Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: Addressing organizational financial vulnerabilities

"What are our major financial vulnerabilities?"
"What are we doing as an organization and as a board to address them?"

We all have financial vulnerabilities. What are yours? How persistent are they? What can you do to reduce their potential impact?

Your answers to those questions will differ from the next reader's - or mine. On the income side, we might find some common themes, such as:

  • Lack of funding diversity
  • Inadequate donor base
  • Lack of major donor prospecting/planning
  • Volatility of governmental sources
  • Changing/shrinking client base
  • Inadequate reserves

Vulnerabilities may be on the expense or systems sides as well, for example:

  • Billing system challenges
  • Aging buildings and equipment
  • Inability to maintain staffing needs
  • Inadequate reporting/monitoring mechanisms
  • Missing or inadequate donor stewardship program

Some of those examples may ring familiar, or your organization may have a completely different set of challenges. The point is that tending to the larger view is part of the board's fiduciary function. It's important that members resist wading too deeply into the here-and-now weeds (a challenge, I know). When they do, they risk missing the bigger picture issues - for example, obsessing so much over cutting expenses to match shrinking income that they miss the fact that their billing system is broken and leading to that income decline.

For some boards, this requires a fairly major shift in focus and thinking. By necessity or habit, they are used to - and perhaps more comfortable with - tending to the broken hard drive on the CEO's computer when the entire agency's system is being held together with tape and glue. Or they fret over shrinking donations or lower participation in this year's fundraising event when they should be exploring ways to expand stewardship to those who have been contributing over time and may be inspired to increase their annual gift.

What are your financial vulnerabilities? How do they challenge your ability to move toward fulfilling  your mission? What are real vulnerabilities vs. potential problems? What additional information and support do you require to change your situation?

What can your board do, today, to begin leading you toward a less-vulnerable and more sustainable future? How will members maintain the broader, systemic view required of a governing body?

NOTE: This post is part of a series highlighting questions designed to promote inquiry in the boardroom. For others in the series, and a more general pool of resources on the topic visit my "Inquiring Nonprofit Boards" collection on Pinterest.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Governance toolbox: Space for resilient, thoughtful, functional work (& leadership)

I have a few good "tools" to include this week, but I want to start with that bit of inspiration and affirmation of one of the essential contributions of a diverse boardroom. It's about more than checking off a box on a matrix. It's about enriching the conversation and, ultimately, the governance outcomes that emerge from that conversation.

Actually, that's a nice opening to the first tool.

How to talk in meetings when you hate talking in meetings -- This one's for my fellow introverts. It's also for the extroverts and ambiverts who serve alongside us.  As an introvert, most of the recommendations and the scenarios behind them ring familiar. Most personally germane: the need to speak up when I need time to think through the issues at hand. Do my fellow introverts speak up when they need that time (can't say I always have)? Do our board leaders recognize that need? Do they actively and voluntarily provide that breathing room, even when we chicken out and neglect to ask for it? How do we all benefit from an environment where the needs and gifts of quieter members are valued as much as action orientation and keeping the agenda moving?

7 habits of resilient teams -- This one's really general, maybe too general to qualify as a "tool." But it represents an excellent overview of a culture where nonprofit leadership can prosper. "Low turnover" feels like the least applicable to the typical board setting. But give members time (time to think!) and I'm pretty sure this can foster a discussion around assessing how your board structure and culture facilitates or inhibits these "habits." I cannot lie: numbers five through seven intrigue me - and may challenge some boards.

Why dysfunction persists -- Another concise post by Dan Rockwell, the value of which comes from naming and making visible the interpersonal and group dynamics challenges that invade the nonprofit boardroom. It also includes a counterpoint: factors that facilitate functional effectiveness. Does anything ring familiar for your board, on either side? How will you build from the positive and/or address the dysfunctional?

Chairing nonprofit boards -- My newest Pinterest board supports a project I'm developing this summer (more as it nears launch). It also may be of value to current and future nonprofit board leaders. As with all Pinterest boards, it's an evolving resource. I'll be adding new resources - my own and others - as I discover them. In the meantime, enjoy and use those I've already pinned.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

One board thing: Build a board portal

(purchased from Bigstock Photo)

If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd

Build (and use) a board portal

I've often talked about the value of having a "paper" trail for nonprofit boards. While the institution - the board itself - is an enduring body, there is a certain transience created by the fact that board members come and go. When they do, they take with them a unique piece of the group's institutional memory.

That is where creating and maintaining the "paper" trail becomes important. While we may technically lose what's captured in departing members' brains, if we've been diligent in recording and storing actions, context and other institutional details in other forms, we ensure that that information remains available for future governing generations.

