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.

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.

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”?

Why Aren’t You Talking to Each Other?

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?

Resolve: The Will to Lead

It was not necessarily my intention to mine any further the situation put forth in my August 2016 blog post, Executive Transition: Cautionary Tale #1 – Settling for Less. I had a completely different topic in mind for the December blog post. However, it turns out that the last lines of the August post are haunting me now.

Executive Transition: Cautionary Tale #2 – Undermining the Transition Process

Last month I shared a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when an organization compromises in their choice of a new executive director due to search fatigue or poor preparation.

This month, I present a tale about what can happen in an executive transition when there is lackof good will among the board of directors and a lapse in honoring one’s role as a trustee of an organization.  

Often in the case with significant decisions, a board of directors will agree up front to emerge from its deliberations in unanimity. This desire to present a united face to staff and the public conveys a strong message and fosters further buy-in by other stakeholders. But what if someoneonly pays lip service to this and strays from the groupWhat if someone doesn’t put what is best for the organization first? In this scenario, an individual disrupts the organization by subverting the transition process.

Executive Transition: Cautionary Tale #1 – Settling for Less

This post is the first of two that discuss what can go wrong when hiring nonprofit executive.This month I’ll talk about what happens when a board of directors settles for less and the downside of fatigue with the process. Next month I’ll discuss what can happen when a board member undermines the transition process.

Hiring a nonprofit executive is too important to do with anything but the utmost of careEven with strong planning something can go wrong. That’s real life. What is truly unfortunate is when an executive transition is not successful when, with more attention to the process, it could have been.

Before I began consulting with nonprofits in 2004, I worked as an executive search consultant. Among the things I know from that experience are the importance of a detailed description of the ideal candidate for a position and the necessity for patience in the process. Organizations neglect these essentials at their peril.

In the following scenario, hiring a new executive was viewed as a chore. The hiring committee approached the search with a defeatist attitude rather than seeing it as a strategic action having long-term effect on the organization.

Happy Fiscal New Year – a New Beginning

The start of the fiscal year, even if not recognized with champagne and fireworks, often signals new beginnings. In the months and weeks leading up to July, there is often a burst of activity in nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit executives and their boards of directors create and ratify new budgets. Perhaps the governance or nominating committee puts forth a slate of new directors, and even officers stepping into leadership roles. In some years there will be a new board chair, in other years a board chair may be considering how to have an impact during the final year in office.

Here are some manageable and worthwhile fiscal New Year’s resolutions to support nonprofit executives and board chairs working together to foster a productive, collaborative year for leadership and for the organization.