How and when should a non-profit board go into executive session?

cone of silenceMore than a decade ago, I attended a BoardSource conference/workshop at Sears’ corporate offices in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. During one of the sessions, the trainer shared her teachable point of view on how often boards should go into executive session, which she explained was at the end of every meeting. I’m dedicating today’s post as a counter-weight to that practice.

If you are intrigued and want to learn more about this teachable point of view, click here to read a post written by Jan Masaoka on Blue Avocado. She does a nice job of making the case.

Of course, there is a flip side to this position.

Let me start by clearly saying . . .  I believe there is a time and place for a board to kick staff out of the boardroom and go into executive session. Here are a few examples:

  • when the board needs to discuss the executive directors compensation package
  • when the board is discussing the findings of an investigation involving the executive director
  • when the board wants to hear directly from the auditor (esp. when there might be financial oversight questions pertaining to staff)

There are a few other good reasons; however, there aren’t many in my opinion.

do not enterAfter attending the BoardSource workshops at Sears as a young and naive executive director, I brought a ton of good ideas back home with me and shared them with the Board Development Committee. One of those ideas was for the board to go into executive session as a regular practice at the end of every meeting.

At first, I found this practice preferable. It sure as heck was better than watching all of the informal “meetings after the meeting” that occurred in the parking lot. However, as time passed, I discovered that executive session had evolved, and board volunteers were now having discussions that I should be a part of.

Prior to implementing this practice, we didn’t have a discussion about what was appropriate versus inappropriate topics of discussion during the executive session time period. So, without an experienced facilitator or any rules of the road, conversations wandered and devolved.

In my experience, the “going into executive session as a regular practice” became demoralizing. If the board didn’t feel comfortable including me in discussions pertaining to or impacting operations, then they needed to fire their executive director.

If your organization is looking at adopting the “going into executive session as a regular practice,” then here are two things you need to weigh against each other:

  • Is it more important to foster what the Blue Avocado post describes as: “This ‘sense of self’ is an intangible yet critical underpinning for board leadership“?
  • Or is it more important for your agency to cultivate and grow the ‘sense of team‘ between the board and its executive director?

I suspect the answer to these questions will vary for different organization. However, it is important to answer these questions before implementing such a policy. Otherwise, your agency may find itself the victim of the “law of unintended consequences“.

If you want to read more on the subject of executive sessions, here are a few posts you may find interesting:

What is your agency’s practice when it comes to executive session? Has your board governance committee discussed and spelled out when this practice should be used and what is appropriate? If so, please share your thoughts and opinions in the space below. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

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

Four non-profit trends pertaining to volunteerism

volunteerismYesterday, I attended my first Fox West Philanthropic Network meeting in a number of months. I forgot how much I love those networking and professional development meetings. The program topic was “Volunteer Recruitment & Management” and featured staff and volunteers from a number of Fox Valley agencies, who spoke eloquently about their experiences.

To open the panel discussion, Bob Hotz from American City Bureau shared the following four recent trends that he sees  in volunteerism:

  1. There is a trend toward wanting to help with a specific program or project.  This contrasts with just general support of both time and money.  This seems tied to wanting to experience that my contribution of resources (time or money) will have the impact I am looking for.
  2. There is a trend toward time-defined or episodic volunteering.  (e.g. a day of service or a 5K run, does not tie up months of time or commit me to something long-term)
  3. There is a trend toward contributing expertise.  (e.g. More than just time, people want to feel that their skill sets are being put to good use.)
  4. There is a trend toward incorporating a learning component into the volunteer experience.  (e.g. It is not only what a volunteer contributes, but also what they learn and get out of it.)

Bob used this framework as a springboard for the panel to jump into topics such as:

  • volunteer recruitment
  • orientation and training
  • volunteer evaluation
  • retention
  • generation differences including needs and approaches to working with these different age groups

For those of you looking for additional resources on these topics, here are a few links you may want to investigate:

For those of you who want to have a discussion about these issues, please scroll down and use the comment box to pose questions or share your thoughts and experiences on these topics.

