Dani Robbins

Archive for the ‘Strategic Plans’ Category

Does Your Agency Aspire to Social Justice or Charity?

In Advocacy, Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on May 23, 2017 at 11:40 am

The two questions I repeat the most, in both my classes and in my practice, are these: What’s the goal?  Who decides?

What’s the goal?

Is your agency’s goal to be the best food pantry (or any other service providing/safety net charity)? Or is it to address the underlying issues related to food scarcity (or any other complicated, multi-layered critical issue)?  If it’s the former, that’s charity.  If it’s the latter, that’s social justice.

Social Justice is working to change systemic issues. Charity is responding to immediate needs.  As anyone who has ever taken my class or worked in our field will tell you, we need both.  We’re not going to ignore the hungry child in front of us to work for social justice. Yet, we can’t only get food for those who are hungry, because the root causes are what’s causing food scarcity.

Every person who serves a nonprofit has to decide where to plug in. Every staff member. Every researcher. Every leader. Every volunteer. Every donor.

What’s the goal?

Do we keep fishing cats out of the river, or look upstream and deal with whatever or whoever is causing the cats to be in the river? What’s the goal? (It’s a handy question.)

Nonprofit Boards, in concert with their CEO, set the goal. The goal sets the path. (This could be a great generative conversation for a future Board meeting.)

If the goal is to be the best food pantry, and there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be the best food pantry –  unless your goal is social justice, and then you’re on the wrong path. The path supports the work toward the goal.

Maybe you want both?  I always did. I wanted to run the best agency I could, doing good work, meeting our mission, with a well trained, dedicated and talented Board and staff, serving our clients with dignity AND I want to work with my community partners to eliminate the need for my agency.

That means dual goals with dual paths. You can be the best food pantry and also work with community partners to eliminate food scarcity.  Food scarcity, and all systemic issues, is a big scary multi layered bucket of issues that include privilege, implicit bias, legal and policy challenges, poverty elimination, racism, sexism, classism, housing, school funding imbalances, and lots of other things that are hard to tease out and even harder to solve.

Being the best is a go it alone, we have the answers, and we’ll get it done model. It’s a bit more territorial and a lot less collaborative, but it’s not ineffective and sometimes the circumstances call for it.

Am I competing against my partner agencies for funding?  Sometimes I am. Does that mean I can’t also work with them to address the underlying issues in our community. Some will tell you it does.  I’m here to tell you it doesn’t.  Where you sit always determines where you stand.

It’s why your values have to match your agency’s policies and its aspirations?  As I mentioned in Reflecting on my Pursuit of Social Justice “saying you value one thing but actually doing another sends a very inconsistent and confusing message. If we want our teams to live our values, then we have to live them and our policies and systems have to reflect them.”

Who Decides?

You do, collectively and individually. You decide at the agency level.  You decide at the community level. You decide at your leadership level- on your team, in your neighborhood.  Every day.  With every decision. Every donation. Every allocation. Every choice.

There was a great piece on NPR this morning  In Some Rural Counties, Hunger Is Rising, But Food Donations Aren’t looking at just this issue. It’s not just SW Virginia.  There are communities across the country that are discussing systemic issues and setting goals for change in their community.  I’m proud to tell you that several of those cities are in Ohio; Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus have been and continue to have these conversations.

I’m hoping it’s a national trend. Even if it’s not yet a trend that has come to your community, you can still move toward social justice.

We each get to decide if we run our agencies to be the best organization alone or if we work together to eliminate the need for all of our agencies, because we addressed the systemic issue requiring our agencies.  How?

By deciding to be less territorial and more collaborative. Call your partners and other leaders in your community who work on like issues and invite them to discuss the options. Are you ready to set a Theory of Change for your community?  If so, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has a great manual on how.

Before you do, you might have to stop being afraid of scarcity and start embracing abundance.  If you’re currently looking at the world and your ability to impact change as a zero sum game –  and it’s how many of us have been trained to think –  I invite you to read Agreements, Vibrancy and Abundance.

We can change our corner of the world alone at our desks or we can do it together.  If our goal is social justice, together will get us farther, faster.

What’s your experience standing in the breech between social justice and charity.  Where did you elect to stand? 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.

The Thing About Nonprofit Leadership

In Non Profit Boards, Leadership, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on April 13, 2017 at 9:49 am

One of the honors of my professional life, in addition to leading nonprofits and working toward social justice, is teaching at the Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University. The students are so earnest and bright! Every semester, and sometimes every week, a student tells a story and I answer, “that was a leadership decision.”

