Dani Robbins

Best and Not so Best Practices

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Resource Development on February 11, 2015 at 4:03 pm

I’m putting together a webinar on Board Engagement for DonorPath’s Performance Lab series and one of the fun things we decided to include was a list of best practices and also not so best practices. Best practices are a collection of what is considered to be just that: the best practices in our field.

It is a collection of plans, policies and processes that the leaders in our field consider to be excellent and therefore worthy of inclusion on a list. The list is organized by no one and also by everyone.

There are common components of a well run agency and also excellent processes, plans and policies that have been identified by our well respected leaders, institutions and publications. The Minnesota Council of Nonprofits published The Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence and described it as “the fun­damental values of quality, responsibility and accountability.” It’s very good; you should check it out.

Unlike an actual election, and very similar to minority communities, the leaders in our field are not elected or appointed to speak on our behalf. Even if they were, we still may not agree with them. But since they’re not, we should all be clear that there is no officially sanctioned list of what makes a best practice in our field, or even what body would sanction such a list.

I share that to say what I think is a best practice, may not be what you think is a best practice. I have not been elected to tell you what should or should not be included on such a list. Of course, neither has anyone else.

There is absolutely general consensus in the field of what it takes to build a sustainable, professional and well run nonprofit that meets its mission and moves the needle forward for its community. There is much available on how to build a great board, what skills are needed for nonprofit leadership and what well run agencies do. If you’ve been reading for a while – and if you have, thank you – you know that I am a big fan of the following:

Best Practice Processes:

  • Orientation and annual training for all board members
  • Annual self evaluation of individual board members that includes questions about board process and an opportunity to request training
  • Generative and strategic discussions at every board meeting
  • An effective board committee structure
  • A trained and talented staff committed to the organization’s mission
  • A passionate, experienced and respected executive leader

Best Practice Policies:

  • Conflicts of Interest policies to ensure that no one puts their personal goals ahead of the agency’s best interests. (Such policies are also required by law.)
  • Confidentiality policies to protect the information with which you are entrusted.
  • Crisis Communication policies to determine who speaks for the organization in an emergency.
  • Background checks for all staff to ensure you protect your clients and your agency.
  • Never alone with a child, two staff in the building at all times and a discussion and policy about what is appropriate contact with kids outside of the program hours and space are critical policies for agencies serving children.
  • Gift Acceptance policies outline what your agency accepts and doesn’t accept as a gift and under what terms.
  • Term Limits for Officers: 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.
  • Goals and an annual evaluation for the CEO. It is very hard to provide an objective evaluation if goals were not set. By what would you measure performance?

Best Practice Plans:

  • Strategic Plans determine where you’re going, how you’re going to get there and how you’ll know once you do.
  • Board Development Plans help you build, educate and perpetuate your board.
  • Resource Development Plans ensure you can secure the necessary resources to serve your clients and meet your mission.

There are also a few not so best practices that I routinely advocate against.

They are:

  • Term Limits for Board Members; I once heard William F. Meehan III, director emeritus form McKinsey & Company (one of our field’s widely respected institutions) at a Stanford Social Innovation Review (ditto) webinar called Better Board Governance refer to term limits as – and I’m paraphrasing here – the wimpy way out. Term limits allow boards to avoid conflict, and depending on what part of the country you operate and the politics of your community, that may feel like a necessary thing. 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 and engaged board members.
  • Give or Get Policies which require individual board members to donate or solicit a minimum amount of money each year. Give or Get policies preclude 100% board giving. I‘ve said it before: any policy that is in conflict with your goal is a bad policy.
  • Executive Committees that have the authority to vote in lieu of the full board. As I mentioned in How Many Board Members Meeting How Often? “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%.” Powerful executive committees disengage non executive board members, who are the majority of board members, which then creates the need for strong executive committees. It’s a self fulfilling and self destructive prophecy. Disengaged board members create disengaged boards which create ineffective agencies.

Board and executive leadership of a nonprofit is not for the faint of heart. It’s tough; it’s lonely and it’s sometimes scary. It requires a lot of things, but it doesn’t require making it up as you go along. There are best practices to embrace and not so best practices to avoid.

What do you have on your list of best and no so best practices? What would you challenge on my list? 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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  1. […] decides what is and is not duplication of services? Similar to who decides what is and is not a best practice, the answer is everyone and also no one. Each donor and funder decides what they will support; each […]

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