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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Proof of Life: Is Your Small Nonprofit Alive?

Proof of life: In a few months, this term could have important implications for small organizations (less than $25,000 in expenses) and their nonprofit status; so read on and prepare. It used to be that a nonprofit could lie dormant (or forget to file its 990) for years -- decades even -- without being de-registered by the IRS. But now small groups must file their Form 990N before October 15, 2010 in order to show they are still alive; otherwise they will automatically lose their tax exempt status.

Raise Money in 30 Days

Sometimes you need to raise funds in a hurry. It's easy to think, "We should have established a fundraising plan earlier!" That may be true, but it doesn't help now. Here are some ways to raise modest funds in a pinch. Because institutions like foundations, government, and service clubs typically take more than a month to make funding decisions, your best bet to raise money in 30 days usually involves asking individuals for donations.

Each of these techniques can raise a lot or a little depending on who is doing the organizing. For example, a house party in one organization can raise $500 in one evening, while in another it can raise $100,000. In either case, the amount raised is . . .

Nonprofit Conflict of Interest: A 3-Dimensional View

Most nonprofit discussions about conflicts of interest are similar to those in the for-profit sector: they focus on financial benefit to board members or staff to the detriment of the nonprofit organization. The classic examples: the nonprofit buys something unnecessary or overpriced from a board member's business, or the nonprofit hires an unqualified, overpaid family member of the executive director.

But nonprofit conflicts of interest are often more subtle, more multi-dimensional, and more unexpected than these classic examples. For instance, what about the board member who also sits on the board of a competitor? Is this a good idea that facilitates collaboration or does it pull that person in two different directions? What about relatives of the executive director who hold important staff positions . . . but as volunteers? And perhaps least talked about: what about the potential benefit/conflict for a board member who is also a parent/client/beneficiary?

None of these situations fits the classic . . .

Golden Rule of Board Resignations

At some point you may resign from a nonprofit board before your term is up. You might be angry, disappointed, or just too busy. Don't botch your resignation: do it right.

Most often as a board member we stick out our term limits and leave the board feeling good about what we've've contributed. But there are also times when you resign before your term is up. Maybe you've missed a lot of meetings or maybe you're moving to another city. Maybe you're uneasy with the direction the organization is taking, or maybe you feel that as a board member you are treated like a "mushroom": kept in the dark and fed manure (!).

Regardless of your reason, you can just walk away quietly, or make a weak excuse, or you can use the moment to give meaning to your resignation, both to you and to the board.

Following are some ways to make significance out of your resignation:

* If you have concerns about the organization or the executive director but haven't voiced them, consider . . .

Bylaws Checklist

The very mention of bylaws at a board meeting is usually met with dread. It typically means either that a conflict has risen to the point where the bylaws must be consulted, or it means that someone is pointing out an area of noncompliance that has gone unnoticed for years. This Checklist points out the necessary elements in bylaws.

Because regulations about nonprofit bylaws are done individually by state (rather than the federal government) there is quite a bit of variation. For example, in Ohio and New York, nonprofit boards must have a minimum of three members, but in California the minimum is one. It's important to obtain the applicable state laws and make sure that the bylaws are in compliance. In addition, some cities have further regulations for nonprofits. Ask your city attorney's office for guidance. For example, some states and cities have different rules for nonprofit organizations for which the board automatically includes an elected official or government employee as a result of that individual's election or employment.

Three overall guiding principles for nonprofit bylaws:

A. Don't put too much in the bylaws. If you specify the . .

Board Terms: 1 Year - 3 Years - 2 Years

Several Blue Avocado readers responded to our query about unusual board terms, and we were intrigued by comments from Jeanetta Issa, CEO of Child Abuse Prevention in Kansas City; we talk with her here:

Q: What are the board terms in your organization?

Jeanetta Issa: The initial term of office is for one year. Then based on the activity level and commitment to the organization, they can be asked for a second term of three years. After that they can be asked for a third term, for a total of six years of service. So it's 1 - 3 - 2.

Originally, in a past organization, the board wanted to make it easier to turn over non-productive or even destructive board members. One time we had such a destructive board member, totally attempting to draw our organization into her own agenda, that . . .

Nonprofit Business Model Statements

Although every nonprofit has a mission statement that defines the organization's core purpose and work, many are unaware of its useful companion, the business model statement: a brief summary that spells out the organization's economic drivers. Like a mission statement, a business model statement acts as a touchstone: a reminder and a guide for the organization's focus and strategies.

Nonprofit executives and board members usually have a good sense of the various types of funding that support the organization, but they may have a harder time explaining the organization's business model. Let's imagine a childcare center with the following mission statement: "We provide high quality child care in a cross-cultural setting." A first draft of their business model statement . . .

Who is Responsible for the Board Doing a Good Job?

Despite the importance of the nonprofit board, there's strikingly little clarity about who is responsible for its performance. The answer in this Board Cafe article might surprise you:

Who is responsible for the board's doing its job? And a related question: who's responsible for improving a board that's asleep, weak, or gone amok? One answer might be: the board is responsible for the board! Or possibly, it's the board chair who is responsible for the board. Or sometimes: it's both.

We agree with Peter Drucker: The responsibility for the board's effective work -- both governance and support -- is ultimately the responsibility of the executive director.

This can sound paradoxical (or even depressing) at first, but veteran successful executives know the truth of this statement. Executives take on their shoulders the responsibility for the success or failure of the organization -- every part of it. If there were any other part of the organization that was under-performing, no executive would shrug, do nothing, and . . .

What to Do When You Really, Really Disagree with a Board Decision

Most of the time, nonprofit boards work through consensus. But what if you think a serious mistake is being made? Sometimes knowing what to do in advance if such a situation arises can help you understand the situation more clearly as it unfolds:

Have you ever been in a situation where the board has made a decision that you think is very wrong and will have severe negative consequences for the organization? Or where you think an important decision has been railroaded through?

As a board member myself and something of a contrarian, I've found myself in these circumstances from time to time over the years. For example, on the board of an organization with a sizable financial deficit, I found myself and one other board member losing a seventeen-to-two vote to take funds from the organization's endowment for current operating expenses. As a member of CompassPoint's consulting group for many years, I saw more serious cases, too, such as ones where board members suspected illegal activity or a takeover of the organization by a few aggressive (and often new) board members.

It's important to remember that reasonable people can disagree in good faith on important issues. The following situations may give you some food for thought if a case that goes beyond reasonable disagreement were to arise for you.

Question: The board I'm on is about to make a bad decision. Although . . .

Nonprofits and Copyrights: What You Need to Know

There are two things to worry about with copyrights: protecting original material that your organization has created, and making sure that your organization isn't improperly using material that someone else owns. Blue Avocado asked copyright attorney Kate Spelman to help us with these issues, and she generously gave all of us her expertise and time.

Q: Should we be copyrighting things we publish in print, on our web site, in our music CD, and elsewhere? Is it enough to put a (c) (copyright symbol) on things?

Kate: It's a good idea to put the (c) symbol (a 'c' in a circle) on original materials, along with the year and the copyright owner. But a copyright can't be enforced unless the work has been registered. See the U.S. Copyright Office at for the official site.

Is it hard to register a work?

Not really. Works can be registered at the United States Copyright Office for $45 each, and the benefits include . . .


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