  • A donor wants to control the programming; that’s a leadership decision.
  • A Board member wants you to co-mingle grant money; that’s a leadership decision- and a teachable moment.
  • A parent challenges a procedure; that’s a leadership decision.

How you react is the difference between an agency that flourishes and one that struggles.

Donors, community leaders and others may want your agency to go in a way that is contrary to your agency’s agreed upon strategic direction. (Saying no to those requests, alone, is worth the investment in a strategic plan.) They may want you to do something with their gift that is against your values. Their values may be contrary to your organizational values. They may not want you to go in the direction that the Board has set.

That is the beauty of a strategic plan. In addition to aligning the work of an agency and getting everyone on the same page working toward the same goals, it allows the CEO to say no. Or, if the opportunity is so fabulous that no is not the right answer, to bring the idea to the Board for their consideration. That, too, is a leadership decision.

It’s easy to say yes. Someone brings you something, you say yes. They go away happy. No, on the other hand, engenders the completely opposite reaction. It’s hard to say no. It’s also critical to your and your agency’s success.

Those are not even, or by a long shot, the only decisions you will make or the only people to whom you will say no. Here’s some more:

  • A funder wants you to apply for a new grant. It’s a lot of money but it’s not exactly what your agency does. Do you say no? (Yes, you do.) Can you? (You can.) Do you follow the money? (No.)
  • A staff member does something that is against the spirit of a policy (or the law) but not technically the letter of that policy (or the law).
  • The Executive Board regularly makes decisions in lieu of the full Board, which very well may be codified in your by-laws. (I recommend that clause is only used in the case of emergency.) That, too, is a leadership decision and while it’s not your decision as the CEO, it’s totally your problem. Fix it.

Your Board members will be as aware of their role as the person who trained them, which may have been no one. If you want your Board to speak with one voice, to understand their role and the expectations of that role, to understand your role, and the responsibilities within each, you will have to train them.

You will get the Board you build; some might say (have said) you will get the Board you deserve. The nonprofit Board structure is an illustration in opposites. CEOs serve at the pleasure of their Board. Our Boards are intended to be representative of the community we serve. We want and need a diverse mix of Board members, with a diverse set of experiences, and a diverse set of skills, who have the time, talent and treasure to help us move our missions forward. It is also true that nonprofit CEOs – many of whom have spent our lives in this field and have advanced degrees, decades of experience working on the issues our agency exits to address, and significant knowledge of board process, nonprofit governance and the law – may be reporting to a group of people who have none of the above.

It’s why building your Board is so critical. You can get a lot done on sheer willpower and many nonprofit CEOs have, but your agency will be unstoppable when your Board is trained to their role and fulfilling that role.

Everyone has different goals and often different priorities. It’s why it’s so important to define both for an agency.

That’s the thing about leadership, whatever you allow, whatever you promote, whatever you support, overtly or implicitly, intentionally or accidentally, you own.

The other thing is this: you also own the decisions the people who report to you make. How you react afterward? That’s all you!

We all know that any day could be the day we quit or get fired. There’s still a job to do – and you’re in the chair. Decide wisely.

What’s your experience with leadership decisions? Do you have a story you can share?  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.

Creating Board Buy-In

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on March 18, 2016 at 9:00 am

I have found myself uttering this statement more than a few times in the last month: “If you include your team- board or staff- in the direction setting process, they will be more willing and likely to execute the strategies needed to accomplish the goal.” The only way to get buy in on a plan is to create it and the only way to create it is to involve people in the process, and then continue to engage them in the execution.

I know dozens of nonprofit CEOs, maybe hundreds. Each and every one of them gets up every day to do what they believe is best for their organization. Yet, they don’t always build the buy-in to accomplish the goals. Then they get frustrated because the board doesn’t participate. Or the board gets frustrated because they believe their time is not being valued or their input is not being sought. Or the staff gets frustrated because they’re being instructed on what to do without being told why, or sometimes how.

Why is this happening so consistently in our sector? Because many of our leaders have been trained on a premise that is inaccurate. The premise is that it is the CEO’s role to set the strategic direction and everyone else will fall in line. That is just not the case. It may be the case in the for profit field and because our field reflects so much of that field it gets very confusing. In the nonprofit field, one of the 5 roles of the Board is to set the Mission, Vision and Strategic Direction of an agency. That is not a role that can be farmed out to the Executive Director.

Here is some evidence of the faulty premise based on actual statements I have heard people say over the last 10 years, paraphrased and possibly softened or hardened over time and repetition. (I could go back further, but why?)

I Don’t Want to Bother Them

“My board is busy.” “My board is powerful” “They don’t have time for this.” All of which may be true. That is probably what attracted them to you and you to them, but they have the job. They have been appointed to govern your agency. This is governance.