It also helps those of us in the midst of the work to have the performance support and information tools that we need to govern fully and effectively. We know what we need; we know where to find it, wherever we might be at the moment. A board portal facilitates that access.

If you've ever served on a board, chances are that you have (or had) a three-ring binder containing essential documents and information about your organization and the body in which you serve. Whether or not it remained complete and up to date depended, among other things, on whether you received new documents (e.g., minutes, updated member rosters, financials) and whether you actually filed them into the binder. (Confession: my track record over 30+ years is very mixed.)

A well-used, frequently-updated board portal ensures that all of that happens and that those resources are available - literally 24/7 with an internet connection and a computer or mobile device.  Depending on the tool(s) you use, it also can be a hub for a wide range of board activities.

A board portal is a private, online space and on-demand resource center for members. What is possible in a portal depends on the tool selected. In general, though, a board portal can be used to:

  • Store foundational documents (e.g., by-laws, member lists, budget)
  • Gather and share meeting materials (saving time and money)
  • Create committee workspaces and document repositories
  • Schedule meetings
  • Create an ongoing board calendar
  • Set up quick polls to capture board member sentiment or a topic
  • (In some tools) Send text message reminders
  • (In some tools) Convene video or audio conference calls

I'll highlight a couple of collaboration tools that I've used, as an administrator or participant, as examples of what is available for your consideration.

Wiggio is a personal favorite, one used frequently by several work groups in my professional life. I've also set up a portal on Wiggio for a local nonprofit board that, to my knowledge, is still used. What I like about Wiggio:

  • One, it's free.
  • Two, it's incredibly full-featured. Not only does it have space for storing documents, it has a calendar tool, a polling function, email and text options, and task lists. (How in the world is this still free?) 
  • There's also a discussion function that isn't always the most attractive, but it's still perfectly usable.

BoardEffect is not free, but it clearly is an example of what a dedicated board portal can do. My personal experience with BoardEffect is as a member of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management governance affinity group. In our corner of the ANM's space, we are able to create and share documents, schedule meetings, download board books (e.g., meeting packets), and otherwise have an online hub (and "paper trail") for our ongoing activities. A paid service like BoardEffect may make sense for many boards, especially boards where members are dispersed geographically.

There are other ways to replicate a portal using other online tools. For example, a board might create a GoogleSite or a GoogleGroup for collaboration and use tools in the Google suite of services (e.g., GoogleDocs, GoogleDrive, GoogleCalendar) to accomplish the same "portal" goals.

If simply storing documents is the goal, boards also have services available for that function, such as Dropbox and Both make sharing easy. A small fee for pro options may be in order for the kind of storage your board would need.

Whatever the tool used, creating a board portal/storage space ensures that board members always have the information they need, when they need it. That facilitates informed decision making and reduces the stress of trying to round up the latest version of whatever document is needed in the moment.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Governance toolbox: Awesome boards, strategic questions, tough conversations

These resources caught my eye this week.

25 things awesome board members do -- In some respects, the "25 things" that make up this Nonprofit with Balls post set a pretty low governance bar. But little things can make a difference, especially if we actually start doing them after letting our board (or ourselves) slide on some pretty core commitments. With a list of this length, we won't all agree with every item - or at least agree that each is equally important. But this post provides a reality check that, frankly, some of our boards and board members need.

3 strategic questions to ask when board members or staff present you with a “great” idea -- Kivi Leroux Miller's "strategic questions" are valuable, whether or not they are being used to rein in (less than) great board member ideas. You know I love a great question. Here are three to engage board members in strategic thinking.

12 don'ts of tough conversations -- I found myself saying that several times as I read through Dan Rockwell's list. That's because I've witnessed, participated in, and occasionally sparked pretty much every single scenario - frequently in a nonprofit boardroom. The value of Dan's list is bringing these challenges to light so that we may identify them and feel empowered to address them the next time they arise in our group work. 

Advocating nonprofit advocacy: The myth that 501(C)(3)s can’t engage in advocacy --  While examples of nonprofits overstepping advocacy boundaries certainly exist, the theme of this post fits my direct experience: that of boards and staff leaders assuming they are prohibited from engaging in any form of advocacy. It's brief. It's concise. It's worth sharing with your board as part of a conversation about this necessary topic.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: Understanding our organization's key stakeholders, their needs

"Does our board understand who our (organization's) key stakeholders are and their most important needs and concerns?"
-- "The Value of Governance"

The answer to this question may feel so obvious that even considering asking it seems like a waste of valuable board time. If that really is the case, all the time, for your board, congratulations. Please tell us how you've managed to reach this state of absolute clarity. We really want to know.

