Do you know what it takes to build a GREAT non-profit board of directors?

You may remember that around the turn of the century there was a rash of failures when it came to the idea of “board governance“. These failures emanated from the for-profit sector — WorldComm, Enron, and Tyco — but it got people asking an important question: “Does a board governance model still work in the 21st Century?” This question logically lead to the next question, which was “What does it take to build a more effective board of directors?
I stumbled upon an old article 2002 article from Jeffrey Sonnenfeld in the Harvard Business Review titled “What Makes Great Boards Great“. OMG! If you haven’t read this article, it is a MUST READ! While I’m going to hit a few of the highlights in today’s blog post, please trust me when I say this is worth the click.
The usual suspects
How many times have you sat around a board development/governance committee table and talked about how to make your board work better?
I’ve been there more times than I care to admit, and it is almost as if Sonnenfeld was a fly on the wall in all of those meetings. In the first few pages of his article, he rattles off the list of things we’ve all talked about when discussing this issue.

  • Improving board attendance
  • Improving the committee system
  • Diversifying our board (esp. recruiting younger board members)
  • Focusing on board size and trying to right-size our board

We focus so much on structural best practices, and this never seems to get us any closer to a more functional board.
human elementThe human element
There is a pop-up quote in Sonnenfeld’s article that captures his thoughts on this subject perfectly:

“What distinguishes exemplary boards is that they are robust, effective social systems.”

Here are just a few suggestions he offers to those of you trying to build great boards:

  • Establish and use annual evaluation tools for both the organization and individual
  • Establish and use accountability tools
  • Encourage board members to constantly re-examine their roles
  • Foster a culture of open dissent
  • Create an organizational culture built on trust and candor

Each of these bullet points could be a blog post by itself. Luckily, Sonnenfeld does a nice job of elaborating on all of this in his article, which is why you really need to go read his article.
Rather than drill deeper, I’m going to throw it open to you and the other readers this morning. What are you doing to build a GREAT board? What do your evaluation and accountability tools look like? What are you doing to change organizational culture and foster respect, openness, trust, etc? What is working and what isn’t working at your agency? Please share your thoughts and experiences using the comment box below. We can all learn from each other.
Additionally, I strongly urge you to click-through and read the Sonnenfeld article in the Harvard Business Review. Sure, some of the for-profit stuff won’t apply to your non-profit agency, but much of it will. You won’t be disappointed.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

What don’t you know about your non-profit D&O insurance policy?

insurance1Just the other day a friend started talking with me about non-profit directors and officers (D&O) insurance. During the course of that conversation, all sorts of things were discussed and at one point I made a mental note to do a little research. Having just finished my homework, I honestly can say that I completely understand why people don’t like insurance companies — this stuff is complicated.

Let me begin by saying to all of my insurance friends out there . . . I love you. I understand the importance insurance. This will not turn into a rant against you or your employers. I promise!

Next let me suggest to all of my non-profit friends — volunteers and professional staff — that you need to be very careful when it comes to D&O insurance. As I’ve just been reminded by Googling around, the devil is in the details.

Here is some of what I learned . . .

Confusing coverage

I didn’t know until a few hours ago that D&O insurance policies are NOT standardized. In other words, what one company covers in their D&O policy may not be covered in another company’s D&O policy.

To make matters even worse, D&O policies don’t really affirmatively list what is covered. In my experience, just saying that the policy covers “wrongful acts” usually results in board members using their imagination. This is where the trouble starts.

Some of the best advise I read online when researching this topic was:

  1. Read the definitions section of the policy
  2. Read the exclusions section of the policy

By understanding “what is what” and “what isn’t what,” you can get a better picture of what your actual coverage looks like.