I Don’t Trust Them

“This is my agency; it’s my baby.” “They may choose to go a different direction than the direction I want to go.”

One of the hardest pills to swallow for founders and executives who didn’t come up through our field is this one, very large, point: We are professional nonprofit leaders working for a Board that may not be as well versed in nonprofit law, the issue our agency exists to impact or Board process.

That Board has collectively been appointed to govern our agency. They speak with one voice and with that voice can fire us, the agency’s leader, change the agency’s mission and do whole lot of other things, some of which has the potential to be damaging, and not only to us.

It’s why building and training the board is so important. It’s why professional development for you and your team is so valuable. It’s why setting a strategy that everyone has bought into is critical.

Without each, there is the very real potential for chaos.

Why is my Board not more involved?

“Why don’t the committees meet?” “What are they not helping me raise money?” “I don’t have time have to stop what I’m doing to help them do it.” “Shouldn’t they already know this stuff?”

You’ve heard me say it before: You will be subject to whomever trained your board members before they came to you, which may be no one. If you want your Board to speak with one voice, to understand their role and the expectations of that role, to understand your role, and the responsibilities within each, you will have to train them.

Board work is primarily done by committees. Executive Directors support, which sometimes means encourages the Board to adopt, a committee structure. Once they have, you will then have to support them in fulfilling their expanded role AND- this a big and – go back to doing your job and stop doing theirs. (This is much harder that it sounds!) For more information on how to do that, please click here to see the last point in this post.

Creating Board buy in is the difference between a plan that gets written by you in your office or in a room in which everyone is proud to be. It’s the difference between the final product sitting on a shelf or getting executed. It’s the difference between your agency moving forward or spinning in circles. Build the buy-in. Create the plan. Move your mission forward!

What have you done to build Board buy-in? What are some faulty premises that you’ve seen? 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.

3 (not so easy) Steps to Improved Board Engagement

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Strategic Plans on September 11, 2015 at 12:16 pm

The one thing nonprofit leaders have asked me the most about this year is board engagement. (Last year it was fund raising. Go figure.) It’s not enough to build a good board. We also have to engage that board. Great is not a mountain that once you scale it, you’re done. Nothing stays great without commitment. As we all know, there’s always another mountain.

A few years ago I wrote a piece on engaging the board. The information contained within is still true, and today I want to take a deeper dive.

When Boards set expectations, recruit for fit, experience and skill set, provide training to members about their role and then couple that with good board process, a robust committee structure with work assigned as per the agency’s needs and plan to move forward, board members are much more engaged. In the absence of that, the work isn’t aligned so board members sometimes don’t think we need them, know what to do, or understand their role. Here’s a post to illustrate one board member’s experience.

It’s one thing to know what engagement and disengagement look like. It’s another thing to know what to do to get from one to the other.

Step 1 Board Development Committee

The Board President appoints a standing Board Development Committee with a respected committee chair, usually a long standing board member and often the past President. Most by-laws (Code of Regulations in Ohio) have some version of this committee so it is unlikely you will have to revise yours to get this done. That committee may also be called nominating or governance.

If your CEO does not already have one, create a spreadsheet that lists each board member’s individual on-boarding date and prospective renewal date. Ditto for each Officer.

The Board Development Committee follows that schedule: they say “thank you for your service” at the end of the term when a member is not meeting the board’s expectations or asks for another term of service if they are. They honor the term limits for officers and, if you have term limits for board members, they uphold those as well.

Their committee members are always on the lookout for new Board prospects that meet the board’s needs. They know their needs because they have completed a board matrix that mapped the current board and showed opportunities and gaps by which to seek new board members. Board Source has a free matrix which you can download here.

The Board Development committee has a very specific chart of work. Please click here to see that work in detail.

Step 2 – Board Process and the Work of Committees

Good board process is critical for board member engagement. Good board process includes have an agenda for every meeting, and a strong Chair that follows that agenda. It also requires discussing and voting on the right things, which may require a training to ensure people are clear what the right things are. (Spoiler alert: it’s not day to day operations. Each Board member should be trained as to the role of the board.) It also includes votes being taken appropriately and captured in writing.

To see the details of several committees you are likely to have or need and their general charts of work in detail please click here. Your Board should decide the committee’s actual chart of work based on the needs of your organization and its aspirations. Of course that means you have to have discussed and decided upon your aspirations.

Once you do, it may be that you need to plan out the tasks individual board members will do to move the work forward. Each chart of work should be broken down by the assigned committee into assignments, metrics and due dates. Once it is, you can identify the steps to move the work forward. There are great project management tools out there to outline the steps and track the work. I encourage you to find or design one that works for you.

