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Roadblocks

Will There Be a #MeToo Moment for the Nonprofit Sector?

In light of the recent #MeToo movement raising awareness about sexual harassment and gender disparity in Hollywood and other industries, the Chronicle of Philanthropy/AFP study released earlier this month showed that 25% of nonprofit fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment in their job, most often from donors.

Perhaps this will be the impetus for the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to uncover and reckon with gender disparity.

And I wonder if this reckoning will also include a recognition that the nonprofit sector itself suffers from a larger gender-based disparity between those who have money and those who seek that money for their cause.

The nonprofit sector is predominantly female — 70% of workers in the nonprofit sector are women. And the leadership of the private sector (from which much of the money to fund nonprofits comes) is predominantly male — 96% of the CEOs in the S&P 500 are male, and 80% of all C-Suite roles belong to men.

Kristen Joiner pointed out this discrepancy a couple of years ago in a Stanford Social Innovation Review article, arguing that the gender power imbalance between those who have money to invest in nonprofit solutions and those running those solutions is based on the larger gender disparity of our society:

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that leaders of startups in the male-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to develop and execute original ideas, while the leaders of start-ups in the female-dominated sector get financial support for their ability to manage someone else’s idea well. Maybe. But I believe it’s likely that the power dynamics at play between the nonprofit and private sectors reflect the gender dynamics of our larger society.

The nonprofit sector is mainly run by women, the private sector is mainly run by men. Is it possible that the power imbalance we talk about between nonprofits and funders has its roots in good old fashioned sexism?  And if we acknowledge and discuss that, could we at long last perhaps find a way through it?

If we were to rectify the gender disparities at play in the nonprofit sector, it might look like this:

More Nonprofit Advocacy
Regulators, board members and funders ask nonprofit leaders to keep their political voices silent, sometimes even on issues that directly impact their ability to achieve their mission. While businesses can spend millions on lobbying and support of political candidates, nonprofit political action is much more restrictive. Nonprofit leaders need to be allowed to raise their voices, whenever and wherever it will help their mission.

More Access to Unrestricted Money
Money given with strings attached is a signal that the funder doesn’t fully trust the skills and abilities of those he is giving the money. More unrestricted dollars means nonprofit leaders are freed up to do whatever they think it takes to achieve their organization’s goals.

More Support of the Fundraising Function
Robust marketing and sales operations are a given in the business world. But “fundraising” (the nonprofit equivalent of “sales”) remains a dirty word. Nonprofit leaders need to be emboldened to build robust, sophisticated fundraising functions, and they need sufficient financial investment to be able to do that.

Rejection of the Overhead Distinction
Nonprofit leaders are often encouraged to spend only a small amount of money on infrastructure, administration and fundraising (overhead expenses). But overhead is a meaningless distinction made in the nonprofit sector, and one that is not made in the for-profit sector. Nonprofit leaders need to remove the overhead shackles so that they can create strong, effective, well-supported organizations.

Development of Strong Leaders
Business leaders often invest in professional development, training, and coaching, but a nonprofit leader must figure it all out on her own. We need to recognize that strong nonprofit leaders are every bit as important and necessary as strong for-profit leaders, and we should invest in nonprofit leadership development accordingly.

I say Time’s Up for the debilitating restrictions placed on nonprofit leaders around securing unrestricted money; investing in organizations, fundraising and leadership; and pursuing political activity. We must recognize and rectify practices born from a history of gender disparity if we want to truly benefit from the solutions nonprofit leaders have to offer.

Photo Credit: numb3r

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The Danger of the Nonprofit Savior Complex

You know the Nonprofit Savior Complex, I know you do. It’s when a nonprofit leader begins to believe that she (and only she) cares enough, knows enough, or is enough to fix the massive problem she cares so deeply about.

The positive side to the Savior Complex is it compels people who see an injustice in the world to stand up and do something about it. It is their very belief that they can make a difference that compels them to act, and often to make positive social change. Indeed, it is this altruistic entrepreneurial spirit that drives the social change sector. And it can be a beautiful thing.

