cohort of baby boomers is clearly showing demographic impact. Those in the field or allied fields serving this cohort need to be concerned with finding new modalities to assist the baby boomers in an efficient, effective and humane manner. Where funding is a barrier to participate in such an effort, foundations and governmental agencies need to be aggressively tapped to fund with small-scale projects, if the foundation can partner with the nonprofit.  (See: https://www.snpo.org/publications/sendpdf.php?id=2024)

Impact & Evaluation: Midsized nonprofits should have the capacity to conduct a few small-scale studies every  few years, if growth and development are cultural values for the organizations. Resources might come from within the nonprofit and/or from outside sources. Once a small-scale study provides evidence of impact; the nonprofit can find outside interest for more small-scale improvement, additional evaluation and possibly some outside support.

Obviously a small new project  won’t be able to have an extensive evaluation component. However, if imperfect metrics are used in the process, the impact findings can be useful in seeking an interest from other sources. (These are metrics that are anecdotal, subjective, interpretive or qualitative. For more details see:http://bit.ly/OvF4ri)

Importance Of the Board & Management: Growth opportunities will be initiated in nonprofits, only if the board constantly asks for them, especially in the current environment.  The board, overtly or indirectly, has to ask management about innovations that are taking place or can take place within the organization. Annual questions to management such as “ What do you want to do innovatively or creatively this coming year?” are mandated. When it appears an innovation can be scaled a little or an innovative person has potential to be creative, the nonprofit board has to support this learning culture for testing.

Do Nonprofit Directors Face Cyber Security Risk?

Do Nonprofit Directors Face Cyber Security Risk?

By: Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

Solarwinds and Target and others may seem far afield from the concerns of nonprofit directors, except for the giants in the area, like AARP. However, think about this hypothetical scenario.

A group of high school students hacked into the computer system of a local nonprofit offering mental health services and gain access to records of clients, perhaps even placing some of the records of other teenagers on the internet.

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The “Compliant” Nonprofit Board—A CEO Takes Charge Like a Founder!

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

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.

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Good News for Nonprofit Board Members & CEOs—Examples From The Behvorial Sciences

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.

(http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/bx2015/rounding-up-the-latest-insights-from-behavioural-exchange-2016/(more…)

Is there truth in the statement that ALL nonprofits are actually businesses, and they need to be run like businesses?

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.

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Reversing Traditional Nonprofit Board Barriers

Reversing Traditional Nonprofit Board Barriers

By: Eugene Fram          Free Digital Photo

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.

More Than Passion Needed in Prospective Nonprofit Directors

 

More Than Passion Needed in Prospective Nonprofit Directors

By: Eugene Fram         Free Digital Image

What nonprofit selection committee would reject a candidate who demonstrates passion for the organization’s mission?   I can attest to the fact that in many recruitment processes, an interviewee who shows strong empathy for the cause is a “shoe-in” for a board position regardless of any obvious weakness in other skill areas. By contrast, one who appears less than passionate about the organization’s mission can be overlooked or even eliminated from the list. (more…)

How Do Nonprofit Boards Keep Stakeholders Engaged?

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How Do Nonprofit Boards Keep Stakeholders Engaged?

By: Eugene Fram                       Free Digital Photo

First, exactly who are the “stakeholders” in the nonprofit environment? Most board members would readily define the term as clients, staff, donors and board members. But what about other participants such as external auditors and significant vendors? Surely a nonprofit that depends on a vendor to supply groceries can be hobbled if the food is not delivered properly. And, last but not least, the backbone of the organization — the volunteers! Many cogs in the wheel make the nonprofit world go around and need consistent and careful attention. Following are some guidelines for engaging all types of stakeholders:

  • Don’t marginalize, dismiss, or ignore a stakeholder: Unfortunately, for example, termed-out board members * are often dismissed in more than one sense of the word. After serving the typical tenure of four to six years, the retired board members may only receive boilerplate materials or fund solicitations. Any residual interest or enthusiasm for the nonprofit is not encouraged unless the retiree initiates a desire to remain connected. The assumption is that the past board members are content with the disconnect.

For those board members who have been active participants during their term, this tactic may actually be counterproductive from many points of view—talent, expertise and development possibilities. I have observed several cases in which this unintended marginalization has resulted in losing substantial financial support and needed talent. In each case,  the retirees have declined to help, using the excuse that they have been too far away from the activities of the organization. Boards must be creative in finding ways of reigniting the former directors’ commitment to the organization’s mission. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways—in an advisory capacity, forming “alumni” groups and/or by including them in social events and other occasions.

  • Recognize who may be a true partner: Such a partner can range from a vendor that has supplied the organization or a volunteer whose interests have moved to another nonprofit to a legacy board member who has developed new insights.  “It is generally easier to build consensus, request help and engender trust when those who support you are well-informed, candidly and truthfully.” **
  • Stakeholders must know about the nonprofit’s challenges and needs: Even the best-managed nonprofits have their ups and downs. During the latter periods, educating stakeholders about the issues can help to dissuade some to avoid posting job cuts and other actions.
  • Selfperpetuating boards can became insular and lose touch with other stakeholders: “These boards tend to retreat into a silo-or bunker-mentality that only serves to intensify bad habits and practices, as well as preclude consideration of other perspectives.” ** At difficult times, the board can tend to lose trust in the ED even when the problem is beyond the EDs control. If the board is at fault, it may look for a scapegoat on which to hang the root cause of the problem, often people in senior management.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eugene-fram/how-does-your-nonprofit-r_b_5393736.html

** https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-sweet-briar-reminded-us-alumni-engagement-mark-w-jones