It takes a lot of people-power to accomplish the work of our nonprofits. Staff, volunteers, and, for the tiniest of organizations, their “working boards.”
You’ve probably heard that expression. I hear it frequently: “we’re a working board.”
Guess what? All boards have work.
In virtually all of our charitable nonprofits, our board members are likely to wear two hats:
- the hat covering their fiduciary and governing responsibilities.
- the hat covering their volunteer, or staff-like tasks.
What is the work of the board?
Governing responsibilities are about setting direction and overseeing the well-being of the organization and its mission. These can’t be delegated away. For example,
- approving the big vision
- ensuring guiding strategy
- setting and monitoring the policies that guide organizational work
- defining the values everyone lives by
- defining the metrics that measure success
- asking the critical questions about impact, community changes, what’s coming down the pike
- making tough decisions about priorities and resource allocations
- organizing the board, from creating the standard of board excellence to determining the processes that bring people on board, train them, set meeting and decision standards and more.
- Choosing and providing feedback to the CEO or leadership staff team, acting as their strategic partner and letting go of them when they are no longer serving the organization’s needs
- overseeing required public reporting and accountability.
What are some staff or staff-like tasks? These are the things that if your organization had the money, you would likely pay a professional person to do. Tasks like:
- raising revenues and caring for donors
- running all aspects of events
- caring for facilities
- running programs
- keeping the books, paying the bills
- marketing, communications and promotion
- media relations
- managing the staff
- recruiting volunteers
So what do people mean when they say they have a working board?
Organizations say they have a working board when they have no or few staff and board members are usually the folks filling most of the staff functions. Or they may have staff but the board keeps some particular function for itself.
Board meetings get all muddled up by combining the work of governing and the work of managing (or staff work).
Staff work also gets neglected or done ineptly when no one person (or team) is in charge but everyone — the board — is in charge.
Here are a few suggestions to enable better work from your working boards.
These are some suggestions to get you started.
1.Divide up your board meetings. Be clear about what items on the agenda are governing work and what items on the agenda are really a staff meeting. You might even want to set them up as two meetings. One that’s the board following all of its bylaws procedures. When that adjourns, then open the staff meeting. You might not even need all the board members present for that if there is no work that involved them.
2. Be clearer than ever as to the goals that have to be accomplished, who is responsible for accomplishing them, and what authority the board has delegated to those people. This can save countless hours having the full board arguing over the cost of an event ticket or venue.
3. Recruit volunteers for staff work beyond the board. I say this often, most volunteers would rather not be on the board. I happen to find the work of governing very fulfilling. But those folks who like running a community meal site, or teaching a workshop, or working with their hands don’t often want to be on the board.
4. Recruit board members as managers of critical functions in the organization. Give them something they are accountable to the board for achieving. That might be raising the budget dollars, ensuring a years worth of membership programs are carried out, or serving as stewardship manager for your properties. They don’t do this alone.. they can recruit volunteers to be on their committees. But every board member should have a job and outcome that he or she is responsible for achieving.
What else have you found to work well in your working boards? Love to hear from you.
When your board or staff are evaluating how well your organization is doing, it helps to think about your mother. Because if you don’t believe that your organization is a wise investment for your mother, it really isn’t for anyone else’s mom (or dad or sister or brother) either.
I don’t know about you, but my twitter feed has a heck of a lot of shoulds directed at nonprofits. It seems lots of folks have lots of certain advice to give nonprofits in this time of a global pandemic and economic shut down.
Me, I’ve never lived through a pandemic before. Well, not as an adult. Or at least lived through one that shut down huge portions of the US and world economies and ways of life.
I was born on the downside of the polio epidemic and remember getting both vaccines in elementary school. Read more
Did you know that only 16% of US adults qualify as an active visitor to cultural institutions? To be an active visitor, you just have to visit something once every two years.
By this definition, a cultural institution is a museum, historic site, nature center, zoo, aquarium, ballet, botanical garden, theatre or science center.
This data and the other data in this post comes via the amazingly informative Colleen Dillenschneider and her great marketing analytics website KYOB. I’m obsessed with this data and share it as frequently as I can. That’s why I’m sharing it with you as you may find a lot of valuable information there even if you aren’t running a cultural institution.
I share a lot of the characteristics of these active visitors… though not all.
Unfortunately, the active visitor does not reflect the diversity of our country. And, active visitors are dying off or aging out of in greater numbers than they are being replaced. Are you on the staff or board of a cultural institution? This data is mandatory reading. Read more
As I was getting ready to write this post about the need for more moral capital on the board, the higher education scandal broke in the US. Sadly, thirty-eight people were taken into custody as of noon on March 12th in this bribery scheme.
