Dani Robbins

Archive for November, 2013|Monthly archive page

The School of Worst Case Scenarios

In Leadership, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on November 21, 2013 at 9:13 am

I always joke that I went to the School of Worst Case Scenarios because when presented with any decision, I try to figure out the worst thing that could happen. It amuses my clients, yet it’s a helpful exercise. Once you know the worst case, you can roll the dice, create a plan to avoid it or decide it’s not worth it. Information is just information. It’s what you do with information that makes the difference.

There are a few plans and policies that will help you avoid or at least address a worst case scenario.

Strategic Plan

A Strategic Plan will keep you on the path that the leaders of your organization have elected to follow. There is less potential for failure on an agreed upon path.

If you don’t currently have one and your agency is not in the midst of a crisis, almost any time is a good time to do a Strategic Plan. There is one caveat: I’m not a huge fan of strategic planning with brand new (less than 6 months) Executive Directors. Give your new Exec 6 months before beginning a planning process.

All agencies should have a plan to align their staff and board as to where they’re going and how they’ll know when they get there.

The only time I flat out recommend against starting a plan is in a crisis. Even if you went to the same school (of worst case scenarios) as me, crises still happen. The middle of a crisis is not the time to conduct a strategic plan. In fact, a crisis is the time to pull out your crisis management plan and also your crisis communication plan. Having these in a crisis will greatly mitigate the actuality of the worst case scenario coming to pass and will increase the capacity of your staff to rise to the occasion. I recommend annual trainings on crisis plans.

A Crisis Management Plan will inform your team as to what to do in a wide variety of situations. Bomb threat- check.  Intruder in the building- check.  Shots fired in the neighborhood – check! Missing child- check.  Other things that are equally bad- check.

Knowing what to do is greatly preferable to guessing when the world is falling down around you. A good plan and a well trained staff can be your salvation.

If you are starting from scratch, make a list of all the bad things that could reasonably happen and then a plan for what your team should do in each case. Draft a few press releases for the files. Train your staff on responding to the media and if you don’t have one, create a crisis communication plan for your board to appoint a spokesperson. Select a crisis response team and keep all of their names and contact information at the end of the plan.

I used to update that list and send out the entire plan every time I went on vacation.  I considered it insurance.

A Crisis Communication Plan appoints a spokesperson and an alternate or two in case the initial person and the first alternate are implicated in the crisis. (Like in the case of the Exec and the Chair having an affair while married to other people; honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) I usually recommend it be the Executive Director, Board Chair and Chair of the Marketing Committee.

Crisis avoidance is easier than damage control. The School of Worst Case Scenarios isn’t a party school but it can save your agency’s reputation and greatly enhance your career longevity.

What’s been your experience with crisis? Do you have great stories to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience.  Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Kool-Aid, Group Think and Generative Governance

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on November 15, 2013 at 8:31 am

There have been multiple things that have happened in the past week that have made me re-consider the phrase “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.”

The first was a Board that was exploring introducing a new funding model. The Board, who had been on the inside of a discussion of culture shift for the past year and were familiar with the materials and the arguments, briefly considered not building the organizational culture to introduce the considered change because they “didn’t think it was a big deal.” And it wasn’t a big deal to them because they’d already changed the culture among their group. They’d been thinking about it and reading about it and interviewing other groups that had already implemented the change and there was consensus among the group that it was the right direction for their organization.

Yet… even when there is agreement on the board, there is still the need to create buy-in among others. Without buy-in the potential for failure is high unless all constituents understand the need for change and the foundation is created to implement that change.

The second thing is, in fact, an illustration of just that. The second thing was a local commission’s decision to put forth a levy in the midst of a scandal. They weren’t wrong. They had done their homework, and looked at the issues and put forth a solid plan to introduce change. It failed, primarily and among other things because even though they had a plan to introduce the change and the leaders of the city were behind them, they didn’t have the informal community leaders on board and those leaders didn’t sell it to their constituents.

