Dani Robbins

Posts Tagged ‘nonprofit CEO’

The Thing About Nonprofit Leadership

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, 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.

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?”


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.

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.

Wishes for 2016 for the Nonprofit Field

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on December 31, 2015 at 12:49 pm

If you’ve been reading for a while – and if you have, thank you – you know that there are a few things that I find continually, unnecessarily, and routinely crazy making. As such, here are my wishes for our field for this New Year, in the hopes that next year, we can stop doing this stuff and dedicate more time to moving forward our missions and improving our communities.

  1. I wish people would have higher expectations of us. There is an underlying sentiment, usually accompanied by a shrug, of “It’s just a nonprofit.” “Just nonprofits” serve the most disadvantaged among us. I wish, want and need the community to have higher expectations. Not silly jump through hoops expectations that make us crazy but don’t make us stronger. I want real and serious high expectations that our leaders will rise to meet and our field will be stronger for their doing so.
  1. I wish people would stop professing that businesses are better run. Jim Collins said “Social sector leaders are not less decisive than business leaders; they only appear that way to those who fail to grasp the complex governance and diffuse power structure.” In a business the leader can make a unilateral decision and everyone gets in line. Nonprofit leaders don’t have that luxury. In the nonprofit world we have to create buy in and take our Boards, senior staff and sometimes funders along with us on our journey toward greatness. As such, it’s harder. Please, the next time you find yourself about to tell a nonprofit leader why businesses are better run, resist the temptation and remember: different isn’t necessarily better and, more accurately, it’s likely not true.
  1. I wish agencies would spend more time and resources developing their people and their organizations. It’s critical to address our communities’ issues, yet it’s much easier when you have the right people in the right jobs with the right infrastructure, and the right plans under the right leadership. Imagine what you could accomplish if you had clear goals. Imagine if you had Human Resource systems that supported your organizational values, which were set in your strategic plan and are upheld at every level of your organization. Imagine if that plan was supported by a Board Development plan, another plan for raising contributed income and one for developing each member of your team, all of which is coupled with excellent operational policies and processes that protect your agency, serve your clients and impact your community. The combination of each will help you accomplish your true potential. The absence of most or all may mean you’re not only not meeting that potential you may be hurting the people you exist to help.
  1. I wish the people that start a new organization would learn everything they need to know about running one, before they introduce it. I wish they would learn the law as it pertains to their agency, our field and the requirements of both. I wish they would learn everything they can about the issue they hope to impact, the community and its leaders. I wish they would learn how to build a board and attract and keep donors and staff. We all learn as we go, yet and still, I wish the founders of new nonprofits would learn enough to start strong.
  1. I wish each nonprofit executive could see the benefits of collaboration and also the cost of territorialism. If my goal is to make our communities stronger – and it is – then you not sharing information or best practices is at cross purposes with that goal. Now your goal may not be aligned with my goal, but it should be, because your mission certainly is. I believe any process that is in conflict with our goal is a bad process. I once modeled in a vintage fashion show for the local Goodwill. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who said to me some version of “Why are you helping another agency?!” I also routinely took (and still take) phone calls from the leadership of sister agencies who needed capacity building assistance and other leaders took my calls when I needed it. My agency will be stronger when yours is stronger, and we, together, will be that much closer to impacting our collective issues. The opposite is also true, if I only serve to move forward my agency, I am negatively impacting the field I purport to serve.

This list is just a start. I have many more aspirations for our field and the important work we each do to make our world a better place. If we were more strategic, if our goals were better formulated and our systems were better developed, our field would be stronger, and in turn, our communities and our world would be as well.

I believe that anytime you present a problem it is also imperative to present a solution. Since every New Year provides the opportunity to make resolutions, I resolve to continue to work to make our field stronger. I will also – and this is new for me and has the added benefit of making my husband happy to no longer have to listen to how much I miss social justice work – stop turning down interviews and consider going back in the field so I can practice what I have been preaching. Until then (then being defined as the perfect job for me), I will continue to speak, write, teach, train and coach and join with colleagues around the nation and the world to make our field stronger and our reach farther.

What are your wishes for our field and also your resolutions to make them happen? 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.

For My Executive Director Friends: Five Things to Stop Doing, Right Now

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development, Resource Development on March 19, 2015 at 5:14 pm

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 leadership roles in nonprofits, please consider the price of:

  1. Not Building the Board

I know you like it when your board members do what you suggest. I always liked it too. I also liked it when they challenged me. It wasn’t always comfortable. It wasn’t always pleasant. It was (almost) always helpful.

You cannot do the work of the board. Actually, you can, but it’s not the most effective way to go. Boards need to be trained on their role and then allowed to fulfill that role. When they are not, their liability is greater and the potential success of your organization is limited.

