Nonprofit board stucture

Different Strokes For Nonprofit Board Folks

Different Strokes For Nonprofit Board Folks

By: Eugene Fram     Free Digital Photo

Over decades of service on nonprofit boards, I have interfaced with board colleagues who possess a variety of performance styles and behaviors. Certain of these types seem to be common to all boards. My comments below are based on adaptations of a director classification system suggested by David Frankel, Partner of Founder Collection. *

The Eager Beaver  

This board member (30s to early 40s) has probably been successful as an entrepreneur or is, perhaps, rapidly rising through middle management in a larger organization. He/she wants to “get things done”. His/her impatience with the typically slow nonprofit rate of progress can be channeled and directed by the CEO or Board Chair. Discouraged by lack of action, this director may quietly exit the board on the pretext that work pressures have increase. On the other hand, if properly nurtured, this category can offer substantial leadership contributions.  

The Checked-Out Check Writer 

Serving on a nonprofit board has likely become a family or company tradition for some directors. (Some local nonprofits are now about 100 years old or older.) Regardless of the person’s dedication to the mission, nonprofit board service becomes part of this director’s DNA. Often they develop into respected leaders and can be conduits to modest or substantial donations. In addition, they have access to interpersonal networks that are useful in recruiting other able board members. This cohort should be valued and their contributions, acknowledged.

The Vanilla Director 

This is a director who attends meetings regularly, occasionally makes an interesting comment. He/she is dedicated to the mission of the organization and can make substantial financial or other contributions. One such director I observed, volunteered to assist the staff with a difficult field problem.   According to Frankel, these directors are “less critical and offer encouragement…. ” However, like many other nonprofit board members, across behavioral types, avoid rigorous discussions at board meetings. If substantial conflict appears between factions of the board on a major issue, they may resign instead of taking an unpopular stand.

The Nonprofit Entrepreneur

This is a director who has a substantial understanding of the nonprofit sector. He/s has served on other nonprofit boards and is dedicated to the nonprofit’s mission. He/s has a desire to help move the nonprofit to its next level of service to clients. He/s often brings bold or different perspectives to the board and management. She/h knows that to achieve growth and improve client services, it is necessary to “sell” ideas to other board members, as well as the CEO. It’s important that the nonprofit entrepreneur and CEO are on the same page in terms of the organization’s future and potential to serve clients. If not, the CEO, unfortunately, may view the entrepreneur with his/h “fast track” style as a disrupter.

An overview of nonprofit boards tends to focus on the unique set of skills and work experience they bring to the table (doctors, professors, accountants, full-time homemakers etc.) A closer look at the board suggests another layer of classification i.e. individual styles, motivation and behaviors. Herein is challenge and opportunity to develop meaningful board experiences for each individual who has said “yes” to the call to service.










Enlarging the Nonprofit Recruitment Matrix: The art of selecting new board members—Part II

Enlarging the Nonprofit Recruitment Matrix: The art of selecting new board members—Part II

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.




Want Better Nonprofit Board Cultures? Look for Four Board Behaviors–Part I

Want Better Nonprofit Board Cultures? Look for Four Board Behaviors–Part I

By Eugene Fram                Free Digital Image

Board cultures can be difficult to modify or change in for-profit and nonprofits. A recent McKinsey study demonstrated the strength of the board culture in three different levels of board operations—ineffective, complacent and striving. * Differentiated achievement seems to be largely dependent on four behaviors. (See bold type.) Centered on my experiences, they can be applied to nonprofit boards. At the least, the behaviors can motivate considerations for board modifications.

There is a culture of trust & respect in the boardroom: Study data showing respondents’ agreement with the statement: 39% of ineffective boards; 66% of complacent boards and 88% of striving boards.
Trust and respect are also critical for nonprofit boards, but they are probably more difficult to achieve for several reasons. First, nonprofits are often seen as lacking efficiently and effectiveness because they operate on smaller budgets and are often housed in marginal physical facilities. In addition, a long-standing nonprofit tradition is for board members to become directly involved with operations. This leads to external perceptions of nonprofits needing managerial support.

Boards will trust management to a higher degree when managers can demonstrate they have the necessary abilities to meet challenges with care and insight.

Finally, nonprofit boards are less homogeneous in terms of director backgrounds since they represent a much broader base of society.

Board & management-team members constructively challenge each other in meetings: Study data showing respondents’ agreement with the statement: 44% of ineffective boards; 53% of complacent boards and 76% of striving boards.
Nonprofit board environments are not well known for being challenging, but the potential really stands out in the for-profit sector—striving boards are about 31points ahead of ineffective ones on this behavior. But with nonprofit directors being comprised of volunteers, this will require a huge cultural shift. “Going along to get along” is a common mantra in the nonprofit sector. Few nonprofit directors, through rigorous discussion, possibly leading to “no” votes, want to be the cause of internal conflict.