My intent is not to criticize any of these leaders. Each was in a difficult position and after considering all the options, made the decision that they felt best served their organization, their community and their constituents. That is the very definition of good leadership. Another component of good leadership is to learn from our mistakes and missteps. To that point: What could have helped? What might have made the difference?

I believe the answer is generative governance. Let’s review how some of the techniques offered in my favorite board book “Governance as Leadership” could have made the difference.

“Silent Starts- Set aside 2 minutes for each trustee to anonymously write on an index card the most important question relevant to the issue at hand.”

What if a board or commission member had written: “How can we engage community and committee leaders as well as those in informal leadership positions who could, in turn, engage their constituents?”

“One Minute Memos- At the end of discussions give each member 2-3 minutes to write down any thoughts or questions that were not expressed.”

This could have been a great opportunity to consider the worst case scenarios and create a plan ensure against such eventualities.

“Counter Points- Randomly designate 2-3 trustees to make the powerful counter arguments to initial recommendations.”

This could have been used to dispel all the arguments against the change. From that discussion, marketing materials, talking points and an engagement plan could have been created.

“Role Play- Ask a subset of the Board to assume the perspective of different constituent groups likely to be affected by the decision at hand.”

A board member could have taken on the role of a member of the community who would be the most negatively impacted by the change and a plan could be created to embrace those constituents and mitigate their impact.

“Breakouts- Small groups counter group think and ask: Do we have the right questions?  What values are at stake? How else might this issue be framed?”

This is my favorite of all the techniques offered. It is the best way I’ve seen to get out of your head, out of the room and really consider all the ramifications of the discussion on the table from all the possible perspectives.

Let me be clear: I wasn’t in the room for any of these discussions; these are my assessments from afar. My intent is not to be a Monday morning quarterback. My intent is always to see if there is a lesson to be learned and how a different outcome might have been achieved. Could generative conversations have made the difference?

When it comes to group think and drinking the Kool-Aid, I try to never forget a church sign I once drove past; it said “Don’t believe everything you think.”

What’s your experience with group think and drinking the Kool-Aid?  How have you mitigated the effects? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Decisions are Made by those who Show Up

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on November 11, 2013 at 10:54 am

My community had a paltry 10% of eligible voters turn out to vote on Election Day. My neighbor said that any vote that didn’t have at least 40% of the eligible voters voting should be thrown out. But, of course and for good reason, it doesn’t work like that. Elections – and most other things – are decided by those who show up.

Now you may be thinking: “That’s nice Dani, but this is a nonprofit blog. What’s this got to do with non profits?” Everything; it works the same way for agencies. Many states ban proxy voting and require email votes to be 100% unanimous. Assuming you have a quorum, the decisions made by the board will, primarily, all be made by those in the room.

That means it not only matters who you elect to serve as Board members, it matters which of them choose to show up to meetings. It’s hard enough to figure out how a large group of smart people are going to vote; it’s even harder if you don’t know who will be in the room. As such, you need to know who’s planning to attend every meeting.

“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.” (Board Meetings Gone Wrong) Even when you do your homework, and think you know how they will vote, a parking lot conversation can change someone’s mind.

The foundation for ensuring you have the right people in the room starts long before a board meeting is scheduled. It starts and also ends with the Board Development Committee.

When you are recruiting new prospects, unless you are willing to change the meeting time, those who tell you they cannot come to the meetings should not be considered as board members. Most agencies already carry one or two board members who consistently miss meetings; don’t add to that count.

The agenda that is set should also reflect, to some degree, the behavior of those expected to be in the room. This is most applicable to consent agendas. When you consider if a consent agenda is right for your board, consider the board members who most often attend. Do they typically read materials in advance or in the room? If they read them in advance, consent agendas can allow more time for robust generative discussions. If they read them in the room, they may not have time to read all the materials and may be voting on things about which they are not entirely clear. If that is the case, consent agendas can create issues of liability for your agency.

If you don’t have enough board members show up, the ones that do will not have their votes counted. Quorum issues are the best indicators of disengaged board. As mentioned in Engaging the Board “If you have consistent issues with having enough Board members in the room to make decisions, I recommend you take a look at how your board was built and how it is being developed.”

