By Gayle Gifford

Reinventing governance: what’s fixed, what is changeable?

In preparing for a series of workshops on reinventing governance and board redesign for the Barr-Klarman Arts Capacity Building initiative, I discovered a fabulous governance framework from the Reimagining Governance Lab of the Ontario Nonprofit Network. What was a real AHA moment for me was their articulating what’s fixed, and what is changeable about governance.

Four boxes that say Culture, Processes, Structures, PeopleIn the fixed category are the legal, regulatory and compliance necessities that must be met by boards. After that, you are in the “Design Playground,”  empowered to reconsider the structures, people, processes and culture that make up your governance system.

You can use their road map to map your current governance system and then identify areas that can be changed. We know from research into boards that excellence in governance is conditional on the unique circumstances of each nonprofit. Factors such as size of the professional staff, organizational values, life cycle, field of activity, funding model, external players — to name a few —  all influence the governance of your nonprofit. So your organization needs to be very intentional about crafting its own governing system.

Where to start.

One place to start as you approach reinventing governance is to define the principles or values underpinning your governance. I’ve written about that here.

Then, think about the competencies that need to be built into your governance system. Those competencies might include:

  • Ecosystem focus
  • Ability to move from visioning to strategic thinking to strategic action
  • Mutual accountability
  • Facilitative leadership
  • Shared decision-making
  • Shared leadership
  • Cultural competence
  • Anti-racism orientation
  • Organizational learning
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Listening
  • Community Engagement
  • Moral and philanthropic compasses

Be careful of falling into calling any common practice a “best practice” if by best practice you mean evidence-based practice. For example, one of my pet peeves is the slinging around of board term limits as a “best practice.” I’ve written about the pros and cons before.  (See also Lions and Longevity.)

Here are a few other readings to help you get started, but do scroll through our blog where you’ll find many more.

Principles of nonprofit governance?

Your challenge: designing an exciting board meeting

Watch your board meeting seating arrangements

Who Took the Farmer’s Hat and how reflective dialogue can be good for your board

Ten norms for fundraising teams

I was recycling paper and shredding files on this rainy day. I found this old gem among the papers I had prepared for a small fundraising campaign is was working on. Red spiky flowers again beach

If you are a fundraiser, guaranteed you’ve tried to rev up a bunch of willing but hesitant fundraising volunteers. They may be board members or fundraising donors, even your program staff.

These ten norms for fundraising teams were designed for them. You’ll see that they are heavy on the encouragement to just do it!

I agree to the following:

  1. I don’t have to be perfect, I just have to start.
  2. I’ll discover the joy in raising money for [name organization or cause]
  3. I’ll ask, otherwise I’ll never know.
  4. I’ll rely on my team – volunteers, staff, consultant – for support and advice.
  5. I’ll only volunteer for assignments I know I can complete.
  6. I’ll ask for help when I need it, as soon as I need it.
  7. I’ll take risks and not fear failing.
  8. I’ll remember the advice of hockey player Wayne Gretzky: “100% of shots you never take won’t go in.”
  9. I’ll provide written or oral debriefs to our team leader on all meetings and contacts with potential donors.

What do you think? Will these work for you? 

What working agreements or norms has your fundraising team agreed to? Please share them with us.

More reading for you:

What does your board know about fundraising?

Board member fundraising; what they need from you

A fundraiser’s guide to working with board members


Play attention to your lapsed donor

What do you do to renew a lapsed donor? green circle with sad face on tree

I decided not to renew my membership in the Association of Fundraising Professionals. My membership ended in December 2022.

I would have marked 35 years as a loyal member this year.

What did AFP do about my nonrenewal? Not much.  I’ll get to that story in a moment.

Why I joined AFP

As my consulting practice has evolved over the years, the amount of fundraising consultation has diminished substantially. So in looking at that $350 a year price tag (two, as Jon and I are both members), I had to ask myself if my AFP membership was still worth it.

