Once Again! What Are the Best Risk Levels for Your Nonprofit’s Investments in a COVID 19 environment and after it?
By Eugene Fram
Some nonprofits have significant investment accounts. The following are some guidelines to help develop investment policies during and after COVID 19. These funds may have been accrued through annual surpluses/donations or have been legally mandated to cover future expenditures through a reserve account.
How does your committee define risk, and how much are you willing to take? * Most nonprofit by-laws require a nonprofit to conservatively manage and invest its funds. This give the investment committee a wide range of policies to employ.
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.
Nonprofits:”What Role Should Board Members Play in Overviewing Management /Staff Talent?”
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
Nonprofit boards rarely develop an in-depth strategy for assessing its organization’s human capital. Some will keep informal tabs on the CEO’s direct reports to prepare for the possibility of his/her sudden departure or is incapacitated. Others –smaller organizations with fewer than 20 employees—need only a basic plan for such an occurrence.
Need for Strategy: In my view, maintaining a viable talent strategy to assess staff and management personnel is a board responsibility, albeit one that is often ignored. The latter stems from the constant turnover of nonprofit members whose median term of service is 4-6 years—hardly a lifetime commitment. Like for-profit board members whose focus is on quarterly earning results, their nonprofit counterparts are likely more interested in resolving current problems than in building sufficient bench strength for the organization’s long-term sustainability.
An analysis of the current pandemic environment should be a clarion call for nonprofit board members. It can be summarized in a couple of sentences:
Great crises tend to bring profound social changes, …. . We seem to be at another point when society will make adjustments for good or ill. *
As nonprofit board members or managers, are you ready to identify and confront these adjustments as they already have developed or will challenge your nonprofit within the next 10 years? Hopefully, a large portion of nonprofit boards will accept the challenge and begin strategic planning for the post Covid 19 period now!
Board Challenges – Post Covid-19
As I view the situation, the pandemic has already brought about changes in four areas that can impact the long-term sustainability of a nonprofit. There are others that can be added to my four, for example Fund Development—but this topic has been well covered elsewhere.
Advocacy for Post Covid 19 needs to be more than an occasional Tweet or two. Some nonprofits will continue to advocate for issues that relate to its mission, vision and values. But they may have to take substantial stands on broader topics.
With 5G communications expanding the connections in the world, the post Covid-19 period will present opportunities for nonprofits to advocate, where appropriate, on social topics that may not be strictly germane to their mission—e.g., health care, social justice and “Me Too” issues.
At the least, each nonprofit should have reviewed policies that enable management and boards to respond quickly to pandemic generated movements that are not currently on the horizon.
Board members have an obligation to make certain critical information is secure. It requires more specific policies than the requirement to have an insurance policy in the event a hacker steals a membership list.
Developing these policies requires some basic IT knowledge. If some board members need a “review” of these basics, the board should offer an educational opportunity to upgrade their knowledge.
Generation Z (Gen Z)
Gen Z, born between 1995 and 2015 (2020 in some reports) has already started to impact the workforce. The Gen Z population is currently 86 million and is expected to grow to 88 million in the next 20 years due to migration. **
In comparison with the millennial cohort, Gen Z:
Wants more autonomy and independence. A Gen Z staff will readily accept positions that allow them to work from home, especially if it yields a healthy work-life balance. This will cause nonprofit boards to review policies related to office space requirements while evaluating “at home” productivity. Some staff may choose to be located elsewhere in the United States or internationally.
Are less team-oriented than millennials. Being more competitive than the previous generation, financial compensation is more important. They have been raised in some difficult economic times, and their Covid-19 experiences will no doubt heighten their motivations to seek higher financial compensation. To engage the best and the brightest of the Gen Z cohort at nonprofit salary scales, organizations will have one other major attraction. Nonprofits are mission (or purpose) driven, “Showing the positive impact their work will have on society can be (an attraction) for Gen Z when it comes to choosing a job.” ***
Cultural or Technical Vulnerabilities
These are the challenges that may be in an infant stage but can have significant impact on the organizations polices. The March of Dimes movement changed its focus to healthy moms and strong babies after the development of a polio vaccine. As psychiatric drugs improved, the boards and managements of a number of face-to-face counseling nonprofits declined or they broadened their missions. After simmering for years, the “Me Too” movement has caused colleges and universities to be modify their policies, sometimes in a rapid manner.