Typical exclusions

insurance2The list is long, but the following things are typically excluded from the average D&O insurance policy:

  • Bodily injury (General Liability)
  • Property damage (General Liability)
  • Professional services (Malpractice)
  • Handling Funds (Fidelity, Bond)
  • Nuclear radiation, pollution damage
  • Illegal acts
  • Dishonest acts
  • Intentional misconduct
  • Punitive damages
  • Fines, penalties and matters uninsurable by law
  • Failure to obtain adequate insurance
  • Contract claims
  • Employee retirement income security act (ERISA)
  • Antitrust, price-fixing, restraint of trade
  • Peer review, standard setting
  • Credentialing, certification
  • Discrimination
  • Sexual misconduct
  • “Insured versus insured”
  • Injunctions/no pecuniary suits

I found this list in a document published by the Ohio Youth Soccer Association North (OYSAN), which was at one time part of a larger handbook published by the Nonprofits’ Risk Management and Insurance Institute.

If you find yourself saying “Hey, but I need coverage for those things,” then don’t worry because your insurance company is more than willing to sell you other policies to cover those things.  😉

When you assume . . . 

You know how this expression ends, and it is very applicable to what most board members do when it comes to D&O insurance.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . a friend of mine was the board president for a non-profit organization that went out-of-business. As the board started down the long, sad path of winding things down, the following facts were discovered:

  • the executive director hadn’t paid payroll taxes in three quarters
  • there wasn’t enough money in the bank to pay the final payroll
  • many vendors hadn’t been paid in full for their products or services

To make a long story short, Uncle Sam always gets his, and you must pay your employees. These things aren’t covered by D&O insurance (in fact, as I recall, the executive director also forgot to pay the D&O insurance premium). In the end, board volunteers were forced to write a number of big checks and those who couldn’t had a lein placed on their house by the IRS.


Best practices?

insurance3I shared some of my research with a group of amazing non-profit consultants tonight. The consensus of this group of very smart people was that board volunteers never ask the hard questions about their D&O insurance policies until it is too late.

This prompted me to ask the obvious question, “What are some best practices that non-profit boards should follow?” Here is what they said:

  • Once a year in a board meeting, time should be set aside to review policies and coverages with an opportunity for Q&A.
  • Boards should pay for a lawyer, who isn’t a board member and who specializes in risk assessment, to review your policies and inform the board about their gaps.
  • Engage an insurance broker who can help you shop policies and tailor the search to your needs.

Yes, insurance can be boring and board volunteers may not want to do this every year, but the angels of our better nature must prevail. Failure to do the right thing when it comes to D&O insurance and other insurance coverage all too often results in tragedy and hardship for the organization and board volunteers.

What is your organization’s process for renewing insurance policies? How do you educate board members about your agency’s gaps and their risk and exposure? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Larkin Center evolves for 117 years, and then it ceases to exist

larkin2Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking at posts from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a post titled “Survival Is Not Mandatory,” John talks about how change is occurring all around us all of the time. Organizations need to make the decision to adapt to those changes or risk going out of business.

On Wednesday afternoon, I received the following email in my inbox from a local non-profit organization with whom I’ve worked with and supported over the last 13 years.

A Farewell Thank You to Larkin Center Supporters

The Larkin Center has been a valuable part of the Elgin area for over 117 years. Unfortunately, the Center has experienced financial challenges at a time when demand for its services has increased. We have been in discussions with several strategic partners over the last 18 months to secure the long-term future of the Center.

As of last Friday, the effort collapsed and we are working with appropriate state agencies to transfer contracts and transition our clients as a result, it saddens us to announce that the Center will no longer be able to sustain itself after Friday, October 18, 2013.

The Larkin Center clients and staff would like to thank the many individuals and organizations that have supported our mission throughout the years and have truly made a difference in the lives of our clients.

Larkin Center has adapted to all of the changes throughout the years. They were founded more than 100 years ago as an orphanage. Over the course of time, orphanages disappeared from our communities, and Larkin Center evolved into an agency offering residential services to children who had trouble surviving in a state-run foster care system.

larkin4As the years passed, Larkin Center added more services including a school for children struggling with behavior disorders and counseling services for adults.

It is obvious to me that Larkin Center’s staff and board understood that “survival is not mandatory,” which is why they kept evolving and changing with the times. I think it is this realization that makes this closure so difficult to swallow.

Is it possible that there comes a time when adapting to change and evolving is not possible? Do organizations have a life span much like human beings?

The sadness of this moment makes it impossible for me to go down this road and contemplate the answers to these questions.

