Dani Robbins

Posts Tagged ‘governance’

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.

Its 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.

Things Nonprofit Boards of Directors Can Do, But Shouldn’t

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Resource Development on December 13, 2016 at 2:16 pm

Serving on the Board of Directors of a nonprofit is an honor and a privilege as well as a job and a liability.  As with any job, there are things that you cannot do because they’re illegal and things that you should not do because they’re inappropriate and/or unethical.

Here is a list of things Board members shouldn’t do, even though, technically, they can.

Pay Yourselves

I had the privilege of co-facilitating a training recently and no less than five representatives of different agencies stood up and asked us follow up questions when we said Board members shouldn’t get paid.

Here are a few of the questions:

“Can we pay them a stipend?”

“Can we give them a gift card?”

“We really can’t pay them?”

Um…no.

It is not illegal to pay Board members, but it is widely considered to be inappropriate in a charitable institution that is soliciting donations from its community. The one exception is when the (paid) executive director has an ex-officio seat on the Board. Other than that, staff shouldn’t be on the Board and the Board shouldn’t be paid.

You can pay mileage to and from the Board meeting and reimburse expenses when Board members are on agency business. You can, but you really shouldn’t, pay Board members for doing the work of the Board of a community agency.

Assign Work to Staff, other than the CEO

Boards have one employee, the CEO.  Every other employee works for that CEO.  The CEO’s role is to lead the staff, support the Board, manage the day to day operations and serve as the face of the organization in the community. It is the CEO’s role to execute the strategic plan in support of the mission and vision of the organization.

It is hard to sit in a Board committee meeting that is staffed by a senior yet non-executive leader of the agency and not assign work to that staff member. Work often gets assigned in such meetings and it likely there is a process in place for the staff member to go back to the CEO and update her on the results of the meeting. That’s not what I mean. What I mean is the Chair of the committee or of the Board directly assigning work to a staff member, outside of a committee or Board meeting and unbeknownst to the CEO.

When Boards choose to not honor the “one employee” rule, and assign work to staff, it quickly becomes very confusing whose instructions take precedence and whom will be held to account. It also plants a seed that challenges the CEO’s legitimacy.  That seed (of dissent) grows and eventually it becomes difficult for the CEO to maintain his or her position, either because they quit, or challenge the Board’s overstep and are fired.

Hire Staff

Since we’re already here, let’s keep going. The only staff Boards should hire is their CEO. All other staff should be hired by that CEO. There will come a time when you do not have a CEO and also have other positions open. It will seem reasonable to try to hire some of those positions in the interim. Resist!

You don’t know what skills your new CEO will have, so it is unlikely you will be able to hire someone to complement those skills. Unless you have organizational values that you will expect your CEO to honor (which you should also be asking about in the CEO search process), you won’t know which values are important to your new CEO and won’t be able to see if the person you want to hire is a match. It is as likely that whomever you hire will not be a good fit for the team already in place and since you know them but don’t directly work with them, you might not be able to assess that.  You want the CEO to build their own team. That may mean you have to let them.

If you must, hire someone as a temporary with the option to stay at the discretion of the new CEO. That sets the tone for both the new person and the new CEO that the Board understands the difference in roles.

Avoid Fund Raising

Boards are tasked with securing the resources of the organization. I’ve heard consultants say that Board don’t have to fund raise, but it is very rarely true. Fund raising is a group effort, led by the leaders.

The CEO cannot raise money alone. The Development Director cannot raise money alone. Fund raising works best in a culture of philanthropy when both the staff and the Board are working together.

The Board’s role is to set the fund raising goal, financially support the agency themselves, embark on the campaign, open doors, introduce staff, “make the ask” when appropriate, pick up the tab for lunch when possible, and thank the donor.

The staff is responsible for training the Board, coordinating the assignments, preparing the askers with relevant donor information, drafting and supplying whatever written information will be left with the donor, including a letter asking for a specific dollar amount, attending the meetings as necessary and documenting the meeting in the database as well as writing the formal thank you note, and then creating a plan to steward the donor.

Unless you are getting all of your money from program fees, and if you are you may have issues with the public support test, fund raising is one of the five roles of the Board.