Here’s to your health!

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

Is your agency like Goldilocks when it comes to online content?

goldilocksI’ve been blogging regularly since May 2011, which makes DonorDreams blog three years old next month. As with everything in life, there have been ups and there have been downs with things such as readership, content, and tech issues. I’m sure those of you who know me well, won’t be surprised to read that I tend to obsess over questions such as:

  • Is the post is too long or too short? Will people read it?
  • Is the headline going to capture readers’ attention and result in a click-through?
  • Is the email subject line going to result in a higher open rate?
  • Is the tweet too long or too short? Will it result in a RT?
  • Are my sentences too long? What about my paragraphs?

I know some of you are rolling your eyes and chalking these questions up to my obsessive personality. While this reaction is well deserved, the reality is that there is a science to how you compose your non-profit organization’s emails, tweets, blog posts, etc. And since you’re not emailing, tweeting and blogging just for the heck of it, I think it is important to understand the science behind these things, especially if you want people to read your stuff.

internet content infographicLast week, an old friend of mine from high school poked me on Facebook and posted an article from Kevan Lee at the Buffer blog. He does an awesome job of untangling the facts and figures while sharing some really great charts and graphs on this subject.

If you want your donors to read your Facebook posts, tweets, website and blog content, then this link is worth the click. Kevan even developed a wonderful little infographic to help you remember and use the content in his post. I’ve included it in this post for your review.

When it comes to evaluation strategies for DonorDreams blog, I have not been very fancy because I don’t have any money budgeted for those types of activities. The blog is just a labor of love. So, when I’ve wanted to know something (e.g. whether or not the theme formatting of the blog is attractive, etc), I’ve simply asked readers and friends for feedback. How did I do this? I went on Facebook and Twitter and asked.

Does your agency evaluate and play with content, length of content, and promotion strategies? If so, what have you found? What measurement strategies did you use? What did you do with what you learned? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment box below. We can all learn from each other!

Here’s to your health!

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

How does your non-profit organization use SEM?

An effective way to market your agency’s website

By Rose Reinert
Guest blogger

rose1For those of you who are new to the DonorDreams blog, I’m going chapter by chapter through Lon Safko’s book, The Social Media Bible,  on Mondays and applying his thoughts to the non-profit sector. We continue this lovely Monday with Chapter 19, “Marketing Yourself (Search Engine Marketing)”. Last week we began exploring SEO, and this week we dig a little deeper into marketing yourself through SEM — Search Engine Marketing.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is one of the most effective strategies to market and advertise your website; however, there is a cost. In this chapter, Safko unpacks the idea of the idea of CPC (aka Cost Per Click) or PPC (aka Pay Per Click).

At first glance, this entire chapter seemed difficult to apply to our non-profit world. Many budgets are tight and marketing generally does not have a lot of wiggle room. However, after some additional research, I found an awesome manual that will help us explore how to apply SEM to our non-profit world.

The Non-profit’s Guide to Search Engine Marketing  is a free online manual to help your non-profit organization spread its message, cheaply and effectively, with the help of SEM. It gives great examples from real non-profits that effectively apply SEM to increase visibility, attract supporters and donations, and create awareness for their cause.

pay per clickOne great suggestion I found in this resource was to think about ways to turn your charity projects into brands (e.g. the Tap Project). It helps if the brand is descriptive, as opposed to abstract, because people tend to search for generic terms. For example, “CureBlindnessNow” could be both a brand and a search term i.e. “cure for blindness”, “how to cure blindness”, etc.

This online manual doesn’t just explore SEM, but it also provides the reader with even more topics addressing overall online presence, social media, etc.

It is a great read (as is Safko’s Social Media Bible) and worth the click!

I am interested in hearing how your agency utilizes SEM for your organization. Please share your experiences.
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Are you managing your non-profit staff or are you leading them?

It Does Not Follow

By John Greco
Originally published on September 3, 2012
Re-posted with permission from johnponders blog

leadership“You don’t manage people; you manage things.  You lead people.”

