nonprofit board of directors
Today I am in Sacramento (it’s a busy travel month) speaking at the Nonprofit Resource Center’s 2015 Conference “Building a Mission Focused Community.” I am honored to share the stage with amazing nonprofit sector visionaries like Jan Masaoka from the California Association of Nonprofits and Blue Avocado, Jeanne Bell from CompassPoint, and Robert Egger from LA Kitchen (and past Social Velocity interviewee and guest blogger).
My topic for today’s conference is “Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader.” Amid growing competition, decreased funding sources, and more and increasingly complex social challenges, nonprofit leaders must reinvent themselves. They must unlock the charity shackles, embrace strategy and impact, use money as a tool, refuse to play nice, and demand real help. We need a new kind of nonprofit leader.
Below is a Slideshare synopsis of my talk today, and it joins the growing library of Social Velocity Slideshare presentations.
As the year draws to a close, and you (I hope) make time to relax, reconnect with friends and family, and reacquaint yourselves with some much-needed quiet, you may also want to reflect on your role as a social change leader. Effective leadership is really, really hard work, but it is also incredibly necessary and needed.
So if you find time over the next few weeks to take a look at your role as social change leader and you want some help along the way, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.
Here is an excerpt:
Chapter 3: Refuse to Play Nice
As a by-product of the charity mindset, nonprofit leaders often suffer from being too nice. The thing I love most about nonprofit leaders is that, for the most part, they are truly good, decent people. They are trying to make the world a better place, so by definition they are considerate of others. But sometimes you can take being nice too far. Being nice to the donor who leads your nonprofit the wrong way, or the staff member who is not performing may work for the individual relationship, but is detrimental to the larger organization and ultimately your mission.
Indeed, according to a 2010 study by researchers at Stanford University, nonprofits are perceived as “warm, generous and caring organizations, but lacking the competence to produce high-quality goods or services and run financially sound businesses.” In other words, we think nonprofit leaders are nice — but not competent.
But this reality is often imposed on nonprofit leaders. Nonprofit leaders are encouraged to collaborate instead of compete, hold onto under-performing staff, accept martyr-like salaries, smile and nod when funders push them in tangential directions, and keep quiet when government programs require the same services at a lower price.
This demand that the nonprofit sector play “nice” is the result of (at least) three aspects to the sector:
- A Focus on the Social. The sector exists to address and (hopefully) solve social problems. Thus, by definition, it is socially oriented and has an inclusive, consensus-based approach to doing business.
- More Customers. Nonprofits have two customer groups, as opposed to the single customer for-profits have: 1) those who benefit from the services a nonprofit provides (clients) and 2) those who pay for those services (funders).
- Multiple Players. In addition to their customer groups, nonprofit leaders must corral their board of directors, which often includes individuals with competing interests, and external decision-makers (policy makers, advocates, leaders of collaborating organizations) who have an impact on the change the nonprofit seeks. The end result is that multiple players must somehow be brought together and led in a common direction.
But in order to work toward real solutions and get out from under consensus-based mediocrity, you need to break free from the niceness trap. Rest assured, I am not asking you to get mean and ugly. But there is a way to politely, but assertively, make sure you get what you need to succeed.
In other words, the reinvented nonprofit leader needs to:
- Say “No” to funders who demand new programs or changes to programs that detract from your nonprofit’s theory of change and your core competencies.
- Diversify revenue streams so that you are not beholden to any one funder or funding stream.
- Demand that board members invest significant time and money in your nonprofit, or get out.
- Fire under-performing staff. This is such a taboo in the sector, but with limited resources and mounting social problems to be addressed, we do not have time to invest in people who cannot deliver.
- Be brutally honest with funders and board members about the true costs of running operations effectively and stop apologizing for, or hiding, administrative expenses.
- Create a bold strategic plan that will drive your nonprofit toward social impact and sustainability, not mediocrity.
- Make an honest assessment of your nonprofit’s core competencies, competitors and consumers so that you understand and can articulate where you fit in the marketplace — and act accordingly.
- Stop waiting for your board chair, or a big donor, or a government official to allow you to do something that you know is the right way forward.
- Refusing to play nice is not easy. And it often culminates in a difficult conversation, perhaps with an underperforming staff member, an ineffective board member, or a time-consuming funder.
In order to manage these difficult conversations for success, you need to approach them in a thoughtful and strategic way. Here are the steps…
Photo Credit: Satish Krishnamurthy
One of the most difficult decisions a nonprofit leader faces is whether to cut a program. The program might be draining staff and offering few results to clients, but once a nonprofit launches a program it becomes almost instantly institutionalized. Even if the program eventually no longer makes strategic sense, it is almost impossible to convince board, staff and donors to end it.