Instead, I want to celebrate. That’s right. You heard me correctly.

larkin1There will be lots of news coverage about the “failure“. Many people will weigh-in with what they think went wrong and what could’ve and should’ve been done differently.  There might even be a victory lap taken by a few Elgin city council members who openly fought with Larkin Center because they didn’t think “those kids” belonged in our community.

I won’t touch any of these topics with a ten foot pole. At least not today.

Instead, I urge all of you to take a moment to think about the heroes who fought to the very end to save Larkin Center.

When I think about the countless number of volunteer hours invested in strategic planning and exploring merger possibilities over the last 18 months, I want to honor those efforts.

When I think about the Larkin Center staff who persevered through furloughs and late paychecks because they believed in saving this agency’s mission, I want to honor those efforts.

larkin3When I think about the donors who invested in efforts to save this organization in the final months and years of its life, I want to honor those efforts.

When I think about the tens of thousands of children and adults (if not more), whose lives were touched and changed by Larkin Center, I want to honor those efforts.

There will be plenty of time to dissect what happened and learn lessons from Larkin Center, but please join me in honoring the accomplishments and hard work of so many people.

Sigh! As always, John is right . . . “Survival is not mandatory.” But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate 117 years of evolution and the will to survive.

You can join me in remembering Larkin Center and honoring the organization, its accomplishments and its volunteers and staff members by recalling a memory and sharing it in the comment box below.

Here’s to your health (and continued evolution)!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Is your organization well positioned for strategic planning?

readiness1I believe there is a misconception out there about strategic planning because I keep running into executive directors who think just because the current plan is expiring that is must be time to begin work on a new strategic plan. I also oftentimes run into folks who believe it is a perfect time to start planning when their agency is experiencing instability, blurriness, and confusion. In my humble opinion, there is a time and place for strategic planning and embarking on this journey at the wrong time can be at best frustrating and at worst damaging.

Readiness questions

Just the other day, I was talking with a friend about this issue, and they asked the obvious question, “How do you know when the conditions are right?” I started off saying something stupid like: “You’ll know when the time is right.” I knew it was dumb advice as it was coming out of my mouth.

So, I went home and started digging through my library of planning materials. I came across an old strategic planning document from a previous employer who had partnered with BoardSource to create the manual. So, you know it is good stuff.  😉

readiness3As I had hoped, I found a section titled “Key Questions to Assess Readiness and Capacity”. Here are those questions:

  1. Do your regular board meetings (apart from retreats) include at least one strategic, or “Big Picture,” issue on the agenda?
  2. Is your current strategic plan based on realistic and comprehensive assumptions about the agency and its external environment? What considerations are missing?
  3. How might changing demographics and other economic, social, and political trends affect a constituent, client, or membership base that provides a primary revenue stream?
  4. What goal should the agency strive to achieve for financial reserves (for example, at least one-half of the operating budget)? Are there some potential revenue streams to consider?
  5. Are new priorities clear and the proposed means of paying for them realistic? Which programs should be self-supporting? Which might be operated at a loss in order to fulfill the agency’s mission?
  6. What metrics do you use to monitor organizational effectiveness?
  7. Have you considered all the options and chosen a planning method (aka planning model) that works best for the agency? Are you flexible enough to combine approaches if that suits our culture?
  8. How do you include board members who are not on the planning committee as participants in the process?
  9. What performance measures should be included in your strategic plan?
  10. How do you keep our strategic plan active and visible within and outside the agency?
  11. How often do you conduct strategic planning? Does that cycle make sense for the agency?
  12. When you are ready to undertake a planning process, are you clear about why you are planning?
  13. Are you clear about the roles of the board, executive director, and staff in strategic planning? Do you honor the distinctions?
  14. Have you used consultants in the most effective ways possible? If you have never used a consultant, should you consider doing so?

I’m not thrilled with these questions because I think they blend together two different issues — capacity and readiness. So, if you’re just trying to decide whether or not your agency is ready to start down the strategic planning road, I suggest you and your board governance committee spend some time chewing on questions 7, 8, 11, 12, and 13.

The other questions are important, too. I just think the five question I just highlighted cut to the heart of the matter.

readiness2We’re not ready, but we still need a plan!

