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.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Forward Guidance for Nonprofits: Where is it Taking You?


THE TERM 'FORWARD GUIDANCE' IS USED BY central banks to influence market expectations about the future levels of interest rates.  Banks do this by forecasting where markets will go and communicating their forecasts to businesses, governments, and the public.  I can see I've really grabbed your attention now.  But wait -- I'm going somewhere with this concept that has related, but not necessarily financial, applicability to the nonprofit sector.

I'm intrigued by the phrase, which I admit I hadn't heard until recently.  I'm also intrigued with the idea of 'forward guidance' -- of articulating how something will turn out or could turn out based upon agreed-upon indicators, is (or should be) one critical component of planning for a sector as much as for individual organizational planning. 

As the chart above from the banking industry illustrates, forward guidance is a combination of calendar-based indicators and trends and outcome-based indicators and trends.  Look where you get the greatest impact -- it's on the outcome-based side the of spectrum, which combines explicit evidence from past performance with forward looking information.

Forward guidance requires organizational leaders to look for and interpret trends and scan the landscape for potential opportunities and pitfalls in order to plot future directions.  It requires leaders to have their antennae up beyond the institution's walls, homing in on information and ideas that could be of practical use in thinking about the future. 

Forward guidance is about influence and impact.  As with the banks and interest rates, it's about shaping public perception and opinion that supports the need for the nonprofits in our lives.  It encourages people to get involved and to open their hearts and wallets.

Here's the snag: I think many nonprofit leaders are still more comfortable looking solely at past performance as the predictor of the future (the left side of the chart).  It's safe and, well, predictable.  We know the cast of variables and the vocabulary.  Our ability to forecast solely based on past performance has blindsided more than one nonprofit organization -- cultural organizations come immediately to mind, but I also wonder if education is stuck in this traditional approach despite all the talk about STEM, Common Core, and the electronic classroom.

We nonprofit leaders are woefully unskilled at forecasting using different vocabulary or trickier metrics that focus on consumer/community needs and wants.  We rarely receive that sort of training in a classroom; it's rarely demanded of us on the job.  Many of us haven't a clue about what to do with future trend information from across our own sectors or from other sectors, especially how to intelligently apply/adapt it in a timely, proactive way.  

We may read an article, listen to a TED talk, or attend a session at a professional conference that sheds some light on where our sector is/may be going, yet are many of us taking those perspectives and fashioning them into predictive tools for our boards and staffs to forecast the future?  Are many of us assembling forward guidance with the help of our nonprofit colleagues in our own communities or regions?

So, let's think about how we can move from the "least impact" side to the "greatest impact" side of the forward guidance spectrum.

Let me know how you're doing it.  I guarantee there are dozens of people anxious to learn from you.

Quick Update:  Just read this Nonprofit Quarterly article about 10 trends and 10 predictions for 2014 ---  a little forward guidance grist for the mill, perhaps?





Sunday, December 1, 2013

Committee Job Descriptions: The Essence of Group Work

I'M SPENDING SOME TIME THIS MORNING DRAFTING COMMITTEE JOB DESCRIPTIONS, or charges, for a nonprofit organization whose committees have been working without the benefit of this important tool.  You might be saying to yourself, if committees are functioning, why gum up the works with wonky job descriptions?  Isn't that just one more layer of red tape that few people pay attention to, much less care about?

I could respond by saying that committee job descriptions, just like employee job descriptions and board of trustee job descriptions, have the potential for strangling enthusiasm.  Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing until it sloshes over unrequested into the work of others, or when it distorts organizational focus to the point where no one is sure where they're headed or why.  I see this very simple tool as a means of harnessing enthusiasm, not curbing it.

At their best, committee job descriptions provide parameters (broad or specific) that help organizational leaders see how all the parts of their nonprofit universe fit together.  Job descriptions reveal what committees have overlapping or complementary functions (like executive and nominating or board development committees, or education and communication committees, or program and fund development committees); others may not seem to overlap quite so visibly, but all should clearly be supporting the organization's mission and external impact. 

This morning, I'm contemplating the overlaps of an existing committee that has responsibility for ongoing member and stakeholder communications, but also is charged with some program development for the membership.  This is an organization that also engages in very specialized programming for its members, which is generally handled by special committees or task forces.  I wonder if there ought to be an overarching program committee instead, of which communications might become a sub-committee.  I'm not convinced that it should, or could, be the other way around.

