Board CafeBoard CafeShort enough to read over a cup of coffee, Board Café has everything you need and want to know to help you give and get the most out of board service.

Three Instant Improvements for Board Agendas and Accountability

We're talking here about something even easier than what's on the agenda: here are three instant ways to improve meetings simply by what you put on the piece of paper titled "Board Agenda:"

1. Put your mission statement at the top of every agenda. It quietly reminds people of your organization's purpose throughout the meeting. If you have a business model statement, place it there as well.

2. Right under the date, place a list of what individuals agreed to do at the last board meeting. See example to right:

3. At the end of the agenda, keep a running list of topics coming up. For example, at the end of the May agenda, the following might be noted:

Upcoming Discussions:

  • Review line of credit policies: June
  • Executive director evaluation discusssion: August
  • Overall critique of fundraising strategies: September

By keeping this running list, everyone knows what is scheduled for future meetings, and will neither forget them nor worry that they will be forgotten by others. The Upcoming Discussions list also serves to keep the board accountable for its plans.

None of these quick improvements will fix major problems, but they will go a surprisingly long way in strengthening a good board's ability to stay on track.

See also in Blue Avocado:

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Blue Ribbon Nominating Committee for Your Board

Use this method to recruit 3 - 5 new board members in the next 6 months:

"Who do we know?" When board nominations comes up on the meeting agenda, this plaintive question is usually not far behind. While some boards have highly detailed matrices of recruiting priorities and others just have a sense of wanting someone "good," everyone tends to default to thinking of people that they know.

But how do we recruit people we don't know?

This question is especially important in nonprofits where new board members are needed to lead change, such as the following:

  • A bicycle coalition that needs board members with clout in City Hall
  • Board members of modest means who want to recruit some "heavy hitter" donors to increase the scholarship fund
  • A mostly white board that wants to recruit some Latino community leaders to help shape strategy for an increasingly Latino community
  • A board of baby boomers who want to find next-generation leaders to take the helm of the community arts center

Here's how the Blue Ribbon Nominating Committee works:

1. Identify potential committee members.

Develop a list of about 25 people that you would like to have on the board but who . . .

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Strategic Planning: Failures and Alternatives

Here is Part 1 of a two-article series on strategic planning and alternatives to strategic planning.

Strategic planning swept into the nonprofit sector in the mid 1980s. Nonprofits were becoming seriously interested in management techniques, and strategic planning -- along with meeting facilitation and fundraising training -- was a focal point for that interest. Twenty years later, today no organization would dare say it doesn't have a strategic plan.

As the recession deepens, many nonprofits now have strategic plans that they can't move forward on. Those plans aren't helping them figure out what to do instead.

And even before the economic crisis, there has been widespread grumbling about strategic planning. Too often dozens of meetings fail to produce new insights. Nonprofit staff are often frustrated that "the strategic plan is never used," while many board members feel the strategic plan is simply a validation of what the staff is already doing or has decided. Executive directors often get going on new ideas long before the strategic plan is adopted, and by the time the document is finished, it can feel like old news.

Organizations often undertake strategic planning "to get board members engaged" or "to get everyone on the same page," objectives which could be reached in much more efficient, productive ways. Meanwhile, consultants make money (one nonprofit consulting firm charges $200,000 for a strategic plan), and foundations -- for whom the plans are mostly written -- read the plans with eyes glazing over.

This is not to say...

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Firing the Executive Director

Boards of directors tend to fall into one extreme or another when it comes to dissatisfaction with the executive director. Some boards let their dissatisfaction simmer for years without resolution. Other boards are too hasty and fire an executive at the drop of a hat or, more often, abruptly conclude a long period of silent dissatisfaction with a sudden termination. Sometimes just knowing more about how boards fire their EDs can help you relax into working more proactively with yours.

Sometimes it's necessary for a board to fire the executive director. In instances of embezzlement or unethical behavior, the need to terminate is clear to everyone. More often it’s a little fuzzier: board members may get indications over time that the ED is either not doing her job or . . .

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Where Should the Board Chair, the ED, the Staff Sit?

Sounds like a trivial question, but where everyone sits not only reflects organizational philosophy, it sends a strong, visual message to everyone about authority, participation, and the role of the board. (Bonus: cartoon about nonprofit boards at end)

How is a board meeting affected by where the board chair and the executive director sit? Where each sits, particularly in relation to each other, sends a message and influences how the meeting goes. Some board chairs and execs make a point of sitting next to one another at the head of the table: a clear signal about their authority and their partnership.