— Admiral Grace Hopper

A while back I recall being on a regional conference call with the VP, his regional staff, and his district directors.  The topic of the day was how to increase the productivity of the delivery drivers.  The region’s labor costs were over budget, and driver wages were the lion’s share of the variable expenses.  So they needed to get faster…

I was getting increasingly frustrated with the conversation.  I was hearing nothing but quick fixes; I now call them fixes that fail because they ultimately make things worse after making things temporarily better.  I kept hearing these simplistic directives that implied a measure of control that was, well, in my calculus, ridiculous.

I remember thinking to myself if they have such control, why are we having this conversation?  If they are in control, end of story, no?  Just tell them to work faster, no?

I think I said something to this effect on the call.  But it’s possible my memory is playing tricks on me.

*     *     *     *     *

Performance management is a non sequitur.

The origin of non sequitur, from latin, translates “it does not follow.”  When I hear management being practiced in terms of control and authority, coercion and force, I cringe.

Performance does not follow.

People, unlike things, feel and think!

  • They assess.
  • They ascertain.
  • They consider.
  • They project.
  • They imagine.
  • They analyze.
  • They calculate
  • They judge.

And, ultimately, they choose.

Management control is a myth.

When managed, people will — at best — comply.  Which means they are simply making the choice to accept your authority, and they are choosing to behave within the lines that you have drawn.

Things, on the other hand, don’t feel and think.  They can be managed!  Goals, processes, procedures, tools, resources, budgets, reports, timeframes, work flows, measurements …

Leaders manage things; and they lead people by influencing.

Influencing requires an understanding that control is a myth.  It requires an awareness that people have choices and make choices.  Influencing also requires leaders to trust that their people really do have the capacity to engage and make the choices that are necessary for the high functioning of the organization in its pursuit of its mission.

Manage things; lead (influence) people.

For now, let’s grossly summarize leading as providing a meaningful business aspiration; communicating clear and timely information regarding the who/what /when/where/how, involving them when problem solving and implementing change, and supporting them with sufficient tools, technologies, and other resources.

*     *     *     *     *

That conference call ended as most do; action items with little leverage.  But the VP was slowly clarifying his philosophy.  It was a work-in-progress for sure, especially in terms of its execution, but I remember its five parts distinctly —

  1. Grow the business.
  2. Serve the customers.
  3. Lead the people.
  4. Manage the numbers.
  5. Support the community.

People follow when leaders lead.
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When should your non-profit board NOT vote by email?

email votingIn a recent conversation with a friend about their non-profit board, it came to light that board members used email to take an important vote because scheduling a special board meeting was too difficult with everyone’s busy schedules.

After hanging up the phone, I couldn’t get this conversation out of my head because the issue this board had voted on was really contentious and there had not been very much consensus coming out of the previous board meeting. The question that kept zipping around my head was:

When is it not appropriate for a non-profit board to use email to vote?

So, I went to Google and started clicking around. The answers I found might surprise you!

The first article I found in The Nonprofit Quarterly was titled “E-mail voting: A Simple Trap for Nonprofit Boards” immediately raised red flags for me, especially when I read:

“The busy schedules of nonprofit board members make face-to-face meetings seem like a luxury. Consequently, a new trend has surfaced that may run afoul of the law—the vote by e-mail option.”

The words “RUN AFOUL OF THE LAW” jumped off the page.

As I continued reading, I learned another interesting fact. Many states prohibit non-profit boards from voting by proxy and email is seen by courts as being akin to a proxy vote. The Nonprofit Quarterly does a nice job of explaining why:

“The theory behind this prohibition is that the discussion and interchange of ideas that occur at board meetings are essential to the informed exercise of the directors’ fiduciary duty to the corporation.”

In other words, the government doesn’t want to enable busy people to take an easy way of meeting in-person to discuss important issues and perform their governance and oversight responsibilities. Huh? That makes sense to me!

