Dani Robbins

Posts Tagged ‘well run agency’

Does Your Agency Aspire to Social Justice or Charity?

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

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

What’s the goal?

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

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

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

What’s the goal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Decides?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your experience standing in the breech between social justice and charity.  Where did you elect to stand? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

3 (not so easy) Steps to Improved Board Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1 Board Development Committee

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

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

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

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

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

Step 2 – Board Process and the Work of Committees

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

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

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

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

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

Step 3 Strategic and Generative Governance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is This Your Board, Too?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have you done with Boards that won’t plan? What do you suggest? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please offer your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Compliance is not Governance: Financial Statements and Parliamentary Procedure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your position on boards approving unaudited financial statements? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

Disruption in the Nonprofit Sector

In Leadership, Non Profit Boards on March 13, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Most boards plug along. I wouldn’t have believed it until I became a consultant, but it’s true. Boards are made up of good, talented, smart people who have other jobs and want to do the right thing for the agencies that they serve. They don’t always know what that is and unfortunately, sometimes their Execs don’t either. Board Development, at the end of the day, is coordinated, managed and instituted by the agency’s CEO. If that CEO doesn’t understand that board development is part of his job, it doesn’t happen.

Now if you’ve been reading for a while – and if you have, thank you – you know that most of what I write about is board development. Board development is what makes good agencies great. It’s what makes good Execs successful. It’s what makes strong agencies thrive.

Even when a board is well developed, it has to continue to be developed.  Greatness has to be cultivated.

Boards change, goals change, members overstep their roles, execs do too, and sometimes things fall apart. Many of these issues can be mitigated by on-going board development. Even on the best developed board, things still fall apart, but they fall apart less often. It is very hard to stay focused on mission when things are falling apart.

Look around your community and find a strong exec and a weak board. It won’t take you too long. At some point, either because there are no metrics, that CEO has been given no goals, has had no evaluation, or has no job description, a rift will develop between the board and the CEO, who will either be fired or quit.

Don’t believe me? Think about the last battle you’re aware of between an Exec and their board. It’s happens all the time. Every Exec I know who has been doing this job for a long time has gotten into a flat out, no holds barred, battle with members of their board. It is not usually the full board but a select group of board members. Sometimes they win, and sometimes they lose.

Most of us try to do it with grace and with the best interests of our agency at heart; when we’re successful, you won’t have heard about it. In fact, you may only be aware of the ones that got completely out of hand. Of the ones of which you are aware, there are ten more of which you are not.

It still happens in agencies with well developed boards, but it happens more often with less developed boards. Less developed boards have less structure and less foundation both of which lead to the overstepping of roles and boundaries, which leads to agencies losing focus.

This months nonprofit blog carnival is focusing on the question “How can we disrupt the nonprofit sector?”  The question is intended to figure out how we can create more innovative and effective organizations.

I submit the answer is leadership, board development and the introduction of generative governance.  It may not be new, but it’s still sexy.  And it’s what will make the difference for our field.

It starts, like everything else, with leadership. Boards must select leaders that can take them where they want to go. That means they have to know where they want to go and the type of leader that can get them there. For more information on selecting the right leader, please see the article Dos and Don’ts in Hiring an Executive Director and the post The Role of the Nonprofit CEO.

Board development means an agency has an intentional plan for how their board will be selected, oriented, educated, and evaluated, which will ensure the board and the agency is appropriately stewarded and perpetuated.  Even with that plan, you can’t do what you’ve always done. You have to set and meet higher standards. We as a sector have to ask the hard questions and make the hard decisions. We have to have the right leaders and the right boards that understand and fulfill their responsibilities. It is no longer enough to meet our fiduciary responsibility. If we want to change the world, we have to move into strategic and generative governance.

“Strategic and generative leadership is what engages board members and moves the needle for change in our communities.” I encourage you to pick up the book “Governance as Leadership,” by Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan and Barbara E. Taylor, which introduced the idea of generative governance. Please also follow this link for more information.

We need some disruption!  We need better leaders, better boards, higher standards and more conversations focusing on the transformation of our agencies, our sector and our communities.

We have kids to feed, diseases to eradicate, communities to improve and people to empower. We have a world to change!

Do you agree that our sector need disruption? How would you start? 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.

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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