When I joined AFP back in 1988 (it was NSFRE then), I was Director of Development and Communications at PLAN USA (which back then was called Foster Parents Plan). My fundraising focus was national and all direct response. I attended my first local AFP conference because there was a session on planned giving which I was interested in formalizing for PLAN (we received unsolicited bequests virtually every year, but had no formal marketing program. The ins and outs of planned gifts were beyond my expertise),

While attending that first conference, I realized that the language of traditional fundraisers was so different from my direct marketing schooling. Annual fund? What’s that? I just raised money all year round. I didn’t have experience in face-to-face fundraising and was just getting proposal writing under my belt. So there was a lot for me to learn.

How I benefited from my AFP membership

And I learned a lot. When I moved from Plan to Save The Bay,  I needed to learn all about special events, and corporate giving.

I found a wonderfully supportive network among my local colleagues, many of whom are now dear friends. The late Simone Joyaux invited me into volunteering for the chapter and I subsequently spent years on the RI Board, as its President, as a mentor, as a workshop presenter and just ready to help as I could, always available to my colleagues.

When I joined my husband and founded our consulting firm Cause & Effect Inc. in 1996, AFP nationally grew in importance to me. I attended the national conference and presented a few times. I attended and presented at other conferences in the New England region. The code of ethics and national advocacy were of great value. (I still have my beef with the PAC though. And for many years the lack of AFP accommodation for the many, many fundraisers working at small organizations that couldn’t afford the membership).

I decided to earn my CFRE, largely because I was interested in earning the ACFRE, the advanced fundraising credential held by only one other Rhode Islander, Simone. So I earned the CFRE, recertified once and then pursued the ACFRE which I received in 2002. That professional validation was important to my confidence as a consultant, as was earning my MS in management in 2000.

Why I decided not to renew

However, over the 26+ years I’ve been a consultant, the percentage of my projects that are directly fundraising has diminished substantially. I needed  to deepen my practice, my thinking and skills in other areas, like organization capacity building and public engagement including assessment, strategic planning, business planning, governance and board development, facilitation, organization behavior, DEAI, anti-racism, teaching and more. Other professional associations and communities of practice better filled those needs, like the Alliance for Nonprofit Management or Boston Facilitators and OD Roundtable, and even the New England Museum Association which aligned with the course I’ve been teaching at Brown University for over a decade.

So, when I received that renewal notice late last fall, I had to ask myself again, was the $350 price tag worth it?

A looming question for me was would I lose my hard won ACFRE without renewing my AFP membership? But the ACFRE doesn’t require being a member of AFP, though it does require “membership and active participation in a field-related professional organization, with demonstrated volunteer service to nonprofit organizations.” Check.

So, I gritted my teeth and made the decision. I decided not to renew.

What happened?

What AFP didn’t do. 

I received maybe two mailings reminding me my membership was about to or then had lapsed. I received an email on January 7th telling me my membership lapsed.

That’s it. No phone call. No call from AFP Global or even my local chapter. Membership over. I was dispensable. Forgotten.

At some point I am likely to attend a local event and pay the non-member price for the first time in 35 years. That should get some attention, right?

Don’t be like AFP. Instead, adopt the membership attitude of one of my clients, the Audubon Society of RI. Here’s the story of how they treat longtime donors who lapse:  How one nonprofit loved their lapsed members back

Would I now renew even if I was contacted? Unlikely. As the most expensive of all my professional memberships, it is the one delivering the least reward.

But I am sad. After all those years of loyalty, all those years of service, my membership in  AFP ended not with a bang, not even with a whimper.


Looking back and ahead

“PS. the work that you did with [us] continues  – Governance is stronger than ever and conversations around DEI have become not so frightening to many” 

As we are now two weeks into 2023, it is a good time to look back on where our work took us in 2022 and ahead to 2023.

Looking back

One of the things Jon and I are forever grateful for is the opportunity to help worthy organizations advance their missions. In doing this work, we expand our knowledge of the issues and regions on which they are working. Of course, we are forever inspired by their dedicated board members, staff and volunteers.