But for a nonprofit to be most effective, its leaders must understand the financial and social impact of all of its programs and make strategic decisions accordingly. And the way to do that is with a Program Analysis Matrix.
Nonprofit leaders are driven by the desire to provide as many services as possible, so to shut down an established program seems so wrong. But nonprofit leaders must regularly analyze their portfolio of programs in order to understand how well each program contributes to the organization’s mission and financial sustainability.
When I assess a client’s financial model, one of the first things I employ is a Program Analysis Matrix that analyzes the social and financial impact of their entire portfolio of programs. I chart all programs and activities comparing each program’s ability to:
- Contribute to the social change the nonprofit is working toward (“Social Impact” on the x axis), and
- Add or subtract financial resources to/from the organization (“Financial Returns” on the y axis).
A Program Analysis Matrix looks like this:
Each program that a nonprofit operates is placed in one of the four boxes depending on how well that program contributes to the social impact (or mission) the nonprofit is working towards and the financial sustainability of the organization. The four options are:
- Sustaining: the program has low social impact (it doesn’t appreciably contribute to the nonprofit’s ability to create social change), but does provide financial resources to the organization.
- Beneficial: the program has high social impact and provides financial resources to the organization—this is the best of both worlds.
- Detrimental: the program provides low social impact and drains financial resources from the organization—this is the worst of both worlds.
- Worthwhile: the program provides high social impact but drains financial resources.
This Program Analysis Matrix helps to surface issues that a nonprofit must address, for example when some programs are providing no benefits, or there are too many mission-related programs that don’t attract funding. Typically, a nonprofit has an abundance of “Worthwhile” programs that are integral to the mission and provide important social impact but are financially draining to the organization. In a situation like that, board and staff need to get strategic about developing programs that are “Sustaining” or “Beneficial” and provide a positive financial return.
Board and staff should work together to plot all current programs in the matrix. Once completed, the matrix can help make the appropriate strategic decisions (labeled as “Strategy” above) about which programs to “cut,” “maintain,” “nurture,” or “expand.”
This analysis can help a nonprofit take a hard look at everything they are doing and start to make some hard decisions. A conversation about cutting programs is always incredibly difficult, but with the right data behind it, the conversation can be a logical, as opposed to emotional, one.
Photo Credit: Bart van de Biezen
There is a fundamental error that nonprofit leaders make when recruiting new board members. And that is to be vague about the kind of board members they need. Nonprofit leaders often think in very general terms about the makeup of their board while ignoring their nonprofit’s specific needs. It then becomes almost impossible to get new recruits (let alone old board members) active or engaged because they are unclear about the unique role they should play in the organization.
A board matrix is a tool that many nonprofits use to analyze what traits their current board has and where the holes lie. Often the traits used include very general things like:
- Gender diversity
- Racial diversity
- Geographic representation (for national and regional organizations)
- General sought-after skills like marketing and fundraising expertise
- Access to vague networks, like “connections to people with deep pockets”
But this is the wrong way to think about who your board members should be.
To recruit the board you really need, you have to connect the skills, experience, and networks of your board to the specific goals of your long-term strategy.
Here are the steps to get there:
- Divide Your Strategic Plan Into Board Vs. Staff Roles
Take a hard look at each goal of your strategic plan and ask what the board needs to do versus what the staff needs to do to make that goal a reality. For example, if your nonprofit runs an in-school literacy program and your first goal is to grow the number of students by 50%, you probably need your board to open doors to school district decision-makers so that you can grow to additional schools and secure more district support. So at least one or two of your board members must have connections to school district leaders.
- Analyze Current Board Members
Once you’ve made a list of what you need from your board for each of your goals, add those elements to the top of your new board matrix. Make sure these are very specific skills, expertise areas, and networks. So for the example above, they would include things like: “Connections to School District Decision-Makers,” “Experience Growing Organizations,” and “Ability to Understand and Articulate Literacy Data.” At the end of the process, you should have 10-15 skills, expertise areas, or networks that your board must possess. Now list all of your current board members along the left side of the matrix and mark the characteristics that each member has.
- Recruit To Fill The Specific Holes
Once you’ve completed the matrix, you may see areas where your board falls short. Now you know exactly what kinds of board members you need on your board. Give this list of missing skills, expertise, and networks to your Board Recruitment Committee so they can find the specific people necessary to fill those holes.
- Give Each Board Member a Unique Job
Once you are clear about what you need from your board to deliver on your strategic plan, give each board member (current members and new recruits) a unique role to play. People function best when they are very clear about their specific role. If each individual member knows exactly what piece of the strategic plan is theirs to carry out, they will be much more engaged and active. So get specific: “We need you to secure meetings with district-level staff,” or “We need you to look at our growth model and ask hard questions.”