But when it is taken too far, the Savior Complex can become dangerous.

Instead of reaching out to other leaders, building networks, being open and brutally honest with funders, demanding more from their board, the Nonprofit Savior instead chooses to go it alone. I’ve seen it in my clients, and I’ve seen it in myself.

It’s the program director who refuses to take a vacation because she thinks her program will fall apart in her absence. It’s the executive director who rather than demand real engagement from her board, just soldiers on by herself. It’s the activist who marches every weekend — to the detriment of her health, her family, her job — because she thinks no one else will.

The reality is that the complex problems we face cannot be solved by a single savior. Let’s face it, Superman doesn’t exist. So as a true leader you have to create the space — in your own organization, in your own community, in your own social issue area — for others to step up and lead alongside you.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that nonprofit leaders should sit back and let nature take its course, particularly when progressive social issues are seemingly under constant attack.

Rather, I am arguing that you must begin seeing yourself and your organization as part of a larger complex of committed, capable, caring, effective people and organizations. You must move from creating individual action that will only get you so far, to creating coordinated network action.

To move away from the Savior Complex you have to reach out to others, to form partnerships, to build networks. So start by recognizing that others beyond you care just as much, are just as capable (maybe in different ways), and are worthy of your time to figure out how you can work together effectively. There is tremendous power in numbers.

So to overcome the Savior Complex, you can:

You might be surprised as the leaders (within your organization, within your issue area, within your community) step up in the space you have finally left open.

The Savior Complex is ultimately about an overactive ego. Someone who suffers from the Savior Complex fundamentally (but perhaps unconsciously) believes that no one can or will do it as well as she does. But the fact is that there are others out there. And to truly accelerate change we need more people working together within and across organizations, rather than working themselves to the bone amid an isolated, competitive, singular view of the world.

Photo Credit: Tom Bullock

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When A Funder Takes Your Nonprofit Off Course

It’s fairly common knowledge that in the nonprofit sector the relationship between funders and nonprofit leaders is often fraught. A power imbalance between those with the purse strings and those without can sometimes lead to poor decisions about a nonprofit’s future direction.

The other day I was advising a nonprofit leader — let’s call him “Tim” — about whether he should expand his after-school program to a new school district, an expansion that one of his key foundation funders was championing. Tim was intrigued by the idea because due to a mix of circumstances (high need, proximity to other programs, etc.) investing in this school district had recently become popular among foundations.

But Tim was conflicted because, through years of experience implementing his very successful program, he knew that this new school district would not be a good fit for his program. The school district leadership was not fully invested in Tim’s program and approach, the district was located too far away for the nonprofit to ensure program quality, and the expansion would stretch Tim’s staff too thin, to name just a few of the issues. Despite the drawbacks, Tim was seriously considering expanding to this new district for the sole reason that one of his funders was really keen to see Tim’s program there.

This is a recipe for disaster. It’s an example of a nonprofit leader paying too much attention to the noise. But most troubling, this is an example of a nonprofit leader elevating a funder’s opinion above what the nonprofit leader knows is right.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it.

As a nonprofit leader, there are so many interested parties, so many stakeholders, so many voices telling you what is right and what is best. But the problem is that often those voices have inserted their, or their organization’s, self interest. That’s not to say that this foundation leader was acting with malice. Rather I would bet that he was simply acting with a lack of complete information. Perhaps the foundation leader thought, from his limited viewpoint, that Tim’s proven program would be the perfect addition to this troubled school district. But the foundation leader didn’t understand the larger dynamics at play. And if Tim kept quiet he would actually be doing both himself and the foundation a disservice by keeping his expertise out of the equation.

So when faced with a critical decision (and so many competing voices) how do you get clear about the right move for your nonprofit and then articulate that potentially unpopular decision to others?