Look sign on pavement of parking lotWe found ourselves enmeshed in planning work on food security. From food pantries/groceries to food system change, we facilitated projects with Aquidneck Community Table, Our Neighbors’ Table, Good Neighbors and We Share Hope. We provided strategic advice and coaching to Growing Places and Amenity Aid (hygiene products).

The advocacy and conservation  of environmental organizations are essential to our future life on Earth. 2022 brought projects with MassLand, Newport Tree Conservancy, and Warren Land Conservation Trust .

Promoting a better world for children, youth and families are our clients  Rhode Island Kids Count and Children’s Friend. We welcomed new clients The Autism Project, Shine Initiative, YouthBuild Preparatory Academy and Junior Achievement RI.

Read more

Who Took the Farmer’s Hat and how reflective dialogue can be good for your board

Tuesday night (this post is republished from May 2017),  I started the board retreat with a reflective dialogue based on reading the children’s classic Who Took the Farmer’s Hat?

I sent the book around the room, with a different board member reading each page. The reading took about five minutes.

Then I asked this question:

Why would a board consultant ask you to read this book? 

After a brief pause and a few blank looks, one board member launched in which started the conversation:

  •  “One theme is the need to incorporate different perspectives as different people (er, animals) see the same thing in different ways.”
  • “Reacting to change you can’t control or anticipate is another theme.”
  • ” ‘The farmer ran fast, but the wind went faster’ describes so many of the changes we encounter and the need to be extremely adaptive”
  • “Sometimes you just have to let go of those things you’ve always done and the way you’ve done them”

And so it went. We spent about 20 minutes discussing and applying themes to the board’s role, getting deeper into the themes as we went along.

Using reflective dialogue to spark deeper thinking

As often as I can, I try to incorporate reflective dialogue into my work with organizations, especially boards or work groups.

Brain research tells us that we can’t scold, argue or out-fact our way to change in others. But we can open the door to it by helping to spark moments of insight. In my selection of materials, I’m hoping not only to spark discussion but also to open minds to new ideas, to new possibilities.

As the conversation facilitator, my role is to create a safe space for participants to share their ideas, to pursue concepts that might not be fully formed or are even a bit contrarian.  I also come equipped with questions to help spark reflection and move conversation forward. A good resource for questions you can use is Making Questions Work by Dorothy Strachan.

Reflective dialogue for team building

I sometimes get push back from groups when I select adding a poem with discussion into their board meeting or retreat. Yet, those same groups are wondering how to develop stronger personal relationships among their board members.

I’m all for physical bonding exercises at the right place and time.  But I have a deep love for these reflective discussions that allow board members to enter a topic through a different frame. We tend to compartmentalize our board members based on their professions, failing to create space for them to share their many gifts and knowledge from other aspects of their lives. My clients are always pleasantly surprised that their retired banker taught philosophy in his youth, or that lawyer was a race car driver.

Since a great workshop I attended given by Adam Davis, executive director of Oregon Humanities and former director of the Center For Civic Reflection, I’ve added A Bed for The Night, by Bertolt Brecht into my work with so many nonprofits. And I regularly assign Adam’s provocative essay What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about service to my graduate students before we jump into any community projects or service learning.

Selecting resources

Sometimes I use a poem, a video or short story like the one above. TED talks can be great reflection starters or a reading from the relevant organization development literature. Other times we might reflect on a research report. Many of my colleagues have used movie clips.

The Center for Civic Reflection has a list of resources on different topics that you might consider as well as questions for you to use. For example, you might want to read Maimonides From Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor to start your next fundraising discussion.

I’d also like to give a shout out to my colleagues at Creating the Future, who have launched a worldwide experiment “to determine how much more humane the world could be if the questions we ask in our day to day lives are bringing out the best in each other.”

What have you found helpful to get meaningful conversation flowing?



7 factors you need to have influence as a fundraiser

I hear from Directors of Development all the time that they are frustrated in their positions.  These Directors feel that they don’t have influence as the fundraiser. They say they feel marginalized by their Executive Director, frustrated with board members, or stymied by uncooperative program staff.