Without the job description for guidance, I probably wouldn't be thinking so deeply about the committee roles for this organization, about what the organization needs in terms of committee support, and about why committees are critical to the work and impact of this organization.

There's value in drilling down, in no small part because almost all nonprofit boards and staff need the expertise and wide-angle view that committees, task forces and work groups can provide.  Without a clear understanding of a committee's potential, and how that potential fits into the whole, we are just as likely to squander its value as we are to tap into it.  But who would know, without a yardstick by which to measure effectiveness?  Why take that chance?

Of course, a job description is only one element.  If not used by the committee and attendant staff as the guide it's meant to be, the group's expertise and energy can be expended it all sorts of useful or worthless or harmful ways as if there was no written job description in the first place.

So, get started!  As a full board, make the time to review your organization's committee job descriptions.  Don't be off-put if they need some work, especially if you haven't reviewed them in awhile (or ever).  CompassPoint's 1999 article on "Board Committee Job Descriptions" and the Center for Association Leadership's "Board Committee Structure" (2006) are excellent starting points.  Seek out committee job descriptions from other nonprofits in your community or discipline.  Get a handle on new trends for committee work.  

Finally, I like these recommendations about committees found in "Thoughts on Great Committees" from the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Boards and Staffs: Four Simple Lessons for Building a Win-Win Relationship

LAST MONTH I PRESENTED A WORKSHOP ON NONPROFIT BOARD-STAFF RELATIONSHIPS to members of the Long Island Museum Association. Here's a picture of most of us at the end of the session -- a fine looking bunch, don't you think?


I shared with the participants four simple lessons that I've learned over the course of my work in nonprofits about the delicate interconnectedness of nonprofit boards and staffs.  We may know the accepted divisions of authority and responsibility between them, but they rarely function with textbook precision, even in the best of organizations. Why?  One reason is because it takes work to learn and try to understand the motivations of others.

Here's a possible starting point: my four lessons, meant to be short, sweet, and hopefully memorable.


Lesson #1:  We’re all in this together.   

This is my personal and professional philosophy.  I take to heart this quote from John Carver, author of Boards that Make a Difference:  “Board members and the executive director are colleagues without hierarchy.” 


Yet we need to recognize that boards and staff have defined, but dovetailed (and sometimes overlapping) roles.  The fact is that although boards make policy and staff carries it out, the best work is often born of a collaborative effort.  Boards and staff each bring to the table strengths that can complement and play off of each other. The fact is that the board and the staff both have the responsibility to achieve the organization’s greater potential as well as its mission.  That is huge common ground.  Period.

Lesson #2:  Set Expectations Together  
Once you’ve figured out how you want to work as an organization, you can collectively turn your attention to establishing expectations. Expectations can be easily shattered if they aren’t clear and communicated well right from the start.
Conversations around expectations can and should cascade through your institution:  between the board leader and the director; between the full board and the director; between the board and committee chairs; between committee chairs and committee members; between the director and committees; between the director and staff; between staff and volunteers.  Encourage these conversations -- they help to establish healthy foundations.
Lesson #3:  Work Toward the Future Together
By developing a set of common expectations, board and staff can begin to explore a common vision for the organization that can point them in the direction of future growth and development.  When board, staff, and other stakeholders in an organization start to openly articulate their aspirations for the organization, a wonderful transformation can take place that can be energizing, affirming, and challenging.  Board members and staff are often so focused on the day-to-day challenges of running our organizations that we don¹t give ourselves the time to dream about them.  Make that time.

Lesson #4:  Be Accountable by Measuring Success Together

It wasn’t so long ago that evaluation wasn’t so much a part of a nonprofit’s vocabulary.  Now it is.

It is the responsibility of both the board and staff to ask “How do we know?”

And we need to figure out how we can truthfully and meaningfully evaluate every aspect of our work.

We need to understand whether or not the work we are doing not only is meeting the mission, it is having an external impact on the audiences and communities we serve. Not only do we need to understand the extent of the impact, we need to know what do with that knowledge.  Why?

Boards and staff need to know this so that they know where to best set organizational direction and expend resources.

Bonus:  Use this self-assessment I prepared for the workshop to help you and your board/staff colleagues focus on where you can best apply the four lessons.