Finally, it behooves you to consider removing disruptive or disengaged Board members. For instructions on how, click here. It is a difficult option to consider, but each of our roles in nonprofit leadership requires us to do what’s best for the organization. If the work of the board becomes focused on defending or covering for an inappropriate board member, other more relevant work is not being accomplished.

We can’t always control who shows up, but we can control who is invited to serve. If we build the board intentionally and thoughtfully, it is far more likely that those who show up have the capacity, the wisdom and the experience to appropriately govern our organizations, and our organizations have the resources, impact and reach to change our world.

What’s been your experience? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Boards without Staff

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Resource Development on November 10, 2013 at 10:23 am

We (being me) talk a lot on this blog about the difference between staff roles and Board roles. Let’s talk today about Boards without staff. Obviously, Boards without staff have to manage all the roles, but how?

The Board President acts as the Executive Director; the Treasurer or Chair of the Finance Committee acts as the bookkeeping staff and so on. Boards without staff tend to be smaller organizations yet …it’s a lot of work!

As mentioned in the Role of the Board, “The Board is responsible for governance, which includes setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Plan; Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the CEO; acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent, setting Policy and Raising Money.  Everything (Yes, I really mean everything) else is done in concert with the CEO or by the CEO.” When you have no CEO, everything else is also done by the board.

You may be wondering, what, exactly, is everything else?  Everything else is all the components of the CEO’s role and other staff roles too. For more information about that role for a paid leader, please see the Role of the Nonprofit CEO.  A board with no staff takes on some subset of those roles based on their needs, and their capacity. For our purposes, we’re going to review the big buckets.

Marketing and Public Relations

In the absence of a CEO, the Board Chair is the face of the organization. “That means that everything you do, whether at work, at the store or elsewhere – both good and bad – will reflect on the organization.” This counts for other board members too.

The Board is responsible for coming up with a plan to communicate the work of the agency to the community. Donors are much less likely to support you if they don’t understand you, your programming and your impact on the community.

In the absence of staff, this role is usually managed by the Chair of the Marketing Committee.

Resource Development

“The CEO is the chief fund raiser, the chief cheerleader, and the leader in building a culture of philanthropy.”  In all cases, but especially in the case of organizations without paid staff, resource development is a group effort, with everyone giving, and everyone moving toward the goal of a sustainable organization.

The Resource Development Committee is responsible for coming up with a plan to raise funds to support the agency. This plan should include a variety of options including but not limited to special events; grants and individual giving, including board giving, should also be included.

In the absence of staff, this role is usually managed by the Chair of the Resource Development Committee, which also may be called fund raising.

Program Implementation, Management and Evaluation

The Board, in addition to setting the values, mission and vision, in the absence of staff, is also tasked with implementing, managing and evaluating any programming being offered. If it is a direct service agency, that means they are providing the service. If it is a grant making organization, that means they are reviewing and recommending to their peers a set of funding recommendations. It also means they are assessing the impact of the programming and communicating that impact to their donors.

Whatever the agency and whatever the service, in the absence of staff, the board performs all duties, unless they are also managing a corps of volunteers.  This role is usually managed by the Chair of the Program Committee, which may also manage the volunteer program.

Volunteer Management

“Managing a volunteer program takes time. Volunteers should be interviewed and screened, including appropriate criminal background checks and reference checks specific to the role they will be performing. Once selected, they must be trained. Volunteers need to be matched to work that supports their interest and the organization’s needs, then scheduled and assigned work, which must then be supervised.”

Policy, Plans and System Development

Regardless of the agency and the staffing that may or may not be in place, all agencies need some type of infrastructure. This may include a background check policy, financial policy or program policies. It may include resource development, board development or marketing plans. At a minimum it will include a Code of Regulations, the appropriate filing of taxes and other necessary permits and forms.

This role is usually managed by the Executive Committee.

Financial Accounting

In the absence of staff, the financials are usually managed by the Treasurer.  However, allowing one person to manage and control the money in a nonprofit is never a good plan. As such, it is imperative that all agencies, and especially small agencies, build in a system of checks and balances to ensure the proper stewarding of the community’s resources.