Do Business with the Agency you Serve

The law allows Board members to “do business” with the agency they serve if it is at “fair market value.” Do not be fooled. This is a case of the law allowing something that it’s likely public opinion will not support. Just because something is allowed does not make it right. It is an enormous conflict of interest and a quick way to get a spot on the front page of the paper for all the wrong reasons.  If you are on the Board, do not do business with the agency you serve.

What things have you seen Boards do that they shouldn’t?  Any advice 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. A rising tide raises all boats.

For My Executive Director Friends: Three More Things to Stop Doing

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on October 11, 2015 at 10:53 am

As I mentioned in my original post, the fascinating thing about being a consultant and people paying you to make recommendations is that they generally listen to your suggestions. They don’t always implement them but they at least consider them. Friends, on the other hand, call when they’re trying to figure things out, but do they listen? Not so much!

As such, for my many friends who serve in executive leadership roles in nonprofits, here are a few more things that you should stop doing. I hope that in doing so you will find the role more rewarding and also less frustrating.

  1. Postponing your own paycheck

Just to be crystal clear, I’m not talking about unpaid executive directors. I’m talking about executive directors who usually get paid but are not paying themselves this week (or possibly this month or this quarter). I totally understand how it seems reasonable to you to pay your team but not pay yourself. I get that there isn’t enough money in the bank. I get that it’s a cash flow issue. I get that it feels like the right thing to do, but it’s not.

I have been in the room when Board members are told that their execs have made this choice and they are, for the most part, not generally amused. They do not feel it’s honorable. They do not feel it’s noble. They think it’s nuts, dangerous for the agency and a liability for them. And they’re right.

If you truly do not have the cash to pay yourself, work with your Board to come up with a plan. Do not make the decision on your own to forgo your own paycheck in the hopes of saving your agency. It’s not fair or reasonable for your family. It’s outside the bounds of the labor laws. It’s also not your decision to make.

This is an issue to take to your Board. Don’t spring it on them at the last minute. And do not feel like it’s all on you. Nonprofits are run on a shared leadership model. Share the information and work with your Board to come up with a solution.

  1. Personally guarantee anything

You should not personally guarantee a loan for your agency. You should not personally secure an agency credit card, a line of credit or put anything you own up as collateral. You lead but do not own your agency.

This is not your company. Even if it was, companies put systems in place to protect their owners. This is your baby and it is your responsibility but not yours alone. You report to a Board and that Board can – and likely will -make a decision with which you don’t agree. You could quit or get fired tomorrow. If either of those eventualities occur, you will be still be liable for whatever you personally guaranteed.

Don’t do it. Work with your Board and your lending institution to find a solution to secure the resources you need.

  1. Owning the Work of the Board

If you are frustrated with your board, the answer may be looking back at you in the mirror. If they aren’t doing what you want, it may be because you’re doing it. Stop.

The work of the board gets done by committees. If you do not have committees, I encourage you to work to introduce them. Please click over to read Board Work via Board Committees.

In the absence of committees or even in the presence of them, you may still be doing their job. The easiest way to tell if you are is to consider who speaks the most at Board meetings. If it’s you, there’s your answer. Yes, I can hear you yelling at me through your computer but it’s still true.

If they don’t do it and you do, you’ll keep doing it. You have to give it back.

How? By saying to each committee chair “I just learned that the Chairs of each committee should be leading the committee meetings and giving the committee reports at Board meetings. Would you be willing to do so? I’m happy to sit with you prior to the meeting and go over the report and help brainstorm the answers to expected questions.” “Oh, you don’t want to or won’t be there?”

Yes I know this is where you step into the breach. Resist.

“Ok, who should we ask to report instead?”

You can set committee chairs up to succeed. You can call and ask them to set a committee meeting. You can even suggest times, dates and write the agenda. You can send out the invitations. You can prep them to chair the meeting. You can whisper in their ear during the meeting and even type up the minutes afterward. But you can’t lead the committee meeting or report out on it at the board meeting.

If you have tried and failed to give back the work of the committee to its chair, you then can go to the Board Chair and/or the other Officers and ask for advice. Like this “Committee X hasn’t been meeting and /or seems to be having a hard time achieving their goals. Would you mind checking in with them and nudging them along?” “Oh, you have and nothing has changed? How would you like to handle that?”

