Dani Robbins

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.

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