Building a yes board will get you to yes, but it won’t get you to great. You can do a lot by sheer willpower, and you have. Build your board, let them fulfill their roles, and your organization will flourish!

I encourage you to also consider adding strategic and generative conversations to board meetings. It will engage board members in a new way and remind everyone why we do this work.

  1. Setting the Organization’s Strategic Direction

What I really mean is: Stop writing that strategic plan. Yes, you. Right now.

That is the board’s job. They are less likely to buy into a plan that you wrote anyway and you are more likely to be frustrated that they don’t want to participate in implementing a plan that they didn’t create.

Your job is to encourage the process, help to find a facilitator, be in the room, participate in (but don’t dominate) the discussion, and answer questions. Once the plan is approved, your job is to operationalize it.

Try to not be upset if the facilitator asks you to limit your participation in the process. When I was running the Akron Club, we brought in Ken Rubin, our Regional Service Director from BGCA, to facilitate. He (very nicely) told me to be quiet during the strategic planning session. I was incensed! I was also wrong. Setting the organization’s strategic direction is a board role.

  1. Telling your Team to “Just Do it!”

It takes a lot of time to make sure staff understand what you are trying to do and where you are trying to go. Sometimes, they will get it intuitively but more often they won’t and you’ll have to explain it. To develop them as future leaders, rather than tell them to “just do it” – especially if you’re going challenge what they did do once it’s done– take the time on the front end to help them think through the process, the goals and the outcome.

Many of us were trained under the baptism by fire model and we learned. We did, in fact, often figure it out and get the job done. Still, it could have been much less harrowing, safer and more effective to have been trained and developed appropriately.

One other point: “Think for yourself” and “do what I say” are mutually exclusive instructions. Decide which one your want and train you team accordingly. Fair warning: should you pick the latter, your team may not have much opportunity for growth and might not stick around very long.

  1. Like it or Not: You are the Chief Development Officer

Even when you have a development director or a team of development directors, the CEO is ALWAYS the chief development officer. You cannot abdicate that role. You can decide at what level you want to play and how much latitude you will give your team. Your largest donor will always expect you to know their names, be the one to sign their notes, update them on activities and be in the room when they are solicited.

Your board will look to you for leadership and for direction as to what role they should play. You cannot delegate that to your development director. That’s all you.

That said, you should take direction from your development director who should be regularly giving you a list of people to call and notes on what to say. He or his team should also be training your board (and you, if necessary) on how to solicit a gift, preparing the solicitor and the materials for that meetings and then documenting the results of the meeting. He should be working with the board committee (while keeping you updated) to create and implement a plan to raise a variety of contributed income. The Chair of that committee should be reporting on its work to the board, not staff.

  1. Not Considering New Ideas

I know people bring you ideas all the time and sometimes, especially when you’re distracted, the answer is often no. I’m confident that you think about the idea afterwards and sometimes go back and say yes. I know I did. I also know that people found it confusing.

Nonprofit execs are always thinking on a variety of levels and war gaming multiple things simultaneously. It is very hard to turn that off and switch to considering something new. Stopping that practice is hard, really hard.

I think most of us need an improvisation course to teach us to say “yes and” instead of no. Or at least a training to learn how to say: “Tell me more.” “How would that work?” “Can I have some time to consider it?” You may still say no, but at least you will demonstrate that you are considering the idea.

Leadership is hard enough. Even when you’re trained and you know the rules, your agency’s policies and the law, it’s still hard to decide where the lines go and which rules apply to which situations. Still, 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.

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.

Running a One Staff Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resource Development

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

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

Marketing and Public Relations

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

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

Program Implementation, Management and Evaluation

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

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

Volunteer Management

“Managing a volunteer program takes time. Volunteers should be interviewed and screened, including appropriate criminal background checks and reference checks specific to the role they will be performing. Once selected, they must be trained. Volunteers need to be matched to work that supports their interest and the organization’s needs, then scheduled and assigned work, which must then be supervised.” If you are managing a volunteer corps, please click here to read more of the article Volunteer Management.

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

Policy, Plans and System Development

“Regardless of the agency and the staffing that may or may not be in place, all agencies need some type of infrastructure. This may include a background check policy, financial policy or program policies. It may include resource development, board development or marketing plans. At a minimum it will include a Code of Regulations, the appropriate filing of taxes and other necessary permits and forms.” (Boards without Staff)

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

Financial Accounting

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

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

You can’t provide oversight for yourself. Allowing one person to manage and control the money in a non profit, regardless of their role, is never a good plan. It is imperative that all agencies, and especially small agencies, build in a system of checks and balances to ensure the proper stewarding of the community’s resources.