Many of these vulnerabilities can emerge quickly and affect a nonprofit’s sustainability. CEOs should lead with a visionary manner and boards need members who can think broadly to respond with financial or intellectual support. This process has been described by a Harvard Law publication as future-proofing.**** “This involves thinking though the impact of today’s changes on future outcomes andfuture needs.” The authors admit asking management to take on this planning effort within unprecedented uncertainty may hinder its ability to react short term. But they feel it is worth the risk to provide the challenge to management’s long-term thinking.
The Bridgespan Group, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, completed an exciting research study. The results identified “six elements common to nonprofits with a high capacity to innovate” * Following are some suggestion how to implement these elements.
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 dictatehow 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.
Can Small Experiments Test Nonprofit Strategic Validity?
By: Eugene Fram Free digital image
When given a series of potential mission changes, modifications or opportunities, most nonprofit boards take the following steps: (1) Discuss alternatives (2) Develop working plans, board/staff presentations and funding proposals (3) All three usually are packaged into a three or five year strategic plan for implementation. Typically the process can take about six months to “get all stakeholders on board.” When something new is suggested, the conservative board and nonprofit management immediately respond, “Great idea, let’s consider it in the new strategic plan.” Results: It can take three to five years to implement the idea, assuming the plan actually gets off the shelf, not an unusual occurrence for nonprofit organizations!
Another alternative being implemented by some nonprofit is to use a rapid experimentation approach called Lean. “First developed for use in the for-profit world,(especially startup ventures) … the method focuses on new ideas for products/services through iterative experiments. Lean practitioners build simple prototypes ‘called minimum viable products/services (MVPs),’ …move quickly to get feedback on these items from constituents/stakeholders.” * As long as they have some positive iterations they continue to full product development.
Example: The small software division of a larger firm suggested a program that it felt certain would have great marketability because of it perceived uniqueness.
As an initial part of a Lean process, the software developers were required to present it personally to a small group of potential customers. As a result of the interviews, both marketing and development executives dropped it.
How Can Nonprofit Boards Utilize Lean Experimentation?
These lean experiments can be conducted at minimum costs and with small samples that initially may not be statistically significant. (For example, in the software case cited above, there were only four customers in the sample, but they were significant ones.)
Not being able to afford the time and money to develop excellent metrics, nonprofit boards, especially in assessing ambiguous and qualitative impacts, need to initially glean what they can from the use of imperfect metrics. (http://bit.ly/OvF4ri). The metrics can be anecdotal, subjective, interpretive or qualitative. For most nonprofits, it is a great leap forward from doing nothing or taking years to implement action. Also losing time invested in offering a client centered opportunity? The most critical requirement is that the directors and management agree that the process is reasonable and that outcomes from each experimental iteration constitute fair and trustworthy information.
A Current Example
There seems to be a growing body of knowledge of how to apply the art of lean in the nonprofit environment. * The use of lean to assess the proper venues to select social media by which to communicate with donors and other stakeholders is an example. All agree that the use of various social media venues is difficult to assess for both for-profits and nonprofits.
Here, as an example, is what might be done to obtain some directions on using social venues to reach millennials. Charitable nonprofits are seeking ways to communicate with this group as potential volunteers and future donors. Instead of a board waiting to take action on a broad social media strategy before taking some action on social media, it might start with some small-scale, low cost experiments. The information it obtains from one or two MPVs would be useful in backing into a comprehensive social media strategy when a new strategic plan is needed. But an early MPV also might provide some information for immediate action.
Summary: Like any management process lean is not a panacea for either the business or nonprofit sectors. It has its advantages and disadvantages and will not replace more rigorous process, when required–longitudinal studies and strategic planning. However, its experimental design feature can help drive the nonprofit decision process to be more effective and efficient. That alone can help to recruit more able directors, who because of time-compressed lifestyles, now are impatient with the traditional pace of nonprofit decision-making.
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.”
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…)