First, you have to get quiet. I’m serious — take a walk, turn off your devices, go out in the woods, whatever it takes. You simply cannot make a critical strategic decision amid the ringing phones, your staff’s questions, the constant ping of emails, or the lure of social media.

Once you’ve gotten truly quiet ask yourself: “Which of the possible directions facing our nonprofit is most likely to increase our ability to achieve our desired outcomes?” If you haven’t yet articulated your nonprofit’s desired outcomes, then you need a Theory of Change, which is an excellent guiding document when facing critical strategic decisions like this.

In Tim’s case, if he had gotten quiet and asked himself this question, the answer would have been clear. An expansion to the new school district would actually decrease his nonprofit’s ability to achieve their desired outcomes because 1) they were unlikely to achieve those outcomes with the new students (for all of the reasons outlined above), and 2) the additional drain on his staff would likely decrease the outcomes they were already achieving with their current students.

Once you have arrived at your answer (not the answer someone else wants) articulate (on paper if it’s helpful) why this is the right decision for your nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes. Then convince a few board champions of your argument. Finally meet one-on-one with your funder, or whoever is trying to take you away from what you know to be the right path. In a clear, evidence-based, confident way explain the reasons behind the decision you have made.

Making the right decision for your organization might be terrifying at first – especially if you risk losing a key funder. But trust me, making the right decision will put your nonprofit in a much better place in the long run.

In Tim’s case, deciding not to expand to the new school district could result in one of two things: 1) he could convince his funder that this is the right decision and through Tim’s honesty and strategic decision-making solidify the funder’s long-term support, or 2) he could lose a funder who doesn’t have his nonprofit’s best interests at heart. And if Tim has a solid financing plan for his nonprofit, the loss of that single funder does not have to be a death knell for the organization.

Either way he has put his nonprofit on a stronger, more sustainable path.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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A Reactive Nonprofit Leader Will Get Us Nowhere

Let’s be honest, nonprofit leaders tend to be a pretty reactive bunch. Instead of creating or controlling a situation, they tend to simply react to it. And it makes sense.

A foundation suddenly changes their funding strategy, and a nonprofit leader must scramble to find a new revenue source. A shift in how or where the government provides social services and a nonprofit leader suddenly sees a dramatic spike in the number of her clients. A board chair finds a job in a new city and a nonprofit leader finds his board leaderless. Nonprofit leaders are incentivized and learn quickly to react to ever-changing internal and external circumstances.

But I worry that in the face of the relentless shocks that 2017 brought, many nonprofit leaders have gone from a mode of normal reactive to super reactive. And the problem is that when you are operating from a point of reacting to circumstances instead of creating circumstances, you are much less effective at achieving your ultimate goals.

Lately I have seen some nonprofit leaders swept up into the chaos wrought by our divisive political and social climate and thus become less effective than they could otherwise be.

Let me give you an example. A nonprofit leader who runs a national nonprofit recently became understandably concerned about a proposed federal policy change that would dramatically affect her mission. She became obsessed with emailing, calling, texting everyone and anyone in her network and encouraging them to call, write, email their members of Congress. She became so controlled by this need to react to this policy change — a change, by the way, that was ultimately outside of her control because the political will simply did not exist in the current Congress — that it made her sick. She became wild-eyed, exhausted, and ill and ultimately of little use to her staff, board or social change mission. If she had instead taken a step back, become quiet, and analyzed what was within her ability to change and what was not, she could have then developed a way forward from that knowledge. And I think she would have been much more successful.

If our actions come from a place of anger, frustration, or despair in reaction to the behavior of others, then we are only exacerbating the problem. This has become even more obvious since the 2016 election. The Trump Administration will take an action or make a statement that is so egregious, that goes so completely against what we as social change leaders have worked our whole lives to promote, and our initial response is to react, to fight, to bend in despair.

But we are only making it worse. We are feeding the demons of division, anger, and hatred.

