Blog Archives

Do the ‘engagement equations’ govern your non-profit?

Doing the Math; Not Necessary!

By John Greco
Originally published on March 9, 2012
Re-posted with permission from johnponders blog

math1“I regard it in fact as the great advantage of the mathematical technique that it allows us to describe, by means of algebraic equations, the general character of a pattern even where we are ignorant of the numerical values which will determine its particular manifestation.”

— Friedrich August von Hayek

Say what?  Algebraic equations?  Where might this be going?!?

Here goes:  we can equate certain actions, or conditions, or results — without applying numerical rigor — and yet produce a meaningful, insightful, valuable answer.

I’m going to attempt to do Friedrich proud…  While my finance, accounting, and engineering friends might cringe, I am going to pose a couple of equations that I think are incredibly meaningful in describing organizational life, yet they require no calculation whatsoever.  I call them my “engagement equations.”

First up:  Involvement = Commitment. 

The general idea here is that as we involve people in diagnosing and solving problems, their commitment to carrying out the resulting course of action grows stronger.  Hence, more involvement means increased commitment.

That’s the proactive application of the equation.  The reactive application might be when we see low commitment, we should suspect low involvement.  And the prescriptive:  if leaders want a more committed workforce, they should first seek to involve the workforce in diagnosing why there is low commitment!

Bottom line, we can equate commitment with involvement and be pretty confident it’s not a false equivalence.

I promised two, so next up:  Performance  = Freedom.

This one’s about the length of the leash.  It prompts us to consider that when an individual or team is performing well, we should allow them more space, more autonomy, more freedom.  We might get even more performance …

And, of course, there is the flip side:  when performance is slipping, more attention might be warranted.  Narrow the range, focus on the action.

math2(I feel compelled to counter a possible negative perception of this last point by noting that isn’t it a very good thing if a manager sees when an associate or team is struggling, and at the right time and in the right way enters the picture and provides just the right amount of help to get back on the right track?  Less freedom is not always a bad thing!)

Shifting our attention to the other side of the equal sign, freedom — autonomy — when earned by performing, can move performance to yet another level; and when there is no freedom, it might very well be thecause of the lagging performance, and not the effect.

Before I close, I can’t help but point out a bit of irony I see when looking at these two engagement equations together…  One says “come closer, get involved” whereas the other suggests “I should leave you alone; you’re good!”

And what about the synergy?  Involvement equals commitment can driveperformance, and performance equals freedom can enhance commitment!

So there you go, my “engagement equations” … which, honestly, factor into a lot of my work when seeking to improve organizational effectiveness.  And I thought I’d never apply that algebra class in real life…

math3I look forward to seeing the ones that you’ve run across!

Lastly, in closing, one more — a bonus! — a pretty well known non-mathematical equation, presented in song! from none other than Sir Paul McCartney and his Beatle buddies —

And, in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.
john greco sig

Does your non-profit board sometimes do the opposite of what it wants to do?

Jerry’s Trip to Abilene

By John Greco
Originally published on March 15, 2012
Re-posted with permission from johnponders blog

abileneThat July afternoon in Coleman, Texas was particularly hot — 104 degrees according to the Walgreen’s Rexall’s thermometer.  In addition, the wind was blowing fine-grained Texas topsoil through the house.  But the afternoon was still tolerable; even potentially enjoyable.  A fan was stirring the air on the back porch; there was cold lemonade; and finally, there was entertainment.  Dominoes.  Perfect for the conditions.  The game requires little more physical exertion than an occasional mumbled comment, “Shuffle ‘em,” and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the tiles in their appropriate positions on the table.   All in all, it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday afternoon in Coleman.  That is, until my father-in-law suddenly said, “Let’s get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria.”

I thought, “What, go to Abilene?  Fifty-three miles?  In this dust storm and heat?  And in an unconditioned 1958 Buick?”

But my wife chimed in with, “Sounds like a great idea.  I’d like to go.  How about you Jerry?”  Since my own preferences were out of step with the rest, I replied, “Sounds good to me,” and added, “I just hope your mother wants to go.”

“Of course I want to go,” said my mother-in-law.  “I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

So into the car and off to Abilene we went.  My predictions were fulfilled.  The heat was brutal.  Perspiration had cemented a fine layer of dust to our skin by the time we arrived.  The cafeteria’s food could serve as a first-rate prop in an antacid commercial.

