Dani Robbins

Archive for December, 2013|Monthly archive page

How Many Board Members Meeting How Often?

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on December 17, 2013 at 10:46 am

The two questions I get asked on a regular basis are “What is the right number of board members?” and “How often should our board meet?” The answer to both is the same: whatever it takes. You should have the number of board members you need who meet as often as necessary to get the job done.

While, it’s true, I appreciate that it’s not that helpful.  When I serve as an Exec, my preference is a board of 24 members who meet monthly. I also like a range of board members to be included in the by-laws; 18-30 is my favorite. For me, it allows the access I need and the number I need to move the agency forward, but doesn’t hold us back if we have an excellent prospect and a full slate. I have primarily run smallish to mid-size social service agencies with budgets from $250k-1.5M, with 3-5 board committees, some which had 1-3 sub-committees that allowed non board members to participate. I can see why it’s a lot for board members and also execs…yet, the goal is to meet as often as you need to get the job done.  All of our jobs as leaders is to do what’s best for our agencies.

There has been some movement in recent years toward boards meeting less often with committee meetings in between. Some boards meet every other month. Some boards (mine obviously) meet monthly and their committees do as well. Some boards meet quarterly.

I’m not a big fan of quarterly board meetings. They usually require a powerful executive committee to meet in between, which I believe alienates other board members. Powerful executive committees, who have the authority to act in lieu of the full board, take the majority vote and make it minority rule. Let me demonstrate: 24 board members with an executive committee of 4 officers and 5 committee chairs need a majority of that group, the executive committee, to make decisions. That means that 5 people, in effect 20% of your board, are making the decisions.  If you don’t have committee chairs on the executive committee, and many agencies don’t, you are down to 3 people deciding for the board, just over 10%.

Meeting quarterly may also serve to ensure your board members aren’t plugged in enough. They miss one meeting; they miss six months of information. Finally, I am not convinced quarterly meetings are often enough to maintain fiduciary responsibility. Three months later may be too late to get your arms around a budget issue or a program problem.

Still, as I stated at the beginning, only you can decide what the best model is for your organization. I offer some questions for you as you consider the right number of meetings:

Do you have enough time to complete the work of the board?

Are your meetings so rushed that generative and strategic discussions don’t happen, even when included on the agenda?

Do your board members feel confident they know what is happening?

Is the meeting schedule your board follows forcing, either by choice or need, your executive to do the work of the board?

Is your executive missing opportunities because she cannot get board approval?

Is your current schedule an effective model for your organization or merely convenient for its members?

The question of Board size is also all over the map. Some agencies have very large boards, which in and of itself becomes problem to manage; fifty board members is a lot to track, communicate with and engage. Alternatively, some boards are very small and govern enormous agencies with multiple programs operating in a variety of locations. This can lend itself to the executive overstepping her role.

Again, only you can decide what the best model is for your organization.  I offer some questions as you consider the right number of members:

Is the number of members forcing, either by choice or need, your executive to do the work of the board?

Do you have committees of one and, if so, are they effective?

Are there committees you cannot introduce or board work you cannot accomplish because of lack of members?

Do your members feel so overwhelmed that it is driving disengagement?

Do you have a formal board development plan to attract, train, evaluate, recognize and renew board members?

Is your current number of members an effective model for your organization?

How many and how often may very well lead to all the other pieces of board development and board engagement. They’re great questions and great place to start.

How have you decided the answers? How many board members do you have and how often do they meet? 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.

10 Things You Can’t Afford Not To Do

In Leadership, Organizational Development on December 11, 2013 at 9:22 am

I talk to Execs all the time about a variety of topics. The one sentence I hear the most, regardless of field, experience or issue is “I don’t have time.” It’s usually in response to something I suggest that they do.  That’s cool; I was an Exec for many years and understand the job often feels like you’re a running around like a chicken.  However, to not fulfill the second part of that phrase and have your head get cut off, I have a few suggestions of things to do, primarily because you can’t afford not to.

  1. Think Strategically

I heard a great quote the other day “We’ve spent all the money; now it’s time to think.” Nonprofit CEO’s rarely have that luxury.

Leaders need to find time to think. If you have to carve out that time by listing it on your calendar, do so. If you have to walk the dog in the middle of the day, leave early to run on the treadmill, meditate, or take super long showers leaving no hot water for the rest of your household, do so.

Doing what you’ve always done is not going to get you where you want to go. Strategic thinking is critical for your success and the success of your agency. You cannot afford not to make time to think.

2. Read

This goes for reading the most relevant information in your field as well as the most recent stuff out there on leadership. It also includes reading the mail, your email, the newspaper, every single agency policy and procedure and if you’re the grant writer, the directions for submitting and managing grants.

I cannot tell you the number of times in my career that someone has told me a story about something they had to do at the last minute, money they left on the table or opportunities they missed because they didn’t read information that they had in their possession.

