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Are You Leading your Nonprofit with Courage?

Leading a nonprofit is hard work. Internal and external issues arise that demand attention, and the solutions may not be easy. When issues go unattended, they may become so significant that they potentially endanger the organization in some way. But this doesn’t need to be the case. With a strong leadership and skillful use of board meeting agendas, nonprofit executives and their boards can have the important conversations so they may be proactive and responsive and not caught off guard.

Nonprofit chief executives and their board members do not simply wake up one morning with the following revelations:

  • The demographics of the area they serve have changed;
  • Funding for a signature program is at risk; or
  • High staff turnover is a dangerous threat to service delivery.

Yet, nonprofit leaders confront these realities often. When I read a story or hear about a nonprofit in extremis, I wonder if the leadership has been asleep at the wheel. Did no one see the signs? Why did they not point these things out to each other? What were they (or were they not) talking about at board meetings?

Trouble is Brewing

In each of these examples, the situation didn’t occur overnight.

  • Shifting demographics of neighborhoods is real. Lack of awareness of the environment signals that those leading a nonprofit serving a particular community are inattentive to what is happening around them. One might expect that the chief executive, at minimum, would notice changes in the surrounding area going to and from work. Board members coming to meetings might see that gentrification is real. Alert leadership should know about the environment within which their organization provides services.
  • Funding for a signature program, and especially from a dominant funding source, requires regular monitoring. Reliance on one source is unrealistic and risky. Experienced development staff and nonprofit leaders (paid and volunteer) are aware of the need to diversify funding streams and the importance of meaningful fundraising programs to support key programs. What does it mean not to receive a grant that an organization has come to expect? Why isn’t it a wakeup call when event attendance is down or a fundraiser doesn’t net as much revenue as it did last year?
  • A pattern of staff turnover takes its toll in myriad ways. Continual disruptions have ramifications for morale within the organization, its reputation in the community, and its ability to fulfill its mission for its beneficiaries. Do there need to be focused conversations designed to determine the root cause? Are salaries so far below market rate that staff can’t afford to stay? Are the working conditions contributing in some way to turnover? Is there a problem with the chief executive that the board of directors refuses to see?

 Having the Essential Conversations

Conversations at board meetings are often predominantly retrospective – reviewing reports and discussing things that have already occurred. Or, they focus on details that are better attended to at the committee level. When stuck in the past or in the weeds, they fail to address the future.

Some organizations, whether for lack of experience, financial reasons, or the desire to plan quickly, forgo engaging external stakeholders during strategic planning. In this case, they miss a unique opportunity to gain deeper understanding of the environment in which their organization does its work. They also waste an opportunity to send a positive message to their community spotlighting their ability to identify and set organizational priorities.

In some cases, a negative dynamic builds up in an organization. The chief executive may feel the board isn’t engaged sufficiently or doesn’t fully grasp its responsibilities or how to carry them out. When this happens, the committee structure may break down and, obviously, important topics go undiscussed. Conversely, a board may begin to doubt the chief executive’s abilities and shut down to mitigate its own frustration with how the organization is managed. Of course, this is exactly when the board needs to step in and take hold of its fiduciary responsibility.

Changing Business as Usual

Nonprofits can remedy these lapses. Here are some of the ways:

First, the chief executive and the board leaders must commit to maintaining oversight and being prepared. Without leaders willing to wrestle with difficult subjects and or having a forward-looking mindset, status quo may slip to being behind the eight ball. Leaders need to work together to determine the key strategic issues facing their organization. Then, they need to commit fully to understanding and analyzing all aspects and ramifications of these matters. And then, they must be bold enough to act, making and sticking to their decisions. Sometimes, a shift in perspective can make the difference, such as moving board conversations to strategy rather than tactics or being open to alternative points of view.

Here are some tools to support nonprofit executives and boards in their endeavors:

  • Consent agendas – This practice expedites the review and approval of routine business and reports so that more board meeting time can be allocated to needed discussion. Incorporating consent agendas may help resolve emerging issues before they become major.
  • Dashboards – These tools afford leadership the ability to monitor meaningful metrics. Reviewing dashboards at each board meeting allows those in charge to see patterns and observe cycles or trends. By looking at the same data points at each meeting, changes can be identified and addressed quickly. Moreover, with a dashboard, valuable board meeting time frees up to allow strategic and generative conversations.
  • Financial statements – Simply looking at a slice in time may not tell the whole story if the financial reporting is limited. Understanding the numbers compared to year-to-date in the prior year and compared to the budget (in this case it’s fine to look back), can point out important changes.

In addition, many organizations don’t make cash flow projections, which increases their understanding of money coming in and going out. This is relevant because when money is low, leaders don’t always make good decisions.

  • Strategic planning – Organizations that don’t create their own goals and articulate their direction may struggle. With no direction, anything goes. Organizations may bounce from one initiative to another, diminishing their resources and/or reputation along the way.

Summing Up

In some organizations, senior leaders – staff and volunteer – close their eyes and avoid concentrating on issues that ultimately erode the organization. This may play out in a board’s lack of willpower to confront a situation with an ineffective chief executive. Alternatively, it may be that a board refuses to embrace its role in fundraising. It may be a chief executive not calling out a weak, “phoning it in” group of board members.

No matter the reason, it is incumbent upon nonprofit chief executives and board members to open their eyes, to be willing to name the elephant in the room, and to facilitate the conversation needed to wrestle with it. They must decide to lead courageously.

When It’s the Leader’s Turn to Be Reviewed

This post is adapted from a white paper I wrote several years ago. The topic continues to be relevant.

