Dani Robbins

Archive for January, 2014|Monthly archive page

Board Disengagement in Four Scenes

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on January 28, 2014 at 9:34 am

I received a call from a old friend who served on the board of a very prominent organization. This is the story she told me. I share it with you (with permission) to illustrate both how important it is to institute and follow good process and how easy it is to disengage good board members.

Scene 1: The Invitation

The call came inviting my friend to serve on a very high profile board. She was a little surprised yet also very excited. She asked about expectations; she asked about commitment; she asked about orientation. She received what she considered to be reasonable answers, and was told that a lunch to answer all her questions would be set. She said yes.

The lunch was never set. She was voted on the Board. The orientation was never held. She attended a retreat that set committee goals for the year.

Scene 2:  Year 1, Chairmanship

My friend was asked to serve as a committee chair and began immediately working to build a committee and meet the goals from the retreat. Every suggestion she made was shot down by the executive director. Every recommendation the committee made, with the executive director in the room, was challenged – and sometimes later changed – by the executive director. My friend, who talked to the executive director every time it happened, got to the point that she realized she was spending significant political capital, and consistently alienating the executive director, who had also been a friend, to accomplish something that no one else wanted. She finished her one year term as chair and gave up the role.

She thought the executive director was so happy to have her out of the role that it never occurred to him to ask why. It’s possible the remainder of the executive committee felt the same way; they didn’t ask either.

Scene 3: Year 2, Gamesmanship

My friend continued to attend board meetings, missing only one or two, yet every suggestion she made in the room, usually based on best practices in the field, was challenged by members of the executive committee. The suggestions she offered were later introduced by other committees as their own work.

My friend felt alienated and disillusioned, and while she loved the organization, she didn’t love her experience in governing it.

Scene 4: Year 3, Disengagement

The next retreat was set and a board survey was sent out. She was honest with her concerns and her experience. She shared that she was troubled that the board didn’t have a strategic plan and hadn’t set any goals for the executive director. She shared that it felt like the organization was governed by a select few and the rest of the board were just in the room. She voiced her concerns within the bounds of the survey questions.

The retreat agenda came out; it didn’t reflect any of the issues she raised. My friend described it as a meeting to set strategies for a goal that did not exist, or at a minimum had not been communicated.

She continued to attend board meetings and participate marginally. A few months before her term expired she sent a note thanking the executive committee for the opportunity and asking to not be considered for a 2nd term.

She may be one of the few board members in the history of this high profile organization, with its high profile board, who declined a second term.

No one asked why.

The Scenes that Didn’t Happen

My friend didn’t share her frustrations outside of her conversations with the executive director when she was a committee chair and inside the boardroom. She did share her suggestions within the boardroom but (possibly inaccurately) felt from the responses she got to her ideas that there would be nothing to gain from sharing her frustrations.

The executive director, with whom she did meet occasionally, never asked her how she was enjoying her term.  There was no conversation about her goals for service and if those goals had been met.

The board chair never called to check in. Neither did the board development chair.  There was no assessment of her service or to gauge her opinion of board process.

The Lessons for the Rest of Us:

Board disengagement happens while good, dedicated, people are focused on other things. It’s rarely intentional, and quite detrimental. It’s what stands in the way of our boards, and therefore our agencies, fulfilling our missions, which would be more easily accomplished if everyone was on point, on the team and moving the organization forward.

There are a few ways to avoid it.

Talk to your board members – the ones you serve with or serve! Check in with each of them individually to see how they are enjoying their experience. If they have goals, find out if you are meeting them?  If they’re frustrated, find out if there are things you can do to address their issues? Find out if there are opportunities to improve board process.

Information is information. Ask the questions. Get the answers. Once you have the information you can decide what to do with it. It’s what we do with the information presented to us that separates the good leaders from the great!

Have you served on a board where you felt marginalized and ineffective? What did you do? What would you have told my friend? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Raising our Collective Standards

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on January 20, 2014 at 9:02 am

The low expectations we have of each other never cease to amaze and disappoint me. For the second time in 6 months I have read a piece on giving stipends to the poor and the (shocking?!?) benefits to the family. Why would poor people make any worse decisions on how to spend their money than anyone else?  It further reinforced the thought I’ve returned to again and again in the past few weeks – our expectations and our standards are too low.

I had a board chair that always used to say “kids will raise themselves to your expectations or lower themselves to your suspicions.”  I have come to believe two points: that doesn’t apply only to kids and that we need higher expectations.

If we as nonprofit leaders serve to change the world, and I believe we do (If you don’t, perhaps there is a better suited role for you elsewhere) then it seems to me that we need to roll that intent down through everything we do. As of today, we are not. There are a small amount of great agencies out there doing great work. More often there are agencies that are great at one thing, and mediocre at others. So perhaps the program is strong but the board is weak. Or the grant writing is strong, but the books are un-auditable. Or the executive is well trained but the staff is not. It happens all the time in every community, yet we all know that when any non profit anywhere does something unethical, illegal or inappropriate we are all painted with that same brush.

