Monday, December 29, 2014

Five Questions for the New Nonprofit Board Member


IS 2015 THE YEAR YOU JOIN A NONPROFIT BOARD?  Perhaps you've been thinking that board service would be a great way to give back to your community or perhaps you've decided to give in to your best friend's pleading to join her board.  Whether you're giving back or giving in, don't waste any time in asking these five questions:

1.  Am I comfortable with group work?  

Everything you read on nonprofit governance casts it as group work: deliberation and decision-making as a team; working with and through committees; and working to consensus.  If you're the lone wolf type, preferring to tackle problems and projects on your own, you'll find group work difficult, even drudgery.  So, if you're intent on joining a board know that the group trumps the individual.  Yes, your individual skills, opinions, and talents are needed and will be welcomed (hopefully), but when it comes to execution, it is the group that will capture the flag.

2.  Where will my skills and interests best fit on the board?  

If the organization hasn't given you a good reason why you're being tapped for board service, or if you're unclear what you could bring to the table, take some time to figure this out first.  The nominating or board selection committee should have a clear vision for your participation, but in case they don't, work with them to craft one.  You need to know why you're on the board and they need to know why, too.  The last thing you want to have happen is to get pigeonholed into a committee assignment that doesn't make the best use of your skills and interests.

3.  What is my role in the organization's strategic plan?

A strategic plan is the overarching, mission-driven picture of where the organization is going.  It's the result of group work and broad buy-in.  It should drive everything from who is serving on the board to staff positions to programming.  If the organization doesn't have a written plan or has one that's no more than just a laundry list of tasks to be accomplished, take a step back and ask yourself "Do I have the skills and interest to help the organization get to a plan?"  That alone could take a year or more to accomplish.

If the organization has a strategic plan and it's a good one -- one that energizes both the organization and you -- then it's worth a conversation with the nominating or board selection committee to find where you can advance it.  

4.  What are my organization's financial expectations of me (both giving and getting)?

Many nonprofits are still reluctant to talk about money.  They don't understand that it's the 21st century and an organization can't meet its mission with just a wish and a prayer.  So, you need to know where you stand in helping to put cash in the bank.  Know that you have to give and get.  How much of each is a part of your conversation.  If you can't meet the expectation, say so -- there's valor in honesty (and usually a solution or two).

5.  How can I best help the executive director?

An important part of a board member's job is to support the executive director in doing the very best job she or he can do.  The executive director needs your knowledge and insights, needs access to your networks, needs you to show up and be counted, and needs your understanding.  You can do all of that and still maintain your oversight role.  So, don't forget to ask "How can I be of help to you today?"

Saturday, November 29, 2014

What Would You Do With a $$ Windfall?


RECEIVING A SUM OF MONEY UNEXPECTEDLY (or half-expectedly) isn't as unusual as it may seem in the nonprofit world. It often comes in the form of a bequest, but it might just as often come as a year-end gift from a loyal member.  Sometimes, it's a grant few thought the organization would ever be competitive enough to get.  Or a local corporation or government acknowledges the efforts of a nonprofit that is making the community a better place.

The question that gets some organizations tied up in knots is how to make the best and most efficient use of these funds.  We all dream about how we'd put a few thousand bucks to use if it were to arrive on our doorsteps, but when actually faced with a check in one's hands, the dreams may be...well... too dreamy.  Where should it go, if the donor hasn't stipulated a place for it to land?

The director of a small cultural nonprofit asked me this question.  After several years of increased attendance and program income, should a new source of funding be used to expand promotion to keep those numbers rising or should it be used toward dedicated staffing that ensures organizational stability and related programmatic quality?  

My first response was to ask what the nonprofit's strategic plan said.  Hmmm....no up-to-date strategic plan.  OK, that explains why the organization doesn't readily know where to put its windfall.  Then how about the mission -- what does the organization say it does?  Where does the mission focus the work?  Once those questions can be answered, then an obvious next question to answer is how can that work be best accomplished?  Answering that could lead to a landing spot for the cash.

And what about that phrase "be best accomplished" -- what do I mean by that?  I'm talking about the greatest return for the investment of that money, because, frankly, what to spend the money on is as varied as those staking a claim on it, but clearly some items have greater mission ROIs than others.

There's also this old notion that I particularly like:  windfalls should be invested rather than frittered away precisely because it's money you never planned on and might certainly never see again.  If you use your windfall to pay the electric bill, you've bought yourself a month's ROI.  If you use it to install energy saving systems, your ROI is a whole lot longer.

