Dani Robbins

Archive for August, 2013|Monthly archive page

Playing Nicely in the Proposal Sandbox

In Leadership, Resource Development on August 24, 2013 at 8:03 am

The topic of this month’s nonprofit blog carnival is playing nicely with others, which I thought would be a great opportunity to talk about the intersection between grant writers and program staff.  As you’re probably aware, the two departments don’t generally play well in the sandbox, or really … even talk. When they do talk, they don’t talk enough or about the right things.  One department writes the grants, the other implements the grants.  Yet, and again, they don’t generally talk, which as you might imagine doesn’t generate the best process or the best grants.

Allow me a minute for a direct request:

Grant writers, please do not write (and later submit) grant proposals promising something the program staff can’t deliver. Talk to them! See what they need.  See if what they need matches the grant request on your desk. Maybe you can create magic! If you can, great!  If you can’t, please do not submit something the program staff cannot implement.  I know it’s frustrating that when you ask them what they need, they don’t get back to you.  Please keep trying …and maybe try a different way.  If you must submit something before you have spoken with them, try to align your proposal with current programs and the mission of your organization. Speak to the financial staff too and make sure they can spend down what you are proposing.

Program staff, please do not ignore the grant writer’s request for program needs. As you might have gathered, or learned the hard way, in the absence of you communicating your needs, the grant writers will assume what you need.  And when they do, if what they’ve assumed gets funded, and your CEO accepts the contract and signs the grant award (and they will) you’ll have to implement whatever it is they promised –  whether it makes sense or not; whether you want it or not; whether it’s a good use of your time or resources or whatever.  I know you’re busy implementing programming and moving the mission forward, but still…please save us all the trouble and just tell them what you realistically need to better serve your clients.

To both program staff and grant staff, please talk more; play nicer; collaborate and coordinate and work together to move your organization forward.

What I’m really advocating for – in addition to improved team work – is a grant coordination plan: the senior staff of the Finance, Operations and Development Departments could meet monthly to determine the priority of funding needs.  Prior to the development staff applying for any funding, the program staff can keep an updated list of programming needs and the finance staff can confirm the financial need and ability to spend the money the program staff is seeking.  When they do, the development staff can write the grants to secure funds.

Once funding is secured – and we all know that funding is far more likely to be secured when there is a good plan – the senior staff can review and assign reporting requirements and deadlines.

Voila!  We have just eliminated the need to scramble after realizing there is a proposal – or report – due for a grant the program staff didn’t even know about, let alone weigh in on.  We have just eliminated the need for the development staff to guess at what the program staff needs and what the financial staff can spend. We have created a smoother way to manage grants and for everyone to play nicer. It’s like I tell my kids: “You are far more likely to get what you need when you communicate what you need.”  Otherwise, you’ll be frustrated and we’ll (all) be guessing.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, go ask any program staff you know about how many times they have had to write a report for a grant they didn’t know was awarded for a program they weren’t exactly implementing.  Or talk to a grant writer about a time they missed a deadline because the program staff wouldn’t answer their questions. Or worse, go outside the organization you know best and talk to a foundation program officer about missed opportunities, monies not spent and organizations not renewed for funding.

We can all play better in the sandbox. Most of us, myself included, have a tendency to avoid what we don’t want to deal with, yet that is precisely when we have to go the other way.  Anytime you feel like you want to cut off contact is exactly the time to initiate contact – to reach out and talk more.  Get together monthly and review your current proposals, the opportunities you are expecting, the reports that are coming due and the needs you have.  Create some boundaries, ensure your needs are aligned with your mission and get to it!

While you’re planning, I encourage you to adopt a process that creates a grant file for every grant submission including a copy of the RFP and initial proposal, the grant agreement, if awarded – or the denial letter if not- and any and all related correspondence, including the website and log in information, a copy of the reports submitted and budgets modified. Anyone who has worked in nonprofits long enough has had to (re)create a grant file to ensure an organization was in compliance, but if we all talked (and planned) more it would happen less.  I promise the people who are standing in your shoes in the future – and each of your funders – will greatly appreciate it!

What do you think?  As always, I welcome your feedback, experience and insight.

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Board Meetings Gone Wrong

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on August 16, 2013 at 6:34 am

Boards meetings can quickly go from productive to destructive in any number of ways.  Here’s a few:

The morning after is too late

I cannot tell you the number of times in my career that a Board member has called me the morning after a board meeting appalled by something the Board voted to approve the night before, at a meeting they themselves attended.  I can absolutely tell you the number of times those very same Board members have voiced their objections in the room: zero!