If you want a board that works for you, get specific about the kind of board you really need. To learn more about building a groundbreaking board, download the 10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board book, or the How to Build a Groundbreaking Board webinar.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
It is such a common complaint. Nonprofit boards are notorious for shirking their fundraising duties. But the good news is that there is a solution, and it doesn’t involve pleading or bribery. As part of the growing Social Velocity Slideshare library, today I offer the 9 Ways to Get Your Board Fundraising Slideshare.
If you want your board to share the responsibility for creating a sustainable nonprofit, you must get strategic. And you must stop apologizing. This Slideshare helps you begin to understand the steps for transforming your board into a financial workhorse.
And if you want to learn more about getting your board moving, download the the How to Build a Fundraising Board on-demand webinar.
You can see the entire library of Social Velocity Slideshare presentations here.
The other day I was talking to a nonprofit executive director who was delighted because he finally convinced a reluctant board member to become board chair. Over the past year, this board member had been delinquent in his meeting attendance and fundraising requirements. But since the executive director had no other viable candidates for the chairmanship, he was incredibly grateful that this board member finally relented and agreed to become chair.
What kind of crazy is this?
Gratitude is being thankful when someone performs a helpful act. But in the nonprofit sector there is such a pervasive power imbalance that misplaced gratitude, or gratitude for acts that are actually NOT helpful, often gets in the way of real work.
If a nonprofit leader acts grateful when she should actually voice frustration or disappointment, she is cutting off authentic conversations that could result in more effective partnerships.
Nonprofit leaders could stand to be a little less grateful for:
Board Members Who Aren’t Thrilled to Serve
If a board member doesn’t want to be there, and they are making that blatantly obvious (by not showing up to board meetings, not meeting their give/get requirement, or derailing board meetings with self-serving tangents) then take them at their word. Stop thanking them for serving and instead have a conversation about their poor performance. Ask them to change or resign. Don’t be grateful that you have 15 warm bodies listed on your letterhead. Each ineffective board member takes up space that could be filled by a committed and productive member. So take a hard look at the actual performance of each board member and build a board for which you can actually be grateful.
Donors Who Don’t Fund Real Costs
There is (I hope) a growing recognition in the sector that you cannot have high-quality, results-driven solutions without the appropriate staff, technology, systems and infrastructure behind them. Not every donor is there yet – by a long shot – but when a donor wants to fund the programs they love, you need to educate them about all of the costs involved in those programs. And if they want the “program” without the “overhead,” explain that the two are inextricably bound and an inferior investment will yield an inferior result.
Superfluous In-Kind Gifts
Nonprofits cannot be the dumping ground for the things companies want to get rid of while they enjoy a fat tax write-off. If a donor wants to give your literacy program boxes of age-inappropriate books, or your food bank out-of-date Halloween candy, or your management team old, slow computers, just say “No”. You shouldn’t be grateful for something that makes your job harder. Take the opportunity to educate the potential donor about the work you do, how important it is, and the most effective ways to support that work. And if they just want the tax write off, suggest which more appropriate gifts (including money) would earn it.
An Inexperienced Fundraiser
I see this all the time. A nonprofit won’t pay a market rate salary for a high-calibre fundraising director so they recruit an inexperienced person who eventually fails. Instead of being grateful that your board will let you hire an underpaid fundraiser, or grateful that someone is willing to take the position, talk to the board about what is really going on. If you don’t make fundraising part of everyone’s job and hire someone to truly lead those efforts, you are simply setting the organization up for failure. Make your financial model a key part of your overall strategy and then hire (and pay appropriately) the right person necessary to lead that financial strategy.
Rise from bended knee with confidence in yourself, your staff, and your social change work to articulate what you really need. To be truly successful, a nonprofit leader needs a board that will move mountains, donors who fully fund and believe in the organization, and a staff that can knock it out of the park. And you get there by being honest about, not grateful for, the roadblocks in your way.
Photo Credit: Victor Bezrukov
In this month’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Rick Moyers, vice president for programs and communications at the Meyer Foundation in Washington DC – a regional grantmaker that is nationally recognized for its capacity-building programs. Rick is a co-author of the Daring to Lead 2006 and Daring to Lead 2011 national studies of nonprofit executive directors, and has written and spoken extensively on executive and board leadership. He currently serves on the boards of BoardSource, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, and the Community Connections Fund of the World Bank Group.
You can read other interviews in the Social Velocity Interview Series here.