For example, if the Resource Development Committee aspires to increase contributed income, it may not be enough to bring a list of community philanthropists to a meeting and ask people to write their names next to the folks they know. You and your chair may have to lead a discussion as to how and why that is the plan, engage people around the plan, train people to execute the plan and – then and only then- go through the names one by one and set goals, make assignments and set completion dates.

Board meetings are held to accomplish the business of the board and to report out on the work of committees. That’s the price of admission. Yet to build engagement they should also include mission moments and strategic and generative discussions.

Step 3 Strategic and Generative Governance

“It is not enough to have a strategic plan that made your Board members crazy and now sits on a shelf. Strategy is not a one day thing. Strategy requires direction setting, questioning and the committing of resources to ensure the destination is reached. It also requires the rejection of things that are outside the scope of our plan, or the revision of our plan. It necessitates having a culture that allows for and encourages questioning, and sometimes dissent. Board meetings should include robust discussions.”

I want each and every board member to feel privileged to be in the room. I often do an exercise with Board members and ask them to write down on a piece of paper their opinion of board meetings on a scale from 1-4: 1 is I can’t believe I left my office for this. 4 is I feel privileged to be in the room. How would your Board members vote?

“We engage board members initially by talking to them about our organization’s mission, the impact it makes in our communities and our vision for changing our corner of the world. They joined our boards in order to help us do those things – and then we never talked with them ever again about any of it. Ever. Again.

We talk with board members about money, what we spent and why we need more of it; we talk with them about fund raising and why they need to do more of it; we talk with them about the problems we’re having and what we need from them to fix it.

We don’t talk with them nearly enough about what they want, about why they joined our board, and what they hoped to get out of their service.” Not Fund Raising? Not Engaged.

Board members join our boards to help us move forward our missions. We need to spend far more time at board meetings talking about the community issue that created the need for our agency, our values, how those values play out, how we are impacting our clients and what is happening in the world that is challenging our ability to meet our mission. We need to be diving deeper on the issues we care about and looking differently at how we are moving the needle for change.

I’ve said it before “if Boards are just going to approve the things put in front of them, anyone can do that. We don’t need our community’s best and brightest to serve on our Boards for that. We do need our community’s best and brightest to lead, to govern and to be strategic about the needs of our communities and generative about the issues we face.”

Boards that are developed, trained, focused on the right things and governing strategically and generatively are engaged, and engaged boards coupled with amazing leadership move mountains!

What’s been your experience in engaging a board? 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.

Is This Your Board, Too?

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on September 1, 2015 at 2:11 pm

I talk all the time about the need for a strategic plan. How strategic plans align the work of an organization. How without one, people are working on a variety of things that may or may not be aligned, or worse are at cross purposes. How executives get evaluated based on the plan’s execution. Finally, one of my girlfriends said: “I wish I could get them to plan! What am I supposed to do if my Board Chair hates strategic planning?”

There it is! I have long known, and not liked, that there are some Chairs who hate planning, and worse – some (entire) boards who just want to be told what to do. Despite the executive’s best efforts to the contrary, it’s where they are. The exec may have tried (in vain) to introduce improved board process, to guide and support a committee to develop the board, to train up, to motivate and to encourage a planning process. Yet, the Chair and possibly the full board are having none of it.

A strategic planning process is when “the board, staff, and select constituents decide the future direction of an organization and allocate resources, including people, to ensure that target goals are reached. Having a board-approved, staff-involved strategic plan that includes effective measurements and the allocation of resources aligns the organization, provides direction to all levels of staff and board, and defines the path for the future of the organization. It also allows leadership, both board and staff, to reject divergent paths that will not lead to the organization’s intended destination.” (Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives)

In the absence of a plan, execs spend their days putting out fires, but not necessarily moving their organization forward. Forward towards what you – and they – maybe thinking? What would forward even look like to a group of people who haven’t set a direction?

One of the roles of a board is to Set the Mission, Vision and Strategic Direction of an agency. To the boards out there that hate planning -and I’ve served on, worked for and with several of you – if you decline to fulfill your strategy setting responsibilities, your exec will only be able to maintain the status quo. There will be no growth. There will be no more impact than there is today. Your agency will be stagnant. It may even go backwards since many funders consider the strategic plan as part of their grant allocation decisions.

