Working in various capacities with nonprofits from small to large for a few decades I’ve seen a great deal. Surprisingly, “the more things have changed the more they’ve stayed the same,” a quote from 1849 attributed to French writer, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. Not only have many of the issues and approaches remained, but so have some basic traps and pitfalls. The good news is, the remedies to the five basic pitfalls I’ll highlight are quite simple, they just require awareness and a focused effort to resolve.
I’ve been fortunate to work with nonprofits with budget sizes ranging from less than $100,000 with no staff to those with more than $50 million with 1,000 employees or more. A number have been in rural areas, but a good percentage have been in metro areas or even served a national audience.
My observations come from 14+ years of having public fund clients who received tax dollars or donations, volunteering as a board member for 20+ years and founding four nonprofit organizations. I was employed by a nonprofit with board oversight for nearly ten years and now having nonprofit clients for more than seven years. I venture to say my perspective is grounded in a broad base, over several decades and yet the issues I highlight have largely remained. They are simply not on the radar of many nonprofits or their leaders. While we think communication would be easier in 2022, it’s where many of the issues remain rooted. Here’s my list of the five pitfalls tripping up nonprofits.
The last headline you read about a nonprofit may not have been positive, especially if it dealt with a board/staff relationship. The root cause was probably hearsay, improperly weighted oversight, and poor delineation of roles. All of these come into play and originate with poor communication and relationship management.
No matter the size of the staff, in a policy governance model, the board of directors employ a single individual, the CEO or the Executive Director. That person then has responsibility for the rest of the staff. It’s up to the board to determine strategy, including broad goals for the organization. As I like to tell organizations, the board is about the “what.” The staff is about the “how.” There is nothing more demoralizing than a board who wants to micromanage.
Problems arise when board chairs rotate and each year there is a new style of leadership to which to adapt. I recommend heading off this pitfall by having a pre-installation of officer meeting. This is where the new Board Chair and CEO/Exec sit down and review a list of expectations and the policy governance standards. Come to an understanding of roles and what is or is not appropriate for each. I also provide a list of typical duties of each.
An effective Board Chair will ensure the rest of the Board understands and engages according to the expectations, whether it’s overseeing staff or donating to the organization.
Tethering Your Supporters
Nonprofits work tirelessly to gather supporters. We all know it is much more costly to attract new donors and partners rather than simply renew or increase existing ones. However, over the years I’ve noticed that organizations, especially smaller ones, are seldom doing a great job of keeping supporters connected to the organization. Perhaps that speaks to the poor retention rate. Establish a means of reaching out to your donors at times other than asks. Get their opinions on new programs and services, branding and more. Let them know you appreciate their support and give them reason to care about what you have going on. Your development plan should spell out the expectations for donor interaction but at the very least make sure you know as much as possible about your donor/partner, their interests, hot buttons, and propensity to give in the future.
Former Board Connection
Board members are generally passionate and well-versed in your cause. Why then, when they leave our boards, are we abandoning them? They represent a tremendous resource and organizations should be doing everything possible to keep them engaged in some manner. Surprisingly, of the dozens of organizations with which I’ve served on their boards over the years, only one has tried to keep me informed of their activities. It’s a simple gesture and can come in many forms. It can be a “past board member” communication, an annual luncheon update, or sharing of minutes. Whatever form it takes it pays to keep past board members connected to your organization and aware of your current needs. Reach out to them, engage them to keep their networks connected to yours.
One of the easiest pitfalls to avoid is poor meeting management, yet it causes more issues than others. Board members today need to make good use of their time so look at switching up the agenda to become more concise and yet future-oriented. Poor attendance is generally an indication of meetings that are less than effective or unengaging. You can fix it by using a consent agenda, providing opportunities for interaction, or restructuring the meetings. Keep a task/maintenance balance recognizing that some board members will lean one way or another. Some board chairs are better about managing meetings than others so provide the necessary resources to help them.
Planning is almost always lacking in organizations. That’s because in the ideal world there are several plans that should be in place and regularly updated. Organizations with smaller staffs will have trouble on this front but can easily delegate those tasks to board members with unique skills to assist.
Strategic planning is obviously first and foremost and will often point to the need to establish or update plans such as the following. Development Plan, Crisis Communication Plan, Business Continuity Plan, Volunteer Recruitment Plan, Marketing and Communications Plan, Financial Plan, Operations Plan, Capital Improvement Plan and more. Plan, plan, plan. Why do you think it’s the first step in the Deming circle?
The pitfalls may seem basic, and there’s certainly more. However, if a nonprofit can excel in avoiding these five pitfalls, they are likely to be surprised at the impact to their bottom line over time.