Dani Robbins

Things Nonprofit Boards of Directors Can Do, But Shouldn’t

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Resource Development on December 13, 2016 at 2:16 pm

Serving on the Board of Directors of a nonprofit is an honor and a privilege as well as a job and a liability.  As with any job, there are things that you cannot do because they’re illegal and things that you should not do because they’re inappropriate and/or unethical.

Here is a list of things Board members shouldn’t do, even though, technically, they can.

Pay Yourselves

I had the privilege of co-facilitating a training recently and no less than five representatives of different agencies stood up and asked us follow up questions when we said Board members shouldn’t get paid.

Here are a few of the questions:

“Can we pay them a stipend?”

“Can we give them a gift card?”

“We really can’t pay them?”

Um…no.

It is not illegal to pay Board members, but it is widely considered to be inappropriate in a charitable institution that is soliciting donations from its community. The one exception is when the (paid) executive director has an ex-officio seat on the Board. Other than that, staff shouldn’t be on the Board and the Board shouldn’t be paid.

You can pay mileage to and from the Board meeting and reimburse expenses when Board members are on agency business. You can, but you really shouldn’t, pay Board members for doing the work of the Board of a community agency.

Assign Work to Staff, other than the CEO

Boards have one employee, the CEO.  Every other employee works for that CEO.  The CEO’s role is to lead the staff, support the Board, manage the day to day operations and serve as the face of the organization in the community. It is the CEO’s role to execute the strategic plan in support of the mission and vision of the organization.

It is hard to sit in a Board committee meeting that is staffed by a senior yet non-executive leader of the agency and not assign work to that staff member. Work often gets assigned in such meetings and it likely there is a process in place for the staff member to go back to the CEO and update her on the results of the meeting. That’s not what I mean. What I mean is the Chair of the committee or of the Board directly assigning work to a staff member, outside of a committee or Board meeting and unbeknownst to the CEO.

When Boards choose to not honor the “one employee” rule, and assign work to staff, it quickly becomes very confusing whose instructions take precedence and whom will be held to account. It also plants a seed that challenges the CEO’s legitimacy.  That seed (of dissent) grows and eventually it becomes difficult for the CEO to maintain his or her position, either because they quit, or challenge the Board’s overstep and are fired.

Hire Staff

Since we’re already here, let’s keep going. The only staff Boards should hire is their CEO. All other staff should be hired by that CEO. There will come a time when you do not have a CEO and also have other positions open. It will seem reasonable to try to hire some of those positions in the interim. Resist!

You don’t know what skills your new CEO will have, so it is unlikely you will be able to hire someone to complement those skills. Unless you have organizational values that you will expect your CEO to honor (which you should also be asking about in the CEO search process), you won’t know which values are important to your new CEO and won’t be able to see if the person you want to hire is a match. It is as likely that whomever you hire will not be a good fit for the team already in place and since you know them but don’t directly work with them, you might not be able to assess that.  You want the CEO to build their own team. That may mean you have to let them.

If you must, hire someone as a temporary with the option to stay at the discretion of the new CEO. That sets the tone for both the new person and the new CEO that the Board understands the difference in roles.

Avoid Fund Raising

Boards are tasked with securing the resources of the organization. I’ve heard consultants say that Board don’t have to fund raise, but it is very rarely true. Fund raising is a group effort, led by the leaders.

The CEO cannot raise money alone. The Development Director cannot raise money alone. Fund raising works best in a culture of philanthropy when both the staff and the Board are working together.

The Board’s role is to set the fund raising goal, financially support the agency themselves, embark on the campaign, open doors, introduce staff, “make the ask” when appropriate, pick up the tab for lunch when possible, and thank the donor.

The staff is responsible for training the Board, coordinating the assignments, preparing the askers with relevant donor information, drafting and supplying whatever written information will be left with the donor, including a letter asking for a specific dollar amount, attending the meetings as necessary and documenting the meeting in the database as well as writing the formal thank you note, and then creating a plan to steward the donor.

Unless you are getting all of your money from program fees, and if you are you may have issues with the public support test, fund raising is one of the five roles of the Board.

Do Business with the Agency you Serve

The law allows Board members to “do business” with the agency they serve if it is at “fair market value.” Do not be fooled. This is a case of the law allowing something that it’s likely public opinion will not support. Just because something is allowed does not make it right. It is an enormous conflict of interest and a quick way to get a spot on the front page of the paper for all the wrong reasons.  If you are on the Board, do not do business with the agency you serve.

What things have you seen Boards do that they shouldn’t?  Any advice to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button. A rising tide raises all boats.