Since I am a resident of the great (and bankrupt) State of Illinois, I started clicking around Google to see if my friend’s board had just broke the law. I quickly found that they had not because the state recent changed the law. Here is an excerpt from a publication on Venable LLC explaining the change:

The new law, which becomes effective on January 1, 2010, amends the General Not For Profit Corporation Act. Regarding the use of electronic means of communication, the bill:

* States explicitly that notices to members and directors may be delivered by electronic means to an email address, fax number, or other appropriate contact listed in the records of the corporation or approved by the organization’s articles of incorporation or bylaws.

* Allows members to act without a meeting by voting through mail, email, or other electronic means, where the old Act only permitted members to act without a meeting through the written consent of all members entitled to vote.

* Removes certain notice requirements associated with actions taken by the members through unanimous written consent.

* Provides that any action required to be “in writing”—by either the members or the board of directors—may be taken by electronic means, unless actions by electronic means are explicitly prohibited by a corporation’s articles of incorporation or bylaws.

So, do I have you concerned yet? If you’re outside of Illinois, do you find yourself wondering if your agency has been breaking the law? Are you starting to wonder — like I did — when is it and when is it not appropriate to use email to record a board vote?

If you are asking these questions, then GOOD . . . my job here is almost done.  ;-)

board discussionThe following are just a few suggestions you may want to consider:

  1. Do some research on Google (or ask an attorney) if email voting is legal in your state.
  2. If it is legal and you want to add this governance tool to your toolbox, add language to your bylaws specifically authorizing email voting.
  3. Engage the entire board in a governance discussion about when email voting is appropriate and when it is not appropriate . . . build consensus and codify these decisions in your bylaws.
  4. Use email voting sparingly . . . don’t get in the habit of using it.
  5. Discourage the board from using an email vote for issues that aren’t routine and lack consensus (in other words, issues that need to be discussed and where consensus needs to be built).

Has your board ever taken an email vote where it felt wrong to do so? Please use the comment box below to share when this has happened. Why? Because we can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

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

Planning for the worst case — strategic plan or crisis management plan?

The School of Worst Case Scenarios

Guest Blog Post
By Dani Robbins reprinted with permission from Nonprofit Evolution blog

planning2I always joke that I went to the School of Worst Case Scenarios, because when presented with any decision, I try to figure out the worst thing that could happen. It amuses my clients, yet it’s a helpful exercise. Once you know the worst case, you can roll of the dice, create a plan to avoid it or decide it’s not worth it.

Information is just information. It’s what you do with information that makes the difference.

There are a few plans and policies that will help you avoid or at least address a worst case scenario.

Strategic Plan

A Strategic Plan will keep you on the path that the leaders of your organization have elected to follow. There is less potential for failure on an agreed upon path.

If you don’t currently have one and your agency is not in the midst of a crisis, almost any time is a good time to do a Strategic Plan. There is one caveat: I’m not a huge fan of strategic planning with brand new (less than 6 months) Executive Directors. Give your new Exec 6 months before beginning a planning process.

All agencies should have a plan to align their staff and board as to where they’re going and how they’ll know when they get there.

Crisis Management Plan & Crisis Communication Plan

The only time I flat out recommend against starting a plan is in a crisis. Even if you went to the same school (of worst case scenarios) as me, crises still happen. The middle of a crisis is not the time to conduct a strategic plan. In fact, a crisis is the time to pull out your crisis management plan, and also your crisis communication plan.

Having these in a crisis will greatly mitigate the worst case scenario coming to pass and will increase the capacity of your staff to rise to the occasion. I recommend annual trainings on crisis plans.

A Crisis Management Plan will inform your team as to what to do in a wide variety of situations. Bomb threat- check.  Intruder in the building- check.  Shots fired in the neighborhood – check! Missing child- check.  Other things that are equally bad- check.

Knowing what to do is greatly preferable to guessing when the world is falling down around you. A good plan and well trained staff can be your salvation.

If you are starting from scratch, make a list of all the bad things that could reasonably happen and then a plan for what your team should do in each case. Draft a few press releases for the files. Train your staff on responding to the media and if you don’t have one, create a crisis communication plan for your board to appoint a spokesperson. Select a crisis response team and keep all of their names and contact information at the end of the plan.