If your board governance committee determines that you’re not ready, but you see difficulty down the road and think you need a plan to guide your efforts, you may not be out-of-luck.

You should look into developing a short-term tactical plan focused on the next 12 months.

Perhaps, a business plan or a something addressing a specific agency function (e.g. resource development, program, facilities, etc) might be a better use of time for you and your volunteers.

Did you mention consequences?

Earlier in this post I said, “. . . there is a time and place for strategic planning and embarking on this journey at the wrong time can be at best frustrating and at worst damaging.”

I been down this path many times, and I encourage you to please learn from my mistakes.

If you start down a strategic planning road when you aren’t ready to do so, I’ve seen the following things happen:

  • It feels like you’re spinning your wheels, and you end up spending LOTS of time of stuff that you thought were obvious.
  • Volunteers get frustrated. They feel like they’re going nowhere fast. Some even express that it is a waste of their time.
  • I’ve seen board members resign in the middle of difficult strategic planning processes.
  • I’ve seen major disagreements result in boardroom rifts.
  • I’ve also seen executive directors get fired.

How has your agency determined readiness? Do you have other questions to add to the list? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Non-profit governance: The work of the board, part 5

Dani Robbins is the Founder & Principal Strategist at Non Profit Evolution located in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve invited my good friend and fellow non-profit consultant to the first Wednesday of each month about board development related topics. Dani also recently co-authored a book titled “Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives” that you can find on 

Governance: The Work of the Board, part 5

Setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Plan

By Dani Robbins

strategic planningWelcome to the final post in our five-part series on Governance. We have already discussed the Board’s role in Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the ExecutiveActing as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent, Setting Policy, and Raising Money. Today, let’s discuss the Board’s role in setting the mission, vision and strategic plan.

As previously mentioned, Boards are made up of appointed community leaders, who are collectively responsible for governing an organization. As outlined in my favorite Board book Governance as Leadership and summarized in The Role of the Board, the Fiduciary Mode is where governance begins for all boards and ends for too many. I encourage you to also explore the Strategic and Generative Modes of Governance, which will greatly improve your board’s engagement, and also their enjoyment.

At a minimum, governance includes:

  • Setting the Mission, Vision and Strategic Plan,
  • Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive Director,
  • Acting as the Fiduciary Responsible Agent,
  • Raising Money, and
  • Setting Policy.

One of my goals for this blog is to rectify the common practice in the field of people telling non-profit executives and boards how things should be done without any instruction as to what that actually means or how to accomplish it.

What “Board members being responsible for setting the mission, vision and strategic plan” means is:

The Board sets –meaning discusses and votes to adopt or revise — the mission statement, which answers why your organizations exist.

The Board also sets the vision of the organization. A vision statement is a description of what the organization will look like at a specified time, usually 3-5 years, in the future. There are two minds in the field as to if a vision statements should be a Utopian view such as “an end to hunger” or a more concrete view such as “to be the premier youth development organization.”  I lean toward the latter; I find it challenging to set goals to get to Utopia.

The Board votes upon the strategic plan, after participating in a strategic planning process “in which the board, staff, and select constituents decide the future direction of an organization and allocate resources, including people, to ensure that target goals are reached. Having a board-approved, staff-involved strategic plan that includes effective measurements and the allocation of resources aligns the organization, provides direction to all levels of staff and board, and defines the path for the future of the organization. It also allows leadership, both board and staff, to reject divergent paths that will not lead to the organization’s intended destination.” (Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives)

The process — and the document — can be very long or very short.  In fact, I have a new theory that the longer strategic plan is, the less likely it is to be used. For my clients, I recommend a 4-5 meeting process: We start with setting or revising values, vision and mission and end with assignments, measurements and due dates.

Please do not accept a plan that does not include assignments, measurements and due dates. If you cannot answer the question “How will we know when we get there?” you will not get there. A plan without measurements, assignments and due dates is just a list of goals that are unlikely to be accomplished.

For information on what should be included in the process, please click here.

A strategic plan should be a living document that guides the organization and provides a point for ongoing programmatic and organizational evaluation.  It should not sit on a shelf.

All organizations should have a strategic plan.