Some four hours and 106 miles later, we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted.  We silently sat in front of the fan for a long time.  Then, to be sociable and to break the silence, I dishonestly said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”

No one spoke.

Finally, my mother-in-law said, with some irritation, “Well, to tell you the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here.  I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going.  I wouldn’t have gone if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.”

I couldn’t believe it.  “What do you mean ‘you’all?”  I said.  Don’t put me in the ‘you’all’ group.  I was delighted to be doing what we were doing.  I didn’t want to go.  I only went to satisfy the rest of you.  You’re the culprits.”

My wife looked shocked.  “Don’t call me a culprit.  You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go.   I just went along to keep you happy.  I would have had to be crazy to go out in heat like that.”

Her father entered the conversation with one word: “Shee-it.”  He then expanded on what was already clear:  “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene.  I just thought you might be bored.  You visit so seldom I just wanted to be sure you enjoyed it.  I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.”

After the outburst of incrimination, we all sat back in silence.  Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who — of our own volition — had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in furnace-like heat and a dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go.  To be concise, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do.  The whole situation simply didn’t make sense.

— Jerry Harvey,  The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management.

abilene2My first exposure to this story was as I was unknowingly about to experience it…

Three colleagues and I were all out-of-towners in Memphis for business.  After a stressful day at work we had just had a nice dinner.  While leaving the restaurant Don suggested “You guys want to continue our discussion while we drive around Memphis a bit?  Jude responded with a lukewarm “okay;” I said I’m up for it, even though I was tired and wanted some down time.  Then mild-mannered, soft-spoken Laura chimed in with “sounds like we might be taking a trip to Abilene …”

I didn’t get the reference.

Thankfully, Don knew exactly what she meant, and we went back to our respective hotel rooms for the evening.

The lesson never has left me.

That might be because I have since seen teams of smart and committed people going on their own trips to Abilene… and some of these teams included me.  None of them, quite obviously, included Laura.

Yes; I have been in Abilene-bound meetings and I have been on Abilene-bound teams.  Have you as well?  Have you seen some of these trips being taken, and perhaps you might admit your participation as well? … Odd, isn’t it?

Odd, unsatisfying, and unhelpful.

There’s a powerful social dynamic at play here.  I need to bone up on what exactly that is, but, for now, I just know that I do not want to take any more trips to Abilene.

I need to take a trip and find Laura… or, I need to become Laura.
john greco sig

You need more women in your non-profit boardroom!

rosie the riviterLast week I was out to lunch with two male non-profit friends in downtown Chicago when the topic of women board volunteers came up. This happens from time-to-time, and when it does I always bite my tongue because I tend to have strong opinions on this subject. So, I took a deep breath and prepared for what I assumed was going to be one of those “difficult and uncomfortable conversations“. Boy oh boy . . .was I wrong (and pleasantly surprised).

Let me start by explaining what I mean by “I have strong opinions . . .” The fact of the matter is that my opinions are sexist (at least I think they are). When I am engaged in conversations about non-profit board development and I’m feeling bold, I like to say, “If you want lots of discussion in the boardroom about what ‘should’ happen, then recruit a lot of men to serve on your board because they will talk a subject to death. If you want something done, recruit some women because they are the ‘do-ers’ of our society.

A good friend of mine would respond to this by saying, “All generalizations, including this one, are incorrect.

So, I usually shy away from sharing this opinion because:

  1. It feels like a sexist thought
  2. It has gotten me in trouble in the past and sparked heated discussions
  3. The “all generalizations” comment is usually right on target

Let’s fast forward to my lunch conversation in downtown Chicago last week as I prepared for a lunch discussion that I assumed was going down the wrong road.

The first words out of one guy’s mouth were positive and progressive. He shared a story about the women on his board being extraordinarily active and engaged. The other guy talked about wanting to develop what used to be called in the old days a “women’s auxiliary” (and he was calling a Women’s Board). As I shook my head in amazement at the surprising turn this conversation quickly took, the most amazing thing happened. One of the guys validated what I keep referring to as “my sexist opinion” by pointing to research data that he just read about in the OpEd pages of the New York Times on October 23, 2013.

I couldn’t believe my ears, and I asked my lunch partners to please forward me that editorial column.

It arrived the next day in my email inbox. It almost looked like that one special Christmas present that you most prized and treasured as a child (and in the spirit of A Christmas Story read this as me saying that email was the equivalent of an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle).