If you're like the rest of us, your board has varying levels of understanding of your key stakeholders, their interests/needs, and the intersections of their concerns with your mission. Understanding those needs and tending to them in appropriate ways is an essential part of your board's responsibilities - especially its stewardship and accountability functions.

Most boards will find value in asking this initial question. Articulating those groups with a vested interest (or potential vested interest) in your mission and your work is a healthy process that encourages boards to center their work in meeting those needs. For some, that will be an affirmation and reminder. For a few, it may be an exploration. Whatever the case, boards should find value in periodically answering this question.

This question is a starting point. Following are examples of next-level follow-ups:

What does each stakeholder group's interests/needs look like?
In what ways are we already addressing them?
How are we communicating those intersections with each group?
Are there any potential conflicts between their needs/interests and ours?
In what areas are we falling short? What opportunities exist to change that?
What roles can the board play in reaching out to specific stakeholder groups?

NOTE: This post is part of a series highlighting questions designed to promote inquiry in the boardroom. For others in the series, and a more general pool of resources on the topic visit my "Inquiring Nonprofit Boards" collection on Pinterest.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Governance toolbox: Culture and overhead

A minor "culture" theme emerged as I began picking out the saved resources that most resonated. That theme unfolds after spotlighting an excellent source of information about a topic of which all nonprofit leaders need to be aware.

(Mis)understanding overhead -- The question of calculating and justifying overhead troubles some nonprofits more than others. Whether or not that is the case for your organization, your board should be aware of not only your own bottom line but the larger questions and challenges that surround it. This National Council of Nonprofits primer offers an excellent overview, with a wealth of linked resources for exploring and educating your leadership.

Leadership of the board chair in creating board culture -- This BoardSource post by Mindy Wertheimer does a nice job of laying out some of the ways in which board chairs can foster open, respectful, and leadership-focused board environments.

The six sides of the so-called box -- Admit it. You've uttered, or heard, the phrase "think outside of the box" at least once in a nonprofit board setting. If you're like me, you'll also admit that those words have been tossed out without really evaluating what it ultimately means. I like Mitch Ditkoff's metaphor and the way he unpacks (pun intended) his vision of "the box" that we're always trying to escape. Reflecting on the six factors he describes, I can see a potential connection to every one - especially numbers three, five and six (you'll have to watch for the reveal). Whether or not you take number five literally (an idea frequently debunked in the circles where I hang out), the general phenomenon should ring very familiar to board members.

A child's view of nonprofit board culture --  I'll close with another BoardSource post, because it's just such a nice little post, and a simple way of thinking about how we interact. As I've said here many times before, the greatest structures and handbooks and orientations in the world mean little if we can't communicate and collaborate in ways that are respectful and focused on our common purpose.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

One board thing: Assign meeting homework

If I could change just one thing to increase the effectiveness of my nonprofit board, I'd

Assign meeting homework

We've cleared space on our board meeting agendas for inquiry. We're ready to commit to focus on substantive, ongoing questions in our time together. But unless we prime members for that work - and support their performance in it - we risk turning all of that newly created space into a different waste of energy and talent.

It's one thing to open up the agenda, add a discussion item about involving board members in community outreach, and cross fingers that they'll come with an idea or two to add to the list you've already prepared for them. It's another to engage them in identifying the question as important, help them own the question, and prime the discussion by providing common resources to inform their thinking as they anticipate the conversation.

One easy "board thing" to facilitate richer, inquiry-focused discussions is to assign "homework" - provide an article, white paper, blog post, video or other resource related to the spotlight conversation. It might be something like:

Your board members may balk at the term "homework." That's fine. Call it "resources for context," "discussion guides" - whatever works. The point is to set the tone - and spark thinking - for the kind of rich discussion you want before anyone steps into the boardroom.

A couple of additional caveats feel important. One, as with other materials provided before the meeting, there should be an expectation that members will read/view/listen to this resource so that they are prepared to contribute to the discussion that it informs. Peers should hold peers accountable for arriving at the meeting prepared to work. That includes doing the reading and research needed to participate fully.

Two, as with the meeting agenda itself, responsibility for identifying resource(s) should not be the sole responsibility of the CEO - or, for that matter, the chair. Certainly, those two individuals may have the deepest knowledge of what exists that fits the purpose at hand. But don't forget that your committees are (or should be) your peer experts on their responsibility areas. As you ask them to identify questions for discussions that they will lead, also ask them to identify a resource or two to prepare their peers for what lies ahead. Your in-house experts may be expected to share not only their advice, but information that they deem germane to your board's capacity needs.