Is this you? Do you lack the influence you need to be a successful fundraiser?

Here’s the bad news. You can’t really change other people. They have to change themselves. .

But you do have control over the way you behave and relate to others inside your organization. And by doing that, you can help create the insight others need for change.

As I was preparing for a workshop presentation for AFP ICON 2021, reviewed my own ability to have influence as a fundraiser. I focused on the three jobs I had as Director of Development.

For example, in my first fundraising job, I started as a sponsorship relations coordinator creating the newsletter and fund appeals on a budget of $75,000. Seven years later, I was part of the five person senior management team at this national nonprofit. When I chronicled the changes, my department grew from just me to a six person department with a budget of $750,000. I oversaw house fundraising, grants, donor education, cross-cultural communications, volunteers, a resource library, and a startup bequest society. I also participated on teams within the organization and with our international colleagues.

Here are 7 factors I found to be essential to have influence as a fundraiser:

1. Expertise.

Demonstrate that you know what you are doing, as both a fundraiser and as a manager. That means learning what really works and doesn’t work in fund development and how to put that into action. This requires you to read the research, participate in the professional organizations that value research, hang out with colleagues who have proven they can raise money. You need to take charge of your professional development. Read more

Run a good meeting. A leadership practice in plain sight.

Want to lead? Run a good meeting.

That’s advice from Ken Phillips, my former boss at Plan USA (when it was Foster Parents Plan). Ken invited me to co-present a workshop with him as part of the AFP ICON 2021.  The workshop runs on June 29th from 3:50–5:05 EDT . Unfortunately, all the workshops are prerecorded. But you can ask questions in the chat and we’ll be live to answer them.

Our workshop is called: How to lead your organization to get the internal support you need for fundraising success.

Ken speaks about leadership. I speak directly to how to get what you need and have influence when you aren’t the one at the top, a skill fundraisers desperately need. We both offer cases in which we were able to gain the influence we needed.

But this surprising advice in one of Ken’s lists, “run a good meeting,” jumped out at me.

Have an agenda, Ken said. Start and end on time. Ensure everyone has a chance to participate. Be a good facilitator.

Simple concepts. But powerful.

I’m thinking back to the times I’ve been on boards where my only real interaction with the board chair has been at a meeting. And when that meeting is poorly run, it casts doubt for me on the quality of the board leadership.

Thankfully, I started my nonprofit journey in earnest as a young member of the Area Committee (aka board) of the Rhode Island program of the American Friends Service Committee. I had great role models in the Clerk of the meeting– Quakers have clerks, not chairs or presidents. The Clerk’s job, as a facilitator, is to guide the process toward consensus – consensus of heart and mind.

You can’t ensure that all meetings topics can be covered in the time allotted. But you can be thoughtful about planning the time in advance and sharing that with your team. And, as facilitator, you can always consult meeting participants to make the choice of what they would like to do… keep going on the important discussion, understanding the consequences (postponing another agenda item or staying beyond the allotted time).

So, in addition to the big five leadership practices (thanks to Kouzes and Posner),

  • model the way
  • inspire a shared  vision
  • challenge the process
  • enable others to act
  • encourage  the heart

Attend to the small stuff.

Run a good meeting.

Here are a few more tips on meetings:

A meeting menu from the board chair

Your challenge: designing an exciting board meeting

In defense of strategic planning

It seems to be all the rage in nonprofit circles to say that strategic planning is dead. Outdated. Worthless.

This sentiment was growing long before COVID rocked our world. While some aren’t willing to claim strategic planning is dead, we’ve been hearing that strategic planning isn’t right in these uncertain times.

To that I say: Balderdash!

Since when has the world been predictable!

Yes, COVID shook the foundation of most nonprofit organizations. It disrupted all in person operations and just about killed (and did kill some) organizations whose business models depended on earned revenues or contributed income from in person events.

But our sector has been living under the shadow of cataclysmic events for some time. That might be the death of the biggest funder, the fickle winds of government policy and foundation giving, a public relations scandal that decimates donor support, a great economic recession or missions no longer relevant.