While it is your Board to help develop, it’s not your Board to run or to manage. It’s not your committee and it’s not your meeting. It’s a Board meeting. The Board members should be talking; you should be there to listen, answer questions, present your report, and offer recommendations, support and guidance. You should not be the person in the room talking the most. If you are, they are not. We want them to lead. That may mean you have to let them.

Set your board members up to succeed and they will help you lead your agency to heights you can’t even imagine today. Your agency will be stronger for it. As an added bonus, you’ll be less frustrated.

The CEO role is gratifying and it’s inspiring. It’s also hard and it’s lonely. Sometimes we make it harder than it needs to be. Stopping the above practices can make your difficult job not only a little less difficult, but also a little more rewarding.

What advice do you give your friends in leadership roles? What else would you add to 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.

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.

Decisions and Duplications (of Service)

In Advocacy, Leadership, Non Profit Boards on April 25, 2015 at 9:39 am

The first time I was kicked under a table was in 1993 by my Associate Director at a meeting of United Way food providers. She was warning me to be quiet. It was a meeting of firsts: the first time (though certainly not the last) I was warned to be quiet; my first supervisory role; and the first time that I heard the term duplication of services.

The attendees were discussing how many times a family should be allowed to go back to a food pantry; how the city should create a master list of food providers across the city and the clients each serves to ensure people didn’t go back more than the allotted amount. In those days food pantries gave you three days worth of food.

The consensus around the table, myself excluded, was it is a duplication of services if too many food pantries gave too much food to the same people. As if it’s such a terrible thing that people would have more than enough food to eat – you know like the people sitting around that table. Or that people who go to food pantries have so much extra time in between worrying and working two jobs and making sure their kids are safe and scurrying between social service and government agencies that they could even get to a variety of pantries to overstock their shelves. It was absurd – and it also wasn’t a duplication of services.

I was 24 and it was the first time I attended this meeting so it’s possible (and I can only hope this is the case) that the meeting that proceed it discussed a dearth of food donations and the fear that if some families came back too often others would get nothing. Still, in the early 90s when computers were rare, the idea that community leaders would dedicate time and resources to map out food pantries and their clients to ensure families in crisis didn’t get more than their share would have been a complete waste of both time and resources. Plus, it was mean spirited.

There will always be people who will try to take advantage and each of us as leaders have to decide how we live our values and spend our resources. I have never felt that taking resources away from meeting our mission to ensure that no one gets more than their share is a good use of those resources. Moreover, I believe it creates a culture of distrust and I want people to feel respected. Finally, I do not believe it is, in fact, a duplication of services.

Duplication of services is when you have two agencies doing the same thing for the same population in the same area, which is usually a neighborhood but depending on the mission could be a city, county or region. For example, there aren’t usually two domestic violence shelters. There’s usually one per county or in rural counties, one per a multi-county area. There are often several child care centers and after school programs. That’s still not necessarily a duplication of services, unless they are in the same location, offering similar programming, upholding similar values and – and this is a big and- both standing half empty. If they are both half empty, it may be duplication of services. If kids are registered at both and go to each every other day, it is totally a duplication of services. If that is not happening and each is filled with different kids, they are fulfilling the needs of the neighborhood.

Multiple programs serving similar but not the same population is not duplication of services. That is meeting the needs of a community. Could those programs be run by one large agency operating in multiple locations? Maybe. Maybe not.

There is absolutely an economy of scale for large agencies and something to be said for consolidating back room functions. There is also something to be said for family choice, organizational values and different offerings.

Duplication of services is always a big discussion in any community yet it only applies when that community is financially supporting the service. No one cares if there are multiple businesses providing the same product; they’re self sufficient. We only care when the service is or is perceived to be a drain on the community’s resources. Then the question becomes if one of something is enough. One food pantry in a city would rarely be able to provide for the needs of everyone that is hungry in that city.

How many of any type of agency do we really need? Do we need faith based and non faith based agencies? I would argue that we do. Others would argue that we don’t. Choices are not a terrible thing for a family, especially a family without means.

Who 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 board decides the future of their organization.