Nell: You write a lot about nonprofit boards of directors. As a general rule, because they are volunteers, nonprofit boards tend to be pretty ineffective and disengaged from truly leading their organizations. Can the current structure of nonprofit leadership be made more effective? Or is there a better structure, and if so, how would we undertake such a fundamental shift in the sector?
Rick: We can’t give up on boards just because many boards are ineffective, any more than we can give up on public schools just because so many are struggling. And the fact that board members are volunteers doesn’t necessarily account for their disengagement—some of the most passionate and productive contributors to the nonprofit sector are volunteers.
But just because I’m not ready to give up doesn’t mean we can just keep doing the things we’ve been doing to improve boards, hoping our efforts will produce better results, and wringing our hands when they don’t. We’ve heaped so many expectations and roles onto the backs of boards that I’m not sure it’s possible for any board to fulfill all of them all the time. A good place to start improving things would be to become much more focused and pragmatic about what we expect from boards. A clear set of expectations – one that’s not simply a laundry list of everything we wish boards would do – would be a start. Along with the recognition that organizations need different things from their boards depending on their circumstances.
We need to recruit board members with at least as much thought and effort as we put into recruiting employees, if not even more given that board service is a multi-year and often multi-term commitment. I know board members who have been invited to join the boards of organizations with which they were completely unfamiliar after a 15-minute conversation with the chair of the nominating committee—or a casual lunch with the executive director. And then we wonder why they have a hard time engaging. If we recruited board members as if the job mattered and their selection was an important decision, perhaps they would start taking the job more seriously. We can’t give up on boards without doing a better job of trying to help them function better.
At the same time, there would be enormous value in trying out alternative structures and talking openly about whether they worked any better than the current model. My hunch is that alternatives are being tried out quietly, but we don’t talk about them much. I’d be interested in learning more about very small boards (four or five carefully chosen people), the impact of compensation on board member performance, boards with greater staff representation, and boards that are more democratic and representative of the constituencies and communities being served. I’m not confident in suggesting any of these as an alternative to current practice because I don’t think we know enough. But we don’t know enough because most organizations don’t believe they have permission to experiment (and maybe they don’t). There’s enormous pressure for “normative” behavior in governance, even though we know that normative behavior often produces mediocre results.
I don’t have a good answer for how we break this cycle, but I think we need a “learning lab” for governance practices. We need to be bolder in our experiments, and more open in sharing the results, even when they are unsuccessful.
Nell: The Daring to Lead studies that you co-authored with CompassPoint demonstrate a deep leadership crisis in the nonprofit sector – nonprofit leaders are burned out, planning to leave, and lack support for leadership development. Is more money for leadership development the answer, and if so, how do we get funders to understand the need and fund it?
Rick: More money is the answer, but not necessarily more money for leadership development. My take-away from this body of work is that chronic under-capitalization is at the root of executive director burnout and dissatisfaction. The problem is not just that organizations don’t have enough money for leadership development. They don’t have enough money for anything.
While I applaud funders that invest in leadership development—and the Meyer Foundation is among them—there’s also a danger that funder-driven leadership development programs become simply another demand on already overextended executive directors. Funders need to recognize the importance of leadership development, but also need a keen understanding of the financial and organizational constraints that have a profound impact on executive directors who may already be accomplished leaders. One of the lessons from my foundation’s experience is that large grants for leadership development can be hard to use when executives are facing so many other challenges and distractions, many of which are related to finances and fundraising.
Nell: Why is leadership development taken as a given in the for-profit sector, but taboo in the nonprofit sector? Why do we assume that nonprofit leaders should be able to go it alone? And how do we change that attitude?
Rick: In the for-profit sector, there are more vehicles for ensuring adequate capitalization and leaders have greater discretion over how they can use that capital, with the mandate of producing the greatest return for owners, investors, and shareholders. That said, it’s very telling that so many large companies spend freely on leadership development without questioning the return on investment, while nonprofit leaders are conditioned to question every penny spent on anything other than program delivery. Boards can be especially shortsighted in this regard, under-investing in current executive directors without considering the costs—in money, organizational reputation, and lost momentum—of an untimely transition. We need more evidence, both anecdotal and quantitative, of the ROI for leadership development in the nonprofit sector. Producing that evidence and telling that story will require resources, but I’m concerned that without that investment we’ll never be able to make a convincing case to boards and funders that are increasingly focused on evidence-based approaches.
Nell: Do you think as Millennials age into leadership positions in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors they will fundamentally change nonprofit leadership? And if so, how?
Rick: While not wanting to sound cranky, I object on principle to making generalizations about a group of 80 million people as if they were a single thing. And as a member of Generation X, I also must point out that we’re the ones who are currently aging into leadership positions. What about us, damn it?
