Nonprofit board stucture

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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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:http://bit.ly/OvF4ri)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Anticipating Tomorrow’s Nonprofit Crises Today

Anticipating Tomorrow’s Nonprofit Crises Today

By: Eugene Fram

In the decades in which I have been a nonprofit/business board member or consultant, I fortunately have only been in the mire of a crisis situation twice.   In both cases, the board was totally unprepared to take appropriate actions to minimize the turmoil that followed.

Following some guidelines that nonprofit boards can use to plan to respond effectively to crises in the 21st century: * (more…)

Nonprofit Chief Executives Should Have Title: President/CEO, Updated and Expanded

Nonprofit Chief Executives Should Have Title: President/CEO, Updated and Expanded

By Eugene Fram

This post, over several years, has developed a record of continued viewing interest. Rarely a day passes with the post’s count isn’t one to five views. On a recent day  there were 18 views.  Since originally published in 2013 , this post has had a  total of  about 1400 views. The  year-to-date August 2017 total is 508  views and counting, predicting another record year   Perhaps the controversial nature of topic causes the longevity of interest?

When nonprofit organizations reach a budget level of over $1 million and have about 10 staff members it is time to offer the chief operating officer the title of PRESIDENT/CEO. In addition, the title of the senior board volunteer should become CHAIRPERSON OF THE BOARD, and the title of EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR needs to be eliminated. Experience has shown that with a reasonably talented PRESIDENT/CEO at the helm, he/she can provide the following benefits: (more…)

Business Board Experts Offer Nonprofit Board Gems!!

Business Board Experts Offer Nonprofit Board Gems!!

By: Eugene Fram                                  Free Digital Image

The wise person learns from his/h own experiences. The wiser person learns from the experiences of others

The CEO Forum published an article covering the governance views of five business board members, known for their wisdom and vision.   Following are some of topics in the article that relate to nonprofit boards. * (more…)

More Than Passion Needed in Prospective Nonprofit Directors

(Free Digital Image)

More Than Passion Needed in Prospective Nonprofit Directors

By: Eugene Fram

What nonprofit selection committee would reject a candidate who demonstrates passion for the organization’s mission?   I can attest to the fact that in many recruitment processes, an interviewee who shows strong empathy for the cause is a “shoe-in” for the director position regardless of any obvious weakness in other skill areas. By contrast, one who appears ambivalent about the organization’s mission can be overlooked or even eliminated from the list. (more…)

Nonprofit Board/Staff Relationships: An Uncomfortable Partnership?

 

Nonprofit Board/Staff Relationships: An Uncomfortable Partnership?

By: Eugene Fram   Free Digital Image

Viewer Favorite—Updated and Revised

I have always been of the opinion that nonprofit directors don’t give sufficient consideration to the relationships between the board and staff. The following passage reasserts the complexity of such relationships and why misunderstandings might occur on either side of the fence.

The (nonprofit) governance model is … confounded by the fact that the people with responsibility for oversight, resource generation, and the strategic direction are not the same people who show up every day to deliver the work that fulfills the nonprofit’s mission. …. More often than not, however, the nonprofit board is a bit ungainly and leaves board members and staff alike scratching their heads and wondering how they might fix things so it (the organization) does what it’s meant to do … The challenges are often the greatest for the boards of small to mid-sized nonprofits, where the lines between governance and management seem to be more easily blurred. * (more…)