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Why Are Some Nonprofit Boards Missing the Mark? What to Do?

Why Are Some Nonprofit Boards Missing the Mark? What to Do?

By Eugene Fram     Free Digital Image

Stephen Miles of the Miles group (http://milesgroup.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:

Knowledge Gaps

Many new board directors 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 directors 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 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 who have adopted poor decisions.

Self-Delusion

“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 directors 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 new questions related to nonprofit governance.

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NONPROFITS NEED A BRAND THAT RESONATES!

NONPROFITS NEED A BRAND THAT RESONATES!

By: Eugene Fram       Free Digital Photo

How do people see your organization? Is your nonprofit clearly perceived, and the unique nature of its work, fully understood in the community or industry?

Nonprofit board members occasionally talk about the organizational brand image but rarely take tangible steps to define it. Yet the creation of a strong brand is a major factor in generating public respect, support and significant funding sources. Potential donors need to believe implicitly in the impact of the nonprofit on its clients. They also need to understand the realities implied in the brand image that fail to match the realities of the organization’s operations. For example, some family services agencies (actually multi-human service groups), have long struggled with a brand perception that they offer only family reproduction services.

Following are some guidelines that may help improve a current image or further clarify the mission which fuels the dedicated efforts of boards, staff and volunteers: (more…)

Board Member Networking Pays Off for Nonprofits

Board Member Networking Pays Off for Nonprofits

By Eugene Fram    Free Digital Image

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: * (more…)

Unwritten Protocols for Directors Can Boost Nonprofits’ Effectiveness

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Unwritten Protocols for Directors Can Boost Nonprofits’ Effectiveness

By:  Eugene Fram                                        Free Digital Photo

Nonprofit boards are governed by a series of obligations —some are clearly defined as legal responsibilities such as financial actions. Others, however, are less clearly defined and relate to people who are, in some way, associated with the organization. Guidelines to these diverse interactions are not typically archived in policies but are important to the overall professionalism of the board. They include consideration of its: board structure, internal operations, recruitment methods and leadership style. (more…)

Should Mature Nonprofits Allow Board Micromanagement?

Should Mature Nonprofits Allow Board Micromanagement?

By: Eugene Fram              Free Digital Image

Accepted View of Micromanagement: “…Directors spend more time with the details of the operations instead of planning its short-term and long-term growth strategies. …
(http://linkd.in/1q84pMm)

The Need for a Micromanaging Board
Board micromanagement is an appropriate approach when a nonprofit is in a start-up stage. Financial and human resources are modest, and the volunteer directors must assume some responsibilities normally executed by compensated staff. The chief executive often has managerial responsibilities as well as a list of clients to service. It is not unusual to promote a person who is only familiar with direct service to become the first chief executive of the organization. In turn , this neophyte manager has to depend on board members for managerial counsel and direction. A culture of board dependency is created out of necessity. (more…)

Do Today’s Business Leaders Make Effective Nonprofit Directors?

Do Today’s Business Leaders Make Effective Nonprofit Directors?

By: Eugene H. Fram

The names of the new board nominees have been announced. They include several outstanding recruits from the business community. Will these new formidable directors perform well in the nonprofit environment? William G. Bowen, a veteran director in both the for-profit and nonprofit environments, raised the following questions about such beginnings in a 1994 article:* Is it true that well-regarded representatives of the business world are often surprisingly ineffective as members of nonprofit boards? Do they seem to have checked their analytical skills and their “toughness” at the door? If this is true in some considerable number of cases, what is the explanation? (more…)

How Seriously Does Your Nonprofit Board Take the Matter of Ethics?

How Seriously Does Your Nonprofit Board Take the Matter of Ethics?

By Eugene Fram                           Free Digital Photo

Most board members are aware of their obligation to ensure their nonprofit’s compliance with certain standard regulations e.g. making tax payments, submitting IRS Form 990s and/or avoiding potential fraud. But what I have found missing in the nonprofit environment is a sense of board member responsibility to provide for and sustain a viable ethics program. (more…)