In the case of the nonprofit that's trying to weigh staffing against a bigger promotion budget, I see the investment in staffing as having greater potential long term impact on developing and expanding the reasons why people would attend.  Will more advertising about the same old programming really keep attendance growing?  To a point it will, but promotion dollars follow great programming (not the other way around) and what really keeps audiences coming back for more is the talent behind the mission.  To me, that's where I'd put the windfall.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Stagnant or In Motion: What's Your Nonprofit's Mission?

WHAT'S SO IMPORTANT ABOUT A NONPROFIT'S MISSION STATEMENT ANYWAY?  A recent exchange of emails with a museum client about their mission statement underscores the potential they can play in a nonprofit's growth and development.  I've been encouraging this client to go beyond the usual, inward-focused litany of activities that virtually every museum in the world cites as their mission.  Yes, museums collect and preserve stuff.  But if that's all they did, they'd be more like mausoleums than museums.

The museum director and his staff have had several robust discussions about what the museum does and the audiences they serve.  It's clear from their conversations that the museum is much more than a place full of stuff.  There's meaning and resonance there, too.  Sorting through that has been both an intellectual and emotional exercise.

Museums are not the only victims of tepid mission statements.  There are plenty of nonprofits of all stripes that hew to a litany of well-worn phrases and dusty metaphors.  Why do so many nonprofits seem content to go through life with a wishy-washy, nondescript, beige mission statement?  When the competition for audience and money is so fierce, when separating one's organization from the pack is so important, why do organizations time after time turn a blind eye to marking their turf as boldly as possible?  Is there something about having to declare to the world "we are this and we own it!" which causes us to choose the safe position, the middle of the road, neutral over drive?

If a nonprofit is going to stand for something, shouldn't it be something worthy of the blood, sweat and tears we pour into them?  Are we afraid to go too far out on a limb for fear we can't or won't live up to our reason for being?  Fear of your nonprofit's ability to be more than 'meh' for sure won't attract much attention or support....or terrific boards and staff talent.  

Here's where Newton comes in and even though it's about physics, I think it can be applied to nonprofits:  those in motion, stay in motion; those that are stagnant, stay stagnant.

Stagnant missions do nothing to provoke movement.  They are lazy; virtually useless words on a piece of paper that few read and nobody takes to heart.  Stagnant mission statements and the thinking behind them provide cover for tame, even timid, leadership.

Missions in motion call out and heighten a nonprofit's points of distinction.  They draw a clear line around an organization's reason for being and its public benefit.  Missions in motion stretch an organization's potential.  They are energizing, because they are alive with meaning.  And they facilitate big, powerful thinking.  



Friday, July 4, 2014

The Nonprofit Director's Skill Set: One Group's Opinion

THIS SUMMER I'M LEADING AN ONLINE COURSE in museum administration -- a new venture offered by the American Association for State and Local History.  The small band of participants -- most not museum administrators, by the way -- are being treated to the basics of nonprofit organization spanning how museums are founded to issues of leadership.  

The most recent lesson explored the complex and sometimes competing roles of the museum director.  A director has allegiances to both the governing board and the staff requiring continual alignment of priorities and mitigation of distances between the two.  A director also has allegiance to her vision for organizational health, sustainability and excellence.

Add to that the fact that as an organization develops, its leadership needs will change.  What worked for the start-up may be too informal and inefficient for a more mature organization.  The director's role, therefore, is not only played out vertically and horizontally, it's also played out over time.

One of the assignments for the week was to review several job announcements for directors to deduce where the organization might be in its development, the irons it had in the fire, and the skills it was looking for in the next director.  All three pieces ought to link together.

One participant noted that an announcement stated several times that the director would need to wear many hats -- this caused her to wonder if the museum had experienced some prior misunderstanding about staff responsibilities.  I figured it was a really small institution where a new director would be faced with having to prioritize focus and time right from the get-go.

In other cases, it was much clearer to deduce what an institution was looking for in its next director -- building audience, expanding the museum's role as an educational resource, taking on a bricks and mortar expansion.

When asked what the three most important qualifications they would look for in a director, the class responded with a mixture of hard (business knowledge, fundraising) and soft skills (communication, problem-solving).  In the final analysis, the class gravitated toward:

1.  a track record of leadership and managerial experience
2.  fundraising
3.  vision, commitment to mission, and passion for/understanding of the subject matter

What do you think belongs on that list?


Saturday, April 19, 2014

When the Board Wastes the CEO's Talent


A RECENT CONVERSATION ABOUT WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE for ongoing member communications at a nonprofit got me thinking about how boards can, often quite unintentionally, waste their CEO's talent and, in turn, the talent of bright, committed staff.  Boards can waste their own talent, too, but that's the subject for the next post. 