The chair runs meetings efficiently and effectively: Study data showing respondents’ agreement with the statement: 37% of ineffective boards; 56% of complacent boards and 69% of striving boards. Among dozens of nonprofit boards with which I have interacted, the chairperson’s views receive a great deal of deference to avoid conflict. But note that there is value in choosing a chair who can lead meetings in an efficient and effective manner—69% of striving directors thought this a factor of success versus only 37% of those on ineffective boards.

Board members seek out relevant information beyond what management provides, to deepen knowledge: Study data showing respondents’ agreement with the statement: 31% of ineffective boards; 59% of complacent boards and 62% of striving boards.
The tenor of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (2002) called for for-profit directors to seek information beyond that which management provides. Again, note the wide data differences between ineffective and striving. In my experiences with nonprofit boards, the openness of management to having board members interact with staff below the C-Suite levels varies significantly. Some are open to it. Others who fear that such contact will lead to “end-runs”–staff will take grievances directly to board members. Since transparency and openness are board values in the 21st century, every nonprofit should have provisions for directors seek information below the C-Suite level.

* Note: The study does not list the criteria used to determine the three categories—ineffective, complacent, striving.



Can A Nonprofit Board Change Its DNA?

Can A Nonprofit Board Change Its DNA?

By: Eugene Fram        Free Digital Image

Genetic codes aside, the term DNA is now commonly used to describe distinctive characteristics and qualities in almost anything –living or inanimate. Every nonprofit has a DNA! And every board member, if questioned, will probably have a different take on that invisible life blood which — for better or worse—impacts the  actions of his/her board. One author goes so far as to suggest that   “…one common element to create sustainable success is evaluating and interjecting the right DNA.”

 He goes on to recommend three steps to make the necessary changes in the nonprofit culture: Assessment, New Genetics and a Gestation period— the last step being essential …“for the new approach to take hold and grow.” * Here, as an example, is how it might apply if a nonprofit board needs to move from a traditional Community Board to a Policy/Strategy Board.  This is a situation where the board increases its overview responsibilities and decreases or eliminates its involvement in operations, i.e. micromanagement.    (more…)

Nonprofit Boards’ Relationship with Executive Directors: A Delicate Balance


Nonprofit Boards’ Relationship with Executive Directors: A Delicate Balance

By: Eugene Fram 

When an individual with business board experience agrees to serve on a nonprofit board, the result can be culture shock! The new arrival can become impatient with the deliberate crawl of action in the nonprofit sector. Or the fact that he/she has no stake in the organization’s financial outcome can diminish interest and participation. Even more disturbing is the fuzziness of the relationship between board member and Executive Director, a sharp contrast to the corporate director/ CEO interaction. In the nonprofit, the ED can assume a more entrenched position due to cultural and governance protocols.

  • Long before and after the new board member’s four to six year term has expired, it’s likely that the same ED will be in place. Based on national data, a nonprofit executive director’s average tenure is 12 years. In addition, directors’ career interests are likely to be very different from those operating the nonprofit. These two factors invest the ED with “institutional memory.” This requires him/her to structure a field of vision on which directors are often dependent. If the ED lacks foresight, the nonprofit will probably not reach its potential to serve clients during his/her tenure.
  • Board members will have a difficult time modifying a nonprofit’s conservative ambiance. Full support of the ED will be required for change. If a board is unable to modify his/her behavior, a termination action will be needed—this will likely create board conflict.
  • Nonprofit directors are often not eager to replace an ED who “minds the store” but doesn’t move it significantly forward. Without malfeasance or performance issues, many directors are willing to maintain an ED in place whose performance is, at best, undistinguished.

Based on my experiences with 12 nonprofit boards as a board member plus having consulted with dozens more, following are ways I have seen business persons become acculturated to the nonprofit ED’s leadership styles. Instead of resigning, as some do, there remain many who continue to work productively with the ED to enhance the organization. Following are profiles, albeit stereotypical, of undaunted directors with business board experience (and without). (more…)

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.



A Nonprofit Paradox: Weak Leadership Pool, Positive Organization Outcomes?

By:  Eugene Fram                   Free Digital Image

It happens: one or both of the two nonprofit engines—governance and/or management — sputters out, yet the organization continues to meet its goals and deliver adequate service to its constituents. Some examples: a child placement agency manages to maintain the quality of its oversight while struggling to deal with an admittedly inept board and CEO. Another example: An ineffective volunteer board at a youth center, meeting quarterly for a couple of hours, allows the CEO to really manage the board and to motivate the staff. The CEO realized he and the agency were in dangerous positions without an innovative board providing standard oversight, although client services were positive.