Yes, COVID was a sucker-punch like none other most of us have experienced. Many of our clients had to pause as they confronted and invented their way through the immediate reality of shutdown. Meetings switched to virtual and online in a matter of just weeks.

But our huge societal problems didn’t evaporate because of COVID.

  • Climate catastrophe isn’t waiting.
  • Wars and societal disruption haven’t ceased.
  • Racism, all the other isms and social injustice didn’t evaporate.
  • The desire for connection, kindness, beauty, love, healing are longed for more than ever.

I think about the need for strategic planning from different perspectives.

At the organization level, when confronted by multiple options or challenges (i.e. scenarios), how do you decide which path to take if you don’t know where you are heading and why?

On the very practical side, have you ever tried to raise significant money without a vision of community betterment, without an assessment of capacity investments, or without some sense of the resources needed to complete the work ahead?

This may sound self-serving as one of the bedrocks of Cause & Effect’s capacity building work with nonprofit organizations is strategic planning. But from where I sit, as a consultant, a volunteer, a board member and former nonprofit staffer, now is as good a time as any to be thinking and acting strategically.

That’s what strategic planning is all about, isn’t it — a pathway that brings you from strategic thinking and framing to strategic action.

What I find most of the people who are ready to seal the casket on strategic planning really mean, is that the detail scoping of tactics over multiple years seems fruitless.

To me, strategic planning has never been about nitty gritty tactics parsed over three or five years.

I find myself frequently explaining to our strategic planning clients that those Gantt chart work plans they are drooling over are the realm of business planning, planning that happens best when done annually. To me, it’s impossible to predict what you will be doing three years from now, so why bother. And if you have had that foresight, you’re just lucky.

But the framework that enables you to be strategic, in the long term and in the moment, has to be created. For many, that framework IS the strategic plan.

The bedrock of that framework is strategic thinking. And the best explanation of what strategic thinking entails are the five elements of strategic thinking identified by Jeanne Leidtke, professor of business administration at the Darden School of the University of Virginia.

Shown in the graphic at the top of this article, they are: 1) intent focus, 2) systems thinking, 3) intelligent opportunism, 4) thinking in time, 5) hypothesis driven.

You can’t act strategically if:

  • you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish, for whom and at what scale (intent focused).
  • you don’t understand the environments in which you operate (systems thinking). Those environments have always been complex, dynamic and influenced by micro and macro forces.
  • you are paralyzed by indecision when the right opportunity arrives on its schedule, not yours. (intelligent opportunism).
  • you don’t have multiple timelines in your head all at one: one year, three years, 10 years, 20 years or 50, never mind holding the knowledge of the past the acting in the present (thinking in time).
  •  you aren’t considering scenarios and haven’t done the “if then, then what?” thinking required.

To do the above, you need to gather data by collecting information and reach out to listen to your constituents, communities and peers. You need to make meaning from your discoveries. Then, you get to imagine the future, identify your theory of change, codify that logic model and identify the capacity and cost of what you need to get to where you are going.

Reflection and learning are part of living the plan. Planning for the unexpected. Not expecting the optimal choices to always appear in your desired timeframe. To learn how to apply this in your business, get a a consultation with Andrew Defrancesco.

To me, this is the essence of strategic planning. And if now is the time for strategic planning for you, don’t be dissuaded. Stand your ground. Do what you know is needed.

What does your board know about fundraising?

What does your board know about fundraising? I wanted to share my podcast interview on boards and fundraising with Steven Halasnik of Nonprofit MBA.

What does your board know about fundraising? Start here:

  • First and foremost, the board needs to ensure that its nonprofit is making an important difference for its community, its constituents, or the planet. That is, the Board needs to ensure that the organization is worthy of donor support.
  • Next, it needs to ensure that the organization is trustworthy, that it stewards its resources well.
  • Then, board members need a deep emotional connection to the mission, to be able to be ambassadors and to sincerely thank donors for their support.
  • After that… it depends…

Is your nonprofit worthy and trustworthy?