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nonprofit financial management

10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Nonprofit Board

Again and again, I’ve heard people say that innovation will never become part of the nonprofit sector — that nonprofits are too set in their ways. Or that the sector is too broken to emerge anew. And a particular area of dysfunction that people point to is the volunteer group that leads the nonprofit sector: the board of directors. But that attitude is unacceptable. There is great danger in dismissing the nonprofit board. The new Social Velocity e-book released today, “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” sets that attitude on its head.

Sure, boards tend to be inefficient, dysfunctional and broken. Yet there is tremendous potential for innovation. Indeed, without innovation at the board level, the broader movement to solve social problems is doomed.

A groundbreaking board can lead the reinvention of the nonprofit sector. A groundbreaking board demands more from itself, its nonprofit and the sector as a whole. It leads the nonprofit it serves to greater financial sustainability, more effective use of resources, and ultimately more social change. Through its excellence, a groundbreaking board can transform the nonprofit they serve, the community the nonprofit impacts, and ultimately the sector itself.

This 28-page e-book examines the 10 traits that define a groundbreaking board. Each of the 10 chapters of this book describe in detail how a groundbreaking board operates:

  1. Defines Itself: The board as a whole decides what it should do and how.

  2. Assembles the Right People: A groundbreaking board doesn’t leave recruitment up to chance or circumstance.

  3. Drives Strategy: A groundbreaking board leaves the day-to-day operations of their nonprofit to the staff and instead grapples with the big picture, strategic, visionary questions of the organization.

  4. Ensures Mission, Money & Competence Alignment: A groundbreaking board ensures that the nonprofit they serve is positioned for greatest success.

  5. Craves Impact: A groundbreaking board shows up because they care deeply about the change their nonprofit is making in the world.

  6. Raises Money: A groundbreaking board understands that every single board member must be responsible for helping to bring money in the door.

  7. Wields the Money Sword: The groundbreaking board continually analyzes the financial model of the organization and monitors the ability of that model to deliver on mission.

  8. Pursues Excellence: The groundbreaking board never rests on its laurels, but constantly strives to improve itself and the nonprofit it serves.

  9. Builds the Organization: A groundbreaking board never stands in the way of organization building, in fact they are their nonprofit’s biggest advocates for that critical support.

  10. Asks Hard Questions: A groundbreaking board understands the harsh realities of the nonprofit sector and is honest and transparent about the state of their nonprofit.

It doesn’t have to be so hard. The nonprofit board can be reinvented and in so doing become a powerhouse for social change.

Download the e-book.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: February 2012

February was the month to learn from other’s mistakes — from Komen to Hull House there was some great analysis about what went wrong and what can be learned. The other thing emerging in February was new social media darling, Pinterest, as an opportunity for nonprofits to tell their story visually.

Below are my ten picks of the best reads in social innovation in February, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest.

  1. The biggest news in February was Susan G. Komen Foundation’s repeated strategy and PR blunders when they pulled funding from Planned Parenthood, then reinstated the funding. Kivi Leroux Miller offered tips to recover from a PR scandal. Nancy Schwartz broke down Komen’s “busted nonprofit brand” and Beth Kanter described the 5 stages of a social media PR disaster.  And when things finally settled down a bit, Komen stumbled again with their attempt to reassure donors.

  2. Always a great resource, the Nonprofit Tech 2.0 blog provides 50 Fun, Useful, and Totally Random Resources for Nonprofits

  3. “As modern businesses search for a soul, who better than Millenials to help find one?” This month there were two articles about how the Millennial generation approaches work and ultimately how it will change how we all work: 13 Ways The Recession Has Changed How Millennials View Work and The Crisis of Meaning in the Millennial Workforce.

  4. Tom Watson launched a new column in Forbes focused on social entrepreneurship, and his inaugural post took an interesting spin on the endless “what is social entrepreneurship” conversation by finding parallels between Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street.

  5. Sometimes Dan Pallotta gets it really right, and that is especially true with his post arguing that a huge missed opportunity for philanthropist is to invest in the fundraising capacity of nonprofits.

  6. In the Harvard Business Review blog Nilofer Merchant argued that technology is fundamentally changing how organizations operate. This applies to nonprofits as well, and we should all take note.

  7. If you, like most people, struggle with creating content for your blog, this infographic makes it so much easier.

  8. Writing in the Washington Post, Antony Bugg-Levine, head of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, argued that nonprofits must embrace breakthrough innovations like restructuring their approaches to social problems and using capital to build organizations, “The sooner we confront our new economic reality and support visionary thinking and organizations, the sooner we can begin to rebuild a sustainable safety net.”

  9. The collapse of one of America’s oldest and most successful nonprofit organizations late last year, Hull House, provides a cautionary tale to other nonprofits that may not be employing good financial management, argued Rick Moyers.

  10. An interesting debate loomed at the end of the month because of a study by the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University that found nonprofit managers lack key financial knowledge. But Kate Barr and Ruth McCambridge took issue with the study’s methods arguing that the study missed the mark.