That’s why it’s so important that nonprofits build their boards appropriately; that those boards understand and fulfill their roles and appropriately govern their organizations. Because it’s up to them! And we need them to be making strategic decisions on behalf of our organizations and our organizations to be making strategic decisions our behalf of communities.

What do you think? 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.

Compliance is not Governance: Financial Statements and Parliamentary Procedure

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on November 4, 2014 at 11:37 am

As a blogger and a regular poster on Linked In and Twitter, it feels as if I’m putting ideas out there yet I’m never really sure if and where they connect to actual people in real agencies trying to better their communities.

Imagine my delight when I received a note that said: “Hi. I work for an association management company. I’m trying to settle a question here in our office. In a blog post about non-profit management you state that all monthly financials reports should be approved with a board vote. What is your basis for this statement? What are your thoughts on the following article – Approving the Treasurers Report Is Not Advised? Thank you for your time.”

Not only was I excited that someone was actually reading my stuff, but that I was being invited to defend my position. Sweet! I was appreciably less excited that doing so put me in the position of challenging an article written by a Parliamentarian.

I encourage you to read the article and come to your own conclusions. My take of it is that the author believes it is misguided for boards to approve financial statements monthly and a larger liability than to not, since the statements have not been independently verified. As such, until they have been independently verified she is recommending they not be approved by the full board.

Now, my goal is not to argue with a parliamentarian, which I clearly am not and which the author clearly is.  My goal is to demonstrate that good parliamentary process does not necessarily lead to good governance.

Robert’s Rules states the “Chair may ask for a Treasurer’s report to be presented” yet no vote be taken. Compliance with Robert’s Rules is not the goal of most boards. Good stewardship is the goal.

I recommend boards approve unaudited financial statements at every board meeting. It is my belief that everyone is quite clear the statements they are approving are unaudited. Boards also annually – if they have an annual audit and many agencies do – approve the actual independent audit.

The author states “I know of no federal, state, local or parliamentary rule that states the treasurer’s report is to be adopted.” Me neither. Yet rules and laws regarding board approval of statements would not be where the train goes off the track. Theft, misappropriation of funds and co-mingling are where the train goes off the track and where the board reviewing and approving fund expenditures might be the first step in ensuring against such eventualities.

Robert’s Rules is a parliamentary process by which to run a meeting, not an agency. In fact, Roberts Rules of Order newly revised in brief specifically defines parliamentary authority as “the book of rules the group names to govern its meeting procedures.” It is not and has never been intended to be a process by which to govern an organization. Compliance is not governance. For more information on governance, I encourage you to read  Generative Governance and The Role of the Board.

Being an engaged board member requires being a good steward of both the organization and the community’s resources including acting, along with other members, as the fiduciary responsible agent. That responsibility cannot be handed off to a Treasurer and you wouldn’t want it to be.

The author states “The treasurer is an office in which a group places a great deal of trust and therefore it seems that an assembly would believe their reports are accurate.” To that, I respond with a resounding “maybe”.

There are as many people serving as treasurers in nonprofits in this country who have no financial training or education as there are those that do. It would be irresponsible and naive to think the community and the law will not hold the entire board accountable in the case of financial mismanagement. That is why I recommend financial statements be reviewed at every meeting, and also that board members ask questions until they understand and are willing to have their name listed as approving of their contents.

Even in the case when you have a trained CPA as your treasurer, that CPA is not usually the CPA of record and even if they are,  the entire board is still responsible and will still be held accountable.

Being in compliance with Robert’s Rules of Order will not shield board members from collectively running their organization into the ground or from being held individually liable or criminally negligent, and that’s not what it’s designed to do anyway. An audit is critical, but it’s often conducted well after a problem has occurred and an issue can be corrected.

Not approving the financial statement will not protect you. Following Robert’s Rules of Order will not protect you. Paying attention, appropriately stewarding your organization and upholding your responsibilities might.

What’s your position on boards approving unaudited financial statements? 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.

Revising your By-laws?

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on August 25, 2014 at 10:23 am

Boards of Directors should review – and consider if they need to revise – their organization’s by-laws (in Ohio called Code of Regulations) on a regular basis.

When was the last time you looked at yours? Go ahead; pull them out. I’ll wait.

You’re back? Good! Let’s begin.