Finally, I implore you to read the entire contract that is being put in front of you even – and especially – if someone is explaining it to you and to also read any and all agreements, leases and memorandums of understanding. Never sign something you haven’t read or don’t understand.

3. Communicate

Communicate your vision. People are far more likely to follow a leader when they know where that leader is going. Paint the picture and people will follow. Fail to, and they’ll stand around trying to figure out what you’re doing, which will neither meet your mission nor achieve your vision.

Return phone calls and emails the day they come in or, when that’s not possible, the next morning. When you get an email – reply. I know you’re busy, but so is the person who sent it to you. Even if you just say okay, say something.

Responsiveness, especially in the non profit field, is a job requirement. Lack of responsiveness is a performance issue.

4. Accept Feedback Graciously

The appropriate response to feedback is “Thank you; that’s good feedback.” Afterwards, think about what was offered and decide what to do with it.

5. Take Responsibility

If the buck stops with you, you own whatever bad thing that happens. After it happens, review each step to ensure it never happens again. Recommend new policies and train staff accordingly. Let your constituents know of the plan and how you are going to implement the plan. Hear them if they have an issue, question or concern and adjust accordingly.

If you were wrong admit it – and then make sure it never happens again. Life is about making new mistakes.

6. Give Credit Where Credit is Due.

The Exec gets all the compliments when things go well, but we shine the brightest when we give credit to the staff members that made it happen. Call out staff by name when their contribution made the difference.

7. Be Consistent

You should give the same answer on a Monday when you had a great weekend as on a Thursday morning when you were up all night with a sick child. If consistency is not your strength, take time and care when issuing instructions. Consider appointing a dedicated and trusted staff member to remind you of things you previously said or write them down so that you’ll know for next time.

Changing the world is hard; it’s much harder when we send mixed signals.

8. Recognize

Find a way to recognize your constituents when they do what you expect and when they go above and beyond. Compliment at least as often and preferably more often than you correct. Apply for awards for your board and staff, honor your donors and highlight your client’s accomplishments in whatever manner is appropriate to your field and your community.

9. Say Thank You.

Thank your donors for helping you make the world a better place. Thank your staff and your board for their service. Thank your clients for choosing your agency.  Thank the community leaders for including you at the table. Demonstrate your gratitude at every opportunity.

10. Train your people

Staff should be trained each year, or more often, on the most relevant information in your field and on every applicable policy and plan. If you have policies that your staff haven’t read lately and haven’t been trained on this year, those policies will be irrelevant at exactly the time you will need them.

Board members should be initially oriented and annually trained as to their roles, how they can fulfill those roles, including the boundaries of those roles and any and all relevant policies they are expected to uphold. The Board having approved a policy at some point in your agency’s past is not a guarantee that they will remember that policy when the time comes. Train them on the policies you need them to know.

There’s a great sign that’s been floating around Linked In lately. It goes something like this: “What if we train them and they leave? What if we don’t train them and they stay?” That pretty much sums it up!

What else can’t leaders afford to not do? 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.

Considering Adopting a Family for the Holidays?

In Leadership on December 4, 2013 at 9:07 am

It’s the Holiday season and agencies across the country, and maybe the world, are putting together programs to make sure their clients don’t go without. They are also fielding calls from donors who want to know how they can help. The world is better because of these programs, those donors and their generosity.

I am hopeful that the ways they can help do not include Adopt a Family programs where the donor family meets the family in need. It’s a lose-lose proposition and I have been advocating against such programs for twenty years.

Adopt a Family programs where the agency acts as a middle-man, and neither side meets the other, is a great way to support a family during the holidays! When the agency doesn’t act as the middle-man things tend to go south.

I can totally see why meeting the family is attractive to both sides. It can be a feel good moment when the family in need can express gratitude and the donor family can feel like they are making a difference they can see in the life of a family in need.

The problem is it doesn’t always go like that.

The family in need may not meet the gratitude expectations of the donor family. They may be embarrassed – or resentful – to have someone of means come to their home which may not have heat, may not have furniture and may not have food. They may not be grateful. They may not be even be pleasant.

That’s why I don’t like the program; it’s not a trip to the zoo. It’s not respectful; it’s exploitative. We don’t get to go to the other side of the tracks to see how the other half lives. We visitors from the other side in our nice clothes get out of our nice cars and go back to our nice homes. It’s someone’s life and someone’s family and we don’t have that right.

It’s not always the client either. It works the other way too. The donor family may be disrespectful, judgmental or just plain disdainful.

Why set up either side to fail?

I have given gifts to kids who didn’t say thank you. I have received large checks from donors who called the kids we served “those black kids.” I have had conversations with donors who have no idea the challenges and the sheer willpower it takes to be poor and conversations with clients who feel they deserve whatever it is someone gives them.

I have also, and thankfully far more often, accepted gifts from donors who are so grateful for the world they were born into or created for themselves that they felt they had an obligation to give back. I have also had multiple conversations with clients who were eternally grateful that someone they didn’t know would care enough to make sure their kids had food, clothes and gifts.

