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Policy vs. Paper Clips

A Nonprofit’s Reputation Rests on the Quality of its Directors

A Nonprofit’s Reputation Rests on the Quality of its Directors

By: Eugene Fram         Free Digital Image

Reputations are universally seen as valuable, but reputation risk is poorly understood. As a result, reputations are left unnecessarily at risk.*

Reputation matters in the nonprofit world. Few nonprofit boards exist today that don’t worry about how they are perceived in the communities or associations they serve. And to make sure their images remain pristine, many turn to crisis consultants and other forms of expert assistance. A tarnished reputation can have a huge impact on a vast network of stakeholders as confidence in the organization ebbs and support starts to dwindle. Nonprofit board members must be sensitive to signals of impending reputation risk and immediately roll up their sleeves in an attempt to rebuild confidence.

I was once involved in a board that was bitterly divided over an issue—so much so that the intense conflict in the boardroom became public knowledge. As an anomaly, the staff continued to be productive and the organization maintained its functionality. But the damage had been done. The United Way placed the organization on “probation,” warning that financial support would be reduced unless the board took measures to heal the rift.

Recalling this near-catastrophe, I resonated with a recent post that focused on board composition. (http://bit.ly/1BFQcLh) (more…)

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Mismanagement Causes Huge Agency Failure—A Word To The Wise Nonprofit?

 Mismanagement Causes Huge Agency Failure—A Word To The Wise Nonprofit?

By Eugene Fram        Free Digital Image

Rarely do failed for-profit or nonprofit organizations get a posthumous review of what actually went wrong. The collapse of one of the largest nonprofits in the US, the Federal Employment Guidance Service (FEGS) of New York City, is a noteworthy exception. Details of the causes that led to the human service’s demise were aired widely throughout NY media.*  This organization had a $250 million budget, with 1900 employees who served 120,000 households covering a range of mental health and disability services, housing, home care and employment services.

Following are my interpretations of what its board should have done to avoid such a tragedy.

Failure of nonprofits: Failure of small nonprofits is rampant for a wide variety of known reasons. Outside of fraud being involved, the FEGS failure demonstrates that no nonprofit is too big to fail, probably because of a lack of board due care. Boards have to be acutely aware of the professional financial competencies of their CFO and CEO or well-meaning people who naively believed that loans could be easily repaid. There should have been a well-documented financial l strategy. The nonprofit closed with $47 million in loans/liabilities/debts.
Symptoms of impending collapse: Clearly with $47 million being owed, common financial ratios should have alerted knowledgeable board members to the coming catastrophe. But in the nonprofit environment, it is not unusual to that find directors, even business executives, are unfamiliar with the fund accounting approach used by nonprofit organizations.

In addition, contracting city and state agencies failed in their reviews of the organization’s finances. However, some nonprofits, either intentionally on unintentionally, can saddle contract reviewers and directors with so much information that even the most conscientious can’t spot problems. (Humorously, directors in this category are referred to as “mushroom directors” because like growing mushrooms, they are kept in the dark an covered with excrement. But this type of tactic was successfully used against IRS auditors in the Madoff debacle.)

Government or Foundation Contracts: In accepting these contracts, nonprofits must be realistic about whether or not there is enough money to cover full costs. They can’t be blinded by what the contract can do for the organization’s client. If adequate overhead funding is not attached to one or more of these agreements, they eventually can cause bankruptcy, because the nonprofit eventually will have to borrow or seek additional donations to cover them.

How Nonprofit Boards Can Avoid Problems

Review Financials: Current financials need to be given to directors monthly, or at least quarterly if the board meets less often. The very detailed budget data can often be difficult for those without budget experience. At the least, everybody on the finance committee needs to be able to intelligently review the income statement and balance sheet. Also they need to be aware that funding accounting permits some unusual twists—food donations, for example, can be included in revenues, based on an estimate of their value. Consequently, cash revenues and expenditures need to be a focus for directors’ analysis.

Make certain that financials are delivered on timely and complete bases. Problem Example: One CFO didn’t submit accounts receivable reports for nine months because he said he was too busy to compile it. Neither the board nor the CEO demanded issuance of the report. When finally delivered, it was clear that the CFO was listing a substantial number of noncollectable accounts as active ones. Both the CFO and CEO were fired, and the nonprofit had to hired expensive forensic accountants to review the impact.