Strategic plans get everyone on same page as to where you are as an organization and where you are going.  They allow the group to decide the goals moving forward; create measurements to determine if you met your goals and assign responsibility and due dates for specific goals.

Strategic planning is a process that results in not only a document but also a shared understanding among key stakeholders.

In the absence of that shared understanding and agreement, there are still moving parts, but they’re not aligned. The absence of a plan sets the stage for people to do what they feel is best, sometimes without enough information, which may or may not be right for the organization.  It opens the door for one person’s vision to get implemented and others to feel unheard or unengaged.  The absence of a plan allows for major decisions to be made on the fly and for potentially mission driven decisions to be compromised.  As we all know, movement goes in other directions than forward.

What do you think?  As always, I welcome your insight and experience.
dani sig

Non-profit budget season: The old Texas Two Step

The other day I received an email from an old friend asking me to share my thoughts about the “right way” for a non-profit organization and its board to construct a budget. Do you start with revenue projections and develop the agency’s fundraising plan first? This way everyone knows what the expense budget can’t exceed. Or do you start with the expenses and try to build a revenue budget that supports the organization’s mission, vision and programming?

My first thought when I got this message was: “OMG! It is budget season for many non-profit agencies. Ugh . . . it is almost October. Where did winter, spring and summer go?

My second thought was actually more of a chuckle because I’ve always thought of budget season as a bizarre dance between board and staff that resembles something like the Texas Two Step as demonstrated in this YouTube video.


For the record, I don’t think there is a right and wrong way to undertake budget construction. There are obviously very smart people who reside in both camps — revenue first vs. expenses first. When I was an executive director, I tried to do the uncomfortable thing and sit on the fence.  Ouch!

budgetThe following is a thumbnail sketch of what my process looked like:

  • I put the budget process in writing with a narrative description and timeline, then built consensus around the importance of following process and adhering to deadlines.
  • I simultaneously started working with the finance committee and the resource development committee.
  • The finance committee and I worked with program staff, and everyone collaborated around constructing reasonable expense budgets with mission, vision and quality programming in mind.
  • The resource development committee and I worked on developing a detailed resource development plan chock full of reasonable revenue projections, range of gifts charts, goals, strategies, volunteer prospect lists, grant prospects, annual campaign prospects, special event prospects, fundraising calendar, and action plans.
  • Sometime in October or November the two committees met jointly. They shared and compared their work. The FUN was just beginning because there was always a gap on the bottom line.
  • Consensus was built and both committees went back to work. The finance committee was usually tasked with finding cuts that wouldn’t hurt the agency’s mission or damage its organizational capacity. The resource development committee went back to the drawing board to find reasonable revenue enhancements.
  • Both committee were tasked with reporting their progress back to the board every month throughout the process. The hard part was staging those board meetings in a manner where generative discussions would happen and result in: 1) board volunteers who didn’t sit on those committees an getting and opportunity to weigh-in and 2) both committees getting an opportunity to engage the larger board in decision-making focused on strategies and tactics (esp. those related to revenue generation).

When the committees converge in the process, the age-old Texas Two Step issue would always float to the top. Do we close the gap with budget cuts or revenue enhancements?

My philosophy was always “revenue first” because I felt like the mission of the organization called upon us to make that attempt first. However, this doesn’t entail just changing projections and modifying our best guesses. It involved adding more prospects, tweaking strategies, and adding revenue streams.

Some years I won this argument. In many other years, I lost this argument, and the finance committee would produce their hatchet. (I am embarrassed to admit that one year I lost the ability to send donors a newsletter thanks to that hatchet. I should’ve fought harder because donors need to see what their investment is doing.)

Ahhhhh . . . You gotta love the old Texas Two Step.  🙂

As I sat on my couch and texted back-n-forth with this old friend, my mind wandered (as it tends to do) and I had a third thought:

If you like sausage, you don’t want to know how it is made!

making sausageI am not suggesting that my process is the right way to put a non-profit budget together. However, I do believe strongly in the following few budget construction principles:

  1. Budgeting is a collaborative activity between board and staff. (Avoid a situation where staff puts it together and the board either behaves like the two Muppets who sit in the balcony or simply just rubber stamps it.)
  2. Projection of numbers (esp. revenue) isn’t a dart throwing activity. It is rooted in historic data, trends, actual prospect names, and strategies. Don’t ever use “plug numbers“.
  3. There is a process with an explicit timeline. It is written out. It is created collaboratively and agreed to by all parties.