A staff, dedicated to its own professionalism, can on occasion compensate for a lackluster board and/or senior management team by continuing to provide reasonable value to the nonprofit’s clients. Another example involved the ED, simultaneously a deputy sheriff, and his law enforcement colleagues taking payments to refer wayward youths to ED’s shelter. However, the staff continued to provide valuable services. * In the end it’s about leadership and the ability to step up to the plate when dysfunction occurs. In the last case, the staff acted in a professional manner, although the management was entirely corrupt and the board evidently inept.

Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, has some innovative thoughts on that subject. He identifies four key characteristics he believes are critical to strong innovative organizational leaders. ** I have listed them below, and the ways I think his ideas can be applied to nonprofit governance.


1. Systems Thinkers (Brains): Deep knowledge in their area of work. Our current economy and future opportunities will continue to value knowledge, expertise and ideas.

Nonprofit CEOs need not only cutting edge knowledge of their field—they must have a firm grasp of what nonprofit governance implies, particularly the shared leadership style demanded by accrediting agencies. Many CEOs also need to acquire the skills involved to interact well with higher-level executives from business and governmental organizations, in order to partner with them or to take an active role in fundraising.

Nonprofit directors should have a “strategic bent’ to their decision-making and an understanding of the serious downside of micromanagement. Since most directors’ everyday professional lives center on commercial endeavors, or the professions, they must adjust their board mindsets to focus on mission not profit. This is especially pertinent when applied to assessing nonprofit qualitative outcomes, e.g., community impacts. Using imperfect metrics – that are anecdotal, subjective, interpretative — outcomes or impacts can be roughly assessed. Also imperfect metrics can rely on small samples, uncontrolled situational factors and cannot be precisely replicated. Over time they can be highly useful in tracking progress and driving change. (See:

2. Deep Collaborations (Soul): Even when a leader has unwavering commitment to his or her personal values; he or she cannot operate as an island…. Trust among collaborators from a variety of perspectives forms the foundations for deep and ongoing collaboration, which is essential for leading (organizational) change.

Nonprofit directors are part-time volunteers with very little opportunity to have contact with the staff. This lack of interaction can encourage mistrust on both sides. Some informal board/staff social events or board/staff working task forces can go a long way towards promoting a spirit of cooperation.

Although there exists a vast literature on the necessity to build a trusting relationship between volunteer chair and CEO, there is only modest mention of the trust required between nonprofit boards and staff. Many nonprofits are “flat” organizations, meaning there may only be one or two management layers between staff and board. Consequently, this relationship needs to work reasonably well to have operational success; few CEOs or boards can survive a staff “revolt.” Nonprofit CEOs and boards walk a difficult trail in maintaining a deep and trusting collaboration.

3. Empathetic Innovators (Heart): Passion is a key innovator, but to create social (and organizational) change empathy must plan a central role. Innovation must be rooted in deep empathy – a real understanding and sensitivity to the experience of another person –to be most appropriate and effective.

Nominating committees are often seduced by a display of passion for the mission in a board recruit. Passionate directors are driven but not always responsive to other governance interests and perspectives. But candidates who have low or moderate interest can make some surprising contributions because they can take their governance responsibilities seriously or lead in other areas. True board innovation is based on empathy with fellow board members and management. It is also a collegial effort towards fulfilling the mission.

Nonprofit innovators may become frustrated when they want to improve the performance of an established organization and find some of the staff, especially those in management positions, are unable or unwilling to change. In some cases, the answer may be well-planned terminations, showing an appreciation for what the person has contributed or moving the person to an individual contributor position, allowing him or her to be measured for a fulfilling a familiar operating service.

4. World Visionaries (Nerve): Social (and organization) innovators …must be skilled at integrative thinking — the ability to hold two opposing ideas in their minds at once and then reach a synthesis that improves each one. They must…. be comfortable navigating ambiguity and seeing possibilities in the fragmented, complex nature of our social reality as they envision a better future.

The word “nerve” usually conjures up aggression, risk taking or chutzpah! Klaus Schwab brings to it a more nuanced interpretation. My nonprofit “take “on it is a director’s ability to think critically, to weigh the risk of a proposed action with the possible outcome in thoughtful consideration of what is in the best interest of the organization. It is a standard to which nonprofit organizations must aspire if they are to survive and meet the needs of their community and professional clients in the 21st century.

It’s time to banish the old paradox in which productive staffs can compensate for incompetent volunteer boards or managements. Klaus Schwab expands the criteria for leadership in governance. In doing so, he raises the bar for the entire organization.

*For an example see: Ann Eigeman (2013) “Targeted Editorial Stands Out for Separating a Nonprofit’s Poor Management From Its Value,” NPQ Newswire, November 4th.

**Klaus Schwab (2013) “4 Leadership Traits to Drive Social Innovation,” Stanford Business Center for Social Innovation, October 31st.