In this conversation, some board members argued that it was the role of the board to review and approve every word the organization relayed to its membership.  Others differentiated between "strategic" communications -- issue briefs, advocacy alerts, statements on future organizational directions, for example -- and "informational" communications, such as event promotion, volunteer or donor recognition, and activity recaps.  Clearly, the substance of the communication seemed to be one (if not the) determining factor in when the board would involve itself in message development and approval. 

However, we didn't get to that understanding until after I raised the issue that, at some level for many communications, we are talking about an operational activity, one carried out on a daily basis by staff who are hired in whole or in part because of their ability to communicate.  The board may approve an overall communications plan; it is the staff, with the leadership of the CEO, who will develop and implement it.  The CEO will determine what communications need committee or board input or final approval before release, not the other way around.

We left the conversation with the understanding that the organization's CEO would be responsible for "informational" communications.  Her judgement would determine if the board or the president would review a message before its distribution to the members, to stakeholders, or to the media.  "Strategic" communications would likely be developed collaboratively with a committee or task force and approved by the full board.  We did not delve into the issue about the CEO spanning the critical space between strategy and operations -- leading or shaping strategy at times, carrying it out at others.  That's a nuanced conversation for another day.

This is just one small example of how boards and their CEO's can get bound up in who-does-what-when-and-why.  Boards are charged with hiring the most capable staff leaders they can find.  Boards that then forget (or fear) their CEO's talent by doing the work of that talent may just as well take that CEO salary and throw it down a rat hole, because they've reduced their CEO to the level of a glorified administrative assistant.  (And even though great administrative assistants are worth their weight in gold, the CEO almost always earns more.  If the board fails to hire the best CEO talent it can find, it's a thousand times better off with a really great administrative assistant.  At least stuff will get done.)  

Talk about squandering human AND financial resources!  Are you listening, board members?

I'm reminded of John Carver's statement “Board members and the executive director are colleagues without hierarchy.”  It's a beautiful thing, but often unrealized, especially if a board is new to having a CEO relationship or it is stubbornly carrying some outdated notion that the CEO is nothing more than their 'hired help'.  

Boards hire CEOs to do mission-critical strategic AND operational work.  Let them do it and support them in their doing it.  Talk that through to clarity, establish policies or procedures, if necessary, but don't do it for them.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

That's Just the Way We've Done it Around Here

MAKING CHANGE IS TOUGH.  EVEN THE TINIEST OF CHANGES CAN OFTEN MEET THE LARGEST OF HURDLES. I recall meeting some serious resistance when I suggested that a nominating committee take an inventory of board member skills and attributes in an effort to help it think more holistically about filling existing gaps.  I thought that was a pretty easy one, but some members of the nominating committee didn't think it was a good idea at all and refused to participate.  

Or the time an organization decided not to seek external input for its planning because it didn't want to raise stakeholder expectations beyond what it felt it could deliver.  Or the many times the hard won work of a strategic planning process fell by the wayside as organizational attention was lured away by yet another new, shiny object.  

All of my examples of change have the potential to raise fear, mistrust, or anxiety about any new approach or philosophy.  And that's the typical reaction of many (myself included from time to time) to change. And that's OK, because most of the time those reactions can be anticipated and largely mitigated with deliberate forethought and effort.

What I just don't get are those nonprofit organizations that see inertia as the safe harbor or the all-they-can-muster.  The mantra of the inert -- it's the way we've always done it or if it ain't broke, don't fix it -- implies satisfaction with the status quo whether or not the status quo is terrific, satisfactory or just barely adequate.  That's what frustrates me the most, I suppose -- the stubborn lack of recognition that there is almost always room to improve and to grow.  At the very least, consider the potential!

Those of you in inert nonprofits know that you have to do twice the heavy lifting to make even the smallest change.  Even though I'm generally not an advocate of change for change sake, there are certainly reasons to do just that.  The inert organization may be one of those reasons, if for nothing more than to break the defeating cycle of that's just the way we've done it around here.

Start small and choose something to change that you know will have a positive impact right from the start.  Maybe it's the way people are greeted at the door or the way they're greeted on the phone.  Maybe it's a different choice of refreshments for a meeting or the paint color of the break room.  Maybe it's a breather in a board meeting to talk about an issue that's larger than the institution itself.

Remember, you're not just making operational change, you're trying to ultimately move the needle on people's perceptions of change.  Two different, but closely and often emotionally connected, things.

Got inertia?  Tell us what you might do to get unstuck.