Board Cafe

Short 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.

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Should Staff Contact with the Board Be Restricted?

Not all nonprofit organizations need or have paid staff. But in those that do, a frequently thorny issue is that of direct contact between staff and board members:

Should board members have contact with staff independent of the executive director? For many executive directors, this issue raises blood pressure faster than almost any other (the other one is the board in executive session without them).

Psst! Want Your New Executive Director to Succeed?

Let's turn our attention away from the departure of long-time executives to the arrival of the next executive directors. Here are 12 easy and important ways for board members to help a new executive get started fast and on the right foot:

When a new executive is hired, a board usually works extra-hard for weeks or months. In addition to meetings about candidates to make the hire, board members often take on additional tasks, such as managing a fundraising event or overseeing the audit.

How the board and board members can support a good transition:

1. Ask a board member (perhaps the vice president) to be the ED Transition Adviser for six months. This person can check in with the new executive, touch base with board members on how they see things going, and make sure the board continues to pay attention to a successful transition.

2. Write and send out a press release either by email or hard copy. Send it to local and . . .

Ten Myths About Nonprofit Boards

It seems as if there's always somebody at the board meeting saying, "That's what nonprofit boards are supposed to do." Sometimes it's even the executive director. Here is a quick directory to the most common myths wreaking havoc in nonprofit boardrooms:

Myth #1: Nonprofits have to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley

In the wake of the Enron and other corporate scandals, this federal act of 2002 was designed to improve accuracy of disclosures by publicly held companies. Provisions include certification of financial reports by the CEO and CFO, having non-staff on the board's Audit Committee, prohibition of personal loans to executives, and so forth.

Reality: Only two SOX provisions apply to nonprofits:

The 7 x 7 Board Member Briefing

Very often the only time a board member is given the "microphone" at a board meeting is when he or she is making a committee report. But wait a minute! Why do we ask people onto boards because of their knowledge and perspectives, but never give them a chance to share their knowledge or perspectives with us?

Instead, at each board meeting schedule a 7x7 ("seven by seven") Board Briefing: a board member makes a 7 minute presentation, followed by 7 minutes of questions/answers/responses. Friendly-but-fierce timekeeping is required to keep to the 7 minutes each and the whole thing takes 15 minutes.

An example that will spark ideas for your organization is a list of 7x7 Board Briefings given at one AIDS organization, each by a board member:

  • A marketing executive at a bank gave a presentation on marketing principles that the board and staff should know when planning awareness campaigns.
  • A doctor told the moving story of working with his first AIDS patient.
  • A pharmaceuticals manager used PowerPoint to present on trends in the drug industry and what impacts they might have on patients
  • A client told about her experiences using the services of the organization, with both praise and problems
  • A major donor (to this organization and to others) talked about how he and other wealthy individuals have similar -- and different -- preferences on how they like to be approached and recognized

Several problems get solved in one fell swoop with the 7 x 7 ("seven by seven") Board . . .

Four Ways to Remove a Board Member

Occasionally, a board member needs to be removed from the board. In some cases, a conflict of interest or unethical behavior may be grounds to remove an individual from the board. In other cases, the behavior of a board member may become so obstructive that the board is prevented from functioning effectively.

The best boards often have strongly felt disagreements and heated arguments. Challenging groupthink and arguing for an unpopular viewpoint are not grounds for getting rid of a board member. But if a board member consistently disrupts meetings or is otherwise destructive and demoralizing, it may be appropriate to consider removing the individual from the board:

1. Personal intervention

One-to-one intervention by the board president or other board leadership is a less formal solution to managing problem board members. If a board member has failed to attend several meetings in a row, or has become an impediment to the board's work, the board president can meet informally with the board member in question. In person or on the telephone, the board president can request a resignation. Examples:

  • "I respect your strong opinion that we have made the wrong decision about . . .

Should You Be Considering a Merger?

When times are tough, funders start to think that mergers are a good idea for nonprofits. And sometimes nonprofits themselves agree, but don't know how to think about it or how to go about it. Here's a short article by merger consultant David La Piana, and a link to a free downloadable comprehensive booklet on nonprofit mergers.

Should your nonprofit be considering a merger or some other way to combine formally with another organization? Mergers, joint ventures, fiscal sponsorship arrangements, and virtual nonprofits are all examples of "strategic restructuring." This goes beyond collaboration to bring organizations into formal, deeper forms of alliance. Nonprofits are viewing these options with increasing interest in an economic downturn.

Your organization and your board might be interested in these intense partnerships:

  • If your organization is, alas, weak, (unable to find or keep an executive director, unable to maintain an active board, or too small to compete effectively in a particular market), you might seek to merge into a larger organization that has what you lack or with other smaller organizations with whom you can develop the necessary strengths.
  • If you are ready to grow, (want to . . .

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:

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 . . .

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...

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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