Trustee Boards

Reversing Traditional Nonprofit Board Barriers

 

Reversing Traditional Nonprofit Board Barriers

By: Eugene Fram          Free Digital Photo

Clearly the purpose of a nonprofit board is to serve the constituency that establishes it—be it community, industry, governmental unit and the like. That said, the “how” to best deliver that service is often not so clear. An executive committee, for example, can overstep its authority by assuming powers beyond its scope of responsibility. I encountered this in one executive committee when the group developed a strategic plan in an interim period where there was no permanent ED. The board then refused to share it with the incoming executive. In another instance, an executive committee took it upon itself to appoint members of the audit committee—including outsiders who were unknown to the majority on the board.

The fuzziness of boundaries and lack of defined authority call for an active nonprofit system of checks and balances. For a variety of reasons this is difficult for nonprofits to achieve:

  • A typical nonprofit board member is often recruited from a pool of friends, relatives and colleagues, and will serve, on a median average, for four to six years.   This makes it difficult to achieve rigorous debate at meetings (why risk conflicts with board colleagues?). Directors also are not as eager to thoughtfully plan for change beyond the limits of their terms. Besides discussing day-to-day issues, the board needs to make sure that immediate gains do not hamper long-term sustainability.
  • The culture of micromanagement is frequently a remnant from the early startup years when board members may have performed operational duties. In some boards it becomes embedded in the culture and continues to pervade the governmental environment, allowing the board and executive committee to involve themselves in areas that should be delegated to management.
  • The executive team is a broad partnership of peers –board members, those appointed to the executive committee and the CEO. The executive committee is legally responsible to act for the board between meetings–the board must ratify its decisions. But unchecked, the executive committee can assume dictatorial powers whose conclusions must be rubber-stamped by the board.

 

Mitigating Oversight Barriers: There is often little individual board members can do to change the course when the DNA has become embedded in the organization. The tradition of micromanagement, for example, is hard to reverse, especially when the culture is continually supported by a succession of like-minded board chairs and CEOs. No single board member can move these barriers given the brevity of the board terms. But there are a few initiatives that three or four directors, working in tandem, can take to move the organization into a high-performance category.

  • Meetings: At the top of every meeting agenda there needs to be listed at least one policy or strategy. When the board discussion begins to wander, the chair should remind the group that they are encroaching on an area that is management’s responsibility. One board I observed wasted an hour’s time because the chair had failed to intercept the conversation in this manner. Another board agreed to change its timing of a major development event, then spent valuable meeting time suggesting formats for the new event—clearly a management responsibility to develop.
  • “New Age” Board Members: While millennial directors are causing consternation in some nonprofit and business organizations, certain changes in nonprofits are noteworthy. Those directors in the 40- and- under age bracket need some targeted nurturing. I encountered a new young person who energized the board with her eagerness to try innovative development approaches. She was subsequently appointed to the executive committee, deepening her view of the organization and priming her for senior leadership.

Board members who understand the robust responsibilities of a 21st century board need to accept responsibilities for mentoring these new age board people, despite their addictions to electronic devices.

  • Experienced Board Members: Directors that have served on other high-performance boards have the advantage of being familiar with modern governance processes and are comfortable in supporting change. They are needed to help boards, executive committees and CEOs to move beyond the comfortable bounds of the past. They will be difficult to recruit, but they are required ingredients for successful boards.
  • NEW Projects: Boards and the CEO must be bold and try new approaches to meet client needs. For example instead of going through a complete planning process for a new program the board must ask management to complete a series of small experiments to test the program. When a series of results are positive, the nonprofit can work on a plan to implement the program.

Conclusion: Individual board members working alone will probably become frustrated in trying to contend with the three overview barriers discussed. But working with three or four colleagues, over time, on a tandem basis, they can make inroads on the barriers. Meetings can become more focused on policies/strategies, new age board members can become more quickly productive, experienced board members can become role models and new programs and other projects can be more quickly imitated via the use of small scale experiments.

 

 

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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…)

How A Nonprofit Board Director Can Initiate Positive Change

How A Nonprofit Board Director Can Initiate Positive Change

By: Eugene Fram        Free Digital Image

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A nonprofit board member comes up with an idea that he thinks will do wonders for the organization. He is convinced that establishing a for-profit subsidiary will not only be compatible with the group’s mission but may even bring in new sources of revenue. It’s his ball–now what’s the best route to run with it? All too often in the nonprofit environment, initiating change can be as daunting as trying to get consensus in the US Congress! There are, however, certain interpersonal levers, which, if pushed, can accelerate the process–although one hopes that not all the levers will be needed in any specific situation. (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

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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? http://bit.ly/1eNKgtw

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.

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…)

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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