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: January 2012

I can’t believe that January is already over, it was a complete blur. Nonetheless there was lots to read and ponder in the past month in the world of social innovation. Below are my ten picks of the best reads, but as always, please add what I missed in the comments. And if you want to see other things that caught my eye, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Pinterest (I’m starting to really love this new one!).

  1. Socialbrite has created a mega calendar of 2012 nonprofit & social good conferences. Perfect for planning your year ahead.

  2. In their Fast Company article, It’s Time To Start Judging Nonprofits Like For-Profits, Alexa Clay and Jon Camfield tell donors “Do not be turned off by high overheads. They’re healthy. They mean the organization has a longer-term view on its role in making change.” Amen to that!

  3. Crowd-sourcing meets behavioral economics meets iPhone apps. A new approach to getting people to eat better. Love it.

  4. FastCompany profiles the business pioneers who really understand and embrace the new chaos in which we all now operate. This should be required reading for any leader (for-profit or nonprofit).

  5. I love it when we can use history to understand current trends. Phil Buchanan, CEO of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, reviews historian Oliver Zunz’s new book, Philanthropy in America. In so doing, Buchanan describes 7 “new” philanthropic concepts that really aren’t so new.

  6. Jason Cohen from A Smart Bear always has a way of finding hope in the entrepreneurial process. Although this post is focused on “traditional” entrepreneurs, I think it holds for social entrepreneurs as well: Entrepreneurship is a torturous chaos, until it isn’t.

  7. I have always said that in order to be a truly effective social change leader, you must be able to fully wield the financial sword. Kate Barr from the Nonprofit Assistance Fund in Minnesota breaks it down in the Executive Director’s Guide to Financial Leadership

  8. January saw a pretty impressive mobilization of people via social media to protest against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act). Dowser helps us understand what it means for online protest more broadly.

  9. In an increasingly competitive and resource-strapped environment it is even more critical that nonprofits be able to demonstrate the impact of their work. Here is a great example of how a Michigan arts collaboration demonstrates the economic impact of the arts in their community.

  10. Hull House, one of the oldest and most impressive American nonprofit organizations closed its doors in January. The Bridgespan Group explains the implications.

Photo Credit: ilovememphis

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Why Nonprofit Overhead is Destructive

It’s that time of year when donors make key decisions about their end of year giving. But a recent post on the Social Earth blog advising donors about questions they should ask nonprofits perpetuates thinking that actually hurts, rather than helps the nonprofit sector. The author, Tarini Chandak, asks “How do you know where your charitable dollars are going? Are they going to the cause you want to support or are they going to administrative and fundraising expenses?” In reinforcing old, and destructive binary thinking about program vs. overhead expenses, Tarini is doing nonprofits and their donors a real disservice.

Tarini lists 4 key questions she thinks every donor should ask of the nonprofits they consider donating to:

As various charities vie for your charitable donations, there are many questions you can ask them directly, including:

  1. How much goes to the cause? How high are their expenses?
  2. How efficient is their fundraising? What is their cost-per-fundraised-dollar ratio?
  3. Is the charity run properly? How efficient and effective is their human capital? Management team?
  4. Do they even need your money? Will your money just be lying around in their reserve?

I think questions #2 and #3 are excellent, but questions #1 and #4 perpetuate thinking that holds the nonprofit sector back.

Let’s start with Question #1: “How much goes to the cause? How high are their expenses?” As I’ve written before, the distinction between program (or “cause”) and administrative expenses is meaningless at best, and destructive at worst. If a nonprofit organization is creating change, then everything they do is in support of that change. How can a program run if there is no financial engine (fundraising) to fund it? If there is no building or space to house it? If there is no financial management or regular audits? If there is no regular evaluation of whether the program is making a difference? How can you possibly separate “program” from “overhead?” We must move beyond this distinction and encourage nonprofits to raise (and donors to give) more capacity capital, or the money that nonprofits so desperately need to create effective and efficient organizations.

Tarini’s Question #4 “Do they even need your money? Will your money just be lying around in their reserve?” is equally troublesome because it reinforces the backward notion that nonprofits should not have a reserve fund. As I (and others) have written before, we have to get away from the nonprofit taboo that operating reserves are wrong. Nonprofits cannot plan for the future, have a sustainable financial model, experiment with program changes, take risks, or any of the other things that are absolutely necessary to creating social change, without some operating reserves. If nonprofits are continually forced to go month to month without any cushion they will never emerge as strong, sustainable organizations capable of creating lasting change.

We must move away from thinking that encourages nonprofits to scrape by without the tools and infrastructure they desperately need. We must stop measuring nonprofit performance with meaningless financial metrics and instead evaluate nonprofits on their ability to deliver change. If a nonprofit is creating real change, does the minutia of how they spend money really matter?

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A Financial Taboo Nonprofits Must Get Over

There’s a new blog I discovered recently that I’ve grown to really like. Against the Grain, written by Rick Moyers of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, is about challenging nonprofit boards to be more effective. Recently Rick has been writing about the need for nonprofit operating reserves. Operating reserves are simply an amount of set aside money that a nonprofit has accessible in times of crisis, budget shortfall, etc. In Rick’s most recent post on the topic, he explains how nonprofits can go about building operating reserves. And to him, it’s quite simple. But I would argue that Rick ignores a pretty ingrained nonprofit financial taboo against running a surplus.

