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effect of recession on nonprofits

The Power of a Single Board Member

Note: A version of this post appeared on the blog in February 2011.

If this recession has any silver lining it could be that it’s forcing nonprofits to completely re-evaluate how they use money. There is a tendency in the sector to shy away from, ignore, fear or dismiss money. But when there is less of it, you are forced to learn how to use it more effectively.

And it is up to the board, who has a legally-defined fiduciary duty, to step up to the plate and provide a strategy for how money is used in the organization. But because boards are such a bizarre mingling of volunteer strangers it can be difficult for the group as a whole to take a leadership role, especially in the taboo area of money. The solution lies in encouraging a single individual board member to rise up.

Nonprofit boards are often ineffective fiscal managers largely because of their group dynamics. Countless times have I seen a nonprofit board of directors suffer from group think, head off in tangents, or avoid difficult conversations.

The opportunity lies in getting a single board member to play a leadership role. A nonprofit’s executive director can be instrumental in encouraging this coup d’etat by finding an individual board member who:

  • Is passionate about the cause and the organization
  • Has the respect of the majority of the other board members
  • Understands, or is willing to be educated about, the basics of financial management
  • Is confident enough not to be easily dismissed or swayed

And what does it look like when an individual board member takes a stand to move the board towards better financial management?

  • Interrupting the annual rubber-stamping budget approval meeting to ask how the budget fully finances the overall strategic plan of the organization
  • Asking for, and ensuring creation of, monthly financial statements that are understandable
  • Ensuring basic nonprofit financial management training for board and key staff so everyone speaks the same language and understands the key ratios they should be analyzing
  • Standing up to board members and staff who dismiss or discourage deeper conversations about how the nonprofit budgets, uses financial vehicles, handles financial reporting
  • Interjecting, cajoling, persuading, and inspiring fellow board members to USE money to strengthen the work of the organization

As David Bornstein said, social change is often driven by “one obsessive individual who sees a problem and envisions a new solution.” So, too, in the world of the sometimes intractable nonprofit board. It may require a single board member to stand up and demand that financial business as usual doesn’t work anymore. If it takes a recession to make money a true tool for social change, so be it.

If you want to learn more about moving your board forward, download our 10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board E-book.

Photo Credit: loco’s photos

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