Enough of my waxing poetic about how your non-profit should tackling budget season. Here are a few online resources and documents that I found:

Is your organization in the middle of its annual budget construction process? What works for you? What doesn’t work? What do you plan on doing differently next year?

Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

You’ve got to stop emailing your non-profit board members all the time!

duck1You know what Douglas Adams says (according to Brainy Quote). . . “If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.” This quotation kind of sums it all up when I hear non-profit staff complaining about how disengaged their board members are, while they are in the middle of sending out another long email to those same board volunteers.

Let me start by telling you that I am one of the biggest offenders of overusing email. Guilty as charged! I need to seek help, but they say the first step in getting better is admitting you have problem.

My good friend (and former supervisor) used to remind me constantly that he believed email should be used as an “information tool” rather than a “communication tool“.

I spent many years contemplating this advice.

In the final analysis, he was saying email should be compared to snail-mail and the United States Postal Service. Email is like a stamp that you’re putting on a letter. He would advocate using email to send a document, but don’t use it to engage someone in a conversation about something.

I can almost hear him saying: “If you need to engage someone in something, then pick-up the darn phone!

Of course, I don’t see this issue as being quite so black and white. Email technology has made tasks like coordinating meetings and answering simple questions really easy. So, I guess I don’t completely agree that email is only good for sending out agendas, meeting notes, etc.


Many of us are overusing email and doing so in ways that result in disengagement. I understand this is a serious assertion, but stay with me on this one.

duck2When I look at my email inbox, I do a lot of scanning. I first look at the names of people who sent me something. As I do this, I am deleting anything that vaguely looks like spam or advertising. I don’t even open it. After this first purge, I re-visit those who are left standing and start looking at subject lines. I’m essentially trying to prioritize what I should open first versus leave for later when I have more time. And when I say “leave for later,” it could be days or weeks later.

(Confession time: at the time of this post, I currently have 1,027 unopened emails . . . I am truly embarrassed.)

I suspect some of you do the same thing. (Of course, de-nial isn’t just a river in Egypt as the old expression goes)

I also suspect that many of you are sending emails of all sorts to your board members’ work email address.

Finally, I am willing to bet that many board volunteers prioritize their work emails ahead of anything they get pertaining to their volunteer commitments. It is just a guess, but I think I’m on solid ground.

So, what just happened? You were put on the back burner regardless of how important you think your email might be.

In today’s fast paced world, I believe the technology revolution has created a new set of assumptions around communications:

  • If something is very important, it warrants a face-to-face meeting.
  • If something is pressing or needs to be discussed, it gets done by phone.
  • If something isn’t time sensitive, it gets put in an email or a snail-mail envelope.

Am I over-simplifying? Maybe, but then again I don’t think I’m too far off.

If you’re still with me, then it is hard not to conclude that sending lots of emails to your board members is the equivalent of sending them lots of unimportant stuff.

Choosing how and what and when to communicate with your board volunteers is important.

If you want to be relegated to the back burner of a board member’s email inbox, then keep sending those emails.

Here’s a suggestion . . .

  • Look at your board roster and select the names of your three most influential board members.
  • Sort your email outbox by name/email address
  • Count how many emails you’ve sent to each of those board volunteers.
  • If you’re averaging more than one per week, then you may want to re-examine how you communicate with them.

You may want to do a quick inventory of what you’re emailing board members. Once you develop a list, set-up informal policies for yourself on what is acceptable to email, what should be a phone call, and what needs to be done in-person.

