Most nonprofit boards are being faced with huge pressures—reduced financial support, challenges in integrating new technologies, recovering from Covid impacts and difficulties in hiring qualified personnel who will consider “nonprofit” wages. To survive long term, board members need to be alert to potential opportunities. These may be far from the comfort zones of current board members, CEOs and staff.
It’s no secret that some nonprofit board members cruise through their term of board service with minimal involvement. McKinsey Company, a well-known consulting firm, has suggested five steps that can be used to counteract this passivity in for-profit boards. * With a few tweaks, McKinsey suggestions (in bold) are relevant to the nonprofit board environment where director engagement is often a challenge.
Once Again: How to Keep Nonprofit Board Members Informed.
By: Eugene Fram. Free Digital Image
With high performing nonprofit organizations, board members will rarely be invited by the CEO to participate in operational decisions. As a result, management will always have more information than board members. Yet the board still needs to know that is happening in operations to be able to perform their overview process. The name of the game is for the CEO to communicate the important information and to keep board members informed of significant developments. Still, there’s no need to clutter regular board meetings by reporting endless details about operations.
Do Your Board Members View Their Board Work As Being Meaningful?
By Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
For several decades, I have suggested that nonprofit Board Chairs and CEOs have a responsibility to be sure that each board member perceives his/h continuing relationship as being meaningful. Following are some organizational guidelines that can assist Board Chairs and CEOs in this effort.*
Developing or hiring strong executive leadership: Obviously when hiring externally it is necessary to engage a person with a managerial background. But many nonprofit CEOs can be appointed after years of being an individual contributor or leading a small department. These experiences condition them to do too much themselves, rather than to assume a strong management posture. This involves focusing more on strategy, on talent development, interacting more with the board/community and creating a long-term vision.
A strong CEO, if appointed internally, should understand the role changes that take place once appointed. He/s must delegate activities that was once performed was once performed within a comfort zone and seek new challenges. Examples: The new CEO needs to be enthusiastic about becoming a fundraiser. She/h must become well acquainted with peer CEOs regionally and nationally to stay abreast of the state-of-art in both management and mission areas. He/s needs to become acquainted with cohorts in the business and public management communities. Over time, those involved with the nonprofit internally and externally must perceive the organization is lead by a capable executive.
Creating impact: In the 21st century, funders, board members and other nonprofit leaders are attracted to organizations that create impacts as opposed to outcomes. A nonprofit can have great program outcomes with little long-term impacts on clients. Impact is often hard to measure, but it can be done, only if started with imperfect measures that are improved over time. ** For example, one local human services organization, with which I am acquainted, operates groups of apartments offering social services that allow elderly clients to live independently for years on their own, rather than in an assisted living facility. The impact in this instance is well-defined and an impetus to attracting board members and donors that find the impact meaningful.
Building relationships externally and internally: Board candidates who have broad contact networks are sought by search committees to enhance community or industry relationships or to strengthen the organization’s fund development efforts. Little effort is directed to fostering closer relationships among current board members who often don’t get to know each other personally because of crowded board and committee agendas. Example: I consulted with one board where some board members complained that they might not recognize their board peers when they meet them in outside social situations.
To solve the problem, both the Board Chair & CEO must acknowledge that it exists—in the above example; it took an extensive personal interview board survey to highlight the problem. Then creative tactics like the following can be employed.
One CEO has a weekly one-hour conference call with the board chair to discuss current issues. Other board members are invited to join the calls if they wish. This is an excellent way for new board members to quickly become attuned to the nonprofit.
Another CEO, each Sunday, sends a one-page e-mail summary of major events to board members. He reports that his high school English teacher would never approve of his grammar or format, but he knows emails are reviewed. They are reflected in the level of discussions at meetings
Low-key self-funded social events for board members and significant others can help board members to become better acquainted and work together.
Another classical approach is to allow 10 minutes each meeting to allow board members to briefly report changes in their personal or professional lives.
Assuming an organization is successful in developing a cohesive board, what can be done to retain these efforts once they have termed-out? The answer is to ask them to join the organization’s “Alumni Association.” The process can be found here: (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ltl.20305)
Organizational stability: Unstable nonprofits have common telltale signs—rapid employees or management turnover, excessive bank borrowing, reserve depletion, late report filings, etc. It’s difficult to provide meaningful board experiences under these conditions. However it is not unusual to find board members who will accept responsibility when the nonprofit is unstable, if they are dedicated to its mission. Some may even “enjoy” the turnaround challenge.
While no nonprofit will be perfect, those with the best opportunity to provide meaningful board experiences will have a well formulated strategic plan that allows it to be stable operationally and financially.
How Can A Chief Operating Officer (COO) Advance Your Nonprofit Organization?
By: Eugene Fram Free Digital Image
In my decades of involvement with nonprofit boards, I have encountered several instances in which the CEO has failed to engage the services of a COO–when this addition to the staff was clearly needed. In each case and for whatever reasons, this reluctance to act left the nonprofit organizationally starved.
This means that the CEO continues to handle responsibilities that should have been delegated, some of which a predecessor may had assumed during the start-up stage. I once observed a nonprofit CEO with an annual $30 million budget personally organize and implement the annual board retreat, including physically rearranging tables/materials and cleaning the room after the retreat! When top leadership is deflected in situations at this level, client services and the general health of the organization is likely being negatively impacted.
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.
Over decades of nonprofit board membership and consulting, I have rarely observed volunteer board members effectively networking with their peers to develop best board practices. Also rarely do I see them accompany management to regional or national conferences related to the nonprofit’s mission. These types of exposures are necessary to have groups of board members capable of making generative suggestions.
For directors who are willing and able to network, I suggest the following: *
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.
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.