Leadership abhors a vacuum, and stagnant is not stimulating so it is likely at some point that your exec will tire of maintaining the status quo and will elect, instead, the not ideal option of setting the strategy of the organization herself. For the execs: If you have a Chair who hates planning, please remember the Chair is just one (powerful) person. The Board is a group of people that moves with one voice. I’m not suggesting you flat out defy your Chair, but I am suggesting you lobby other board members to build consensus that a strategic plan is needed. I also encourage you to remember that Officers generally only serve for a set period of time. While “waiting it out” is not an ideal strategy, it is a strategy and all things – good and bad – come to an end eventually. If you get the opportunity while you are waiting, I encourage you to begin to work with the nominating committee to seek a new chair that has an affinity for strategy.

If you have to set strategy on your own, do it in the most transparent manner you possibly can. Ask for permission, feedback, and in-put. Ask for a vote. Include the plan in every report you write and take every opportunity you have to continue to create buy in. Feed your plan into the work the committees are doing. If you have no committees, ask that a committee be set up to work on the Board portions of the plan and then recommend a Committee Chair who understands planning or at least can be coached toward understanding. Remind, remind, remind. We all know that execs that get too far in front of their boards tend to get fired; bring your Board along with you, even if they don’t want to be on that particular journey.

There also is the option of looking for a new leadership position. Any day really could be the day you quit or get fired. You may outgrow your board. You may outgrow your position. It may be time for bigger and better. If it is, leave well. Document everything you can, plan out as much as possible, make sure your agency can thrive in your absence or at least continue on that path it’s on.

The measure of a good leader is what happens once that leader is gone.

What have you done with Boards that won’t plan? What do you suggest? 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.

Serving at the Pleasure of the Board

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Strategic Plans on July 3, 2014 at 9:21 am

Nonprofit executive leaders (called executive directors, president and/or CEOs) serve at the pleasure of their board. Boards are made up of community leaders that, collectively, serve as the “owners” of an organization. They are responsible for fulfilling The Role of the Board including hiring, evaluating and supporting their executive. That executive is responsible to support the organization’s mission and goals; guide, support, and serve the board in establishing goals, developing policies, securing and stewarding resources, and implementing a strategic plan; and to provide leadership and direction to staff.

The individual members of your board may or may not know any of that. They may or may not have served on other boards or understand their job, your job, the mission of your organization or how that mission gets implemented. They may or may not understand the program and services of your organization or the role it plays in the community.

Boards that don’t understand their role can’t perform their role.

One of the things that new executive directors are often shocked by is the amount of time they need to spend developing their board. It is an enormous commitment to develop a board of directors and one that is critical to the success of your organization. As mentioned in The Role of the Nonprofit CEO “The CEO assists in building the board, both initially through encouraging an appropriate prospecting, vetting, and orientation process and on-going though Board education and evaluation. It is the CEO’s role to support good board process, and the board development committee’s role to lead the process.”

Board development is a role of the executive leader and because you serve at the pleasure of the board, the safest thing you can do is train your board as to their role, your role, the need for your agency and the impact it makes.

I have seen boards hire a new executive director to implement a change the board wanted and then fire that leader when the change that they asked for felt too difficult. I’ve seen boards hire the wrong executive and then let that executive stay because they didn’t have a plan to replace them. I’ve seen boards (and you have too) promote staff that were in no way ready for a leadership role, because they didn’t have the time or the inclination to do a search. I’ve seen boards agree to a change management plan to change the culture of the organization and then get nervous when it felt too uncomfortable and consider firing their executive, who instead resigned in disgust. Discomfort and sometimes fear is an inherent part of change and it’s a part that we have to expect, and then manage.

It should go without saying (but, of course, it never does) that people are more likely to be happy with what you’re doing, when they know what you’re doing.

Serving at the pleasure of 18 or 20 or 24 people – even 12 – is a pretty high bar. I always joke that it’s hard to get 20 people to agree upon what they want for lunch, let alone what the annual goals are for an organization, but we must. The board sets the strategic direction to guide the work of an organization and before you can plan, you have to build.

Boards have to be intentionally built, properly educated and evaluated. As included in The Best Advice you will get the board you build. “Board development is an intentional process that includes strategic prospecting, recruiting, and orienting for new board members and educating, evaluating and recognizing current board members, coupled with a strategic plan (that is being followed) and the introduction of generative discussions.

Strong CEOs build strong boards. As discussed in greater detail in the Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives “the CEO’s role in board development is to understand the work of the board and its processes, and support the implementation of each. CEOs play a primary role in building the board. As such, they have the opportunity to assemble a board that can take the organization to new heights.’  ‘The CEO assists in building the board to which she will ultimately report and also makes recommendations, staffs board committees, and supports the board’s success.  CEOs do not have the authority to add board members.