Reader M.K. Wegman of the National Network is even more detailed: "The board chair sits between the CEO and the COO at the top of the U." And executive director Roger L. explores the idea but rejects it: "Most board presidents have wanted me to sit right next to them so that I could provide tidbits of information as necessary or write a brief note regarding another member's comments. I have always found these activities a bit disconcerting. . . I prefer . . .

 

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Finding the Right Next Board to Join

If you aren't on a nonprofit board yet, you should be (especially if you are a nonprofit manager)! And if you are already on a board, there's another board in your future. First we have questions to ask yourself before seeking a board, and then how to find the right next opportunity for making a difference:

Imagine you were about to make a major donation, say $100,000. You would start by thinking about which areas mean the most to you -- perhaps care for the elderly, or civil rights, or the environment. After settling on a cause, you might then look into several different organizations in that field and investigate ones that seem to have high impact and where your donation would mean a lot.

Contrast this with how we often choose which board to join: someone asked us! While on a board you'll be making a huge donation of time, attention, and your heart (and maybe money). It's worth being proactive.

Questions to ask yourself:

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Stick With Old Media: Not Cool But It Works

In the age of social electronic media, media expert Holly Minch dares to defy the Twitter evangelists and makes the case for the power of traditional print and radio:

There's tremendous strategic value in traditional media . . . yes, still! Three reasons why writing press releases and pitching reporters are still worth it:

1. Third-party validation. As pithy as your latest tweet is, as fun-filled as your latest Facebook update is, there's one thing that social media simply can't give you: third-party validation. Don't forget that more than 58 percent of people get their news from television and 34 percent read the newspaper. Face it: an article about you in the Chicago Times will impress your funders and donors; a post on your Facebook page won't.

2. A reach . . .

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Meaningful Budget Work by the Board

For many nonprofits, the annual "approval of the budget" is the cornerstone of board financial oversight. However, this annual approval is frequently an empty ritual: one where board members peruse a budget that they are unsure is realistic or appropriate to the planned activities.

Consider the following scene:

The budget discussion is at the end of the agenda, and things are running late. Given a complex budget that "needs to be approved," board members react first by looking for things that they can understand . . . usually a relatively small expense item: "Why is this travel budget so high?" "Can this phone budget be reduced?"

As each question or suggestion is raised, staff respond by explaining why each suggestion for a change is unrealistic. "The travel budget has been funded for Program X so we have to do it." "Actually the phone budget is not that big." After a few instances of staff "explaining" line items, board members realize that asking such questions isn't really going anywhere.

In the backs of their minds is the thought, "It's probably okay. It was okay last year and I didn't understand it then either." So they vote to approve the budget.

In short, . . .
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What is Micromanagement and What Isn't?

Micromanagement: whatever the board is doing that the executive director doesn't like.  :)

From an executive director: "The board is micromanaging! They're driving me crazy!"

And from a board member of the same organization: "Every time we make even a suggestion the executive director flies off the handle and accuses us of micromanaging! Aren't we supposed to be guiding and leading?"

Wryly, we might say that "micromanagement" is whatever the board does that the executive director doesn't like. For example, let's imagine a board reviewing a budget that has $10,000 included for lighting fixtures. Some board members don't see the point of . . .

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Five Tips for Better Board Packets

Having been both an executive director and a board president, I'm on both sides of the board packet question. I know the staff's temptation to send a ton of stuff, the better to inform and impress the board. I also know the board member's tendency to run out of time to read the material, but still to be annoyed if the materials are either late or questionably useful.

More than 50 Blue Avocado readers sent in their comments about what they like -- and can't stand! -- in board meeting packets. Two striking takeaways: board members feel disrespected when board packets are late or sloppy, and feel railroaded when background information isn't included for an upcoming decision.

The angry comments from board members over irrelevant or unexplained materials reflect anger over the message they are getting from staff about how the staff values and respects the board's ability, authority, and responsibility to make decisions. A thoughtful packet not only provides the board with the information it needs for the meeting, but increases board confidence in the staff and in the board-staff relationship.

More specifically:

1. Why is this in the packet?

Board members want information that will be needed for the next board meeting. If approval of a new program or a new budget is on the agenda, a clear statement of the proposal must be in the packet, along with identifying . . .

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