The next morning is too late.  If you do not like the motion that is on the table, it is not only your right to object out loud and on the record, it’s your obligation.

Sometimes individual Board members come up with wacky (read: dangerous) ideas.  When those ideas become motions that get seconded is when they go from wacky to possible.  Motions that have no second die, and so do the ideas that spawned them.

Motions that are seconded prompt the chair to call for a discussion and a vote.  If you are uncomfortable with the motion that is on the table, I implore you to speak.  Silence is acquiesce.  It is usually too late (and much harder) to address something after a vote has been concluded.

When you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.

No written agenda or an agenda that isn’t followed practically guarantees a long, meandering meeting that will only serve to frustrate those in the room, but won’t accomplish much beyond that.  It’s also likely that such a meeting will not produce formal votes or minutes that capture the work the Board has accomplished – or not as the case is (more) likely to be.

No Strategic Plan works the same way.  In the absence of a plan, you will have a lot of people working on a lot of things that may or may not align because the Board has not articulated and voted upon a formal direction.

If everyone’s in charge, no one’s in charge.

Boards elect Chairs to be in charge (of the Board). It’s awkward and feels weird the first time you chair a meeting, but the weirdness will pass when you begin to lead.  However, not leading guarantees the weirdness moves in and sets up shop.

It’s the forth Tuesday at 4; let’s meet!

Don’t have a Board meeting if you have nothing to talk about.  If there are no committee reports to give and no business for the Board to address, cancel the meeting.

At the end of the day, there’s no accounting for crazy

The easiest way to avoid crazy in the board room is to not let crazy on the board.  A Board Development plan and a formal process to elect board members will weed out inappropriate board prospects, before they become inappropriate board members.

Time of Death: 2 hours after we started talking about this

Discussion that seems to be spiraling can be stopped by two of my favorite phrases:

1. “Let’s call the question” which in Board speak means enough talking, let’s vote.

2. “Let’s send this back to committee.”  This phrase, when used by the chair, is a declarative statement that the board meeting has devolved into a committee meeting.  When used by anyone other than the chair, it is a prompt to the chair that the discussion has gone on too long.  In either case, there should be a vote, reflected in minutes, that the motion was tabled pending the committee’s review and consideration of the issues raised.

What’s the Executive Director’s role?

Good Execs do their homework before the meeting and usually know how people are going to vote before the meeting begins……which doesn’t ensure they will do so.

If a meeting goes off track, Execs can:

  • stall by whispering the potential negative impact to the Chair and hoping they agree;
  • offer to get more information and bring it back to the board at a future meeting; or
  • recommend the motion be sent back to committee prior to being voted upon.

If you have to, you can object out loud and on the record but be aware that doing so may spend significant political capitalIt also may not help, which does not mean you should not do it.

As mentioned in Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive, “worrying about keeping your job precludes you from doing your job. You have to do what you believe is best, based on your experience, information and training, within the boundaries of your role and the law. We all know that any day could be the day you quit or get fired. That can’t stop you from leading.”

What’s been your experience?  Have you seen Board meetings go off track?  What has gotten them back on track?  As always, I welcome your insight and experience.

Governance: The Work of the Board, part 5 Setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Direction

In Non Profit Boards, Strategic Plans on August 10, 2013 at 8:17 am

Welcome to the final post in our five part series on Governance.  We have already discussed the Board’s role in Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive,  Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent, Setting Policy, and Raising Money.  Today, let’s discuss the Board’s role in setting the mission, vision and strategic direction.

As previously mentioned, Boards are made up of appointed community leaders who are collectively responsible for governing an organization.  As outlined in my favorite Board book Governance as Leadership  and summarized in The Role of the Board, the Fiduciary Mode is where governance begins for all boards and ends for too many.  I encourage you to also explore the Strategic and Generative Modes of Governance, which will greatly improve your board’s engagement, and also their enjoyment.

At a minimum, governance includes:

  • Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director
  • Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent
  • Raising Money
  • Setting Policy and
  • Setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Direction

One of my goals for this blog is to rectify the common practice in the field of people telling nonprofit executives and boards how things should be done without any instruction as to what that actually means or how to accomplish it.