The following are a few suggestions that I have:

  • Distribution of agendas and meeting notes — email
  • Checking in to see if a board volunteer completed something — phone
  • Getting buy-in from board volunteers on something — meeting
  • Coordinating calendars for a meeting — email
  • Checking to see who is still coming to a meeting (e.g. quorum call) — phone
  • Circling around to a board volunteer who was expected to make a meeting but didn’t show and needs to be “in the loop“– phone (possibly even a meeting over a cup of coffee)

There are lots of times that we shouldn’t be using email, but unfortunately we do it because it is convenient. If you have a moment, I suggest you read a wikiHow article titled “How to Know when Not to Use Email“. It is definitely worth the click!

Do you overuse email? Are you seeking a support group like me? LOL  What are you doing about it? Can you add to the list above regarding when it is OK to use email vs. phone vs. in-person meetings for various communications with board volunteers? Please scroll down and use the comment box to share. Your kindergarten teacher would be proud of you.  😉

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Non-profit boards need to stop crying about evaluating their CEO

CEO review3Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking at posts from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a post titled “There Is No Crying In Performance Reviews!,” John talks about how year-end evaluations are difficult exercises not only for the person being evaluated but also the person doing the evaluation. He goes on to talk about the reasons for the anxiety, shares a few difficult stories, and finishes with how he has made a few changes to make the process easier.

If you are responsible for evaluating employees, you should click-through and read this post.

However, when I read this post, my mind was in a very different place.

I had been working with a number of different non-profit boards and facilitating trainings on board roles and responsibilities. I usually administer a simple little pre-test a few days before conducting the training. Not only does it help me get a sense of the board’s collective mindset, but I share the aggregated results with the board prior to launching into the curriculum. I’ve found that doing so gets participants’ attention and creates a greater sense of focus.

CEO review1One of the pre-test questions that tends to trip people up is whether or not the board has a responsibility to “oversee the CEO“. Believe it or not, it isn’t uncommon for one-quarter to one-third of board volunteers to say “NO“.

I always find it funny because the previous question on the pre-test asks if they are responsible for “hiring the CEO,” and almost everyone agrees that is a basic non-profit board responsibility.

So, where is the disconnect?

If you are responsible for hiring someone, then doesn’t it follow that in most situations you’re responsible for developing their annual performance plan AND evaluating their performance?

After re-reading John’s post this morning, I think the answer is simple.

The collective board and its individual members feel anxiety about evaluating its one and only employee. As John describes in this post, it is the same feelings that individual managers experience. 

Understanding where that anxiety comes from is a step in the right direction of solving the problem. The following are just a few of the reasons cited by John:

  • not being organized;
  • not doing your homework;
  • not knowing the jobs being assessed, or how they’ve really done them; and
  • not having detailed examples to cite in defense of critical feedback.

If your non-profit organization is going to thrive, then you and your board need to GET OVER IT. As John points out in the title of his post, “There Is No Crying In Performance Reviews!

CEO review2So, maybe you don’t know where to start?

Well, I think some of the answers can be found the aforementioned bullet points (aka the causes of this avoidance behavior). Here are a few of my suggestions:

  1. Make it a board policy that an annual performance plan, which is rooted in your strategic plan, is developed and issued to the executive director by the start of the year. Make sure this policy speaks clearly to the issue of who is responsible for making this happen and how they engage the board in the process.
  2. Develop a 360-degree feedback process and get input from all of the executive director’s direct reports.
  3. Make it a practice to ask the executive director to self-evaluate themselves as part of the process.

These are just a few suggestions. The following are even better resources that I found online:

Oh yeah! One more thing . . . once you start down this path, take great care not to fall into some common pitfalls. What would those pitfalls be? Well, the following are just a few according to a document I recently found in an old board governance manual:

  • Avoid falling prey to the “halo effect“. (aka the CEO can do no wrong mentality)
  • Keep personality out of the process . . . this is only about performance. (e.g. Just the faces, ma’am)
  • Being too lenient (e.g. the glass is half full)
  • Being too critical (e.g. the glass is half empty)
  • Being clouded by recent events (e.g. letting a crisis or recent victory override an entire year’s worth of performance)

In my experience, the vast number of non-profit boards don’t do a good job with managing and evaluating their executive director’s performance. This needs to stop because “that which gets measures . . . gets DONE“. In other words, if you want your agency to succeed, you need to stop crying and figure it out!