Board Development

Board development “is the intentional process by which the board is perpetuated, evaluated, and educated; it has two parts:

Board Building: A diverse board of directors (thought, skill, race, faith, ability, orientation, age, and gender) that is passionate about the mission of the organization is created through a board building process. That process includes an assessment of the current board and needed skill sets, identification of prospective members, and recruitment and nomination of new board members.

Board Education: Board members will fully understand and can effectively fulfill their commitments to the board of directors when a comprehensive orientation, continuing education, and annual evaluation process is in place.

This role is usually stewarded by the Board Development committee, which may also be called Governance, Nominating, or Administrative.”

Serving on a board without staff is a different experience than serving on a board with staff. What’s your experience serving on such a board?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Unappealing Annual Appeal Letters

In Resource Development on November 3, 2013 at 8:27 am

The annual year end appeal time is upon us! Development staff are sharpening their pencils (keyboards?) so they can craft a letter that will engage donors and encourage gifts to support the programs their agencies provide. This seems like a good time to list out the unappealing and unsupportable things I have seen mentioned in letters over the years.

Last year, I got a letter that said the task in front of us was “insurmountable” and asked for a donation. There is no point in me (or you) sending money to an organization that is facing an insurmountable task. If the task is really insurmountable, how will my donation impact it?  If my donation will not impact it– and obviously it will not since that is the definition of insurmountable- why would I give?

I want to impact issues I care about with my donation. I want surmountable tasks that the agencies I support have a plan to address. Tell me that plan and I am far more likely to write a check. Tell me that you are not up to the challenge and I am far less likely.

I have received requests from agencies asking for money to fill a budget gap. Please do not write in your annual appeal that you have a budget gap and need my donation to fill the gap. I don’t want to fill the gap. There are donors that you can go to in your hour of need to help you meet your budget or stay out of the red but most of them will not be asks you make in writing.

Donating to a sinking ship feels like throwing good money after bad. Only your most dedicated donors will consider doing that. Saying your ship is sinking encourages people to question your leadership. Why have you not met your budget? Are there issues of fiscal impropriety? There may not be, but why open the door and invite those questions? Some agencies have shortfalls for good reasons. In those cases, illustrate the reasons and build your case for support – in person. Donors that you need to save your sinking ship should always be asked in person.

Annual appeal letters are intended to request support from potentially new donors and smaller yet consistent investors who you know and love but who may not have the capacity or the level of engagement required to meet your individual ask threshold, which will vary by agency.

People give to people. Often, they give based on who asked them. Annual appeal letters are a great opportunity to ask a respected community leader to chair the committee and sign the letter and also to have board members, as possible, write notes in the margin.

Donors will support your agency for a variety of reasons but the ones most paramount are gifts given to make the world a better place and to impact the issues the donor cares about. Please frame your letter accordingly; make it about the world and the issues not your agency and its needs.

In closing, I will share that the most recent unappealing annual appeal letter I have received was from a university I did not attend. The letter, based on wholly inaccurate information, ended with snide remark. It said “Don’t you want to help someone the way someone helped you?” Now you might have noticed that I did not attend that university so it’s also safe for you to assume that I did not get a scholarship to not attend that university.  So I wondered “help me do what, exactly?

I use the story to illustrate two points. The first point is this: don’t guilt. Guilt is a terrible way to raise money. It may get you a onetime minimal donation but will not build engagement and will certainly not build multiple gifts at increasing levels over the years. If the initial engagement method is flawed, you are building a foundation in the sand.

The second point is this: get your facts straight. It’s unlikely that every person they sent that letter to actually received a scholarship from that university. Unless you’re going to crosscheck every letter you send against every scholarship you’ve given, it’s better to come up with a broad message that will encourage people to support your organization, without assuming that they got something in return.

The moral of the story is this: know your donors. If the university had, they would know I didn’t go to their school on scholarship … or at all.

What is your best advice for annual appeal letters?  What’s the letter you still remember shaking your head when you received? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.


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