I know (and hate) that everything gets graded on a bell curve and that means our agencies do as well. Yet, I don’t accept the premise that that’s as good as it’s going to get and I have to learn to live with it. I want more, and I especially want more from the agencies that are serving the most disadvantaged among us.

If we want people to raise themselves to our expectations – and I do – then we have to have higher expectations! Those should include expecting:

  • our executives to be strong leaders
  • our staff to provide great services
  • our boards to uphold their governance responsibilities
  • our clients to achieve whatever plan they have agreed to achieve
  • our partner agencies to be ethical and impactful
  • our communities to understand how nonprofits work, hold us accountable and help us thrive.

We teach people how to treat us. If that’s true, we as a field have taught people to treat us poorly. We have accepted agencies doing work that is not impactful. We have allowed staff members to remain even as we are clear they are not moving our teams or our missions forward. We have created boards that do little more than rubber stamp the executive’s ideas. We have not challenged often and blatantly enough the ridiculous idea that poor people are poor because of the decisions they made, rather than of policies and circumstances we as a society either made or allow. We have failed to demonstrate that prevention is a million times better and less expensive than the alternative. We have accepted mediocrity or worse, let it flourish.

There’s an idea referred to as Exit, Voice and Loyalty, which is not exactly an accurate reflection of a book by the same name. The premise of the idea (again, not precisely the book) is that there are three options when responding to something with which you are unhappy.

  1. Exit: You can leave.
  2. Voice: You can say something.
  3. Loyalty: You can stay (and be quiet – this is where the idea breaks from the book).

When to leave? When to stay? When to speak up? When to stand down?  It’s very clear and very easy. Three choices. Which do you pick?

We have all worked for bad managers. We have all seen things that are unacceptable to us. We have served under executives that were ineffective and on boards that were as well. We have lived in communities where nonprofits are trying to make a difference and some clearly are, and some clearly are not.

We can change the equation by changing our expectations. Higher expectations will bring greater rewards, and also more resources. What could we as a field accomplish then?

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I want more from the world and I especially want more from our nonprofits. I want them to be better run, with better boards and better staff providing better services.

I don’t want our field to be the least respected field- the third rail of fields. I want it to be the most respected!

Leadership is hard; so is changing the world. Let’s raise the standards; raise our expectations; raise the discussion and raise the issues, each time and every time. Let’s raise more money, too, so we can expand our reach and our impact. If we do, we can raise our field – maybe to becoming the most respected field, which is where we should have been all along.

What do you think is the price of low expectations?  Do you have any stories 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 to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Are your Actions Conflicting with your Goals?

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on January 10, 2014 at 9:07 am

I’m always fascinated by the number of things people do that are in direct conflict with their goals. My dog does a perfect illustration of this: He gets so excited when we have visitors that he acts inappropriately and gets put outside or crated, which prevents him from meeting his goal of being loved by our visitors. He is not alone. Leaders and organizations do the same thing!

This week, since it’s a new year and many people in my personal and professional lives have begun working on new goals, I’ve been thinking about the intent of those goals.  I love goals that are intended to get everyone on the same page and align the work of an organization.

I do not love goals that are intended to motivate people, and I’m not even clear why we would need to do that. Employee goals intended to motivate don’t make any sense to me and, honestly, I don’t find them motivating. In fact, I find them de-motivating, and also slightly insulting.

High performers – a group I like to count myself among – will do their very best every day, aligned with the work they’ve been assigned and the expectations of their position, and not in any way because of the goals they’ve been assigned. They will do their best because it’s who they are and the work ethic they possess. It is our job as leaders to demonstrate our vision and hire, support, groom and develop high performers who can help us reach that vision.

Let me be very clear, I absolutely and unequivocally believe that leaders must set expectations for staff and also evaluate those staff based on the expectations set. I also believe that the job of the executive is to implement the strategic plan which doubles as their goals. In the absence of a plan, it is the board’s job to work with the exec to set the expectations by which they will evaluate that exec’s performance at the year’s end. Those expectations (call them goals if you must) should not be set to motivate your exec. They should be set to align the work of the organization, ensure everyone is on the same page and provide a process for evaluation. If you have to set goals to motivate your exec, you have the wrong exec.

We, as leaders, should all strive to have as many high performers as we can possibly attract and afford.  It begs the question: are the goals we are setting for high performers alienating those performers? I think they might be. I’m beginning to believe that employee goals that are intended to motivate people are lowering our standards, teaching to the middle, and working in direct conflict of our actual goals of meeting our missions and achieving our organizations’ visions.  You know, I believe that any action, process, policy or procedure that is in conflict with our goal is a bad action, process, policy or procedure. I am starting to believe that goals that are intended to motivate are just that.