Gaps Between Revenues and Expenditures: This is the ultimate red flag, if not followed carefully. It may vary from period-to-period in a predictable pattern that everybody understands, but if the gap continues, say for four to six months, strong board action is necessary.

Adopt written financial policies: These are necessary to make sure all concerned with finances are on the same page. Since interpretation is often required in financial decisions, nothing should be left open to broad interpretation.

Contracts with governments, foundations and others: Make certain that reimbursements for indirect costs are included. If not included, have a benefactor ready to step in to cover the costs.

An old Chinese proverb, “A wise man (or woman) learns from his/h own experience. The wiser man (or woman) learns from the experiences of others.” One hundred twenty thousands households and individuals lost services from an 80 year old human service nonprofit. There is much to learn from the collapse of FEGS.

* https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/thought-leadership/what-we-learn-when-nonprofit-closes-its-doors

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How Do Nonprofits Determine CEOs’ Productivity?

How Do Nonprofits Determine A CEOs’ Productivity?

By: Eugene Fram         Free Digital Image

Nonprofit organizations can’t have bottom line profits. If they did, CEO productivity determination could be less complicated. Determining a fair CEO benefit, based on productivity, can be a complex issue for a nonprofit board. Providing too little or too much can be dangerous for the organization and possibly the board members. Although the spadework for benefits needs to be done by a small committee, the entire board needs to fully agree on the rationale for the final decision.

Following are some of significant challenges that I have noted nonprofit boards face when determining CEO benefits.

Evaluation Failure: Some CEOs might receive high benefits because a series of boards have not effectively evaluated her/h performance. It is not unusual to find CEOs who have not been formally and effectively evaluated for years. They are held in position because they are “minding the store,” not being professional managers.

Market Forces: Nonprofit organizations are restricted by law from providing their CEOs with excess benefits. (Section 4958 – IRS Code) As a result, the benefits offered the CEO must reflect a market level found in the geographic area and/or the person’s professional qualifications. For example, nonprofit health insurance organizations have to compensate CEO at levels that are competitive with for-profit organizations. In my opinion, unusual CEO benefits that are hard to justify market-wise are invitations for an IRS inquiry

Board Relationships: Obviously having a good, not perfect, interrelationship with the constantly changing board membership is critical to support a reasonable benefit level. It is especially important in association type nonprofits where the person holding the board chair position changes annually. I recently encountered one board chair who, although being very pleased with the CEO’s performance, expressed a concern that the CEO did not have good communications with board members. The chair welcomed a suggestion that the board might engage a professional coach to help the CEO work on the issue.

Additional Benefits: Although not usual in the nonprofit environment, special benefits can be offered the CEO, especially if they relate to job performance. These can range from special insurance coverage to extensive travel benefits , educational opportunities. or even housing and entertainment allowances. If involved with fundraising, like a college president, housing and entertainment benefits may be appropriate. In some unusual instances the person’s spouse or significant other may also receive compensation for time spent to benefit the nonprofit.

Nonprofit CEO: It is not unusual for the CEO to undervalue his/h own worth, especially when associated with a human services type of organization. This then keeps a cap on the whole salary scale and can make it difficult to hire capable people. Example: I encountered one CEO with degrees in human services and management areas plus 30 years of excellent experiences. Admired for his performance by peers in a nearby university, he refused to use that leverage to seek equitable compensation.

Personality: Now doubt a positive CEO personality can be an attribute in working with boards and staffs. But some nonprofit boards continue to support well-liked CEOs, even after they have been found to be involved with fraud. The board then has to be removed by state attorneys’ actions.

Summary:
Nonprofit boards can do a poor job of determining CEO benefits because of inherent challenges. Evaluating critical qualitative outcomes and impacts, like improving life quality and successful advocacy, can be daunting. But it can be done in a fair manner.*  CEO benefits must in line with market levels and professional qualifications, or the directors can have a personal liability if they provide a excess ones. In the face of these challenges, some nonprofit board members simply pay lip service to the task and then follow a decision of the board chair.

*https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2012/07/24/using-imperfect-metrics-well-tracking-progress-and-driving-change/

 

 

Director Independence: a Nonprofit Board Issue?

Director Independence: a Nonprofit Board Issue?