Just Don’t: An Open Letter to my Family, Friends and Neighbors that Voted for Trump

In Advocacy on November 10, 2016 at 9:02 pm

Update:  I took this post down a few weeks after it was written and before the inauguration in the hopes that perhaps something would change and whatever good you saw would come to light.  I have since learned that was woefully optimistic and we and the world are in for four years of narcissism, hate mongering, the potential for the increase in violence against women, the decrease of decorum and respect, and the chipping away of our civil liberties and our rights; all with a decreased ability to address or pay for it. All of my fears have come true. I (still) blame you.

Here is the original post, as written:

Do not call to ask if I’m okay. I don’t trust myself not to scream at you. Don’t drop by. Don’t invite me to things. I’m not coming.

I am sad and despondent and angry. I’m angry at you and your peers. You just elected the most racist, misogynist, and ill prepared President we’ve ever had the misfortune to have to live through, if we manage to make it at all.

Don’t talk to me about Hillary and why you hate her. Don’t talk to me about the economy and why it sucks. Don’t talk to me about whatever craziness you’re telling yourself to justify getting into bed with the devil.  Make no mistake that that is where you are, and now, thanks to you, where we all are.

Do I sound angry? Good! I am angry. I’m also afraid.

Maybe you think you know me, but don’t really know me. I believe women (and men) have the right to be safe in their own bodies and in their own homes. Because of that I spent the first part of my career working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Maybe you don’t know what that means.  Maybe you believe that women who stay in an abusive relationship must like it because they could always leave and maybe you believe that rape victims were asking for it and shouldn’t have been there or wearing that.  If you do, you’re wrong about that too.

I believe that all young people have the right to realize their full potential as responsible and productive citizens. Because of that, I’ve worked in the inner city and in rural communities with young people to make sure they know that what they see isn’t all there is. To make sure they know they have a future and choices and a world that awaits their brilliance and needs their leadership.

I believe that when nonprofits are stronger, communities are stronger. Because of that I work with small to midsize nonprofits so they have the capacity to fulfil their mission and serve their community.

I believe that young people will make our world better. Because of that, I teach.

I believe we each have an obligation to reach back and help up the people behind us and to give thanks to the ones on whom shoulders we stand.

I know that there are people who voted for Trump because they don’t see a way forward.  They don’t understand how they can help their family and their community.  They want change but don’t see how they fit in this new multicultural, technological based world. I get that.

I understand the level of hopelessness that can make Trump look reasonable.  I understand how people who fit in that space can see Trump as change. Yet, and still, I firmly believe that you can never buy anything from a man selling fear.

We, as a society and a world, must find a way to come together and that includes everyone who feels left out and passed by as well as the ones who don’t.  This is not the way forward. We never move forward for long by stepping on the necks of others.

What I totally don’t get, is that those people are not you. You, my friends, family and neighbors, in your nice houses, with money in the bank, food in the fridge, a retirement plan and a job, just stepped on the necks of every minority group in this country, including the ones to which we belong. You have helped to sow my fear.

So, while I’d love to be writing one of those inspiring, uplifting messages that we must come together and work toward change, and I believe we do, I’m starting with this message of anger because I’m pissed and I’m pissed at you. You have put me in this position and I’m holding you accountable.

I have fear in my stomach and terror in my heart. I blame you collectively and individually. Don’t tell me not to take it so personally. It is personal.  Did you watch Michelle Obama’s speech? Watch it now. Or do you only watch or listen to things that reinforce what you already believe?

I have spent my life fighting against this man, not him specifically but men like him. Men who act like women are pawns and play things but not real people.  Men  – and women- who think that their skin color gives them power that the rest of us can’t access.  Men – and women – who think that their religion is the right religion and their beliefs are beliefs the rest of us have to honor, and to whom our own beliefs are irrelevant.

You, my friends, family and neighbors, have aligned yourself with a rapist. You elected a man who made fun of the disabled, and who talks about the inner city as if it’s a war zone, even though I’m not sure he’s ever been in either the inner city or an actual war zone. You elected a man who has screwed over small business owners and students, his own tenants, and those who aspired to be. You elected a man who goes against not only everything I believe, but many of the things you believe.

Your decision has repudiated my life’s work.  It has put my family, and yours, in harm’s way. It has made me afraid. I blame you.

Do People Understand What Your Agency Does?

In Advocacy, Leadership, Organizational Development on July 25, 2016 at 7:40 am

I have a theory that the vast majority of Americans think there are three to five nonprofits:  One that works on children’s issues. One that works on whatever medical issue has affected their family. One for animals. One that provided the day care where their kids went to pre-school and maybe, maybe one that offers a thrift store, which I just realized may be what they think the agency does, not what funds what the agency does.