Board Development

Board development “is the intentional process by which the board is perpetuated, evaluated, and educated.  This role is usually supported by the exec and stewarded by the Board Development committee, which may also be called Governance, Nominating, or Administrative.” For more information, please see the post Board Development Done Right.

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

Have you run a one person agency? What’s been your experience? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Executive Salaries and Other Things that Distract Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you read the articles? What do you think about execs disclosing their salaries to reporters? What’s your definition of transparency? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Who’s Appointing your Board?

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on February 19, 2014 at 4:27 pm

My most recent article on answers.com generated more attention than any of the 60+ articles I’ve written thus far. It was titled Board Seats are Not for Sale and they shouldn’t be. Yet, there are a variety of ways to join a board, and more than a few organizations who routinely allow corporations to appoint senior staff to the agency’s board of directors.

I thought today’s blog might be a great way to talk about how to deal with this practice, avoid it when possible, live with it when necessary and advocate against it when required. The executive’s job, among other things, is to engage and build the board. It’s easier when board members come believing in your mission, but it’s possible even when they don’t.

If a corporation in your community feels that they should have a board seat because they support your organization, it is imperative upon you as a leader to figure out how you can meet their needs while honoring your agency’s autonomy.

Perhaps instead of allowing them to appoint someone, you can ask them to give you the three names of the people who are interested in your agency.  Your committee can interview those prospects and recommend the one that you think is best aligned with the work of your organization. Perhaps you can negotiate and have their people serve on a committee prior to appointing them to a board seat.

Let’s be honest, corporations has some skin in the game too. They want to protect their investment, and we want them to, but we don’t want to abdicate our responsibilities. In the best case scenario, it may be that the corporation is aligned with and dedicated to the work of your organization. Even in that case, they do not have the moral or actual authority to make board appointments.

Most board members’ companies support the organization, yet that’s not why they’re on the board. It is also true that a lot of organizations do not consider board prospects that have not supported the organization, either personally, through their company or with their time. Supporting an organization is not a guarantee of a board seat.  Not supporting an organization may ensure you are not invited to serve.

I, myself, have had that very conversation with a community development person of a local company who wanted to serve on our board but didn’t support our organization. He said the company only supported organizations on whose board their staff served; after mentioning this to the Chair of the Board Development Committee, I said we only put on board members who support, financially or otherwise, our organization. It was a stalemate.

Was I suggesting our board seats were for sale? Not at all! We had plenty of corporate donors whose staff did not serve on our board. Even if the company had supported our organization, the board development committee might still have not recommended him to serve on our board. Why would they? He wasn’t a volunteer; he wasn’t a committee member; he wasn’t a donor; he wasn’t even an advocate for us in the community. He had no role in our organization. There was no reason for us to consider him to serve on our board.

Now that was a fairly low stakes stalemate. It would have been a much harder conversation had his company supported our organization and had he been a volunteer or an advocate for us. It would have been an incredibly hard conversation has his company been our largest donor.

I spent a good part of my time in that role raising money and an enormous amount of energy trying to diversify our funding base.  As such, we didn’t have one huge donor, but if we had – it wouldn’t have just been a different conversation; it would have been a dance.

The company might have given us a name, and we might have agreed or we might have countered with a different name. We might have had full board at the time and invited their person to serve on a committee. Or we might have stalled. We might have pushed back or we might have acquiesced.

At the end of the day, Executive Directors are tasked with ensuring their organizations are still standing tomorrow. Allowing a practice that is likely to generate a board that cannot perform its role is not fulfilling the Exec’s leadership responsibilities or the board’s governance responsibilities.

It has been suggested to me that executive directors who advocate against allowing corporate donors appointing board members may be at risk of losing their jobs. I hope that is not true but if it is let me say to the boards out there: this, alone, is not an appropriate reason to fire your executive. His or her job is to protect your agency and support you in fulfilling your governance responsibilities.

Donors, even corporate donors, do not have the authority and should not have the authority to appoint board members. I know this is easier said than done but it is better to walk away from a gift that is not aligned with your values and your responsibilities than to allow somebody to dictate something that is distasteful to you.

To the corporations out there: Please do not set the authority to appoint board members as an expectation of your financial support. It is against the best interest of your company, the organization and your community. It also may be a liability for your company. If your control the board; you may be held responsible for its decisions. Never underestimate the damage that can be assessed by the court of public opinion.

If you want an organization to be viable, sustainable and to uphold their governance responsibility, you have to allow that organization to do just that.  By appointing their board members you are encouraging them to abdicate their responsibility, which will then prevent you in the future from holding that organization accountable.