Does your board meet as scheduled? Most by-laws state that boards will meet, at a minimum, quarterly. My understanding is it is fine if you meet more often. It’s not fine if you meet less often. (This would be a good time to remind you that I am not a lawyer.) If you are only meeting quarterly, I encourage you to meet more often. It’s like the nonprofit version of that old commercial- miss a meeting, you miss a lot.

Do you have the right number of board members? Most initial by-laws are written with three members, though three members are rarely enough to appropriately govern an agency. If your by-laws say three members, I encourage you to consider revising them. I like a range.

For more detailed information on the number of board members, the frequency of meetings or the structuring of by-laws, I encourage you to read How Many Board Members Meeting How Often and Creating a New Nonprofit.

I offer a few more questions for your consideration as related to your by-laws:

Are new members added as stated? Do you follow the process to elect officers and re-elect renewing members?

Do you have a process to remove board members?

Do the committees listed reflect the committees you have? Are those the committees you need?

Do you have dissolution and indemnification statements?

Do you have things in there that should be elsewhere? Conflicts of Interest policies usually stand alone. So do Financial Policies.

Which governance model do you follow? Is that in there? Does it need to be?

What title do your by-laws offer to both your executive leader and the president of the board? Are those the titles you use?

Titles have evolved during my career. It used to be that the senior executive was called the executive director and the leader of the board was called the president.

It is my understanding that the YMCA was the first large organization to challenge that notion. The YM, once upon a time, had branch directors who were expected to raise money in their communities but were having trouble getting in to see business leaders. They attributed it to their titles. As such, the Y changed the branch managers’ titles to be executive directors so that they were held in higher regard and could more easily get into higher-level offices. (I do not know if the YM has called their executive leaders President & CEO all along or if they changed their titles accordingly)

Once they made the change, and some other agencies followed suit, it became very difficult for everyone else to figure out who is an executive director, meaning the executive leader of the organization, or who is the executive director, meaning the senior staff of a branch, unit or facility.

Sometimes I can’t tell either. Once, while I was working with a board to help them select their new executive, I couldn’t figure out if an applicant, who had the title executive director, was actually the executive leader of her organization. I had to ask five different questions to figure it out. (She wasn’t, in case you were wondering.)

So what should you call your executive leader? There are still plenty of executive leaders called executive directors. There are, more than ever, especially in larger organizations, executive leaders that are called President & CEO. Up until recently, I never thought it was that big of a deal. It’s the same job, after all.

What changed my mind? A board I served was considering changing the name of our executive leader when we hosted an event in conjunction with three other agencies. Of the four executive leaders in the room, our executive was the only one with the title executive director. When each of the other leaders was introduced as President & CEO and she was introduced as Executive Director, it became very obvious that we need a title change.

If we as nonprofit leaders want to be taken seriously as the “real” leaders that we are, running “real” corporations, like we do, then we are more likely to be granted that respect when we have the same title, or a better title, as the person to whom we are speaking.

Of course once you change your executive leader’s title to be president you then have to change that the President of the Board’s title to be Chair and the Vice President to be Vice Chair.

They’re the same jobs, but as I’ve said before, any process, or in this case title, that is getting in the way of meeting your goal is a bad process. This one, luckily, is easily rectified, especially if you were revising your by-laws anyway.

A final word on by-laws: It is important that you follow your by-laws. Yet, the funny thing about by-laws is that there is no governing body that will be monitoring if you do. Of course, if you have significant quorum issues, those issues will end up reflected in your audit and any violation of the law is likely to end up in court or the newspaper. For the most part, outside of criminal activity, a civil violation or a hit on your audit, boards are on their own. As such it is important that boards police themselves. The easiest way to do that is to follow your by-laws, review them annually and revise them, as needed, which usually comes out to every 3-5 years.

It’s also critical – and much more difficult – to ensure that you are upholding your governance responsibilities; your executive is appropriately leading your organization, which is meeting its mission, providing excellent service and living its values.

All that starts with the board. And the board starts with its by-laws.

What’s been your experience in agencies following their by-laws? Do you have any funny, 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.

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.

Hearing what your Board Members are Saying

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on May 7, 2014 at 10:59 am

The sun has finally come out in my corner of the world; I’ve been out and about more and meeting new people. Since all conversations with new people eventually come around to what people do for a living, invariably the topic rolls around to nonprofit boards.

