Dani Robbins

Archive for April, 2014|Monthly archive page

Running a One Staff Agency

In Leadership on April 28, 2014 at 10:59 am

I have lots of conversations with boards that have no staff and with executives that are the only staff. We covered no staff already; if you missed it please see Boards without Staff.

For the agencies that have only one staff, that staff is usually the executive director, which make them the chief executive officer. If they have a different title, say coordinator, then the Board Chair doubles as the CEO.

Let me start by saying running an agency as the only staff is hard! Truth be told, running a nonprofit is hard, regardless of the number of staff. It’s a bit harder to do it alone, but it can be done. Here’s how:

The board’s job is governance and the exec’s job is running the day to day operations and helping to develop the board. If you’re doing it alone, start by clarify with your board what piece of the operations you will do, and what pieces they can help you do. The most optimal solution, since you are likely to be the one with the most nonprofit experience, is for you to recommend the things at which you feel you will be most effective and the pieces where they can help pick up the slack. (For those execs that have program staff but no other admin staff, I promise a future blog on that very topic. Shoot me an email at Dani@nonprofitevolution.com and let me know which pieces are the most difficult and I’ll make sure to include some suggestions.)

The exec role is not a role that can usually be done (in full) on a part time basis. If that is the expectation of your board, work with them to create a plan to get to full time, and also to clarify what their priorities are for your time. I recommend you do not work full time while you are being paid for part time. It is a huge job, and you will not be doing your board, your clients or your successor any favors by creating false expectations. While it may be a good solution for the short term, it is not sustainable. Here’s why:

The big buckets of executive leadership are resource development (fund raising); marketing and public relations; program implementation, management and evaluation; volunteer management; policy, plans and system development, including legal/compliance; financial management and board development. Because you know I can’t resist a teachable moment, I’m going to delineate between what is traditionally a staff role and a board role. It’s important to recognize that when board members are serving in a staff role, the final decisions are up to the executive. The exec needs to be able to manage that and also understand where the lines go. I recommend you have this conversation in advance and not after someone has overstepped their role.

Resource Development

Ensuring the resources of an agency is a board role, yet the details, management and implementation of the (board set) plan is a staff role. The exec is the chief fund raiser. It is a role that cannot be abdicated. It is also not a job that can be done alone.

The Resource Development Committee is responsible for coming up with a plan to raise funds to support the agency. For information on resource development strategies, please click here.  In all cases, but especially in the case of organizations with minimal or no staff, resource development is a group effort, with everyone giving, everyone asking and everyone moving toward the goal of a sustainable organization.

Marketing and Public Relations

This is primarily a staff role and will probably be the one most likely to fall to the side as your exec focuses on the other buckets. The important thing to remember is to put out there what you want people to know. This is usually accomplished through the website and the presence of your exec in the community. The exec is the face of the organization, even when off the clock. (For first time execs, this is a good point to remember.)

The board’s role is to set a plan to communicate the work of the agency. In the absence of staff, a Marketing Committee filled with designers, advertisers and marketing people can be very effective in communicating your message to the community. Donors usually only support an agency whose work they understand.

Program Implementation, Management and Evaluation

The exec is responsible for implementing, managing and evaluating any programming being offered. This is a staff role and includes managing the program, probably working in the program on a day to day basis, coordinating the evaluation of the program’s impact and communicating that impact to your donors and your community. For more information on program evaluation, click here.

The board is responsible for knowing the impact of the programs, the number of people served and how those programs tie to the mission. Outside of those three responsibilities, programming is the purview of the exec. Still, one staff alone is not usually enough to provide programming – or evaluate the impact of a program they themselves are running- which indicates the need for volunteers, who may also be board members. In such cases, the exec is ultimately responsible. Still, and especially in the case of impact assessment, it’s dicey.

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.” If you are managing a volunteer corps, please click here to read more of the article Volunteer Management.

Managing volunteers is a full time job unto itself. I would not recommend the exec of a one person agency take on this role. If necessary, and possible, find a volunteer volunteer coordinator.

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.” (Boards without Staff)

The development of the infrastructure is usually managed by the exec, and the policies and plans are approved by the board.

Financial Accounting

In the absence of dedicated bookkeeping staff, the financials are usually managed either by exec or the Treasurer of the Board. The day to day management is the exec’s job and the financial oversight is the board’s job.