The editorial was titled “Twitter, Women and Power,” and it was about the all male boardroom at Twitter, which was just a few weeks from launching its IPO on Wall Street.

I strongly encourage everyone who has any role in your non-profit organization’s board development to read this article. It is definitely worth the click! However, for those of you working with very little time today, here are a few of the major points from the article:

  • Domestic companies that have women board members earn a higher rate of return on invested capital
  • International companies with women on their boards earn a surprisingly higher amount of operating capital
  • During the recent government shutdown, it was our nation’s female legislators who were at the forefront of brokering a deal

After reading this New York Times editorial piece by Nicholas Kristof, I now feel empowered enough to admit that I think women are better fundraising volunteers than their male counterparts. (Uh-oh . . . that little voice inside my head is telling me to shut-up again.)

Does your agency have enough women in the boardroom? How does your board development committee ensure gender balance? What has been your experience on this issue? Please use the comment box below to share your thoughts and opinions.

Here’s to your health!

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

Finding the right non-profit board prospects might be harder than you think

strategic thinking2Sometimes I hear something that hits me just right, and it takes days to get it out of my head. This happened on Tuesday during the Fox West Philanthropic Network’s Philanthropy Day luncheon. The keynote speaker, Dani Robbins, was talking about the different modes of board governance and the importance of facilitating more strategic and generative discussions in the boardroom. Doing so will result in a more engaged board.

Easy as that! Right?

Well, that little voice inside my head started screaming at me. It was saying, “Whoaaaaa! Can strategic and generative discussions be done with any old board members? Or does it take a certain type of board volunteer?

So, I raised my hand and interrupted Dani’s keynote address. (Sorry, Dani!)

I was half expecting her to say that everyone is capable of engaging in these higher order discussions. I was also expecting her to put the responsibility back on the person(s) who facilitate those boardroom discussions to get the most out of the diversity of people sitting around the table.

However, I got an unexpected answer.

strategic thinking3Dani suggested that board volunteers who are “strategic thinkers” will have an easier time making the transition from traditional fiduciary modes of governance to more strategic and generative modes.

I suspect this means for many non-profit organizations, who want to make this adjustment to governance, that some thought needs to be put into adding more strategic thinkers to their board recruitment prospects lists.

Once I arrived at this conclusion, I got a mental picture of a committee meeting with board governance volunteers going through their prospect identification and evaluation exercises focused on finding strategic thinkers. As this mental picture became clearer, lots of questions flooded into my head including:

  • What does a strategic thinker look and sound like?
  • Where do strategic thinkers live, work and play?
  • How easy will it be for board governance committees to do this work, especially when most committees (in my experience) shortcut the cultivation and evaluation process and go straight from identification to recruitment?

As I normally do when issues like this start bothering me, I open up my internet browser and go to Google.  ;-)

I quickly found myself reading a post on CEB Blogs titled “5 Characteristics of Strategic Thinkers“. Here are those characteristics:

  1. Open yourself to perspectives from multiple sources
  2. Incorporate both logic and emotion into your thinking
  3. Seek options beyond today’s reality
  4. Question both the familiar and the to-be-determined
  5. Accept open issues

strategic thinking1If you’re scratching your head while reading this list and asking “what does THAT mean,” then click the link and read the CEB Blog post. It really is quite good. If you want to learn more, then I suggest you start Googling around.  ;-)  You also might want to click here and start with this interesting Wikipedia page on strategic thinking.

Let me bottom line what I’m thinking for you this morning.

  • This isn’t as simple as changing some of the criteria in your gap assessment tool
  • These characteristics are more subtle than questions of age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, fundraising experience, etc
  • Only people who know or work closely with board prospects know whether or not they are strategic thinkers, which puts a spotlight on who is serving on your board governance committee
  • Identifying strategic thinkers for your board recruitment process will require more time spent cultivating and evaluating prospects and less jumping straight from identification to recruitment

What is standing in your agency’s way of transforming its boardroom discussions from fiduciary to more strategic and generative modes of governance? What are you doing to over come those obstacles? Is your board governance committee approaching its job differently when it considers this question? If so, how?

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

Here’s to your health!

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

Crazy non-profit board meetings and some advice for board volunteers

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 (or Thursday as is the case this 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 

Board Meetings Gone Wrong

By Dani Robbins

regretsBoards meetings can quickly go from productive to destructive in any number of ways. The following are just a few lessons I’ve learned throughout the years and thought board volunteers might benefit from reading:

The morning after is too late

I cannot tell you the number of times in my career that a Board member has called me the morning after a board meeting appalled by something the Board voted to approve the night before, at a meeting they themselves attended. I can absolutely tell you the number of times those very same Board members have voiced their objections in the room: zero!