What was the scandal? Wealthy and prominent parents from business and the media bribed administrators, coaches, test proctors and others to grease their kids into elite private colleges and universities. What, their large direct donations weren’t already enough?
Shamefully, this was done through Key Worldwide Foundation (KWF). KWF was a 501c3 public charity led by William “Rick” Singer who is pleading guilty to the charges against him.
According to its 2016 Form 990, KWF has just three directors. Singer served as President and CEO along with a secretary and one other director. (Their treasurer is not a director.)
Not only were the donors to KWF offering bribes for college placements, they were likely getting tax deductions for making those bribes through the nonprofit.
We can’t say it enough: you need a moral compass.
Every organization has to have a philanthropic or moral compass, most assuredly within the board. Yes, you have well-crafted bylaws, job descriptions, and director expectations. Yes, you reference ethics, the rule of law and conflict of interest. Really, all is crap if your directors or staff lack a moral core to do what is right.
People as capital
Yes, talking about people as capital seems contrary to discussing a moral guiding light.
Remember, I’ve previously pitched Professor Elizabeth Castillo and her typology of capitals. Using her list, you can begin valuing people for more than their financial capital when you consider what you need in the way of the human capital you recruit to your board.
For example, wealthy donors and connectors to other money aren’t the only desireables for your board. Open your doors to other people with assets that strengthen the board – e.g. intellectual, social, political, and cultural capital. And yes, moral capital.
Moral capital isn’t someone who can thread the needle of what is or isn’t ethical or legal. I want steadfast voices defending doing what is right. I want directors with justice in their hearts. DIrectors who are courageous enough to call out when something is bad, smells bad or just doesn’t feel right.
Our sector needs to stands strong for honesty, truth and transparency. We can’t afford to risk the public’s trust. Unfortunately, trust has been on a downward slide for many years.
How much moral capital sits on your board?
When I’m working with boards of directors, one of the most requested changes is to help them set up a good process for recruiting new directors.
Process may be one of the most undervalued resources your organization possesses. Would you value good process more if you knew that it was truly a resource – or form of capital — available to strengthen your organization?
I may have spoken to you about my mad love affair with the work of Professor Elizabeth Castillo from Arizona State University. Professor Castillo is on a mission to have organizations begin to value all their forms of capital, not just the financial ones. And I’m one of her apostles.
We recently collaborated on a workshop for the Alliance for Nonprofit Management called Capacity building as capital building. The workshop introduced this idea of multiple forms of capital to consultants, and funders and researchers.
On the exhaustive list of 20 types of capital available to organizations that she has assembled, you’ll find this one: process.
What is capital and why is it valuable to your organization?
So what is capital and why are there so many different forms of it. One definition of capital is “any enduring asset capable of producing additional assets.” If you have money in the bank, you grow interest. Capital can accumulate.
Capital can also morph from one form to another. When you take that money in the bank and buy a building or van with it, you’ve converted it from financial capital to physical capital. Read more
At some point in every Batman comic book, tv show, or movie, Batman retires to the giant batcave under his mansion. And in his “Batcave” he refuels the Batmobile, he gets some food from Alfred the Butler, he uses the giant Batcomputer, maybe he runs some tests in the Batlabratory or synthesizes some antidote.
All of this leads to some massive revelation that refocuses the World’s Greatest Detective on the challenge presented to him in that issue/episode/film. It’s usually the breakthrough moment in the story. Everything else from that point on is Batman winning unreservedly.
No one in Gotham ever sees this. To them, Batman is the Caped Crusader running around at night responding to the Bat Signal and being a superhero. There’s no boring laboratory Batman, or Batman hunched in a desk chair flipping through databases. Batman is all action and impact, and the strategy and thought are invisible. They don’t see the most important part, they only see the outcome.
Why am I talking about Batman on a blog that’s meant largely for nonprofits and consultants?
We get into charity work to make the difference, to be heroes in our own way. There aren’t superheroes in real life, there’s only advocates and activists and dreamers. We see these people making their difference, and many of us jump in with both feet expecting to make the same difference. And many of us fail.
It’s because we don’t put the time into building our Batcaves. The part people see is only half the work. As much, if not more, time and resources go into the Batcave as the crime-fighting. If you want to be smart, if you want to be performing your mission for years to come, you need a database. An Alfred to fuel up the Batmobile. The place where you examine and reevaluate your strategy.
You need a Batcave.
Innovation and Scaling for Impact won the Terry McAdam Book Award in the fall of 2018.
The pair have been studying innovation for years. When asked by a large international foundation to help them assess the capacity of NGOs for continuous innovation, they had to ask why this is even a desired goal. We all find that funders and business leaders are pushing nonprofits to “innovate” more.