When the books are managed by a treasurer is where I have most often seen the lines blur between what the exec can control and what the treasurer does control. It should be the case that the exec has the authority to make day to day decisions within the bounds of his role, but that becomes quickly complicated with a treasurer (board role) acting as the bookkeeper (staff role). If you must set up this structure, be very intentional about the boundaries of each role and what the exec is able to control and what the treasurer is expected to manage, and who will see that they do.

You can’t provide oversight for yourself. Allowing one person to manage and control the money in a non profit, regardless of their role, is never a good plan. 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.  This role is usually supported by the exec and stewarded by the Board Development committee, which may also be called Governance, Nominating, or Administrative.” For more information, please see the post Board Development Done Right.

Running a one person agency is hard, but it is possible to do well with intentional planning and processes that allow each person, staff and board, to reach their goals and fulfill their responsibilities. Each of our jobs is to move our agencies forward.

Have you run a one person agency? What’s been your experience? 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.

Creating a New Nonprofit

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on April 16, 2014 at 10:49 am

I have two clients right now who are looking to create a new nonprofit, and you know two is my magic number for questions and ideas that generate a blog post. As such, let’s talk about creating a nonprofit, which for our purposes today will mean a 501 (c) 3, as opposed to other nonprofits that are not charitable institutions. For more information on that, please see All Nonprofits Are Not Charities.

Before we get in too deep, and on behalf of the people I can hear out there yelling at their computer that the world does not need any more nonprofits, if you haven’t already committed to this path, please click over to read Before You Start A New Nonprofit. There may be options that you have not considered.

If you’re still reading, I will assume that you have done your homework and have concluded that creating a new agency is the way to go. Thank you for wanting to impact your corner of the world and the issues about which you are passionate.

The vast majority of time you will spend at the beginning of the launch is on board development.

Strong boards beget strong agencies. You (and your board once it’s built) will have to set the mission and vision for the organization, create a plan, build the profile, the program and lots of other things to introduce your new agency to your community.

The first official step to create a nonprofit is to hire a lawyer and have the proper paperwork filed. You can file it yourself but I wouldn’t. There are lots of things that I’m willing to figure out (and sometimes learn the hard way), but legal and accounting issues are not usually among them. Once you have filed, usually with both your state and the IRS, you may also need to register as a charity, depending on the state and city in which you will operate.

Make sure that your lawyer has expertise in nonprofit law. If they don’t and you still want to use them, find someone who has that expertise. It can be a consultant, an executive director, or someone who has previously started an agency. Sometimes, lawyers, especially those who are not experts in the nonprofit field, create very basic by-laws, and that won’t be enough. I recommend you start with 12-18 members, not the three that usually get listed on initial by-laws. Three people aren’t enough to get where you want to go. If 12 seems daunting, and you really truly only have 3 people initially, write it as 3-18.

I recommend three-year terms for board members. Try to stagger the terms so that everyone doesn’t roll off at once. It is considered a best practice, by many, to have term limits, usually two or three terms for a total of six to nine years. At that point, really dedicated board members may roll off for a year and then be reappointed.  This is not a best practice I usually advocate.  It’s necessary if you have a board that is conflict adverse. If you have a board that’s willing to address issues and thank people when they’re no longer effective or engaged, you won’t need to say goodbye, even for a year, to effective board members.

I recommend one year terms for officers, renewable once. That may not feel like long enough for the founder and if that’s the case, write the by-laws for longer terms with the understanding that in the future you will revise the by-laws and back down the officer terms. It is not good for an agency to have long term officers. New blood and new ideas are needed on the board to continue to move the organization forward.

Finally, I recommend you create at least three committees: a board development committee to create, perpetuate and educate the board; a finance committee to make sure that the organization is spending its resources in accordance with GAAP standards and appropriately protecting the community’s investment; and a resource development committee to encourage the board and the community to invest in your agency’s mission. For more information on committees, please click here. The committees, once appointed, need to set and meet goals including building, training and annually evaluating the board (and the executive if you have one), personally giving, raising money from others and stewarding the money that is raised.

Once the board is built – at least the first time around – you can move on to other things. As you will find out if you haven’t already learned, board development is an on-going process in any nonprofit agency that never quite ends, but for our purposes, let’s say we’re happy with our initial board.

The next step is mission, vision and strategic (then tactical) planning. I can hear some of you thinking that we should have planned first, but planning requires the right people at the table so while it may look like a chicken and egg scenario, it’s not. You need the right board to create the right plan.