In the case of board development, CEO’s should also:

  • Support the recruitment of potential board members; arrange and attend meetings with prospective board members and the board or committee chair, share the agency’s vision, mission, and board processes, including time, giving and getting expectations, and assess the capacity of the prospective member to fit on the team;
  • Manage the board development process, including the spreadsheet of terms of office;
  • Ensure board training and evaluation.”

Having an intentionally built board is not enough, you also have to encourage that board to go through a strategic planning process and you, as the exec, have to be able to operationalize that plan to align the work of the organization.

In the absence of agreed upon goals, there is no objective way to for you to be evaluated. In those cases, you as the exec will either receive no evaluation or worse, your board will rely on how they “feel” about things. Feel is not objective and feel is not safe for leaders.

Any day can be the day you quit or get fired. Over the years, I have had to explain to a board chair why co-mingling is unethical, to a different chair why yelling at another board member to get a donation is not effective, and to yet another chair that if he want to fire a member of my team, he would have to fire me first.

What if I didn’t have goals that I was expected to implement? What if there were no metrics to gauge my leadership? What if the day after I had one of those conversations was the day the committee was meeting to do my evaluation?

These jobs we hold are not for the faint of heart. They’re tough and they’re lonely. They are also incredibly fulfilling, an honor and a privilege.

What’s been your experience in serving at the pleasure of a board? Do you have any amusing, scary or appalling 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.

Board Leadership: The Time it Really Takes

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on May 14, 2014 at 9:52 am

I have just finished playing only the most recent version of the game “Dani, I don’t have time for this.” For those of you to whom this game may be new, please read the post I’m a Volunteer.

Over my career, I have played this game with a never ending cast of characters, some of them my own board members, some my clients, some my friends, some my fellow board members. Serving on a board takes time, possibly more time than you may have to give. That’s the job.

The job of a board member is a serious job. It may have the added benefit of looking cool on your resume and impressing your colleagues or your boss. It may feel good to be in a leadership position in an organization that is moving forward an issue about which you’re passionate. Still, and please make no mistake about this: it’s a job. Like all jobs, especially ones that are important, it takes time; sometimes significant time.

Board members are collectively responsible for governing an organization.

That includes hiring, supporting and evaluating an executive director who has probably (hopefully) spent years preparing for the position. That means that you – whatever your background – is a part of the group that is collectively managing a position you’ve likely never held, or even seen up close. She will need help and if you are on the board, that means you will need to figure out her job, your job and where the lines go between the two. Hopefully, you will be oriented and annually trained in your role, but it’s possible you won’t. You will need to meet with her periodically, help her grow professionally, introduce her into your circle of influence and work with whatever group that will be leading her evaluation and setting her goals. It takes time to support and evaluate sometime and once you add in hiring, especially if you hire right – it’s time. Lots of time.

Governance also includes setting the strategic vision for your organization. That means you, as a member of the board, are sitting in a room somewhere thinking about the values of your organization and how those values will be infused throughout your policies, systems and programs. It means you are reviewing/revising your mission statement and setting a vision for the future. Once you have set the vision, you will then need to set goals and strategies to meet that vision. Please include measurements, timelines and assignments. Otherwise, you’ve just spent a lot of time creating a wish list.

Strategic planning should happen again whenever you meet the goals you set the last time, usually every three to five years. If your board has three years terms renewable once, you will probably participate in at least one strategic planning session, which will take…..yup, you guessed it ….time.

Boards are also responsible for acting as the fiduciary responsible agent, which includes being good stewards of the community’s resources as well as insuring programs align with the mission and are impactful. That means you have understand the financials and the budget as well as the programs, the number of people served within those programs and how your programs make their lives better.

In addition, boards are responsible for setting policy, including those that govern the finances, staff, and board.  Finally, they are responsible for securing the agency’s resources, which often includes personally giving a financial gift as well as occasionally setting up and attending friend and fund raising meetings with individuals, corporations or foundations.

The time commitment doesn’t end with governance, there should also be expectations for board members of the agency you serve. I recommend agencies expect board members to attend 75% of board meetings, serve on at least one committee, attend agency events, especially special events, represent the agency in the community, uphold its policies, give a gift and solicit others for gifts.

When you recruit new board members, or others recruit you to serve on a board, it is important to discuss the time commitment. I implore you to not present it as an hour a month. It is never an hour a month. It doesn’t even average to an hour a month. It is three to five hours a month: 1.5 hours at the board meeting, 1.5 hours at a committee meeting, 2 hours working with the committee or the CEO to accomplish the work of the committee and that could go up significantly should there be something of consequence to discuss or address.

People will meet the expectation we set. If we set an expectation of an hour a month, we will be frustrated that our boards are ineffective and our board members will be frustrated that they cannot move our organizations forward. More importantly, we will fail.