There have certainly been cases where great board members have been appointed by corporations. It is more often the case when disengaged and disinterested members have been appointed.

Donors have the right to have their gift spent in the way that they intended it to be spent. They have the right to expect transparency and fiduciary responsibility and for organizations to meet its mission and be good stewards of the community’s resources. Donors do not have the right to a board seat.

If this has routinely been the practice of your organization, I recommend that you create a board development plan including a training process so that board members really understand their governance responsibilities.  Once you have, begin to lobby a few powerful board members individually to advocate changing that practice.

Board development is crucial to board leadership and board leadership is critical to strong agencies.  Board seats are like gold; there are precious. You only have so many and the people in the seats have big jobs. The only people making the decision about who should fill those seats in the future are the people in those seats today.

What’s been your experience in corporations appointing board members? 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.

Aligning Values and Decisions

In Leadership, Organizational Development on February 6, 2014 at 3:16 pm

For a long time now, whenever I say “No, I can’t do that” I’ve taken to following it up with “and I don’t want to.” It’s the distinction between what’s not possible and what’s not acceptable to me. Both are usually true yet the second piece is more important for me to illustrate. We each communicate our values every day, some of us more intentionally than others.

The most obvious sign of a leader is their ability to engage and inspire. The second most obvious sign is their ability to say no. (Leaders also need the ability to say yes, which is a post for another day.)

When I was younger, I sometimes said yes when I wanted to say no, or meant to say no, or even sometimes when I thought I had said no but not in a way or a manner than people heard as no. Resentment is the emotion that I now know is about my having allowed something that was unacceptable to me. I used to think of it as my being taken advantage of … until I realized it was me. It happened whenever I said yes, but meant no. It happened until I learn to be more intentional about a lot of things, my values included.

I had to learn to be more clear in my mind about what my values were and how those values got infused in my work. I had to be more deliberate about communicating those values to my team. I also had to make sure I worked at an organization whose values were aligned with my own. Once I got all that, I became a lot less resentful. Life is about making new mistakes.

I learned that lesson the hard way, a long time ago when discussing a pregnant teen and if she should continue to be allowed to come to the program (and the father too if he came, which we didn’t know at the time). If she was allowed, what message might the other kids receive? If she wasn’t allowed, what message would we be sending to her? What were our organizational values? Were they aligned with our personal values?

We went round and round with the staff, with the program committee and with ourselves. The committee came down to the idea that no, she couldn’t come to our program because it’s not who we were as an agency and that I needed to stand up in the community and say that. At that minute, I realized that “No, that wasn’t who I was and that I couldn’t and wasn’t willing to defend that position.”

Somehow, that was enough. The teen continued to come to the program and we worked with her and created systems to ensure we didn’t glorify her pregnancy but instead demonstrated how difficult it was going to be, and also how we could help.

Leaders say no. No, you can’t serve on our board because your heart isn’t in it. (This is said by board leadership, not the executive.) No, you can’t continue to serve on my team, because you’re not moving our goals forward. No, we can’t continue to partner with your agency because our values aren’t aligned. No, that donation will not be in my agency’s best interest. No, we cannot go down that path; it’s not who we are.

That means you have to know who you are, who you want to be and what values are important to you, your organization and its future. You have to have look through that lens every day in myriad situations. What you allow sends a message as to what you value.

My school district allows kids to play sports with a D average. Studies have repeatedly shown that kids who play sports or are engaged in quality after school or extracurricular activities are less likely to do illegal or unsafe things. While that’s true, would it be so much to ask for a C average? And what’s the message that this policy (from a district that is consistently among highest rated in the state) sends to the athletes?

We, as leaders, need to consider every decision we make against the lens of our values, who we want to be and in consideration of the message that decision will send. Allowing kids to play sports with a D average sends the message that mediocrity is fine, and that sports are more important than grades.

Do I honestly think that was their intended message? No, I don’t. I think they didn’t think about the message.

Not calling your kids out (students, client kids or actual kids) when they do something that is unacceptable to you, your values or the rules of your program or house, reinforces that it’s ok, which then teaches that rule following is optional – and also that your authority is questionable.

There will always be rules we want to break but we need to be clear about why we are breaking them and teach our kids how to discern those rules from other rules.

It’s not any different with staff. For all the new managers out there: address something that’s unacceptable to you when you see it, and every time you see it. If you don’t, what is unacceptable to you will become the status quo.

Every decision leaders make sends a message about what they value and what they believe to be true, whether they intend it or not. How much more could we accomplish if we were intentional about our values and our goals, how they are implemented, and what is and is not acceptable to us?

What’s been your experience in aligning values and decisions? 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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