Once, many years ago and before I really understood resource development and major donor cultivation, I was running an agency that attracted about $50,000 of contributions from individuals each year. My Board Chair wanted to set a goal for me of $1,000,000. One million dollars! Yes, your math is right and that would have been 20 times the annual giving received by that agency. He called it a stretch goal. Rather than inspire me to reach that goal, it created enormous anxiety for me. How in the world – with no change in staffing, no change in process or a new program or project to announce – was I going to raise 20 times our current contributed income?  I wasn’t. Thankfully, I was able to explain my position and get him to revise my goals. To his credit- and this may have been his intent all along – I ramped up my own knowledge and capacity for raising money and cultivating and retaining major donors giving major gifts.

I did raise that amount and more a few years later, but not because of a goal and not, by any stretch of the imagination, alone. I did it with a change in staffing, a more developed board, several changes in process and a huge project that addressed a significant gap in service that I was committed to rectify.

Wanting something doesn’t make it a good goal. If you set goals, set them to recognize, hire and retain high performers.  Set them to align the work of your agency. Set them to have some way to evaluate your executive. Make your goals doable, with systems to support them and a path to achieve them.

Don’t set goals to motivate people! We should not be using goals to motivate. We shouldn’t have to. The work we do and the communities we serve should motivate our team toward greatness.  If they don’t, we have built the wrong team and no amount of goal setting is going to rectify that.

What do you think about goals being used to motivate staff?  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.

5 Things Non Profits can Strengthen in 2014

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Resource Development on January 3, 2014 at 11:45 am

A new year is upon us. As I’m sure you are aware by now, I like to reflect back on things that have occurred and create a plan to avoid their reoccurrence.  As such, I’ve been thinking about things our field can do to be stronger.

1. Build Better Boards

You’ve seen me write it before and it’s still true, everything flows from the board. Weak boards hire weak leaders who manage weak agencies. Sometimes it goes the other way, weak boards hire strong leaders who do whatever they want because the board is asleep at the wheel. Neither contributes to effectively governed agencies.

Strong boards hire strong leaders who build strong agencies.

For more information on building strong boards, please see previous posts on board development.

2. Create Succession Plans

Agencies that have great leaders need to plan for that leader’s transition as much as agencies with weak leaders.  In fact, and among other things, one of the signs of a great leader is the strength of the agency once they’re gone.

Whether your exec gets fired, wins the lottery and moves to Jamaica, or retires after decades of excellent service, your board will need a plan to hire a new leader.

The Anne E. Casey Foundation’s Building Leaderful Organizations  and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Nonprofit Executive Succession Planning Toolkit, offer a comprehensive look at planning. Each may be much broader than you need, but both can help you figure out what you need.

3. Build Capacity

Most agencies and most leaders, even and especially the ones that are great, can continue to build their capacity. Whether you have experienced tremendous growth, have a new leader, have downsized and now want to rebuild or if you just want to increase your strength, capacity building is the way to go.

Some larger national organizations have proprietary capacity building tools. If you are a part of a national organization, ask if such a thing has been created. If it has, use it. If it hasn’t, suggest it.

For those of you who are standing alone, The Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Organizational Capacity Assessment tool is the best and most comprehensive I have seen. “It is a self-assessment instrument that helps nonprofits identify capacity strengths and challenges and establish capacity building goals.  It is primarily a diagnostic and learning tool” that was designed to help agencies serving low income communities.  Even if your agency has nothing to do with that community, this tool can help your agency be stronger.

4. Consider Mergers

There are lots and lots of organizations out there, some doing very similar work with very similar values.  If your agency is struggling, is strong or you have a leadership transition, it might be a good time for your board to consider merging with another organization. The decision may be no, but it is an option worth putting on the table.

Again, some larger national organizations have merger tools. If you are a part of a national organization, ask if such a thing has been created.  If it has, use it. If it hasn’t, suggest it.

For those of you who are standing alone, I encourage you to reach out to your local community foundation or local nonprofit resource center for assistance.  Here are a few links for your consideration:

Bridgespan’s Nonprofit M&A: More Than a Tool for Tough Times

Wilder Research’s What do we know about nonprofit mergers?

And from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, a report with the same title What do we know about nonprofit mergers?

The larger our field grows, the more we will compete for limited resources.  Can we be stronger together?

5. Get Better at Communicating with Donors

I am consistently surprised by the way some non profits communicate with their donors, or don’t, as the case may be. Here are some questions for you to assess your donor communication practices:

  • Do donors receive a formal thank you note, on letterhead, that includes the amount of their gift within 48 hours of your receipt of their gift, regardless of the gift amount?
  • Does it include the appropriate IRS language?
  • Does someone call to say thank you to your largest donors?
  • Does your Exec or a member of your board call those donors periodically to update them on the agency’s activities?
  • Do you have a gift acceptance policy?
  • Do you have a development plan?

If the answers is no to any of these questions, that is a great place to ramp up your practices.

For more information on resource development, please see previous development posts and Donor Dreams, for which I also blog.

The non profits in my community and communities across the country and the world are moving the needle on the issues they exist to impact.  With on-going assessment, the implementation of best practices and constantly striving to be better and do better we can continue to make our world better.

How do you think we can best strengthen our field?  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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