Not so fast, say Seelos and Mair.
Innovation is hard.
- Quoting James March from Stanford University: “Most new ideas are bad ideas.”
- If your NGO expects success immediately from innovation you are likely to be frustrated. But if learning is a key objective for your attempts at innovation, you will not fail.
- Innovation and scaling are not the same.
- It is not innovation that creates impact, but the scaling of the innovation.
- Understand how innovation is part of a long term strategy.
- Push back against funders that are too focused on quick fixes and too much innovation. Help funders understand organizational realities.
- Be a good scaler first.. stay close to the problem, fine tune it, prototype changes, assess them, keep looking for reasons why it might not work, keep your eyes open to unintended consequences, positive and negative.
Within any innovation process there are six types of uncertainties to pay attention to:
- Problem and context: Do you really understand your problem? Do you really understand the circumstances surrounding your problem?
- Solution: What resources and requirement are necessary to support any solution.
- Adoption: Will others take up the innovation?
- Consequence: What are the side effects? Are there unintended negative or positive consequences of the innovation?
- Identity: Perhaps the innovation is successful, but it distracts your organization from its core mission, from addressing the problem you were attempting to solve.
Try to clear the hurdles or pathologies of innovation to open possibilities in your organization:
- Never starting
- Managing too many bad ideas
- Stopping too early
- Stopping too late
- Insufficient exploitation, e.g. not scaling and learning from the scaling.
- Innovating again too soon.
While the examples are from South Asia, the book is worth a read for any nonprofit.
Thank you to the Nonprofit Support Program of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving for hosting a great workshop yesterday with Lindsay Bealko of Toolkit Consulting on the strategy of nonprofit technology.
I think it is safe to say that none of the consultants in the room needed a lot of convincing to recognize the impact of quickly shifting technology innovations on our clients. For smaller nonprofits, it’s always a challenge to keep up with systems like a Knowledge Management System.
But Lindsay reminded us not to get caught in the maelstrom of products and approaches.
Focus on the strategy of your technology first! As Lindsay said, the “so what” of technology matters — and this slide quickly illustrates what the point of using technology should be.
Can you think of an area of nonprofit functioning where technology doesn’t enhance or hold you back? I’d include finance, fundraising, program delivery, measurement and evaluation, community engagement, communications both inside and outside of your organization, media relations, revenue collection, even governance.
We found Lindsay’s 3 level framework for investment extremely compelling:
- Start with your basic infrastructure. Does it work? Is it secure? Do you have ongoing investments needed to stay stable. Then,
- Integrate technology to enhance your service delivery. Then, if you have the bandwidth,
- Innovate. How can technology to create greater impact for your mission?
Beware our clients! We’ll be ramping up attention to technology in our strategic planning work. It’s always been included, especially as we do fundraising planning, but we are going to push you harder in this area of your strategy and planning.
Many kudos once again to NSP for not only hosting this workshop for consultants, but for providing nonprofits in the Greater Hartford area with the funding and technical consulting to assess their technology needs and develop strategic technology plans.
The Terry McAdam Book Award is given annually. It honors an innovative book that advances the field of non-profit capacity building. Books chosen for review have been published in the last two years, are not textbooks and are available commercially.
And the 2017 winner is:
Innovation and Scaling for Impact by Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair. Stanford University Press.
The authors examine these two concepts in more detail, making important distinctions between them.
Here’s what the review Committee said about this book:
“In their eye-opening book, Seelos and Mair bring clarity to the differences between innovation and scaling, as well as the relationship of one to the other. While still encouraging levels of appropriate risk, they argue persuasively that nonprofits should focus far more resources on scaling programs they know have positive outcomes than on innovating where uncertainty about outcomes could drain resources.
“The authors provide guidance and worksheets to help leaders determine where innovation is appropriate. They identify types and levels of uncertainty, and incorporate lessons learned. They also emphasize the importance of scaling successful innovations for the benefit of an organization’s constituents. While case studies focus on larger international NGOs, leaders of smaller and domestic nonprofits will also find this book valuable.”
Past winners have included some books you may know:
- The Sustainability Mindset: Using the Matrix Map to Make Strategic Decisions by Steve Zimmerman and Jeanne Bell
- Content Marketing for Nonprofits: A Communications Map for Engaging Your Community, Becoming a Favorite Cause, and Raising More Money by Kivi Leroux Miller
- Measuring the Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World by Beth Kanter and Katie Delahaye Paine
It was a privilege to serve on the committee. The choice of a winner was not easy as there were quite a number of valuable books. Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few other books you might want to put on your reading list.