I used to update that list and send out the entire plan every time I went on vacation. I considered it insurance.

A Crisis Communication Plan appoints a spokesperson and an alternate or two in case the initial person and the first alternate are implicated in the crisis. (Like in the case of the Exec and the Chair having an affair while married to other people; honestly, I couldn’t make this stuff up.) I usually recommend it be the Executive Director, Board Chair and Chair of the Marketing Committee.

Crisis avoidance is easier than damage control. The School of Worst Case Scenarios isn’t a party school but it can save your agency’s reputation and greatly enhance your career longevity.

What’s been your experience with crisis? Do you have great stories to share? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience.  Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.
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Three letters that will change your non-profit website — SEO

How visible is your agency’s website?

By Rose Reinert
Guest blogger

rose1Happy Monday, everyone! This week, we look at Chapter 18 of Lon Safko’s “The Social Media Bible” focusing on Search Engine Optimization. This week’s chapter resonated with me greatly because I had just dealt with it at work!

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a complicated practice, but a very simple concept. In a nutshell, SEO is the way to impact the visibility of a website or webpage in a search engine, in a natural, unpaid way. The benefits are obvious . . . when someone searches for you or what you do, you want to be on the list and on the first page.

I experienced this first-hand!

Over a year ago, I started as the Community Outreach Liaison for an area non-profit serving the medical and dental needs of all, regardless of the ability to pay. Our website had a lot of heart behind it, but it was clear we could use a make-over!

So, we did just that.

We discovered, if you jumped on Google or Yahoo and typed in, “pediatric dental Medicaid” that our site we would not pop up! Why? Because we had not a one page dedicated to our dental clinic.

It is still an ongoing process as we continue to focus on our content (e.g. the words we use and how we would want to have people find us).

If you want people to find your website, start by looking at your website and seeing what is in the content. Include key phrases that describe your organization and what you do. The best way to impact your SEO is to pay attention to your content and ensure it is current.

If you want to learn more about SEO, you will want to pick-up a copy of  The Social Media Bible and devour chapter 18. Here are a few additional resources I suggest checking out online:

What has been your non-profit experience with SEO? What phrases do you use to optimize your SEO? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment box below.
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Non-profit success depends on failure!?!

A Bias for Failing?

By John Greco
Originally published on August 19, 2013
Re-posted with permission from johnponders blog

targetReady, fire, aim.

Measure twice, cut once.

Uh oh.  Wildly conflicting approaches.

What to do?

Measure twice cut once urges us to plan our work before we act.  Plan, and then work the plan.  Check our measurements before we cut.  Don’t vary from the tried-and-true process.  Make sure all i’s are dotted and all t’s crossed.

The implied consequence if we don’t? — wasted time, material, and effort when we have to cut again … and if we don’t have time to cut again?  Poor quality.

This makes very good sense, and I’ll bet resonates with you.

So what then do we make of ready-fire-aim?  What a stark contrast! Take action! then aim?

There’s a couple of ways I make sense of that instruction.

First, I imagine “aim” here is used more to suggest learning.  Take action, and then learn from the result that the action produced.  Self-correct.  Get ready again, and fire again.  And learn again.  Adjust.  Fire again.

Clearly, this approach actually builds in rework.  How is that efficient?

In a very real sense, it’s not.

But, in some cases (and more than we think I would propose) it is moreeffective.

How can that be?

Seems to me that if the task at hand is to converge on a distinct future outcome that is known in advance, say, like building a cabinet, then the carpenter’s measure twice cut once is the right approach.  If we know what we want; we know what we need to do, and we know what we have to work with, we can position our processes and resources, and cut take action with confidence.

The measure twice cut once approach is slow, deliberate, methodical.  Temporary inaction to produce eventual precision action.  It places primary importance on the avoidance of error.  And, therefore, on quality, and efficiency.

All’s good.

But what if things are changing all the time — objectives, policies and processes, technologies, people — and the “measuring twice” approach morphs into constant remeasuring?  Error avoidance can become paralysis … we so fear missing the shot that we don’t ever take the shot …

Time for ready-fire-aim.  And time for my second way of sense-making from those three out-of-order words.