What Board members being responsible for setting the mission, vision and strategic direction means is:

The Board sets – meaning discusses and votes to adopt or revise – the mission statement, which answers why your organizations exist.

The Board also sets the vision of the organization. A vision statement is a description of what the organization will look like at a specified time, usually 3-5 years, in the future. There are two minds in the field as to if a vision statements should be a utopian view such as “an end to hunger” or a more concrete view such as “to be the premier youth development organization.”  I lean toward the latter; I find it challenging to set goals to get to utopia.

The Board votes upon the strategic plan, after participating in a strategic planning process “in which the board, staff, and select constituents decide the future direction of an organization and allocate resources, including people, to ensure that target goals are reached. Having a board-approved, staff-involved strategic plan that sets organizational values, includes effective measurements and the allocation of resources aligns the organization, provides direction to all levels of staff and board, and defines the path for the future of the organization. It also allows leadership, both board and staff, to reject divergent paths that will not lead to the organization’s intended destination.” (Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives)

The process – and the document – can be very long or very short.  In fact, I have a new theory that the longer strategic plan is, the less likely it is to be used.  For my clients, I recommend a 4-5 meeting process: We start with setting or revising values, vision and mission and end with assignments, measurements and due dates.

Please do not accept a plan that does not include assignments, measurements and due dates.  If you cannot answer the question “How will we know when we get there?” you will not get there.  A plan without each of three is just a list of goals that are unlikely to be accomplished.  For information on what else should be included in the process, please click here.

A strategic plan should be a living document that guides the organization and provides a point for ongoing programmatic and organizational evaluation.  It should not sit on a shelf.

All organizations should have a strategic plan.  Strategic plans get everyone on same page as to where you are as an organization and where you are going.  They allow the group to decide the goals moving forward; create measurements to determine if you met your goals and assign responsibility and due dates for specific goals.   It is a process that results in not only a document but also a shared understanding among key stakeholders.

In the absence of that shared understanding and agreement, there are still moving parts, but they’re not aligned. The absence of a plan sets the stage for people to do what they feel is best, sometimes without enough information, which may or may not be right for the organization.  It opens the door for one person’s vision to get implemented and others to feel unheard or unengaged.  The absence of a plan allows for major decisions to be made on the fly and for potentially mission driven decisions to be compromised.  As we all know, movement goes in other directions than forward.

What do you think?  As always, I welcome your insight and experience.

Governance: The Work of the Board, part 4 Raising Money

In Non Profit Boards on August 9, 2013 at 7:40 am

Welcome to part four of our five part series on Governance.  We have already discussed the Board’s role in Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive,  Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent, and Setting Policy.  Today, let’s discuss the Board’s role in raising money.

As previously mentioned, Boards are made up of appointed community leaders who are collectively responsible for governing an organization.  As outlined in my favorite Board book Governance as Leadership  and summarized in The Role of the Board, the Fiduciary Mode is where governance begins for all boards and ends for too many.  I encourage you to also explore the Strategic and Generative Modes of Governance, which will greatly improve your board’s engagement, and also their enjoyment.

At a minimum, governance includes:

  • Setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Plan
  • Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director
  • Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent
  • Raising Money and
  • Setting Policy

One of my goals for this blog is to rectify the common practice in the field of people telling nonprofit executives and boards how things should be done without any instruction as to what that actually means or how to accomplish it.

What Board members being responsible for raising money means is:

The Board sets the fund raising (also called resource development) goal; embarks on the campaign; opens doors; introduces staff; “makes the ask” when they’re the most likely person to get a yes (regardless of title or ranking, you always send the person who is most likely to get a yes to a gift request); picks up the tab for lunch when possible; and thanks the donor.  The Board is also responsible for setting the strategic plan which may include a goal to increase contributed income. Each Board member should be expected to make a significant gift, reflective of their personal circumstances, as well as raise additional money.

I do not recommend give or get policies. Give or get policies allow Board members to avoid personally giving; 100% Board giving is critical for a successful campaign.  Potential donors will ask if there is 100% Board giving and the answer must be yes.  Why should anyone else support an organization whose Board members do not? Moreover, how can you ask for someone else to financially support an organization you do not financially support?  I can hear someone out there saying “I give of my time,” and that is wonderful, but it’s not enough.  Board members should also financially support the organizations they serve.

