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Policy vs. Paper Clips

Nonprofits:”What Role Should Board Members Play in Overviewing Management /Staff Talent?”

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.

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Developing A Sustainable Nonprofit–Post Covid-19

Developing A Sustainable Nonprofit–Post Covid-19

By: Eugene Fram         Free Digital Image

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 

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.

Information Security

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 and future 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.

*https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/how-pandemics-wreak-havoc-and-open-minds

**https://knoema.com/infographics/egyydzc/us-population-by-age-and-generation-in-2020  

*** https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/hiring-generation-z/2019/how-to-hire-and-retain-generation-z

**** https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2020/07/26/the-boards-role-in-guiding-the-return-to-work/#:~:text=The%20board%20has%20a%20role,operations%20and%20growth%20moving%20forward.

Can Small Experiments Test Nonprofit Strategic Validity?

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.

* For a robust report on the use of lean in the nonprofit sector see:  (http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_promise_of_lean_experimentation)

Nonprofit Board Discourse: a Meeting of the Minds??

Nonprofit Board Discourse: a Meeting of the Minds??

By: Eugene Fram        Free Digital Image

Several years ago, a nonprofit board member complained to me that there was too little “conflict” at board meetings. Too few hands were raised to challenge or simply question the efficacy of certain important agenda items. Having participated in hundreds of nonprofit meetings, I have observed that this laissez-faire response still typifies a significant number of board member’s attitudes, especially for items that deserve vigorous discussion. Why is that? And why can the term conflict be  perceived as an asset to an organization that is determined to move forward?

Below are some answers based on my own experience in the nonprofit environment.

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Identify Nonprofit Staff Groups To Help Drive Organizational Change

Identify Nonprofit Staff Groups To Help Drive Organizational Change

By Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

Nonprofit executive directors tend to think of the staff professionals as individual contributors. These individuals are persons who mainly work on their own and but increasingly also have to contribute as team players – for instance, counselors, health care professionals, curators and university faculty. However, many executive directors fail to recognize that these individual contributors can be grouped according to identifiable types, with differing work-value outlooks. Each group needs to be motivated differently to drive change in today’s fast moving social, political and technological environments. Nonprofit board members, working with the ED, can use these groupings in their oversight responsibilities to better understand the bench strength of promotable staff.   

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Does A New Nonprofit Board Member Really Understand Your Organization?  The New Board Member Nurturing Challenge!

Does A New Nonprofit Board Member Really Understand Your Organization?  The New Board Member Nurturing Challenge!

By: Eugene Fram       Free Digital Image

The careful nurturing of a new board member, whether for-profit or nonprofit, is critical. The pay-off of a robust orientation process is an informed and fully participating board director. The following are very similar occurrences in both for-profit and nonprofit boards:

The CEO of a transportation firm agrees to become a board director of a firm developing computer programs. He has risen through the transportation ranks with a financial background, but he knows little about the dynamics of the computer industry.

A finance professor is asked to serve on the board of a nonprofit school serving handicapped children. She has no children of her own and has never had any contact with handicapped children, social workers or teachers serving handicapped children.

In these similar cases, the new board member needs to become reasonably conversant with a new industry or a new human service field in order to be able to better apply policy development skills, strategic planning skills and to allow generative thinking.

On nonprofit boards, the problem is exacerbated when the new director often is asked to immediately join a specific board committee without being able to understand the board perspectives and the organization’s mission vision and values. Following are ways in which the nonprofit board can resolve this problem:

  • Don’t appoint the new board member to a committee until she/h has completed a board orientation program including a review of board procedures, attending several board meetings, has had visits with the staff, as they normally operate, and becomes alert to the major trends in the field. This ideally should take about six months assuming the board member is employed full-time elsewhere.
  • During this time, the chief executive and board president should be available to visit with the new director as frequently as she/h wants in order to respond to questions.
  • Hopefully, the chief executive would informally meet the new director (and each established director) quarterly to review current issues and opportunities. In addition to the information presented at the board meetings, this will provide a better perspective of the board’s mission, vision and values.
  • Ideally, the board volunteer should attend one staff meeting and one outside professional meeting to acquire a feeling for the topics reviewed at these gatherings and the field terminology.
  • During the first year, a senior board member needs be seated next to the new person at meetings to act  as a “host” for the new director

If most of these actions can be accomplished within a six-month period, major blind spots are removed, and the new board member can then join a standing board committee. Now, reasonably understanding the organization and her/h own participation on the board, she/h has a background to make a substantial contribution for years to come.

Do Today’s Business Leaders Make Effective Nonprofit Directors?

Do Today’s Business Leaders Make Effective Nonprofit Directors?

By: Eugene H. Fram       Free Digital Image

The names of the new board nominees have been announced. They include several outstanding recruits from the business community. Will these new formidable board members 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?

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Nonprofit Boardroom Elephants and the ‘Nice Guy’ Syndrome: A Complex Problem

 

Nonprofit Boardroom Elephants and the ‘Nice Guy’ Syndrome: A Complex Problem

By: Eugene Fram            Free Digital Photo

Revised viewer favorite post

A friend serving on a nonprofit board reported plans to resign from the board shortly. His complaints centered on the board’s unwillingness to take critical actions necessary to help the organization grow.

