Tagged ‘board of directors‘

Maybe It’s Time to Overthank


Jan Portrait 3 (2)“Is your board absent or just useless?”

An acquaintance started a conversation with me this morning by telling me that her board of directors was useless. This is a pretty common claim. I hear it all the time. But the question to me is: are your board members absent and useless or showing up and not knowing what to do or how to do it?

There’s a difference. When board members find every possible excuse not to show up to meetings or to carry through with simple jobs, that’s a problem of interest and commitment.  Maybe they joined the board by mistake, maybe they thought the organization is doing something different from what they’d envisioned, maybe they’ve gone on to a new issue, a new cause. People are fickle. This week’s big issue may have won their heart away from your organization. You never know unless you go ask them.

Sometimes, you can win back absent board members. Sometimes, you just have to kiss them goodbye.

But what to do about the other type: the board members who are not absent but are pretty useless when they show up.  Now nobody is truly useless. Just by showing up, a person demonstrates a certain level of interest and commitment. It’s not easy for the normal person, working a full schedule, managing a family and other obligations, to come to meetings. But that’s what we expect: be there every time and be cheerful about it!

How do you help ‘useless’ board members become useful? Here are some ideas:

  1. Ask them. Ask them about their skills and their work history. Ask them what they’re good at. Better yet, ask them what they’d like to get good at! Ask them where they think they can fit in. Little or large – appreciate every idea.
  2. Revamp your menu. Telling board members that you want them to fund raise will make them break into hives. I’ll tell you that right here. Don’t do it. Tell them you want them to post a specific message on their social media. Ask them to sell 10 tickets to an event. See if they’ll bake for a party or get one of their friends to donate their talents. Be specific and small. Little doable tasks. That’s the ticket to building capacity.
  3. Love them up. I’m of the school of thought that no one gets appreciated nearly enough. So I am an ‘overthanker.’ I thank people in emails, I send them notes, but, most important, I thank them in public. That’s how you show people what you value – by thanking them. All that thanking also inspires other people — to also be overthankers and to do things that will inspire overthanking. Trust me. I’m right about this. I’ve seen this unfold a million times.

‘Useless’ board members don’t have to stay that way. If they show up, that means you have something to work with. Try my three ideas and let me know if they work. And remember especially to overthank!

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When All You See Is Red: What to Do When Your Organization Hits the Wall

Last week’s post talked about the tension between mission and money for nonprofit organizations.  My thesis was that mission is important but cannot flourish without sound money management.  Any nonprofit organization director who doesn’t understand that is kidding him or herself.  Financial management is not a pesky little detail of nonprofit life; it is central. 

#1 Rule: Keep the money straight.

So what happens when the money has not been kept straight?  One of two things happen:  either the situation is ignored, minimized and marginalized OR the situation is the impetus for new, better financial practices.

Like a smoker ignoring his hacking cough, glossing over nonprofit financial problems only leads to a worse situation.  Financial problems, like cancer, do not cure themselves.  But like cancer treatment, the cure for nonprofit financial problems is not easy or painless.

Steps to a cure (or at least rehabilitation):

1.  Professional diagnosis:  Because non-profit organizations are often small and mission-driven, they rely heavily on volunteers with limited time and, often, limited expertise. When the board of directors first begins to see a pattern of financial problems, that is the time to seek a professional opinion from someone outside the organization.  Virtually every community has nonprofit management technical assistance, this is the time to seek it out.

2. Management accountability:  The organization’s executive director and board of directors have to take ownership of the problem, accept responsibility for past practices, and make a commitment to improvement.  I subscribe to the school of thought that nearly every problem that can be named and claimed can be solved.  Unfortunately, it is very often the case that a nonprofit’s finances are a mess because the executive director has limited financial skills and a propensity toward denial.  Often, a board of directors, itself with limited time/skill, will aid and abet the director’s minimization of the problem.  Solutions cannot happen in this environment.  Accountability is a fundamental requirement of change.

3. Treatment compliance:  Getting out of serious financial difficulty is very hard even with the best professional advice.  Generally, a nonprofit in serious financial trouble needs to: a) develop a detailed remediation plan in consultation with the best advice available; b) fully implement the plan, doing the hard things like laying off staff, consolidating operations, reducing benefits and any number of other onerous things; c) communicate with funding sources so they get firsthand information about both the situation and the plan; and d) establish clear performance/accountability checks so the organizations stays on an improvement course.

 Is all this trouble worth it?  That depends. 

How valuable is your mission?

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Another One Falls: What Happened to Esperanza Unida?

 Last week, I talked about the closing of the iconic Hull House in Chicago.  This week, I just have to talk about one of Milwaukee’s own iconic nonprofit organizations, Esperanza Unida.  Yesterday’s Sunday paper carried the news that after forty years, the organization had lost its federal non-profit status. This essential designation, the one that makes foundation and government grants possible and gives donors a tax deduction, was lost because the Esperanza Unida administration did not file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service three years in a row. 

 Esperanza Unida, founded in 1971, started out as a very small, storefront enterprise that focused on workers rights, especially advocacy for Latino workers who had been injured in the workplace.  Ted Uribe, Esperanza’s first director, was a basically a community organizer.  Under his leadership, the group tackled a host of community issues including the distribution of anti-poverty funds by the increasingly powerful Social Development Commission.  When Rich Oulahan became director, the organization took off in new directions, establishing a national reputation for a social entrepreneurship model of job training that started with auto donation/repair/resale and expanded to a day care center, restaurant and other initiatives.  Oulahan attracted federal support to establish the International Building on National Ave., and commissioned Reynaldo Hernandez to create a mural that northbound I-43 drivers still see and appreciate every day. When I drive by, I think about Rich Oulahan’s persistence and advocacy – he died in 2008.

So what went wrong with this nonprofit masterpiece?  Like Hull House, there are probably many possible answers.  From my perch way outside the organization and the neighborhood it serves, I’m wondering where the board of directors was when the 990’s weren’t filed.  I occasionally read the southside papers and see on Facebook references to a lot of political infighting, some of it very bitter and divisive.  I think about the wisdom of having an organization so entirely wrapped up in the identity of its executive director and wonder if the board ever tended to the unpleasant duty of developing a succession plan.  Was there attention paid to building a board that had the professional and technical skills, such as accounting, legal, and fund development expertise, necessary to steer a major nonprofit enterprise? Another thought is what happpened to the organization’s community support?  Esperanza Unida used to be an untouchable nonprofit, so politically well-positioned that its funding was almost never in doubt.  I don’t have answers.  I just ask the questions that I think need to be asked.

The need for an Esperanza Unida continues.  People need skills that will get them family-supporting jobs.  That hasn’t changed.  It’s a sad thing for Milwaukee that this important resource – this community resource – no longer exists as a nonprofit organization.  Those of us involved with nonprofits as staff or consultants or board members need to find the lessons learned from Esperanza Unida’s situation and resolve to keep the valuable nonprofits in our community healthy and strong.

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