Board leadership, as outlined in The Role of the Board, is governance. And as we all know from my favorite board book, Governance as Leadership, governance necessitates leadership.

Changing the world takes time, emotional fortitude and a commitment to be better than we are. Strong boards beget strong organizations. Because of that, and because of the enormous needs in our communities, I want boards to be better. I want the agencies they govern to be stronger and the execs they hire to be qualified to lead the staff and the community to implement the change we need.

If you don’t have the time to do the job right, I implore you to find another way to serve the mission of your organization. We have a world to change and our work is too important.

What’s been your experience with the time it takes to serve on a board? Were you told an hour a month when you were invited to serve? Are you playing the “I don’t have time” game? 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.

Lens, Conclusions and Generative Governance

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on February 27, 2014 at 9:38 am

There was a piece on NPR just before the Olympics began about the economic benefits to cities hosting the Olympic Games. In case you missed the piece, it illustrated that it wasn’t a good investment for cities economically, and also that economics should not be our only lens.

Hosting wasn’t economically viable for reasons other than you might imagine. The reason it wasn’t viable is because to win the prize the cities had to keep out topping each other and what they had to promise was so expensive that they lost even when they won. It is a great illustration of lens and also of leadership choices.

The Olympics, in case you didn’t know, is a nonprofit organization, as is NPR. As such, that makes the story well within our bounds for blog posts, even one that looks at decision making through an economic development lens.

If your job is to lead your city, your organization, or your community than getting into a bidding war for the privilege of spending billions of dollars to host an event at some point becomes a zero-sum game.

It is a perfect opportunity to ask some strategic and generative questions:

  • Does hosting the Olympics have to be economically beneficial for it to be beneficial in other ways?
  • If it does, why would the community leaders follow that path?
  • Why is that our lens?
  • What do we gain and also lose?
  • ‘What produced this race to host?
  • Where does it stop?’
  • “Do we want to pass or play?
  • If we play, what are our principles?”Governance as Leadership: An Interview with Richard P. Chait

In case you’re wondering, the answer was no. Hosting the Olympics is not economically beneficial and cities shouldn’t present it as such; there are other benefits to be achieved and other goals that are met.

So what does all this have to do with nonprofits?

Nonprofits aren’t economically viable; that’s why they’re nonprofits. If they were for profits they’d fail, and that’s not our goal anyway. Our goal is to change the world.

That means that the boards of our agencies need to set metrics that are aligned with the goals of our agencies, and goals that are aligned with our vision. As you know, I am a huge proponent of strategic plans being used to align the work of an organization.  I am also a huge proponent of generative governance.

Generative questions will help you frame the issue, which will help you set the lens, which will help you make better decisions.  If where you sit determines where you stand, then it’s also true that the lens you set will impact the conclusions you reach.

If you are looking at the success of your agency through the lens of income, then you will be judged based on revenue success, regardless of impact.

If your lens is membership, then you will be judged based on numbers regardless of quality of service to those members.

If your lens is impact, then you care less about the numbers and more about the quality of your programming and its impact on the clients you serve.

A Boys & Girls Clubs Exec I knew when I first joined the movement used to say “we can throw a basketball out in the gym and serve a lot of kids, but we’re not impacting those kids.”

You have to consider the lens to gauge the success.

What’s your lens?  Is it the right lens?

What’s been your experience in framing the question to generate the information and the answers you seek? 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.

The School of Worst Case Scenarios

In Leadership, Organizational Development, Strategic Plans on November 21, 2013 at 9:13 am

I always joke that I went to the School of Worst Case Scenarios because when presented with any decision, I try to figure out the worst thing that could happen. It amuses my clients, yet it’s a helpful exercise. Once you know the worst case, you can roll the dice, create a plan to avoid it or decide it’s not worth it. Information is just information. It’s what you do with information that makes the difference.

There are a few plans and policies that will help you avoid or at least address a worst case scenario.

Strategic Plan

A Strategic Plan will keep you on the path that the leaders of your organization have elected to follow. There is less potential for failure on an agreed upon path.

If you don’t currently have one and your agency is not in the midst of a crisis, almost any time is a good time to do a Strategic Plan. There is one caveat: I’m not a huge fan of strategic planning with brand new (less than 6 months) Executive Directors. Give your new Exec 6 months before beginning a planning process.

All agencies should have a plan to align their staff and board as to where they’re going and how they’ll know when they get there.