A nonprofit executive director’s performance review is about more than just how well she/he is doing the job. For the chief executive it is about leadership, professional development, sharing accomplishments (personal and organizational), receiving feedback, and goal setting. For the board, the chief executive’s performance evaluation is about leadership, fiduciary responsibility, being a responsible employer, goal setting and achievement, and success – success for the organization and the individual.

Old Year New Year: Permission to Dream

What is the best approach to the end of one year and the beginning of the next? Is it to continue carrying with us the weight of 2017? Or is it to enter 2018 unburdened and hopeful?

Sometimes when working on a strategic planning project with a client, they have difficulty keeping their eyes on the future. While all that has led up to strategic planning is formative, depending on the situation, it can serve to propel the organization forward, or it can impede its movement.

Why It’s Important to Pause

Earlier this fall, an executive coaching client introduced me to the following quote by Existential psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl, which continues to resonate in my mind:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

I can’t get it out of my head! It is relevant and important every day, for all of us. It helps us think before we speak. It keeps us from reacting in habitual ways. It affords us opportunity to shape our lives, to do our finest work, to tackle seemingly insurmountable obstacles, to continually strive to be our best selves. It signifies our maturity.

It is in the pause that I have the privilege of working with my clients – the engagements related to strategic planning, executive leadership transitions, board development, or other organizational development issues are often set off by some stimulus. In the case of strategic planning, it may be as routine as the conclusion of a prior plan or as exciting as charting the course for significant organizational growth. The departure of a nonprofit CEO or retirement of a founder sparks an organization into transition mode and the need to seek new leadership. A nonprofit whose programs and management have matured more quickly than its governance model may inspire a board development project.

When prompted by any of these stimuli and myriad others, nonprofit leaders need to respond. The hope is that before responding, they take advantage of the space that lies before them. Too often, when facing these triggers, an organization’s leaders may be inclined to plow through, perhaps because they work in such high-tempo environments. When leaders respond without taking advantage of the space, there is the likelihood of overlooking or missing the potential or opportunity.  But when they seize the space between stimulus and response, not only do they find growth and freedom, they can become exceptional leaders.

HALT – So Your Board Members Can be Their Best Selves

During his freshman orientation, my younger son was introduced to HALT – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired – a stress management technique. For entering college students, it was supposed to help them increase self-awareness and understand what was going on with themselves and how this affected their interactions with roommates and others. It was geared to help them from becoming less pleasant versions of their normal selves.

HALT resonates with me. Especially regarding nonprofit boards and board meetings. After all, aren’t nonprofits better served by directors who function at their finest and highest levels?

Don’t Make it Sink or Swim: Orienting New Board Members

Does your nonprofit bring on new board members annually as a class, rather than randomly throughout the year? If they start out together, I commend you for choosing this wise approach. If not, I hope you will consider making a change after reading this.

When we think about it, nonprofit board members have a significant responsibility. Through their leadership, they hold the organization in trust for future generations. Exactly what this means for any organization depends on its life cycle stage and all the factors in play at any given time.

The Essence of Hiring Right: The Key Role of Values and Personal Qualities

Think about the most successful people in your nonprofit. What do they have in common? Now think about those who didn’t succeed and have left your organization. What caused the disconnect?

While it is natural to concentrate on experience and preparation when interviewing candidates, those hiring may overlook the importance of culture and values. I learned the fundamental significance these play in identifying the ideal candidate in my earlier life as an executive search consultant (prior to becoming an organizational development consultant with nonprofits).

The Goldilocks Approach to Meeting Minutes

Why Minutes Are Worth Doing Well

The first time I was chair of a nonprofit board, I realized how important the role of the secretary was, as well as the value of good minutes. As board chair, it was necessary – crucial – to be in the moment, fully engaged with what was happening during the board meeting. The minutes were essential to being able to do that and know what had transpired. Because that board, that year, had the good fortune of having a smart and highly capable secretary who took the job seriously, the minutes were thorough and balanced. Reading them after a meeting allowed me re-live the board meeting and reflect on it. I was able to keep track of actions taken and follow-up work I needed to do or prompt others to do. The minutes pointed out the essential activities of the organization and what the board was doing. The information I gleaned from each month’s minutes became my to-do list and work plan. The minutes focused me by highlighting the things that may have escaped me as I stayed attuned to being in the moment at the meeting.

Onboarding a New Nonprofit CEO – Tools and Activities

You have just hired a new senior executive. Congratulations! Now what?

When the search activities conclude, the transition continues and a well-planned onboarding process is critical. In the best scenario, a transition task force (which might be the search committee) will have contact with the new executive in the period from offer acceptance to first day on the job. Having a plan for this “in-between” time will make onboarding go more smoothly. It will also permit the transition task force to discuss onboarding with the new executive to learn what she/he would like included.

Onboarding a new nonprofit executive may seem daunting. Depending on the size and complexity of an organization, it may be. A nonprofit organization should always have a plan for orienting new staff. For a senior position, it would likely need to be enhanced to match the magnitude of the role. Thinking through the high-level expectations for the new executive leads to a sharp focus on the goals for onboarding and thus, the related tools and activities that are part of it.

Onboarding a New Nonprofit CEO

Welcome to Your (New) World!

It’s 7:00 p.m. on Saturday night. The doorbell rings. You open the door and greet your dinner guests. You say, “So glad to see you! The coat closet is over there (pointing). Make yourselves at home. Just go in the kitchen, I think there’s some wine and some food. You’re smart, I know you’ll figure it out and cook up something. I’m going to run upstairs and take a shower. Back soon.”

It’s difficult to imagine inviting guests over with such little forethought. What would Miss Manners say about this inhospitable “hello”?