In specific, the board failed to take any action to remove a board member who wasn’t attending meetings, but he refused to resign. His term had another year to go, and the board had a bylaws obligation to summarily remove him from the board. However, a majority of directors decided such action would hurt the director’s feelings. They were unwittingly accepting the “nice-guy” approach in place of taking professional action.

In another instance the board refused to sue a local contractor who did not perform as agreed. The “elephant” was that the board didn’t think that legally challenging a local person was appropriate, an issue raised by an influential director. However, nobody informed the group that in being “nice guys,” they could become legally liable, if somebody became injured as a result of the inferior work and their inaction.

Over the years, I have observed many boards with elephants around that have caused significant problems to a nonprofit organization. Some include:

• Selecting a board chair on the basis of personal appearance and personality instead of managerial and organizational competence. Be certain to vet the experience and potential of board candidates carefully. Beside working background (accounting, marketing, human resources, etc.), seek harder to define characteristics such as leadership, critical thinking ability, and position flexibility.

• Failure to delegate sufficient managerial responsibility to the CEO because the board has enjoyed micromanagement activities for decades. To make a change, make certain new board members recognize the problem, and they eventually are willing to take action to alleviate the problem. Example: One board refused to share its latest strategic plan with it newly appointed ED.

• Engaging a weak local CEO because the board wanted to avoid moving expenses. Be certain that local candidates are vetted as carefully as others and that costs of relocation are not the prime reason for their selection.

• Be certain that the board is not “rubber-stamping” proposals of a strong board member or CEO. Where major failures occur, be certain that the board or outside counsel determines the causes by conducting a postmortem analysis.

* Retaining an ED who is only focusing on the status quo and “minding the store.” The internal accounting systems, human resources and results are all more than adequate. But they are far below what can be done for clients if current and/or potential resources were creatively employed.

* A substantial portion of the board is not reasonably familiar with fund accounting or able to recognize financial “red flags.” Example: One CFO kept delaying the submission of an accounting accounts aging report for over a year. He was carrying as substantial number of noncollectable accounts as an asset. It required the nonprofit to hire high-priced forensic accountants to straighten out the mess. The CEO & CFO were fired, but the board that was also to be blamed for being “nice guys,” and it remained in place. If the organization has gone bankrupt, I would guess that the secretary-of-state would have summarily removed part or all of the board, a reputation loss for all. The board has an obligation to assure stakeholders that the CFO’s knowledge is up to date and to make certain the CEO takes action on obvious “red flags”.

* Inadequate vetting processes that take less board members’ time, especially in relation to family and friends of current board members. Example: Accepting a single reference check, such as comments from the candidate’s spouse. This actually happened, and the nominations committee made light of the action.

What can be done about the elephant in the boardroom?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to use, no pun intended! These types of circumstances seem to be in the DNA of volunteers who traditionally avoid any form of conflict, which will impinge upon their personal time or cause conflict with other board members. A cultural change is required to recruit board members who understand their responsibilities, or are willing to learn about them on the job. I have seen a wide variety of directors such, as ministers and social workers, successfully meet the challenges related to this type of the board learning. Most importantly, never underestimate the power of culture when major changes are being considered. As Peter Drucker noted, “Culture can eat strategy for breakfast.”

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask naive question which forces all to question assumptions, as in Why are we really taking this action? Have we really thought it through and considered other possibilities? http://bit.ly/1eNKgtw

Board  members need to have passion for the organization’s mission. However, they also need to have the prudence to help the nonprofit board perform with professionalism.

How Is Your Nonprofit Board Adjusting To “The Great Resignation”?

How Is Your Nonprofit Board Adjusting To “The Great Resignation”?

By: Eugene Fram                Free Digital Image

An article in The New York Times (12/23/2021) reports, In Louisville Ky, nonprofit groups are losing social workers to better-paying jobs at Walmart and McDonalds.  *  With 34.5 million American job resignations reported by, August 31, 2021, it’s reasonable to estimate that by the end of 2021 about 46 million Americans will have left their current jobs during the past year. This is about 25% of the American work force. ** The movement has been named “The Great Resignation.”      

Reasons for change range widely.  Beyond salary, some families may have found living on one salary acceptable, others may have moved to rural areas for quieter living, still others may have used a lay-off bonus to have time to get away from an authoritarian boss. ***          

It appears this robust employment turnover will continue. As a result, nonprofit boards, within their overviewing responsibilities, must focus on recruiting and retaining organization talent, like few nonprofit boards have done in the past. (more…)

CEOs Need To Develop Partnering Relationships With Board Members

CEOs Need To Develop Partnering Relationships With Board Members

By Eugene Fram               Free Digital Image

When a CEO publicly introduces a board member as “my boss,” (as I have overheard more than once) there is a problem. It’s true that both parties—CEO and board member—have specific roles in the success of a nonprofit organization. But the hierarchy of authority should be deemphasized when it comes to interpersonal connections. The most effective mindset for CEO and directors is to view each other as partners in working to achieve the organization’s mission and their impacts.

The CEO’s efforts to cultivate such relationships are key. The following are some initiatives that he/she can utilize: *

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