nonprofit strategic planning

Do Nonprofit Directors Face Cyber Security Risk?

Do Nonprofit Directors Face Cyber Security Risk?

By: Eugene Fram      Free Digital Image

The cyber security (CS) debacles faced by Elections, Target and others may seem far afield from the concerns of nonprofit directors, except for the giants in the area, like AARP. However, think about this hypothetical scenario.

A group of high school students hacked into the computer system of a local nonprofit offering mental health services and gain access to records of clients, perhaps even placing some of the records of other teenagers on the internet. (more…)


Is An Agile Approach Appropriate for Nonprofits?

Is An Agile Approach Appropriate for Nonprofits?

By: Eugene Fram             Free Digital Image

Many nonprofit organizations are going to have to transform themselves. They are required to adapt to shrinking donor funding sources related to the new tax law, shrinking state and local revenue sources and increased costs, often to serve larger groups of clients. One new potential approach to meet these challenges can be adapted from Agile Project Delivery Approaches. * Nonprofits may find they are venues for making faster decisions to seizing opportunities and reducing costs. Agile Project Delivery (APD) helps address these challenges by disciplined proven practices and through continuous stakeholder feedback.

Agile projects are based on four basic concepts: * (more…)

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

At coffee recently 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 director 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 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 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 directors 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 director 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 directors’ time, especially in relation to family and friends of current directors. 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 directors. A cultural change is required to recruit board members who understand director 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.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask naive question which forces all to question assumptions, as in Why are we doing the particular thing? Have we really thought it through and considered other possibilities?

Directors 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 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.

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.




The Fantasy Nonprofit—Who Works There?

The Fantasy Nonprofit—Who Works There?

By: Eugene Fram                               Free Digital Photo

After three decades of immersion in the nonprofit culture, I occasionally allow myself to imagine what it would be like to start all over again. Assuming I were in the process of founding a new nonprofit I would have the authority to choose my own team! In this hypothetical, I could shape the mode of governance and select the participants I think would interface most effectively!

Here are some of the decisions I might make based on current realities:  (more…)

Too Much Information Can Cloud Nonprofit Board’s Decision Making–Tread With Care

Too Much Information Can Cloud Nonprofit Board’s Decision Making–Tread With Care

By Eugene Fram            Free Digital Image

In this age of information overload, nonprofits need to continually scrutinize the quality and source of the material received in preparation for major decisions. Since directors often come without broad enough experience in the nonprofit’s mission arena, they may not be prepared to properly assess its progress in moving forward–and not equipped to make relevant comparisons with similar nonprofits.  In addition, naive or unscrupulous CEOs and highly influential directors may inundate their boards with information and data as a  distraction tactic to keep them busy in the “weeds,” reviewing what has been presented.  Board members need to avoid donning “rose-colored glasses” when assessing proposals from these sources.

I once encountered a nonprofit whose board was about to acquire a for-profit organization, headed by its founder.  Pushing for the “deal” ere the nonprofit CEO and an influential board member who were not, it turned out, capable of the due diligence needed for a project of this complexity. But the board accepted their work without question.  When the acquisition was consummated, the founding CEO of the subsidiary refused to take directions from the CEO of the nonprofit. In addition, although the normal financial settlement of the project requires that a portion of the price be withheld pending adequate performance, the nonprofit had paid cash for the acquisition.  Based on  a lack of performance, the operation was finally closed with a substantial loss. (more…)

Creating High Performing Boards–A Veteran Nonprofit CEO’s Insights


Free Digital Image
An Important Guide to Creating High Performing Boards, February 14, 2017


The nonprofit governance model outlined in Policy Vs. Paper Clips ( has served my organization extremely well for more than two and a half decades. The proof of the model’s value is the growth and performance of our organization, our respected stature in the community (and beyond), and our ongoing ability to recruit top talent to our Board. Our Board governance structure has made possible several bold decisions over the last 30 years that have changed the trajectory of our organization.


Thirty years ago I was a brand new leader of a not for profit agency in Rochester NY with an annual budget of $5M and 160 employees who served 800 clients a year throughout 5 counties. Today, I am still the CEO; however it is a very different agency, having expanded its services significantly, broadening the populations we serve throughout 35 counties with a budget of 37M and 800 employees with a much bigger impact of 150,000 clients served annually. I feel very fortunate that early in my agency career that the book’s author (then a respected professor at a major university in my city) accepted my invitation to come talk to my Board about the model and its advantages for our nonprofit.


We adopted the model soon after and ever since it has defined our governance structure. We’ve only made one modification (creating a separate audit committee) because it was required by state regulations. Here’s why I think the model has been so powerful for us:
  • The basic premise that the Board and CEO are partners who mutually respect each other’s roles is paramount to our success.
  • The Executive Committee serves as the “steering committee” and sets the Board’s annual agenda and priorities, and fulfills the key role of being the CEO’s “sounding board.”
  • Our lean committee structure (Assessment & Planning and Resources) allows for substantive discussion on important issues. Board members who aren’t officers have only one commitment and can devote both time and attention to their committee’s mission.
  • As CEO, I work very closely with the Executive Committee to ensure the right leadership is selected to serve in officer roles. The Executive Committee also provides “succession” for senior Board leadership. Typically committee heads are groomed for Board Chair, though this position can also be filled from other officer roles.
I’ve lived the model for a very long time and happily attest that it works!


A. Gidget Hopf , Ed.D., is President and CEO of Goodwill of the Finger Lakes and its affiliate The Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired-Goodwill Industries of Greater Rochester.