The next morning is too late. If you do not like the motion that is on the table, it is not only your right to object out loud and on the record, it’s your obligation.

Sometimes individual Board members come up with wacky (read: dangerous) ideas. When those ideas become motions that get seconded is when they go from wacky to possible. Motions that have no second die, and so do the ideas that spawned them.

Motions that are seconded prompt the chair to call for a discussion. If you are uncomfortable with the motion that is on the table, I implore you to speak. Silence is acquiesce. It is usually too late (and much harder) to address something after a vote has been concluded.

hell3When you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there

No written agenda — or an agenda that isn’t followed — practically guarantees a long, meandering meeting that will only serve to frustrate those in the room, but won’t accomplish much beyond that. It’s also likely that such a meeting will not produce formal votes or minutes that capture what the Board has committed to accomplishing.

No strategic plan works the same way. In the absence of a plan, you will have a lot of people working on a lot of things that may or may not align because the Board has not articulated and voted upon a formal direction.

If everyone’s in charge, no one’s in charge

Boards elect Chairs to be in charge (of the Board). It’s awkward and feels weird the first time you chair a meeting, but the weirdness will pass when you begin to lead. However, not leading guarantees the weirdness moves in and sets up shop.

It’s the forth Tuesday at 4; let’s meet!

Don’t have a Board meeting if you have nothing to talk about. If there are no committee reports and no business for the Board to address, cancel the meeting.

At the end of the day, there’s no accounting for crazy

The easiest way to avoid crazy in the board room is to not let crazy on the board. A Board Development plan and a formal process to elect board members will weed out inappropriate board prospects, before they become inappropriate board members.

meeting1Time of Death: 2 hours after we started talking about this

Discussion that seems to be spiraling can be stopped by two of my favorite phrases:

  1. Let’s call the question” which in Board speak means enough talking, let’s vote.
  2. Let’s send this back to committee.” This phrase, when used by the chair, is a declarative statement that the board meeting has devolved into a committee meeting. When used by anyone other than the chair, it is a prompt to the chair that the discussion has gone on too long. In either case, there should be a vote, reflected in minutes, that the motion was be tabled pending the committee’s review and consideration of the issues raised.

What’s the Executive Director’s role?

Good Execs do their homework before the meeting and usually know how people are going to vote before the meeting begins……which doesn’t ensure they will do so.

If a meeting goes off track, Execs can:

  • stall by whispering the potential negative impact to the Chair and hoping they agree;
  • offer to get more information and bring it back to the board at a future meeting; or
  • recommend the motion be sent back to committee prior to being voted upon.

If you have to, board volunteers can object out loud and on the record but be aware that doing so will spend significant political capital. It also may not help, which does not mean you should not do it.

As mentioned in a post titled “Hiring, Supporting and Evaluating the Executive,”

“worrying about keeping your job precludes you from doing your job. You have to do what you believe is best, based on your experience, information and training, within the boundaries of your role and the law. We all know that any day could be the day you quit or get fired. That can’t stop you from leading.”

What’s been your experience? Have you seen Board meetings go off track? What has gotten them back on track? As always, I welcome your insight and experience.
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A brush with history — Nate “Bobo” Smalls — and a non-profit epiphany

bobo1Every once in a while this job allows me to do something fun and amazing. Last week was one of those times. During an organizational assessment project, I had a brush with history when one of my interviewees turned out to be Nate “Bobo” Smalls. Who is this guy? Quite simply, Bobo is one of the last remaining baseball stars from the Negro Baseball League, which is a piece of history that the world tries very hard not to remember or honor. I walked away from my interview with Bobo with goosebumps on my arm.

Of course, I am obligated by a confidentiality agreement with my client. So, I cannot share with the DonorDreams blog audience things like who my client is and what Bobo said in that interview about their organization. However, there are a few things in the public domain about Bobo that are fair game.

I have whittled those few things down into bite size nuggets of wisdom in the next few sections.

Do you know what is wrong with our communities today?

Throughout my time with Bobo, he kept coming back to a central theme and his explanation of what is wrong with the world today.