Perhaps ready-fire-aim is not meant to be taken literally.  Perhaps it is only to invoke a certain mindset.

A bias for action.

Take action, learn, adjust; take action, learn, adjust; take action and learn, and adjust, again …

It is an acceptance of the fact that we’re not going to get it right no matter how cautious, deliberate, and planful we are…

There can be no denying that there’s a whole lot of change happening in our lives these days, personally, professionally, in our communities, in our relationships …

Measure twice cut once might need to increasingly give way to ready-fire-aim.  Because the complexity of all that change can become debilitating; immobilizing; stopping us in our tracks.

And I’m thinking that acting is what opens up the possibility of learning; because acting opens up the possibility of failing.

(Now I understand that inaction might be a great strategy given a certain set of conditions, but I’m thinking it is more the exception than the rule…)

Ready-fire-aim urges us to cut through the complexity of change.

Ready-fire-aim suggests we should have a bias for action.

Acting creates opportunities for learning.

From failure; because, clearly, acting in dynamic, changing environments is risky; we risk failing …

Our success will depend on our ability to learn from failing …

We can’t be afraid of that!

We must have a bias for action.

And trust and confidence that we will learn when we fail.

So, in an odd, yet fundamental way … a bias for failing?
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Helping board members resign with dignity

first 90 daysOn Tuesday of this week, my blog post titled “The executive director’s first 90 days” focused on what the new CEOs and boards should do during those crucial first few months. That post took me for a walk down memory lane to when I was a new executive director embarking on new and exciting challenges.

While it isn’t always the case, sometimes a new executive director finds themselves walking into a challenging situation. After all, there are reasons why people leave their place of employment and those stories aren’t always ideal. In extremely challenging circumstances (e.g. someone ran out the door or they were chased out the door), I guarantee you that the issues don’t just reside with the person who left. There are typically board issues related to the resignation or termination.

For example, in the case of embezzlement . . . you usually can’t just point at the embezzler. There is likely issues with oversight and internal control policies.

One of the best practices I mentioned in Tuesday’s post was that new executive directors should meet individually with every board member within their first 90 days.

One of the more common issues with which many new executive directors are faced (especially when going to work for an agency with little organizational capacity) is having the “wrong people” sitting around the boardroom table. The challenging question many new CEO’s find themselves asking is:

How can we tactfully ask well-intentioned board volunteers
to find a different seat on the bus?

As I reflected back upon my first 90 days (more than 14 years ago), I remembered that my board had 20 volunteers on the day they hired me and within my first three months nine board members resigned.

easy way outNow this didn’t happen because I smelled bad or people disliked me (at least I don’t think so). It happened because of how I approached my individual meetings with board members. Here is what was on my agenda:

  1. Introduce myself and talk about my background
  2. Engage board member in discussion on the “state of the agency
  3. Ask board member on where they see the agency in 3 to 5 years
  4. Share with the board member where you think you will need their help (e.g. their board roles & responsibilities, their role in fundraising, etc)
  5. Ask them to get more involved and in specific projects

When I had these discussions, those board volunteers, who weren’t a good fit for serving on the board, saw the handwriting on the wall. I didn’t have to tell them to get off the board. A simple, straight-forward conversation centered around expectations and vision was more than enough.

In most situations, it was only a few weeks after our meeting that a resignation letter was inked. Reasons always varied. Here are a few that I remember:

  • Work responsibilities won’t permit commitment of time necessary to serve on the board
  • Not willing/able to commit to fundraising responsibilities
  • Time commitments in personal life (e.g. caring for a sick relative)

In each instance, we celebrated the volunteer’s service. We engaged them in a discussion about finding a different seat on the bus that might be a better fit for them. It was respectful and graceful.

Now this approach isn’t always effective, and sometimes it isn’t appropriate.

For new executive directors, are there other approaches you might suggest with regards to giving good people an easy way off the board? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and ideas. We can all learn from each other!

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


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