I think Brene Brown would likely agree.  In her latest book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone she argues that in feeding into the anger and hatred that swirls around us, we are only hurting our efforts for larger social change and a better, more just world:

If we zoom way out and take a wide-angle shot of our world that’s increasingly defined by twenty-four-hour news, politics and social media, we see a whole lot of hatred. We see posturing, name-calling, and people trading humiliations…Pain will subside only when we acknowledge it and care for it. Addressing it with love and compassion would take only a minuscule percentage of the energy it takes to fight it…Holding on to [anger] will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice.”

I wonder how the tide might shift if each one of us stepped away from the noise and the hatred and instead came from a place of courage, love, change, compassion, and justice, as Brene suggests. Instead of reacting to the noise, we became silent and sought to truly listen, to understand, to find common ground with those around us.

I was raised in the Catholic faith, and although I no longer practice, I’m sometimes reminded of the beautiful prayers of that faith. One of my favorites is the Prayer of St. Francis. I wonder if in these historic words there is something for those of us who want to see a more just, inclusive, loving world. Perhaps as true leaders we must do what sometimes feels impossible and instead of reacting to hatred and anger, offer love and hope, as the prayer suggests:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy…

I am not suggesting that we pardon behavior or comments that we find objectionable. But rather, that we refuse to add fuel to them by stirring up the anger, frustration, and despair of our friends, our family, our employees, our donors, our board members, our fellow social change leaders.

What if instead of spending time forwarding, commenting or re-Tweeting depressing news or comments; obsessively refreshing our news feeds for the latest dose of adrenaline; or worrying over what the next outrage will be, we build effective organizations and work across organizations, we develop smart strategies and deep networks, we instill social change leaders with confidence and ample resources, we focus on what brings us joy and peace so that we are refreshed each day to start anew, we take good care of our families and friends so that we all have the energy and the optimism necessary to see our goals realized.

There is no doubt that these are incredibly challenging times. But what if the social change leaders who dream of a more compassionate, equitable and inclusive world work towards that goal from a place of calm and confidence, rather than a place of anger and fear. Indeed, I wonder if that is truly the only way forward.

Photo Credit: sarowen

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What I Learned on My Social Media Break

Happy New Year, dear Social Velocity readers! After taking almost 4 months away from the blog (and largely away from social media in general), today I’m jumping back in. I certainly haven’t figured it all out, but I feel I’ve given myself enough space to climb back into the fray.

But before I do, I want to say how incredibly touched I was by the outpouring of support I received from my last post about taking a blog hiatus. I received by far the most response emails, Tweets, messages, texts, and calls in the 9 years I’ve been writing the blog. I was completely blown away, not only that my own personal journey could resonate with so many other people, but also how incredibly supportive my readers are. I cannot thank you all enough for your resounding support for this journey I decided to take.

Among those emails, Tweets, messages, texts and calls were some great recommendations for books I should read. And I very much took those recommendations to heart. Because I am a diehard introvert, I do most of my exploration through the written word. So I have been voraciously devouring anything and everything that I think could give me some sort of guidance. Some of you have asked what books I have found helpful, so here are my favorites:

  • Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone
  • Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True
  • Thich Nhaat Hanh, The Art of Living
  • Tara Mohr, Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead
  • David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish
  • Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now and A New Earth
  • Jen Sincero, You Are a Badass
  • Martha Beck, Finding Your Own North Star

So what has this break from the blog and social media given me? So very much!

With my newfound time I began to meditate everyday. I had done some meditation in the past, but very sporadically. Since I’m a Type A personality it is nearly impossible for me to sit still for any length of time, so I often found meditation to be excruciating. But last Fall I stumbled upon the Insight Timer app, and the endless variety of topics, teachers, lengths, and styles of meditations actually made it fun to do a daily meditation.

From the space of meditation and the new insights gleaned from the books I was reading, I began to realize that I need to spend less time each day “doing” and more time just “being.” That is to say that I needed to find time each day to put down the never-ending to-do list and just be still.

And I began to realize that it is in that stillness that our true efficacy lies.