I also don’t recommend set giving requirements. Set giving policies, intended to be minimum gifts, actually end up being the entire gift.  Such policies alienate potential board members who may bring a lot to the table but cannot personally give at the set level.  It also leaves money on the table for people that can give more.  Finally, it eliminates the Resource Development Committee’s opportunity to seek out and personally go to ask each Board member for a specific (to their circumstances and level of engagement) gift.  It takes away the chance to say thank you for your engagement, removes the possibility to steward Board members as donors and minimizes the chance of a larger gift. Any policy that works against your goals is not a good policy.

The Board cannot and is not expected to raise money alone. 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 case statement (also called case for support) and a letter asking for a specific dollar amount; attending the ask meetings as appropriate; documenting the meeting in the database; writing the formal thank you note; and creating a plan to steward (or circle back to) the donor going forward.

The Executive 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 to increase contributed income.

What’s been your experience?  As always, I welcome your insight and experience.

Governance: The Work of the Board, part 3 Setting Policy

In Non Profit Boards on August 2, 2013 at 7:40 am

Welcome to part three of our five part series on Governance.  We have already discussed the Board’s role in Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive and Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent.  Today, let’s discuss the Board’s role in setting policy.

As previously mentioned, Boards are made up of appointed community leaders who are collectively responsible for governing an organization.  As outlined in my favorite Board book Governance as Leadership  and summarized in The Role of the Board, the Fiduciary Mode is where governance begins for all boards and ends for too many.  I encourage you to also explore the Strategic and Generative Modes of Governance, which will greatly improve your board’s engagement, and also their enjoyment.

At a minimum, governance includes:

  • Setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Plan
  • Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director
  • Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent
  • Setting Policy and
  • Raising Money

One of my goals for this blog is to rectify the common practice in the field of people telling nonprofit executives and boards how things should be done without any instruction as to what that actually means or how to accomplish it.

What setting policy means is:

The board discusses and votes to approve (or not) all policies and plans.  Policies are usually recommended by (and often written by) the CEO, also called the Executive Director.  Plans are usually drafted by committee. Both must be approved by the Board.

Procedures, on the other hand, are set by the CEO, often in consultation with the staff. The difference is the difference between the rules and the law.  You can get fired for violating a policy (law), but not usually a procedure (rule).

Policies, plans, and procedures set the boundaries for people to act.

I recommend organizations have the following policies:

  • Personnel
  • Financial
  • Crisis Management and Communication
  • Conflict of Interest
  • Confidentiality
  • Whistle Blowing/Ethics

Policies dictate what happens in a defined set of circumstances.  I occasionally get calls from people who want to create a policy they don’t really need because they are trying to avoid addressing an issue directly.  Do not create a policy to avoid having a conversation.  Have the conversation, and then decide if you need a policy.

That said there are policies you definitely need.  For example (and among other things), the personnel policy determines what benefits staff get; the financial policy sets who can sign checks and for what amount; the crisis communication policy determines who speaks for the organization; the crisis management plan dictates what to do if there is an intruder; the conflict of interest policy states how conflicts are managed; the confidentially policy requires a process to protect information; and a whistle blower policy provides a path to report violations.

A reporter sticking a camera in the face of your most disengaged staff member is not the time to decide who speaks for your organization.  Having a crisis communication policy will make all the difference in your organization’s ability to continue to provide services after a crisis, and the community’s ability to be confident in your ability to do so. The absence of a single point of contact allows for a variety of messages from a multitude of people – who may or may not be affiliated with your organization – to be shared with the community, which at a best will dilute your ability to control the story and at worst will open the door to a new set of issues for people to judge you by. As all of our moms taught us, a reputation takes a lifetime to build and just a few minutes to destroy.

Policies address today.  Plans take you into the future.

I recommend organizations have the following plans:

  • Board Development
  • Marketing
  • Resource Development
  • Strategic Plan
  • Succession Plan

Plans determine what path you will follow in what circumstances.   For example (and among other things), a Board Development plan dictates what process will be followed to bring on new Board members; a marketing plan determines what materials you will create and how they will be disseminated; a resource development plan lays out how you will raise contributed income; a strategic plan states where you are going as an organization and how you plan to get there; and a succession plan ensures continuity by outlining how leadership will be perpetuated.

Plans, policies and procedures can address or eliminate many of the issues that come up on a day to day basis that distract from your mission and moving the needle for your community.

What’s been your experience?  As always, I welcome your insight and experience.

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