How does your agency evaluate its executive director? What have you done that takes some of the anxiety out of the process? How do you keep from falling into common pitfalls? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Trends in non-profit governance?

great carnacI was reviewing some old non-profit board governance material this morning and came across a document talking about “trends in non-profit governance“. In other words, the person who wrote that paper thought s/he was able to predict the future. Of course, this document was written more than 10 years ago, which got me thinking it might be fun to review some of their trends and determine where they were right or wrong.

The following are just a few of the trends that I found interesting:

trends in nfp governance

As I review this list, there are a number of thoughts and questions running through my head. Let me spill those things out in the following bullet pointed list:

  • How many non-profit board have gotten smaller over the last decade? I wonder how that is going for them? Are they more effective or less effective?
  • Wow! They nailed the technology trend. I see many agencies conference calling people into meetings and doing some business via email polling and voting. (Not that I think it is very effective.)
  • Huh? The FROM-TO pertaining to fundraising is a little comical. I cannot tell you how many non-profit boards I’ve worked with who are very reluctant fundraising solicitors. 
  • Really? Once in a blue moon, I run into a non-profit board that has an annual performance evaluation process in place for their executive director. More often than not, I see boards doing everything in their power to NOT evaluate the CEO.

The following are a few interesting resources I dug up online pertaining to some of these trends:

While clicking around for these links, I came across another great document titled “Emerging Trends in Nonprofit Governance“. It looks like it was presented at the ASAE & The Center’s Annual Association Law Symposium in 2009. This document contains all sorts of best practices, and it is definitely worth the click.

I’m not sure if I would put any of these things under the classification of “trends“. I think most of the trends stuff that I’ve reviewed today can better be described as “best practices“.

So, let me go out on a limb this morning and identify what I see as a real trend in non-profit governance . . .

Serving on a non-profit board will
continue to be difficult and entail hard work!

Duh!   😉

I hope when non-profit bloggers revisit this post a decade from now they will be able to say, “That Erik Anderson really nailed that trend.”  LOL

When reviewing the initial list of “trends” that I shared at the beginning of this post, what questions and thoughts initially spring to mind? Has your agency made the “FROM-TO” transition on any of those trends? If so, which ones? Are you currently working on any of those changes in your non-profit governance? If so, which ones and what are you doing to facilitate the change?

Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Non-profit board and staff go together like chocolate and peanut butter

at each others throatOver the years, I’ve met non-profit board volunteers who didn’t see value or the need for staff. Likewise, I’ve met countless numbers of staff who complain about their board members. I’ve also met executive directors who deliberately do things to disengage their board volunteers (e.g. taking on fundraising responsibilities, reducing the number of board meetings, etc).

Why is it that these two very important stakeholder groups sometimes can’t get a long? I suspect the answer to this question is layered and complicated, but the following must be in the top three:

  • There is a blurry understanding of what each other’s roles are.
  • There is an unequal division of responsibilities.
  • No one is paying attention to what it takes to nurture a productive relationship.

Last week, I was on vacation in Michigan visiting friends. One of those visits was with someone who served on a local non-profit board. He served for more than a decade, and he was the board president for almost one-third of his tenure. When I asked him how things going, the news wasn’t good. He was burned out. His fellow board members were burned out. Things were falling apart. A merger with a neighboring agency was inevitable.

When I asked “What happened?” the answer was simply: “We don’t have any staff. It is an all-volunteer agency. It is us against the world.

I think it is an indisputable fact that . . .

Board need staff AND staff need the board!

So, what can be done to turn this relationship FROM something that looks like the scene at the end of the movie “War of the Roses” TO something like this vintage 80’s television commercial:


I’ve reached back into an old board development training manual and found the following characteristics of an effective board-staff partnership:

  • Common expectations
  • Cooperative planning
  • Open and honest communications
  • Respect
  • Mutual evaluation

If board and staff can accomplish these things, it will result in clarity around the following questions:

  • Where are we going?
  • Why?
  • How are we going to get there?
  • How will we know if we achieved what set out to do?

Have you ever worked for a non-profit agency where board and staff weren’t on the same page? How did it make you feel? What was the result? How does your current agency achieve some of the characteristics spelled out in the aforementioned bullet points? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847