If the chaos of 2017 taught us anything it is that the daily (sometimes hourly) assault on everything that we as progressive social changemakers hold dear can be soul-crushing. But reacting to it from a place of anger or fear gets us nowhere. Writer Robert Wright would seemingly agree when he argued recently that this moment in American history is an opportunity for us to stop reacting emotionally to the insanity swirling around us, and instead use “mindful resistance” to begin acting in a more effective way.

I had fallen into the trap of mindless reaction that he describes. I had unknowingly adopted a mode of reacting with frustration, anger, hopelessness, and confusion to each new horrific newsfeed item. This exhausting cycle of crushing news development, fueled by social media, followed by outrage is what finally convinced me to get off the social media train for a while.

But what if instead of being sucked into the seeming insanity that swirls around us, we social change leaders — those of use who seek a more just, equitable, and inclusive society — could take a big step back, get still, and determine a smart, thoughtful path forward. Instead of merely reacting to the cards we’ve been dealt, we could actually change the game altogether.

For example, the new tax law passed at the end of December could have negative implications for the nonprofit sector. Some predict that the increased standard tax deduction could encourage people not to itemize their deductions and thus give less money to nonprofits. But instead of reacting to this change with fear and anxiety, nonprofit leaders could take a breath and create a more strategic, thoughtful approach to their financial model. The new tax law is what it is, that ship has sailed. The best approach now is to accept the current reality and embrace the opportunity to get much smarter and more strategic about how you bring money in the door.

A thoughtful approach to the chaos that churns around us is not easy, and I don’t mean to suggest that it is. We live in uncertain times, and unfortunately we can’t control that. But we can control our approach to it. I strongly believe that for positive change to happen, we have to start with ourselves. And I know that 2018 will be, for me at least, a much more mindful year.

So in this new year, I look forward to exploring with you — my amazing, supportive, inspiring readers — how we can together create a more thoughtful approach to any challenges 2018 brings. And from that more thoughtful approach help lead a more hopeful, inclusive and inspired path forward.

Photo Credit: Justin Edgington

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Why I’m Taking a Small Break From The Blog

You may have noticed that I haven’t been posting to the blog as often lately. There is a good reason for this, and I want to share it with you, since you all have been such wonderfully loyal and engaged readers.

I launched the Social Velocity blog in September of 2008, nine years ago this month. I started writing these blog posts (largely to myself and a few friends and family) as a catharsis. I was often frustrated by dysfunctions I saw in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, and I felt a burning desire to call a spade a spade. Over time, to my immense surprise and delight, my audience grew. A few years in, I began to create some regular series — Financing Not Fundraising, 10 Great Social Innovation Reads, the SV Interview Series — and am lucky enough to host several amazing guest bloggers. And thus the blog became a very regular part of my life.

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we are, in our modern lives, so completely driven by the to do list that we rarely (if ever) take a big step back and ask what it’s all about. I have found myself in recent months needing to distance myself from the endless to do list and carve out some space for bigger, deeper thinking, writing, exploring. I have begun feeling a real need to find more quiet so that I can listen more intently to what I’m supposed to be doing.

At the same time, the 2016 election and the subsequent relentless blow after punishing blow against the progressive causes I have spent my life championing has really thrown me for a loop, as I know it has many of you. I’m feeling a desire to figure out a bigger role for myself in the social change arena, to figure out how I can, as Darren Walker put it, “take up the mantle and choose to lead.” Because I truly believe that now, more than ever, we are all called to play a bigger role in the social change we seek.

But figuring that out takes time for thinking, analyzing, scheming. And it’s hard for me to carve out that space when I’ve got a blog publishing schedule breathing down my neck.

The constant drum of the blog deadline (I try to publish most Tuesdays and Thursdays) has become a bit of a burden. Rather than always writing because my heart required it, I began writing because the calendar required it. Instead of being a joy, the blog began to feel stale and punishing to me. Add to that the many other things I have been working on (my consulting practice, book ideas, other projects), and I have begun to realize that I need space to think bigger about what my voice in the social sector should be. I am, it seems, finally taking my own advice to “find the value in quiet.”