By: Eugene Fram       Free Digital Photo

In the best of all nonprofit worlds, every director is an independent agent whose ability to make critical decisions on behalf of the organization is regularly uncompromised by outside pressures. This, unfortunately, is not always the case. Based on field observation I have concluded that questionable practices can plague nonprofit boards when social or political pressures are brought to bear on a director. In governance terms nonprofit decision-makers should be “outside directors,” not overtly or covertly susceptible to management or board colleague personal pressures.

Discerning recruitment committees can screen candidates to be certain they are not subject to influences that might impair their judgment as board members. Lack of independence could easily divide and perhaps polarize the board as has happened in our country’s Congress. A candidate who is “sponsored” by a major donor and maintains personal ties with the donor can create a “hornet’s nest” for the recruitment group. There are no easy solutions to these problems. (more…)

NONPROFIT BOARDS HIRE AND CEOs MUST ACT!

NONPROFIT BOARDS HIRE AND CEOs MUST ACT!

By: Eugene Fram

Whenever the time is ripe to select a new nonprofit CEO, I think of the old joke that says “…every person looks for the perfect spouse… meanwhile, they get married.” By the same token, nonprofit directors seek perfection in a new ED or CEO– and find that they must “settle” for less. But there are certain definitive attributes that are essential to his/her success in running the organization. With the pressures of increasingly slim budgets, fund development challenges and the difficulty of recruiting high quality employees, the 21st century ED/CEO must be action oriented and come equipped with at least a modicum of the following abilities: * (more…)

6 Approaches to Innovation for Nonprofit Boards

6 Approaches to Innovation for Nonprofit Boards

By Eugene Fram                     Free Digital Image

The Bridgespan Group, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation,  recently 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. (more…)

Once Again! Should a Nonprofit CEO Be a Voting Member of the Board of Directors?

Once Again! Should a Nonprofit CEO Be a Voting Member of the Board of Directors?

BoardSource, a professional governance organization, reports that this question is one of the most frequently asked. Google reports eighteen million+ citations related to the issue or related issues. The question continues to be debated, and the need for comment and opinion seems insatiable.

But here are the issues as I see them:

State Legislation: Most nonprofit charters are issued by states, and it appears that the vast majority of American nonprofits are governed by these regulations. California does not permit the CEO to be a voting member. Until a recent change, New York did allow the CEO to become a board member. The motivations behind the legislation center on preventing a CEO developing conflicts-of interest, especially as they relate to salary decisions. Also, there is a feeling among some nonprofit directors that the board must be the “boss.” This attitude can even go as far as one nonprofit board member’s comment: “We have a real board, we tell the CEO exactly what to do.”

It appears that the restriction is considered a “best practice.” Some nonprofits move around it by naming the CEO an ex-official member of the board, a member without a vote. However, there is a “better practice,” available where permitted by legislation.

Developing An Even Better Practice in a Nonprofit

Start At The Top: Allow the CEO to hold the title of President/CEO and allow the senior volunteer to become Board Chair. This signals to staff and public that the board has full faith in the CEO as a professional manager. In addition, the change absolves the senior volunteer of potential financial liability, not unlike the volunteer who unwittingly received a $200,000 bill from the IRS because it appeared he had strong control of a bankrupt nonprofit’s finances and operations.

Ask The CEO: Make certain the CEO is willing and able to accept full responsibility for operations. Not all CEOs, designated as Executive Directors, want the increased responsibilities attached to such a title and to become a board member. These managers frequently feel comfortable with having the board micromanage operations and often openly discuss their reservations.

The CEO Becomes A Communications Nexus: Under the CEO’s guidance, board-staff contact takes place on task forces, strategic planning projects, at board orientations and at organization celebrations. It openly discourages the staff making “end runs” to board members, not a small problem in community-focused nonprofits

Brand Image: As a board director, the CEO can be more active in fund development. The board position and the title can easily help the CEO to build the organization’s public brand image through the clear public perceptions of the board’s choice to lead the organization. This provides leverage to make greater use of the board-CEO relationship required to develop funds. It can allow the CEO to be the spokesperson for the organization’s mission and to quickly become the center for public statements when a crisis develops.

Peer Not Powerhouse: Probably descending from early religious nonprofits, its personnel may be seen by part of the public as not being “worldly.” They must be over-viewed by a group of laypersons that encounters the real world daily. The CEO, as a voting member and a board team peer, takes on increasing importance to reducing these attitudes. As long as the CEO works successfully as a peer not a powerhouse, there should be substantial benefits to the organization.

 

 

 

 

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