Many factors contribute to effective board performance. Ensuring that members have access to information sources and resources that tend to their capacity needs is one critically important piece of that puzzle.

What type(s) of resources are available to inform your next board discussion? Which specific resource(s) will you share to prepare members for that conversation?

Friday, June 3, 2016

Governance toolbox: Pinterest potpourri

Publishing these governance toolbox posts is only one way that I curate resources of potential value to nonprofit board members, CEOs, and students. I also devote significant energy to developing and nurturing a growing list of Pinterest boards on topics of interest to these audiences.

Today, I share an updated list of my favorite Pinterest boards focusing on nonprofit governance. A few spotlight resources posted on this site exclusively. Most capture a mix of writings and tools from an international pool of sources. There's something for everyone here.

A small disclaimer: while I tend to these collections regularly, a broken link or two is inevitable. If you find one while exploring, please leave a comment so that I can replace or delete the pin. Also, I'm sharing a select group of governance-related boards. If you don't see exactly what you seek in the list below, you may find it in one of the other boards on my Pinterest profile.

Nonprofit Board Essentials -- As the name suggests, this is a collection of posts and resources that offer a comprehensive but accessible picture of what it means to govern. They are, to me, governance in a nutshell.

Inquiring Nonprofit Boards -- The power of a great question - and an environment where that question can blossom into rich governance discussion - is the focus here. More recent pins come from my "Inquiring Nonprofit Boards" series, but the overall pool explores inquiry-related topics.

Nonprofit Board Dynamics & Boardroom Behavior -- We can have the strongest policies and bylaws, the most comprehensive recruitment and orientation processes, and the most pristine meeting agendas. And, yet, if we don't tend to basic human communication and collaboration issues, we will fall short. This board explores those challenges (and opportunities) from a variety of perspectives.

Engaging Nonprofit Boards -- How can board leaders engage members in meaningful work? This board offers a set of posts and resources for creating experiences and an environment for making those motivating connections.

Nonprofit Board Learning Environments -- This one holds a special place for me. It represents a year of focus here on creating learning experiences that prepare boards for effective performance. Emphasis is on "environments" - board learning, like adult learning more generally, takes place in more than formal settings.

Save Our (Nonprofit Board) Meetings! -- This board is a personal favorite, as well as one others have found especially valuable. How do we transform our meetings for governance greatness? You'll find a wealth of resources, with a range of recommendations, for learning how to do that.

Advocating for Nonprofits -- One of my newer governance boards, this one covers nonprofit advocacy and community outreach. At the moment, storytelling is a strong sub-theme. If you follow this link somewhere in the future, you may find that I've split that topic off into a separate board. For now, they're integrated - as they are in advocacy work.

Board Self-Assessment -- This board begs for expansion - as does my coverage of the topic on this blog. But what I've already pinned will be valuable for anyone interested in understanding how self-assessment can feed accountability and enhance board capacity. Follow the board so that you will be among the first to know when I add those new resources.

One Board Thing -- Another new board, with a handful of pins at the moment, capturing posts in my "One Board Thing" series. I anticipate that this one will be increasingly interesting and useful. The reason? The practical focus of the topics behind each pin.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Inquiring nonprofit boards: Improving governance practices to enhance impact

"In what ways has our board improved its governance practices over the last three years?"
"How could our board add greater value?"
-- "The Value of Governance"
Center for Healthcare Governance 

This week's two-part question asks the board to first look inward, to its practices and the education/development efforts that support them, then to look outward, to opportunities to expand its impact.

The pairing of these questions makes sense. As important as performance improvement is to board effectiveness in and of itself, its value ultimately should be tied to expanded governance impact. Efforts to improve the way we work and think and lead collectively may make the job more fun and fulfilling, but they ring hollow unless they also lead to improved processes and outcomes.

Hopefully, deliberate learning and performance improvement is an ongoing part of your board's culture and calendar. If that is the case, answering the first question will be simple and - I hope - satisfying as you take stock of your work in this area. If that is not the case, now is the time to acknowledge that you have room for growth and address it.

In what areas is your board less than effective in its operations?
What are your key structural, cultural and interpersonal challenges?

What can you do, starting today, to change that?

Equally important - whether celebrating performance improvement successes or planning for performance improvement changes - is connecting that transformation to question two. How can/will your improved board practices lead to enhanced governance effectiveness and impact?

NOTE: This post is part of a series highlighting questions designed to promote inquiry in the boardroom. For others in the series, and a more general pool of resources on the topic visit my "Inquiring Nonprofit Boards" collection on Pinterest.