And don’t think that I have made this decision lightly. It terrifies me to walk away, even briefly, from something I love doing and a readership I am so fond of. But sometimes you have to do the thing that scares you most.

While I so appreciate you, my loyal readers, and your emails, comments, Tweets and support, I need to take a bit of a step back and find some space to figure out what is next for the blog. Rest assured, I have no visions of ending the blog. I know that if I give up my outlet for the things I need to say, I will probably explode. But I do need some space to reinvent the blog.

So I may not write as often for awhile. Or I may write soon on new and different topics. I don’t have a timeline for when I’ll write again. I just know that I will. It might be tomorrow, it might be next week, it might be in 3 months.

I hope that when I figure it out, you will join me again. So stay tuned!

Photo Credit: Richard Revel

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Creating Honest Conversations Between Nonprofits and Funders: An Interview With Eric Weinheimer

Eric WeinheimerIn today’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Eric Weinheimer, President and CEO of Forefront, the only regional association that represents grantmakers, nonprofits, advisors, and social entrepreneurs. With 1,100 members in Illinois, Forefront provides education, advocacy, and research, and mobilizes its members around issues that are important to the nonprofit sector.

Prior to his current role, Eric was the CEO of The Cara Program, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive training, job placement, and support services to individuals who are homeless and struggling in poverty. Eric was selected as a member of the Emerging Leaders Program for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and as a Chicago Community Trust Fellow. He was also appointed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to the Social Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Enterprise Task Force. He serves on the Advisory Board for the Social Enterprise Initiative at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business and on the Board of Directors for the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.

Nell: Forefront is the only statewide association that has both nonprofit and funder members. How does Forefront deal with the power dynamic that is so often present between grantors and grantees?

Eric: Forefront talks explicitly about the power dynamic in much of our programming and classes, specifically our annual Grantmakers Institute for new program officers. We have candid conversations with these grantmakers and present actual case studies to give them a better understanding of their power and unique position. We also discuss how others perceive them and their roles, and how those perceptions can impact their effectiveness.

Forefront also has a non-solicitation policy that prevents nonprofits and grantmakers from discussing specific requests or proposals with each other when they gather at Forefront. The spirit of that policy also extends to how we bring grantmakers and nonprofits together. When nonprofits and grantmakers meet at Forefront, there is an explicit goal or purpose related to an issue in their fields or in the sector. While the power dynamic still exists, putting the focus on a larger purpose rather than on money helps our members build trust, leading to more genuine and balanced relationships. We also make sure that grantmakers and nonprofits co-chair some of our affinity groups to ensure balanced perspectives.

Nell: One of Forefront’s biggest initiatives is Real Talk about Real Costs, a series of funder and nonprofit convenings (the first in the nation) to talk about funding the full costs of nonprofit organizations. What have you learned through this series both about how to encourage more effective conversations between nonprofits and funders and about how to better support strong nonprofit organizations?

Eric: In the conversation on Real Costs we’ve learned that it’s not about creating another resource or a toolkit. Its not about what grantmakers or nonprofits should or should not do. Rather, it’s about starting an honest conversation. There are so many grantmakers and nonprofits that haven’t had the opportunity to dig in and engage with this work, either independently or with feedback from their counterparts. Our value-add is to catalyze these conversations. Forefront’s role is to create the space for honest dialogue, mobilize our members around this issue, promote best practices, and curate and share the newest research. It’s a slow and gradual process, but it ultimately leads to change in awareness, understanding and behavior.

Nell: How far do you think the national social sector has come in terms of more effectively supporting strong nonprofits and building more transparent and effective funder/nonprofit relationships?

Eric: We’ve certainly made some progress in the last 15 years, but we have a long way to go. It’s encouraging to see more funders express interest in general operating support and capacity building. However, too often, funders’ still feel the need to be in control and prescribe certain solutions rather than engage communities for their feedback and ideas.