Those conversations, for the most part, have not been positive. In fact, I keep coming up against instances where it seems like nobody is hearing, understanding or responding to what is being said. I’ve wondered repeatedly if we’re all communicating over or around each other.

When seeking to understand, I believe, we each have to think about not only what is being said but also what is behind what is being said. I’m starting to think I’m alone in that philosophy.

My first thought along these lines was a conversation I had with a board member who told me her board had voted to approve a recommendation without anyone in the room questioning the premise of the recommendation. Someone made a motion. It was seconded and unanimously approved. There was no conversation about community impact, resistance or obstacles to be overcome. No one introduced any opposition, or even any questions – fiduciary, strategic or generative. They all agreed that the decision was great, and no one paused to question if it was, in fact, great, or even viable. That, for me, is the definition of group think and why you should not drink the Kool-Aid at board meetings. For more information on both, please see the post Kool-Aid, Group Think and Generative Governance

I’ve also heard of two board members, on the same board, separately informing agency leadership they would not be serving another term. They both said some version of “this is not a good use of my time.” I wondered did the leadership understand that what those board members are saying is “This is a Yes board. We don’t have any strategic or generative conversations. All we do is approve things you either want to do or have already done.”

Then I wondered what did the leadership do with the information they received? Did they think about why it might feel like every meeting is the same? Or did they assume it was the problem of the board members who were leaving? I’m guessing it was the latter. It is much easier to ignore an issue staring you in the face if you can blame the other person, or in this case, persons. Yet, it is rarely so simple. Anytime you have two or more board members who do not renew their terms, it should give you pause.

Finally, I’ve heard of a board member considering not meeting his minimum giving requirement, because no one has asked him for his gift. He had been advocating for annual individual specific asks of each board member since joining the board. To add fuel to the fire, not only was there was no ask made, but there was a chastising at the board meeting of the board members who hadn’t yet given.

I’m not a fan of minimum gift requirements anyway, but for the agencies that have that requirement, it’s still appropriate to formally ask for the donation, especially to the people who have requested to be asked. You can’t always guess what people want, but you can certainly respond to (reasonable) donor requests. Board members who financially support your agency are donors too, and need to be cultivated and stewarded accordingly.

It happens all the time that board members quit – and also that donors stop giving – because the issue they have brought forth or the request they have made goes unaddressed, or worse, un-discussed. It’s one thing if you bring something up, it’s discussed and decided upon, and if you’re not in the room, someone gets back to you to explain why it can’t move forward. It’s a whole other thing if no one gets back to you at all.

I’ve been guilty of it myself. I’ve served and served on several boards, ranging in size from 12-24. There have been instances that board members suggested things I didn’t do, either because it didn’t make sense (to me), wasn’t realistic or wasn’t feasible. I had to learn to ask for more information or a better idea of how the idea might get implemented.

I, like every exec I know, was trying to keep multiple plates in the air and in an effort to not let any one of them fall, I may have neglected to consider, respond or follow up. Did I always communicate well? I’d like to think I did but it’s probably safe to say I didn’t always. Did I lose a board member because of it? I hope not.

I had to learn to ask for more information and to remember that the issue or idea people present is not always the issue at all. The issue is sometimes behind whatever it is that’s being said. It’s up to each of us to figure out what the topic really is and if it’s possible – or reasonable- to address it. Even in the cases where it’s not possible or reasonable, we have to get back to the person who suggested it.

I said we and not you intentionally. Sometimes board members come up with ideas that are not feasible and sometimes not ethical, or even legal. A response by another board member may be received better, which may have the added benefit of being safer for the exec.

I’m going to say (write?) that again: the exec does not always have to be the one to shoot down an idea. The important thing is that someone responds, not necessarily that you respond. While it’s true that any day can be the day you quit or get fired; today does not have to be that day.

Disengagement is one of our field’s largest issues and lack of responsiveness is one of our biggest hurdles. If we want people to take our field more seriously, we have to start hearing and responding to what they’re saying, and what ever’s behind what they’re saying. We have to understand their expectations, and exceed them!

Is anyone else having these conversations? Have you shared concerns or frustration with your leadership only to have them ignored? 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.

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