Yes, that is a huge, enormous difference.

I was driving with a friend earlier this week. This is the conversation we had:

Friend:  It’s so weird that there is a Party Center right next to a Goodwill.

Me:  Why?

Friend, who I know for a fact regularly donates to Goodwill:  The Party Center is for people who have money to entertain and Goodwill is for the poor.

Me:  Goodwill doesn’t serve the poor. Goodwill is a workforce development agency that employs people who have Developmental Disabilities. The thrift store is how they fund their work. (Please see Goodwill’s actual mission below.)

Friend:  Are you sure?  I don’t think that’s what people think they do.

He’s not even wrong. If he thinks that, lots of other people think that too. Goodwill is one of the largest and most recognizable names in our field. What does that mean for the millions of smaller, less recognizable agencies? It means we have work to do, and an opportunity!

Sometimes people don’t have any idea what we do. They don’t know! Even our partners sometimes find it hard to keep track of our work. I once had a conversation with a program officer of a foundation that funded us. It went like this:

Hey Dani, I ran into your counterpart last week from the Boy & Girls Clubs of – I don’t even remember where but it was someplace that I knew didn’t have a Club, but did have a Big Brothers Big Sisters. I mentioned your name but he didn’t know you.

Me:  I don’t think we have a Club there. Could it have been Big Brothers Big Sisters?

Program Officer: Oh yeah. Probably.

If a program officer who we’d been working with for years couldn’t easily remember the difference between a Big Brother Big Sisters and a Boy & Girls Clubs, no one else will either.

There was a study fifteen years ago or so (I looked but couldn’t find it so I’m going on memory here) that found that the vast majority of Americans could recognize the largest agencies among us but had no idea what they did. United Way – in almost every workplace – 20% recognition. Boys & Girls Clubs – thousands of Clubs across the country and on military basis around the world with our logo behind home plate at every Major League Baseball game, nope. Red Cross working local, nationally and internationally, not so much.  Goodwill, in almost every community, clearly not.

We have got to tell our stories better. How?

First and foremost, we each have to clarify how we communicate what our organizations do? Not the mission, though that too, but every day. What does your website say you do?  Is it obvious? I’m here to tell you that for people who are coming at it cold, it’s not always. Sometimes I have to go to three or more different pages on an organization’s website to figure out what they do – and I work in this field!  For someone who doesn’t, I’m not even sure how they’d figure it out.

Make it easy. Put your mission, a short summary of your work, and its impact on your home page. While you’re at it, make sure there’s a link to your leadership, including the Board, and a donation button. Then, put up some client’s stories. If you work in a field in which confidentiality issues are paramount, or a small town where it will be easy to identify someone, create a compilation story and put an asterisk to explain why it’s a compilation and not an actual story.

Train your people – Board and staff – to have a three sentence explanation of your work.  They should also know your mission.  I do trainings all over and when I do, I invariably ask about the missions represented in the room; many audience members cannot tell me their agency’s – the ones that sent them to hear me speak- mission.  If they don’t know your mission, they’re not moving your mission forward.  (It’s the same with organizational values, but that’s a different blog post.)

My Club’s mission was “to inspire and enable all young people to achieve their full potential as responsible, productive and caring citizens.” We did that by providing “after school and summer programming for school age, primarily at risk, youth.”  Now the youth development field calls it “out of school time”, which is both better and clearer and also shorter.

My local Goodwill’s mission “Transforming the lives of individuals with disabilities and other barriers through pathways to independence and the power of work.”

Mission, programs and work are not the same thing. Mission is why your organization exists. Programs are how you get to your mission. Work is the sum total of your programs and may also include advocacy and awareness. I’m separating them out here because agencies often do a lot of community awareness around their issue but don’t necessarily include that information in their program list, though they certainly could.

When I ran domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers we did a lot of formal and informational advocacy and awareness, and a lot of training of the police and medical workers, but didn’t count either as a program. That was a long time ago so I’m hopeful that is no longer the case.  It was a missed opportunity for us.  It was also one of the things that I believe greatly increased our impact, which is the demonstrated change of your clients and community because of your work.

It starts at your website but it can’t stop there. Your people should be able to explain your work, your programs and their impact.  If they can’t easily explain the impact, or won’t be able to answer follow up questions from whomever they’re talking with, make sure they have a staff member’s name to give out who can.

We often only get one shot to explain what we do. Take your shot. Tell your story. Move forward your mission.

How have you ensured people understand your organization’s work? What have you done? Any advice to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button. A rising tide raises all boats.

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