I have one other issue with Adopt a Family programs – they eliminate the recipient parent’s ability to receive their own children’s appreciation and see their joy. When you constantly go without, and your children constantly go without, having a day of plenty is an even larger gift than the food or the gifts. Instead of allowing recipient parents to be the gift givers, even the pretend gift givers, to their own children at the holidays, Adopt a Family programs force parents to be in the position of being the gift recipient. They are, but do we always have to remind them of that?

It’s our job as leaders to set people up to fulfill their capacity as healthy, respected, productive members of our community. We can ask the clients who receive gifts to write thank you notes. We can ask our donors to trust us to choose the right family for their giving. We can make sure that everyone who comes into our programs, regardless of where they come from, feels valued, safe and honored by our polices, programs and processes.  We can, and we should.

What’s your take on Adopt a Family Programs?  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.


Board Work via Board Committees

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on December 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Appointed or elected community leaders govern 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

Committees are how the work of the Board gets done. Committees are critical to a well-functioning Board. In the absence of committees, Board meetings become de facto committee meetings which leads to long, meandering Board meetings that tend to disengage Board members. Board disengagement means less effective Boards that govern less effective agencies. Strong Boards beget strong organizations.

Introducing or enhancing your committee structure can be the difference between getting by and getting ahead. It solidifies and aligns the work, which ensures such work get accomplished.

The committees, their structure and definitions will be outlined in your organization’s by-laws, which in Ohio are called Code of Regulations. The by-laws will also dictate if committee chairs and committee members must be Board members. I recommend that the chairs be board members but that committee membership not be limited to only Board members. Committee work is a great way to build the bench of a Board, see how someone works and if they are a good fit for a future board position. Most organizations have a requirement that Board members serve on at least one committee.

Committee members are responsible to the full Board for the research, work, framing of the issues and recommendation in their assigned area.  There are a minimum of three committees I recommend as “must haves,” which are Board Development, Resource Development, and Finance Committee.

There is often also some version of an Executive Committee and there may be other committees as well. Let’s review each.

Executive Committee

The Executive Committee is usually the four Officers (President, Vice-President, Treasurer and Secretary of the Board) or the Officers plus the Committee Chairs.  Less often, Executive Committees have members at large.

Executive Committees can sometimes make decisions in lieu of the full board. This will be clearly stated in the by-laws. I generally recommend Boards only use this option in the case of emergencies. In fact, other than in emergency situations when I think they’re critical, I generally recommend against the Executive Committee meeting on a regular basis.

Powerful Executive Committees tend to disengage the remaining board members. It allows the few to operate without the whole. Anything that contributes to board member disengagement works against the agency’s success and should be avoided.

Finance Committee

The Finance Committee, chaired by Treasurer, works with the appropriate staff in examining the financial reports, understanding and monitoring the financial condition of the organization and preparing the annual budget. The Treasurer presents the monthly financial statements to the Board at each board meeting. This committee also selects an audit firm each year and reviews the audit plan, audit and 990, which should be signed by the Treasurer prior to submission.

As it is sometimes considered a conflict that the committee that monitors the books also manages the auditor selection, it is considered a best practice to have a separate audit committee.  If this is not feasible for your organization and as auditing firms are independent of the agency, this conflict can be mitigated by bidding out your audit and changing your auditor every few years.

Resource Development Committee

The Resource Development Committee works with the CEO, the senior development staff, if there is one, and the Board of Directors in developing strategies to identify and secure needed resources and funding to support the organization. The Committee is responsible for creating and executing a plan to raise money. The full Board is responsible for introducing their network to the organization, attending events, financially supporting the organization and encouraging others to do as well.

Board Development Committee

The Board Development Committee is concerned with identification of new Board members and the development of the future leadership of the Board. The Board Development Committee helps develop an effective Board through its two main functions:

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.

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

With the exception of a functioning Executive Committee, the Board Development Committee is usually the most powerful committee of the Board.  It is often the only committee that you can’t just volunteer for but must be invited to join and is the only committee I recommend be made up entirely of board members.

Other Committees

Some Boards also have program committee, human resource committees and a variety of other committees.

The Program Committee is responsible for the program side of the Board’s fiduciary responsibility. They focus on how the programs tie to the organization’s mission, what they impact, how that impact is measured and the number of people who are served in those programs.

The Human Resource Committee is responsible for the development and recommendation of the personnel and other relevant policies, the creation of a salary adjustment plan and the framework for the CEOs evaluation and succession.

A Word of Caution

I recommend caution when creating committees to do the work of staff. It gets very confusing as to who is responsible for what and responsible to whom. If Board members are acting in staff roles, the Executive Director retains the authority for decision making. If the Board members are operating within the scope of their roles, the Board has the authority for decision making. Conversations had in advance can help you avoid role confusion and the overstepping of boundaries.

Do you agree with my three “must have” committees?  What else do you recommend? What is your experience with committee work? 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.

%d bloggers like this: