Dani Robbins

Posts Tagged ‘nonprofits’

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.

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Raising your Profile; Building your Credibility

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on October 30, 2014 at 11:23 am

I was running a Club in Texas, when I was offered the Executive Director position for the Boys & Girls Clubs in Akron Ohio.  I knew the President of the Akron Community Foundation and not another soul in town.  Thankfully, my Board had a plan.

One Board member, who isn’t the mayor of Akron but could have been because he knows everyone, started setting up lunch meetings.  We went to lunch with every community leader in town.  We told them of our struggles; we told them about our kids and what they needed to be successful; we told them our plan to ensure they were, indeed, successful – and that our Club was as well. After 6 months, I, too, knew everyone in town.

What’s the lesson for your organization? There’s actually a few:

  •          Who is on your Board and who do they know?
  •          Will they introduce you?
  •          Do you have a story?
  •          Can you tell it in a way that engages people?
  •          Who picks up the tab?

Now you might thing that it was silly of me to include the question of who pays for lunch on my list of lessons, but I cannot tell you the number of people who have asked.  It matters.  The question of what is a good use of agency resources is a blog for another day, but for today, it’s worth having the discussion and being clear about the answer before you ask board members to set meetings.

Once you do, start having lunch, coffee and breakfast! Get to know people in your community and let them get to know you.  Program officers of foundations are incredibly generous with their time and are interested in learning about your organization. Community leaders, by definition, care about the community.  Go talk to them.  You will be pleasantly surprised by the number of people who say yes to your request for a meeting.

Profile building can and is partially done over lunch, but it only starts at lunch. It doesn’t end there.  To build your profile, you also have to build your credibility and the credibility of your program. Obviously, it won’t be enough to talk about your program if your program isn’t providing excellent services.  Impactful programming is critical.  Benchmark similar organizations, find and implement best practices and monitor and communicate your impact.

Speak in the community.  Most service groups have a speaker at every meeting.  Recruit and train a Public Speaking Team to present at service group meetings and in the community.  It is a wonderful opportunity to get your message out there.  You can also blog about the issues that impact your clients, write op-ed pieces and meet with local politicians.

Is there a Leadership group in your city? Leadership Akron was an incredible experience for me. It contributed to my professional development and knowledge about the city in ways that I could not have replicated on my own.  It also provided incredible resources for my organization. Now that I live in Columbus, I am a member of the Leadership Columbus Alumni group.  Consider participating in your local group.  Most leadership programs offer scholarships for nonprofit senior leaders; do it.  It will be an incredible investment of your time and resources that will pay off in spades.

Figure out the “must attend” event in town, and attend.  When you do, walk around and greet everyone, introduce yourself to people you haven’t been able to get in front of and ask if you can call them for a meeting.  Again, you’ll be surprised at the number of people that say yes.

Finally, join groups that coalesce around the issues you care about.  Most communities have nonprofit executive director groups, monthly or weekly educational forums, and leadership organizations.  Find one and get involved. If there isn’t a group, start one.  We invited all the leaders of agencies that offered after school programming in Akron to a meeting.  Akron had almost 2 dozen after school programs, yet there was no on-going discussions about programming, best practices or service gaps. The discussion that started at that first meeting continued and our group later became the After School Council of Greater Akron.

You can do it!  Profile raising, like everything else that is worth doing, takes time – lots of time.  Spending the time will pay off in spades, for your organization, its mission and the community it serves!

Please let me know how it goes. As always, if you have other ideas for profile building, or suggestions for blog topics, please share and consider hitting the follow button. 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.

Making the World a Better Place

In Leadership on June 18, 2014 at 11:08 am

My mother died 23 years ago this month, right before I graduated from college. She taught us that we each had an obligation make the world a better place. That has been my inspiration ever since.

My first real job was in a nonprofit. Before applying, I didn’t even know you could get paid to work in a nonprofit. Ever since accepting that job, I’ve been trying to learn all I can about leadership, the issues I care about, and what it takes to move an organization toward excellence.

It’s been a long and circuitous journey through women’s rights, youth development and now to consulting for advocacy, education and social service agencies. Each experience I’ve had has been gratifying, sometimes frustrating, occasionally terrifying and always inspirational.

I have worked with a variety of nonprofit boards and executive leaders to implement stronger and better aligned organizations. I’ve had the privilege to advocate for women’s rights, stand up for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and impact the lives of young people.

I have stood by women as they faced their abusers; held their hands after they were assaulted; and walked a man who had just threatened a child down a long, empty hallway and out of my building. I have faced a room full of angry parents and also rooms full of grateful parents. I have taught kids to believe in themselves and helped communities to believe in their kids. I have turned around agencies that were about to close, helped leaders steer their agencies and helped boards fulfill their roles. I have been threatened and hugged and vilified and honored.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to do this work and I am grateful for the opportunity. It has been an honor and a privilege.

This month’s blog carnival is about innovation and inspiration. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend my friend and colleague Erik Anderson’s post about his journey. It inspired me to finish this piece, which even though I started it a few weeks ago, felt too personal to continue.

Erik’s post also reminded me that when changing the world we each have to work on issues we’re committed to rectifying. These jobs we hold require us to live and breathe our organization’s mission, uphold its values and serve its clients. That means we have to believe in the mission and respect the people that mission impacts. It means we have to want to spend our days, and sometimes our nights, changing our corners of the world. We have to agree with the values of our organization, or find another organization. We have to be clear about our own values, what we care about and how we want to make the world better.

What do you care about?

I care about our field as a whole and believe that when nonprofits are stronger, communities are stronger. I care about leadership and believe that organizations improve or dissolve because of their leaders.

I care about women’s rights; GLBT rights; the disadvantaged and underserved in general and youth, including and in particular those aging out of foster care, urban, rural and GLBT youth.

I want equal rights, equal access, fair laws, good schools, safe communities, the right to control my body and my own medical decisions. I want all kids everywhere, and especially those aging out of foster care, GLBT, urban and rural youth to understand that they have the right and the obligation to become who they are meant to be.

(To any young person who is struggling: Even if your parents or your community doesn’t support you, find someone who will, even if it has to be the person looking back in the mirror. Please….hold on and slog through until you can breathe different air and find a different space to be the amazing, talented and productive person you will become.)

I want excellent nonprofits that impact their clients and move the needle on their issues, with screened, trained and accountable staff, excellent leadership, and boards that understand and fulfill their role, govern their agencies and support their executives.

I want to fulfill my obligation to make the world a better place and I want you to fulfill yours. I also want to make my mother proud.

What do you want? What inspires you? How do you work to make the world a better place? 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.

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.

Raising our Collective Standards

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on January 20, 2014 at 9:02 am

The low expectations we have of each other never cease to amaze and disappoint me. For the second time in 6 months I have read a piece on giving stipends to the poor and the (shocking?!?) benefits to the family. Why would poor people make any worse decisions on how to spend their money than anyone else?  It further reinforced the thought I’ve returned to again and again in the past few weeks – our expectations and our standards are too low.

I had a board chair that always used to say “kids will raise themselves to your expectations or lower themselves to your suspicions.”  I have come to believe two points: that doesn’t apply only to kids and that we need higher expectations.

If we as nonprofit leaders serve to change the world, and I believe we do (If you don’t, perhaps there is a better suited role for you elsewhere) then it seems to me that we need to roll that intent down through everything we do. As of today, we are not. There are a small amount of great agencies out there doing great work. More often there are agencies that are great at one thing, and mediocre at others. So perhaps the program is strong but the board is weak. Or the grant writing is strong, but the books are un-auditable. Or the executive is well trained but the staff is not. It happens all the time in every community, yet we all know that when any non profit anywhere does something unethical, illegal or inappropriate we are all painted with that same brush.

I know that everything gets graded on a bell curve and that means our agencies do as well. Yet, I don’t accept the premise that that’s as good as it’s going to get and I have to learn to live with it. I want more, and I especially want more from the agencies that are serving the most disadvantaged among us.

If we want people to raise themselves to our expectations – and I do – then we have to have higher expectations! Those should include expecting:

  • our executives to be strong leaders
  • our staff to provide great services
  • our boards to uphold their governance responsibilities
  • our clients to achieve whatever plan they have agreed to achieve
  • our partner agencies to be ethical and impactful
  • our communities to understand how nonprofits work, hold us accountable and help us thrive.

We teach people how to treat us. If that’s true, we as a field have taught people to treat us poorly. We have accepted agencies doing work that is not impactful. We have allowed staff members to remain even as we are clear they are not moving our teams or our missions forward. We have created boards that do little more than rubber stamp the executive’s ideas. We have not challenged often and blatantly enough the ridiculous idea that poor people are poor because of the decisions they made, rather than of policies and circumstances we as a society either made or allow. We have failed to demonstrate that prevention is a million times better and less expensive than the alternative. We have accepted mediocrity or worse, let it flourish.

There’s an idea referred to as Exit, Voice and Loyalty, which is not exactly an accurate reflection of a book by the same name. The premise of the idea (again, not precisely the book) is that there are three options when responding to something with which you are unhappy.

  1. Exit: You can leave.
  2. Voice: You can say something.
  3. Loyalty: You can stay (and be quiet – this is where the idea breaks from the book).

When to leave? When to stay? When to speak up? When to stand down?  It’s very clear and very easy. Three choices. Which do you pick?

We have all worked for bad managers. We have all seen things that are unacceptable to us. We have served under executives that were ineffective and on boards that were as well. We have lived in communities where nonprofits are trying to make a difference and some clearly are, and some clearly are not.

We can change the equation by changing our expectations. Higher expectations will bring greater rewards, and also more resources. What could we as a field accomplish then?

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I want more from the world and I especially want more from our nonprofits. I want them to be better run, with better boards and better staff providing better services.

I don’t want our field to be the least respected field- the third rail of fields. I want it to be the most respected!

Leadership is hard; so is changing the world. Let’s raise the standards; raise our expectations; raise the discussion and raise the issues, each time and every time. Let’s raise more money, too, so we can expand our reach and our impact. If we do, we can raise our field – maybe to becoming the most respected field, which is where we should have been all along.

What do you think is the price of low expectations?  Do you have any 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.

The School of Worst Case Scenarios

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

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

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

Strategic Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s been your experience with crisis? Do you have great stories to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience.  Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Decisions are Made by those who Show Up

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on November 11, 2013 at 10:54 am

My community had a paltry 10% of eligible voters turn out to vote on Election Day. My neighbor said that any vote that didn’t have at least 40% of the eligible voters voting should be thrown out. But, of course and for good reason, it doesn’t work like that. Elections – and most other things – are decided by those who show up.

Now you may be thinking: “That’s nice Dani, but this is a nonprofit blog. What’s this got to do with non profits?” Everything; it works the same way for agencies. Many states ban proxy voting and require email votes to be 100% unanimous. Assuming you have a quorum, the decisions made by the board will, primarily, all be made by those in the room.

That means it not only matters who you elect to serve as Board members, it matters which of them choose to show up to meetings. It’s hard enough to figure out how a large group of smart people are going to vote; it’s even harder if you don’t know who will be in the room. As such, you need to know who’s planning to attend every meeting.

“Good Execs do their homework before the meeting and usually know how people are going to vote before the meeting begins……which doesn’t ensure they will do so.” (Board Meetings Gone Wrong) Even when you do your homework, and think you know how they will vote, a parking lot conversation can change someone’s mind.

The foundation for ensuring you have the right people in the room starts long before a board meeting is scheduled. It starts and also ends with the Board Development Committee.

When you are recruiting new prospects, unless you are willing to change the meeting time, those who tell you they cannot come to the meetings should not be considered as board members. Most agencies already carry one or two board members who consistently miss meetings; don’t add to that count.

The agenda that is set should also reflect, to some degree, the behavior of those expected to be in the room. This is most applicable to consent agendas. When you consider if a consent agenda is right for your board, consider the board members who most often attend. Do they typically read materials in advance or in the room? If they read them in advance, consent agendas can allow more time for robust generative discussions. If they read them in the room, they may not have time to read all the materials and may be voting on things about which they are not entirely clear. If that is the case, consent agendas can create issues of liability for your agency.

If you don’t have enough board members show up, the ones that do will not have their votes counted. Quorum issues are the best indicators of disengaged board. As mentioned in Engaging the Board “If you have consistent issues with having enough Board members in the room to make decisions, I recommend you take a look at how your board was built and how it is being developed.”

Finally, it behooves you to consider removing disruptive or disengaged Board members. For instructions on how, click here. It is a difficult option to consider, but each of our roles in nonprofit leadership requires us to do what’s best for the organization. If the work of the board becomes focused on defending or covering for an inappropriate board member, other more relevant work is not being accomplished.

We can’t always control who shows up, but we can control who is invited to serve. If we build the board intentionally and thoughtfully, it is far more likely that those who show up have the capacity, the wisdom and the experience to appropriately govern our organizations, and our organizations have the resources, impact and reach to change our world.

What’s been your experience? 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.

Twelve Signs of a Well Run Organization

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on September 20, 2013 at 9:26 am

I go in and out of a lot of organizations.  There are a few things for which I’m always on the lookout and the combination of what I see contributes to the recommendations I offer regarding the organization’s capacity for growth, sustainability and greatness.

I look to see if the mission, vision and values are obvious and if everyone knows them. I look at the policies, permits, organizational documents, job descriptions, resumes, and any and all plans that exist.

Here are the other things I look for, look out for and ask to review:

1. By-laws (Code of Regulations in Ohio) that are appropriate, revised periodically and, most importantly, followed.  I look at how Officers and renewing members are selected and how new members are recruited, oriented and voted upon.  I look at terms and term limits.  I look at Committee structures and purpose, how new committee members are added and if they need to be Board members.

2.  A Board that is well respected in the community who are aware of and fulfilling their role, including setting goals and annually evaluating the Executive Director, and setting metrics by which to assess the organization’s impact. I also look at how the Board is oriented, educated, evaluated and recognized. And if it reflects the diversity of the community.

When I am invited to Board meetings, I pay attention to how much the Exec speaks, how much the other staff speak and how often members of the board speak.  I notice if there are robust discussions and if votes are taken appropriately (appropriately being defined as “as outlined in Roberts Rules of Order” for the organizations that follow that model, which most do).  I notice if all votes are unanimous and if anybody is challenging anything.  I note if the minutes from the last meeting are approved and if financial statements are presented and approved.  I notice if anyone asks questions and if they are perfunctory questions or questions that reflect an understanding of the statements or issue at hand.

Everything flows from a strong Board.

3. Mission, Vision and Values of which everyone is aware, and upholding or moving toward.  Do the programs tie to mission?  Can people recite the mission and the values?  Is there a vision?

4. A Strategic Plan that lays out the path forward. Is there one? Does it include timelines, measurements and assignments? You’ve heard me say it before but a plan that doesn’t have each of the three is really just a list.

5.  Leadership – An Exec who has the passion, judgment, skills, training and experience to lead, and is known and respected in the community.  A recent fortune cookie I received said “if you have no critics you have had no successes.”  The Exec job is hard and not everyone is going to love them, but if the Exec communicates the vision and the path, people will follow.

6. Staff who have a passion for the organization’s mission, the appropriate technical experience, skills, training, and education for your field and their role. They also have to be on the team and moving the organization forward.  It is no longer enough to only be good at your job.  To ensure we  have the right people in the right seats we need staff to be both good at their job and on the team.

7. Organizational Culture that supports and empowers and also holds people accountable.

8. Cultures of Fund Raising or Philanthropy – Which is present and is that the appropriate culture to meet the goals of the organization?

9. Systems including infrastructure, financial processes, policies, plans and procedures that reflect the organization’s values; provide boundaries, training and growth opportunities for all; and reflect best practices and appropriate standards.

 10. An Excellent Program that ties to the mission, meets its goals, measures impact and moves the needle for change in the community. None of the above will matter if the program is mediocre.  The program or service provided must be excellent.

11. A facility that inspires hope, rather than exhaustion. We have all been in organizations that make us tired the minute we walk in the door.  It’s hard to be inspired or inspire others when surrounded by 2nd hand furniture that doesn’t match, stacked boxes, tons of papers and dingy walls.

12. Technology that supports (and doesn’t hinder) the work of the organization. At a minimum, there should be financial software; separate donor software if you receive contributed income; current (less than 3 year old) computers that have appropriate software and virus protection; an informative website and a reasonable email and phone system.  There should also be relevant policies on the use of technology and social media.

Did I leave anything out?  What do you use to gauge the quality, capacity and sustainability of an organization?  As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience.  If you have other ideas or suggestions for blog topics, please share. A rising tide raises all boats.

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