Rick argues that creating operating reserves is fairly easy: “The most reliable way to build reserves is by operating at a modest surplus (bringing in more money than you spend) consistently over time.” And the way he suggests doing this is to have “the fiscal discipline to make hard choices and the ability to resist putting all “extra” money immediately into expanded programs and services.”

But Rick ignores the fact that in much of the sector it is unseemly for a nonprofit to operate a surplus. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen nonprofit leaders massage the budget projections accompanying a  funding proposal in order to show break even or a loss in a given year. It is somehow inappropriate to show funders that the organization is too far into the black. And how many board meetings have been lost to a discussion about why money is sitting in a bank account instead of serving more people? Board members become quite uncomfortable when “too much” money is sitting idle.  Because the question is always: if money exists, why isn’t it being plowed into more programs?

Indeed, it seems the majority of nonprofit organizations don’t enjoy much of a surplus. The 2011 Nonprofit Sector Survey conducted by the Nonprofit Finance Fund found that 60% of nonprofits reporting had less than 4 months of expenses as operating reserves and 28% of nonprofits had less than 1 month of reserves, which is essentially breakeven. Rick found similar results in a survey his foundation conducted in the Washington area.

But money sitting in a bank account serves a very real purpose for a nonprofit. It means the organization doesn’t live hand to mouth, no longer continually puts out fires, and stops expending energy on just keeping the doors open. Operating reserves allow an organization to evolve to the next level where they can think strategically, take some risks, streamline their business model, innovate their solution, and weather economic uncertainty all in the name of delivering bigger, better social impact.

So the nonprofit sector must get over the surplus taboo. It’s ok to run a surplus, in fact, a surplus means that the organization is better positioned to deliver more impact down the road. The key to financial sustainability, and ultimately significant social impact, is strategic financial management. And operating reserves are a first step to getting there.

Photo Credit: Jason Tester

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The Road to Financial Strength Starts with One Board Member

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. 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.

Several recent articles have illustrated the need for nonprofit boards to become better financial managers. From Jan Masaoka’s (Blue Avocado) call for boards to use a budget more strategically, to Rick Moyer’s argument in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that boards need to find “crystal clarity about their financial situations,” to Bob Carlson’s warning that poor nonprofit financial management can end up with legal nightmares.

But what all of these articles fail to address is that boards are 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.

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The Critical Importance of Financial Strategy, Recession or Not

One benefit of the recession for nonprofit organizations is that they can no longer deny the critical importance of finance in what they do. No executive director would say that fundraising isn’t critical to what they do, but I bet a majority would admit that they don’t have an overall financial strategy for the organization. And in a recession that hole becomes ever more apparent.

In flush times it is a bit easier to refrain from analyzing the financial statements every month, predicting cash flow, making hard decisions about whether to end financially draining programs, creating bold (and potentially risky) revenue streams, and so on. The financial strategy of a nonprofit organization often takes a back seat to program strategy. But the recession makes that stance nearly impossible. Because if you turn away from financial reality for too long, you could be out of business.

Clara Miller of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, has some great insights into how the nonprofit sector should be responding to the recession in terms of better financial management. Among her list of things nonprofit leaders should do to be good financial managers are:

  • Create a cash flow forecast for at least a year into the future, conservatively estimating what will happen with each revenue source over time and update it regularly
  • Conduct a program profitability analysis, which compares the distinct funding sources to the direct expenses of every program a nonprofit operates. When coupled with mission effectiveness this helps inform decisions about what programs to cut or to increase fundraising efforts for
  • Understand the relationship between reliable revenue and fixed costs.  If your reliable revenue, or revenue that you are reasonably certain will come in on a consistent basis, is lower than your fixed costs, you’ve got a serious problem.
  • Focus every conversation at board and staff meetings on strategic choices that face the organization and the financial implications of those
  • Be conservatively realistic about all of your numbers

But nonprofits need much more than just good financial management.  They need a financial strategy for delivering social impact. They need to understand and analyze how program decisions and strategy affect the financial viability of the organization and vice versa.  The two are inextricably linked. It does no good to make program or operating decisions without really understanding the financial implications.  And it is not sustainable to create a strategic program plan without a corresponding and equally strategic financial plan.

Finance has for too long taken a back seat in the nonprofit sector. Fundraising staffs have been separate (physically and strategically) from program staffs. Strategic decisions for the organization (program expansion, new buildings, etc) have been made without a clear understanding of the current or future financial implications of those decisions.  Program goals have been made without knowing what it will truly cost to implement those goals and where that funding will come from.

Nonprofit leaders need to take a bigger view of how their organizations and missions are financed.  It’s not enough to manage money wisely.  Nonprofit leaders need to create a comprehensive, fully integrated financial strategy for the social impact they want to achieve and then execute on it.


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