Likewise, nonprofits have become more transparent, but they are still too reluctant to admit to challenges or failures because of possible consequences to their funding. Funders could model this practice for the nonprofits much more than they currently do. Funder transparency is only in its infancy.

Nell: Your national counterpart, Independent Sector — a national membership association of nonprofits and funders — had a recent change in leadership with Dan Cardinali taking the helm. What would you like to see Independent Sector doing to move this work forward on the national stage?

Eric: Dan is terrific – smart, experienced, strategic and passionate. He will do a great job. Under his leadership, Independent Sector (IS) has a real opportunity to be the connective tissue for our sector and elevate the good work that is happening around the country. I would encourage Dan to focus on a few of the critical issues facing our sector, both internal and external. Whether it be real costs, transparency, the power dynamic, or policy and advocacy, IS can highlight and amplify where real progress is being achieved and help to transport those examples to other locations. Once new practices take hold in certain geographic locations, other regions will follow suit. Organizations are eager for strong leadership that informs, inspires and mobilizes them to action.

Photo Credit: Forefront

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The Right Questions to Ask A Potential Board Member

Recently, fundraising maven Kay Sprinkel Grace wrote a post on the GuideStar blog outlining four questions to ask prospective board members when interviewing them for board positions. While I heartily agree with her that nonprofit leaders should institute and follow a rigorous due diligence process in recruiting new board members (rather than just shoving anyone into an empty board seat), I disagree with most of the interview questions she proposes.

In my mind, Sprinkel Grace’s questions for prospective board members focus too much on what’s in it for the potential board member, rather than what value the board member could bring the nonprofit. And in this way, nonprofit leaders are again encouraged to present themselves on bended knee to those from whom they need support or help. I would much rather see nonprofit leaders interview board candidates by confidently asserting the value that their nonprofit creates and determining whether potential board members have something of value that could further that work.

Sprinkel Grace’s first question for prospective board members — “How passionate are you about our cause?”– is absolutely right and helpful in determining whether a prospective member has the requisite amount of interest in the cause they might be helping to lead. But her other three questions (“What personal aspirations of yours could be enhanced by serving on our board?”, “Of what importance to you is social interaction with other board members?,” and “How much time can you give us?”) all put the burden on the nonprofit leader to demonstrate the value a board position will bring to the prospective board member, rather than helping to discern whether the prospective board member will bring value to the nonprofit. For the most part, Sprinkel Grace’s questions are about what the nonprofit can do for the board member, not the other way around.

Instead nonprofit leaders should use questions like these to determine whether or not a prospective board member is a fit for the nonprofit:

In reading through our nonprofit’s strategic plan (or whatever background documents we gave you ahead of time) what things excite you?
This question provides an opportunity for you to judge 1) whether this board member demonstrates enough of an interest in the organization to have done their homework, and 2) whether your work elicits enough intellectual and/or emotional energy from them to fuel their future work on your behalf.

What specific skills, experience or networks do you think you could bring to the table in order to help us move forward on our goals? 
This question makes very clear that you expect something unique and specific from this prospective board member (just as you do with all of your board members), not just a warm body. But more importantly, this question helps you gauge how well this board member understands your work and your plans and how willing they are to get in the game. This question can also help to get the right board member really excited about how their unique contribution right from the start.

How do you think you might go about meeting our give/get requirement?
I know it’s controversial (and I’ve talked about it manymany times before), but I strongly believe that you have to connect every single board member to the financial engine of your nonprofit. If you have a specific give/get requirement for your board (and I hope you do!), then you want to know from the outset how this prospective board member feels about it, and how they might approach it.

If we are going to create strong, effective, sustainable nonprofit organizations, we have to stop begging board members to join. A great board is created when you recruit people who have the specific skills, experience and networks you need to deliver on your mission and you effectively engage them to do the work.

If you want to learn more about creating an effective, engaged board, download the “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” book.

Photo Credit: Ethan

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