Crankiness aside, as someone who works with younger leaders every day, I have noticed some differences that hold promise for the future. Many in the rising generation are much more socially aware, passionate about social change, and optimistic that they can make a difference than I was at their age. They are choosing careers in the nonprofit sector with more thought and intention than previous generations. The dramatic increase in the number of academic centers and degree programs focused on the nonprofit sector and philanthropy over the past 20 years is producing accomplished young leaders with broad skill sets and considerable insight into nonprofit work.
I do notice a more conscious commitment to work-life balance, and more intentionality around achieving it, which I hope will help reduce burnout and abrupt departures of nonprofit executives. Just within the last six months, I’ve watched three younger executive directors transition out of their jobs because they were seeking greater work-life balance. The difference from what I’ve seen in the past is that these executives decided to leave after successful tenures of more than five years, and after working intentionally to develop a strong board and staff leadership team that could handle the transition. These leaders stepped down before they burned out, and handed off strong organizations that were prepared for the change. That’s very encouraging, and I hope it’s a trend.
A committed and talented cadre of younger leaders is already in the nonprofit leadership pipeline – not by accident, but because they want to be here. Daring to Lead and many other studies have highlighted the challenges inherent in being an executive director, so these younger leaders know what the role entails. And they still want to do it. I think that bodes well for the future, and I’m optimistic.
Photo Credit: Meyer Foundation
One thing the nonprofit sector desperately needs is more people asking hard questions. A lot of time is spent skirting issues or sugar coating situations. If nonprofit leaders instead forced some challenging conversations, with hard questions as the impetus, the sector could become more effective. And the place to start is with a nonprofit leader questioning herself.
I’ve written before about questions to ask your board, and questions to ask your nonprofit, and questions to ask before you pursue a new opportunity, but there are also some key questions a nonprofit leader should ask herself.
On a fairly regular basis a nonprofit leader should ask:
- Am I Leading or Managing?
A manager shuffles resources around, waits to be told what to do, and focuses on checking things off her list. But a leader crafts a larger vision for her organization, articulates what her nonprofit is trying to accomplish, and then marshals all the resources at her disposal (board, staff, funders, partners) toward that vision. And when some of those resources won’t align to the vision (board members who aren’t performing, donors who want to veer off course) she confidently tells it like it is. A manager will deploy resources, but a leader will ensure that the deployment results in social change.
- How Can I Address My Weaknesses?
A great leader recognizes when he is falling short and where he needs complementary abilities. A leader who doesn’t know how to fundraise hires a rockstar Development person, or gets fundraising training. A leader who struggles with strategic decisions finds a leadership coach. A leader who can’t build an effective board, asks fellow nonprofit leaders for counsel. Most importantly, if there are costs associated with addressing his weaknesses, a leader raises the money he needs, instead of doing it on the cheap.
- Am I Selling Myself (and My Nonprofit) Short?
I see so many nonprofit leaders not fighting for what their organization really needs. From not articulating the true costs of their nonprofit to funders, to allowing the board to shirk their fundraising responsibilities, to addressing capacity constraints with a band-aid, to burning out from long hours with not enough staff, nonprofit leaders are constantly giving their organizations, and themselves, short shrift. A true leader finds the confidence to stand up for herself and her organization and demand what is truly required to achieve the vision for change.
- Which Other Leaders Should I Align With?
It amazes me how many nonprofit leaders exist in a bubble. They may collaborate with others on a programmatic level, but they are not regularly analyzing the larger marketplace in which they operate (emerging competitors, new technologies, changing needs) and figuring out with which other leaders impacting the field (policymakers, organization heads, advocates, influencers) they should forge alliances. Social change requires much more than any single organization can accomplish. It is critical that nonprofits become fully networked in their area of social change. A nonprofit leader makes that happen.
- Am I Still The Right Person for The Job?
This is such a hard question. But if you simply don’t have the skills (or the energy) to lead the right road ahead, then you must step aside. Don’t hold your organization and the vision back because of your ego. If you are a true leader, you have assembled a whole army of board, staff, supporters and allies that can continue to move forward in your wake. It’s not easy to recognize or admit, but if you really care about the cause and want to see real change happen, then you should regularly be assessing this.
A true nonprofit leader drives the vision, marshals resources, forges alliances, inspires support, and, ultimately, leads the charge toward social change. Because now more than ever we need real social change leaders. People who are willing and able to find the best way forward and the confidence, smarts, and humility to lead us there.
If you want to learn more about nonprofit leadership, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.
Photo Credit: iwona_kellie
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