Who should be “driving the bus” at your non-profit agency?

In my travels, I’ve seen hundreds of non-profit organizations, and I must admit that they come in all sorts of different sizes and shapes . . .  Big ones, little ones, short ones, tall ones, skinny ones, fat ones . . . you get the picture.

However, one question has haunted me for as long as I’ve worked in the non-profit sector and it is the title of this morning’s blog post:

“Who is responsible for driving the bus?”

Yes, I’ve heard all of the “best practices” and expert advice. I’ve sat through too many training events. Heck . . . I’ve even been the trainer for a number of those training events and sounded very much like the expert on this subject.

However, this question still haunts me because I see everyone answering it differently.

For example, staff are obviously responsible for day-to-day operations, but who gets to decide:

  • Which programs get run?
  • What impact and program outcomes get measured?
  • What new BIG grants (that might require new programming and new things to be measured) should be written?

I suspect that many of you have answers for these questions. I also suspect that there are many different answers. Some of you might see this as a question of “micro-management” and others of you might see “policy implications” all over the place.

Many moons ago, when I worked at my local Boys & Girls Club, I was presented with an opportunity to apply for a very large state grant. Many of you have probably heard of 21st Century Community Learning Center grants (this opportunity is part of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation). When I was presented with this opportunity, these were some of the facts I was facing:

  • The grant (if received) would increase the agency’s budget by more than 25 percent,
  • We would need to open a new site by asking a local school to share some of their space with us after-school (aka new collaboration with memorandum of understanding spelling out responsibilities of all parties)
  • The grant would result in hiring more staff (e.g. increasing overall staff size by 25 to 50 percent) and serving more kids (expanding membership by approximately 25 percent)
  • The type of staff we were accustom to hiring would change because the school district obvious wanted us to hire their teachers (and pay them the after-school stipend rate negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement)
  • The grant would require some different programming and outcome measurements.
  • The grant also required that some serious thought be put into “sustainability planning”. How would we continue serving those kids after the five-year grant expired. How would we fund it? Where would we provide service?

I was in favor of applying for this grant. It was a game changer for the organization. However . . . how much authority did I have as the executive director to make this decision. Sure, at first blush, the question was simple . . . “Apply for this one grant? Or don’t apply?” . . . but one question leads to another and then another.

So, what parts of this decision belong to the board of directors and what parts belong to staff? AND what parts needed to be shared between board and staff? AND what happens if there wasn’t agreement?

In the end, I engaged the Program Committee and came to the table with my “case for change”. We talked about it, agreed on all fronts and made the recommendation to the board of directors. The grant was written. We were selected to receive funds. We signed the contract with the state board of education. And the rest, as they say, is history.

That was easy . . .  Right? NOPE!  Because I see everyone making similar decisions in very different ways. Why? Because it isn’t easy and every non-profit organization has a different culture with different levels of organization capacity.

Is there a RIGHT answer to this question? I think so.

I believe there are A LOT of policy questions wrapped up in aforementioned example, and all policy issues clearly belong to the board of directors. Additionally, I see grants the same way I see “contracts,” and every non-profit bylaws document that I’ve ever looked at has clearly stated that entering into a contract is the responsibility of the board.

So, why do I see so many non-profit and fundraising professionals working alone on identifying grant writing opportunities, writing the grant proposals and committing the agency to the terms of the grant agreement (or asking their board after-the-fact to rubber stamp the grant agreement)?

Why do staff let this happen? Is it because we really don’t want the headache of having to build consensus? Or is it because of time constraints? Why do boards let this happen? Is it because they don’t know what the right answer is and in the end would rely on staff to inform their opinion? Or is it that they don’t understand their roles & responsibilities as board members? Or is it simply lack of time? And regardless of how you answer these questions, does it really change the fact that there is a “right answer” to the big picture question and our responses to these smaller questions really just amount to nothing more than rationalization and justification for doing something we know is wrong?

Today’s post really does raise some serious governance issues that most non-profits of all sizes and shapes struggle with on a daily basis. Please scroll down and use the comment box to share your thoughts as well as examples of how your agency has dealt with this issue. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

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

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