The only time I flat out recommend against starting a plan is in a crisis. Even if you went to the same school (of worst case scenarios) as me, crises still happen. The middle of a crisis is not the time to conduct a strategic plan. In fact, a crisis is the time to pull out your crisis management plan and also your crisis communication plan. Having these in a crisis will greatly mitigate the actuality of the worst case scenario coming to pass and will increase the capacity of your staff to rise to the occasion. I recommend annual trainings on crisis plans.

A Crisis Management Plan will inform your team as to what to do in a wide variety of situations. Bomb threat- check.  Intruder in the building- check.  Shots fired in the neighborhood – check! Missing child- check.  Other things that are equally bad- check.

Knowing what to do is greatly preferable to guessing when the world is falling down around you. A good plan and a well trained staff can be your salvation.

If you are starting from scratch, make a list of all the bad things that could reasonably happen and then a plan for what your team should do in each case. Draft a few press releases for the files. Train your staff on responding to the media and if you don’t have one, create a crisis communication plan for your board to appoint a spokesperson. Select a crisis response team and keep all of their names and contact information at the end of the plan.

I used to update that list and send out the entire plan every time I went on vacation.  I considered it insurance.

A Crisis Communication Plan appoints a spokesperson and an alternate or two in case the initial person and the first alternate are implicated in the crisis. (Like in the case of the Exec and the Chair having an affair while married to other people; honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) I usually recommend it be the Executive Director, Board Chair and Chair of the Marketing Committee.

Crisis avoidance is easier than damage control. The School of Worst Case Scenarios isn’t a party school but it can save your agency’s reputation and greatly enhance your career longevity.

What’s been your experience with crisis? Do you have great stories to share? 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.

Governance: The Work of the Board, part 5 Setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Direction

In Non Profit Boards, Strategic Plans on August 10, 2013 at 8:17 am

Welcome to the final post in our five part series on Governance.  We have already discussed the Board’s role in Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive,  Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent, Setting Policy, and Raising Money.  Today, let’s discuss the Board’s role in setting the mission, vision and strategic direction.

As previously mentioned, Boards are made up of appointed community leaders who are collectively responsible for governing 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:

  • Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director
  • Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent
  • Raising Money
  • Setting Policy and
  • Setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Direction

One of my goals for this blog is to rectify the common practice in the field of people telling nonprofit executives and boards how things should be done without any instruction as to what that actually means or how to accomplish it.

What Board members being responsible for setting the mission, vision and strategic direction means is:

The Board sets – meaning discusses and votes to adopt or revise – the mission statement, which answers why your organizations exist.

The Board also sets the vision of the organization. A vision statement is a description of what the organization will look like at a specified time, usually 3-5 years, in the future. There are two minds in the field as to if a vision statements should be a utopian view such as “an end to hunger” or a more concrete view such as “to be the premier youth development organization.”  I lean toward the latter; I find it challenging to set goals to get to utopia.

The Board votes upon the strategic plan, after participating in a strategic planning process “in which the board, staff, and select constituents decide the future direction of an organization and allocate resources, including people, to ensure that target goals are reached. Having a board-approved, staff-involved strategic plan that sets organizational values, includes effective measurements and the allocation of resources aligns the organization, provides direction to all levels of staff and board, and defines the path for the future of the organization. It also allows leadership, both board and staff, to reject divergent paths that will not lead to the organization’s intended destination.” (Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives)

The process – and the document – can be very long or very short.  In fact, I have a new theory that the longer strategic plan is, the less likely it is to be used.  For my clients, I recommend a 4-5 meeting process: We start with setting or revising values, vision and mission and end with assignments, measurements and due dates.

Please do not accept a plan that does not include assignments, measurements and due dates.  If you cannot answer the question “How will we know when we get there?” you will not get there.  A plan without each of three is just a list of goals that are unlikely to be accomplished.  For information on what else should be included in the process, please click here.

A strategic plan should be a living document that guides the organization and provides a point for ongoing programmatic and organizational evaluation.  It should not sit on a shelf.

All organizations should have a strategic plan.  Strategic plans get everyone on same page as to where you are as an organization and where you are going.  They allow the group to decide the goals moving forward; create measurements to determine if you met your goals and assign responsibility and due dates for specific goals.   It is a process that results in not only a document but also a shared understanding among key stakeholders.

In the absence of that shared understanding and agreement, there are still moving parts, but they’re not aligned. The absence of a plan sets the stage for people to do what they feel is best, sometimes without enough information, which may or may not be right for the organization.  It opens the door for one person’s vision to get implemented and others to feel unheard or unengaged.  The absence of a plan allows for major decisions to be made on the fly and for potentially mission driven decisions to be compromised.  As we all know, movement goes in other directions than forward.

What do you think?  As always, I welcome your insight and experience.

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