One of the keys responsibilities of a board is to set the mission, vision and strategic direction. The mission answers why the agency exists. The vision answers where the agency aspires to be at a future point in time. The plan lays out the path to get there. Once you have the strategic plan, you will also need a tactical plan to operationalize the work.

Part of the plan, especially at the beginning, will be the program and its potential to impact the community you aspire to serve. Please include that community in your planning efforts.  Also consider the staffing needed to create, introduce, offer and evaluate whatever services you plan to provide.

Finally, create a plan to introduce your agency and its program to the community, including partner agencies, potential funders and donors. This again may seem like a chicken and egg scenario but you will need to have a program plan before you can talk to people about your aspirations. They can’t buy in, if you can’t paint the picture.

Starting a new nonprofit is exciting, and daunting. Like anything else in the nonprofit world, a good board and a well thought-out plan can get you pretty far.

Have you started a new nonprofit? Can you share your experiences? 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.

Executive Salaries and Other Things that Distract Us

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on April 2, 2014 at 2:41 pm

The Nonprofit Quarterly recently published an article by Rick Cohen that was in support of an article published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about executive salaries. Both articles focused on a new foundation executive who would not release her salary during the interview. The NPQ article was called “Top Nonprofit Execs: Why not just Disclose Your Salaries?” As I’m sure you’ve gathered from the name, it was not particularly objective.

The article basically railed against Judy Belk, the new exec of the California Wellness Foundation, and other foundation executives who also were unwilling to release their salaries in interviews. As evidenced by the following quote, it said they were not transparent.

“Belk’s decision to withhold the publicly required disclosure of her annual salary isn’t a limitation in transparency. Transparency, as when Belk discussed her desire to reveal what happens in the inner workings of the foundation when nonprofits submit their applications into the foundation’s decision-making black box, means going beyond what is required by law. To reveal what the law requires is simply the law. To tell readers and constituents that they’ll get the information when the legal document—the foundation’s tax filing—is made available is a bit of a slap in the face and not in the spirit of transparency.”

These are two of the media outlets that support our field and, to me, it seems like they are on someone else’s bandwagon. An interview with the media, even a field specific media outlet, is not the appropriate place to disclose salary information. It will be disclosed in the 990, is reflected in the budget and many organizations that strive for transparency may share their board approved salary compensation plans, as appropriate.

Asking a new Foundation leader to publicly disclose her salary during an interview seems out of line and inappropriate, which maybe why so many of them refuse to do it. I do not see it as a violation of a commitment to be transparent; I see it as the honoring of professional boundaries.

I was always taught it was rude to ask someone’s salary and also to be careful of what you disclose to the media. I’m guessing these other execs were taught the same thing.

I don’t believe that salary is the salient point anyway. The salary is set by the Board, not the exec. If you really want to talk about transparency, talk about the process by which that salary was set and how that salary is justified. Talk about the job, and how difficult it is. Talk about the education, experience and capacities of the new leader. Talk about the challenges of running a large organization and also meeting its mission. Talk about how our field is tasked with larger expectations, and lower tolerance for risk. Talk about how the assumption that we should all work for nothing is detrimental to our success. Those conversations are far more important that the actual salary will ever be.

Let’s stop jumping on the idea that nonprofit executives should be held to a higher standard, while getting paid a lower salary, yet still expected to disclose their salary at other people whims because they are running a charitable institution.

I believe in transparency. I believe in providing financial statements, the 990s and the audit, and even the compensation plan for an agency when appropriate. However, I do not believe an interview with the media meets the criteria of appropriate or that execs that refuse to release such information are not being transparent.

You can probably tell that I am a bit sick of hearing about why nonprofit executives should not be paid a reasonable salary for the organizations that they run. Many of us have significant experience, several degrees and lots and lots of time spent trying to improve our leadership, our organization and our community. Why are we always up against this microscope of justifying our salaries, with such little understanding of the role we are playing and how it impacts the organization and the communities we serve?

I’m not always on board with everything Dan Pallotta says but his Ted Talk “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong” about how we as a society have no problem paying people well who are not helping others but we have a huge problem paying people well who are – is spot on! We have to change the perception that executive leaders in the nonprofit field are do-gooders that don’t also need to pay mortgages and raise their children and shouldn’t be paid an equitable salary for their education and experience.

It is holding us back and every newspaper that jumps on the bandwagon to support that perception is distracting us and our communities from the task at hand.

Have you read the articles? What do you think about execs disclosing their salaries to reporters? What’s your definition of transparency? 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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