Apparently, back in the day, our communities were blessed with what Bobo described as mentors. These were older men and women who were wise, and they took it upon themselves to share their wisdom with the world regardless of whether or not they knew you.

bobo2Bobo recalled every neighborhood having at least one mentor.

They would sit on their porch, and they were accessible to anyone who sought their counsel. When they circulated throughout the community, they would stop young people who they thought were creating mischief or on the wrong path in life and talk with them about the error of their ways.

Our world is a different place today. It operates at a different speed. We build fences around our houses, and many of us mind our own business. We work hard at keeping our nose out of other people’s business.

When I allow my mind to wander beyond Bobo neighborhood construct, I am hard pressed to identify many business professionals who I see mentoring young up-and-comers.

Bobo is right . . . there aren’t many true mentors left.

Talking the talk. Walking the walk.

It would be easy for Bobo to retire to a rocking chair and tell stories. He is one of the last Negro League barnstorming players. He earned his golden years.

Instead of fading away into the pages of history and lamenting the loss of mentors in our society, Bobo goes to work every day in his neighborhood park. With the support of his local municipality and his neighbors, he does outreach work with kids who hang out on the streets. Many of these kids are the same ones joining gangs. He organizes basketball leagues and sports tournaments, and he does a lot of talking and mentoring.

If my grandmother was right and “idle hands are the workshop of the devil,” then Bobo is an angel who is one of those rare people who does more than just complain about what is wrong with the world. He does something about it.

bobo3The epiphany

When you look at Bobo Smalls’ career and listen to him wax poetic about his neighborhood and community, it is hard not to walk away without having learned a few lessons. The following are just a few non-profit epiphanies I took away from my time with Bobo:

  • Your non-profit organization most likely functions in the capacity of those individuals that Bobo described as mentors. Do you take that responsibility seriously? If so, how? By going back in time and talking to a treasure like Bobo, what epiphanies might you experience that could influence your agency’s programming?
  • You have the personal capacity to mentor a young professional in your place of work. If youth is more your passion, then you also have the ability to get involved in a mentoring-focused non-profit organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. What is stopping you? Once you identify those barriers, what will you do about it?
  • Many non-profit organizations are really good at assessment (e.g. talking the talk), but fewer are good at implementing change (e.g. walking the walk). For example, I hear agencies complain a lot about the state of government funding today, but they aren’t aggressively changing their fundraising plan. What is your agency doing to drive change? What approaches, tactics and tools do you use? How do you keep yourself from turning into one of those people who complains about everything but does nothing about it?
  • Collaboration is key to success, and Bobo is a living testament to this. It is true that Bobo took to the streets on his own accord and started the hard work of outreach and programming. However, he quickly engaged others like the city government in a conversation focused on how they could help and sustain his efforts. Who is your agency collaborating with to implement your mission and vision? Is it a real collaboration or is it just a partnership in name only to impress funders?
  • Persistence is also the key to success. Bobo played for the Indianapolis Clowns from 1965 to 1986. There is a great story about how he invited himself to the Kansas City Royals spring training camp as a “walk-on” player even though the team had a policy of not accepting walk-ons. Does your agency practice tenacity? If so, how?

I ask lots of questions in the aforementioned bullet points. Please use the comment box below to weigh-in with your thoughts and experiences.

The man. The legend.

There isn’t much information out there about guys like Bobo Smalls. Click here to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum website if you want to learn about others like Bobo.

If you want to view a YouTube clip of Bobo talking about his days as a Negro League player, I’ve included this link for your enjoyment:

Every community possesses people like Bobo. They are a treasure. Can your organization benefit from engaging those people? I suspect you can. When you figure it out, please circle back to this post and let us know what happened.

Here’s to your health!

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

Formula for a successful non-profit board volunteer

equationIt seems like I’ve been on the road a lot this month, and this allows me to interact with all sorts of talented and amazing non-profit professionals. In fact, just last night I was at dinner with another non-profit consultant who shared with me his “formula” for a successful board volunteer.

Just so you don’t think that I am stealing, I told this person that I planned to share his formula with the world this morning via the DonorDreams blog. Needless to say, I have his blessing.   ;-)

Here is his secret recipe that he shares in his board development and governance trainings with board volunteers on how to be good at their job:

12 + (3+1) + 3 + 1 + 1 + 70% + 100%

Let me decipher this formula for you:

  • Make 12 thank you (stewardship) calls per year
  • Take three donors on a tour of your facility and also invite a prospective new donor on a tour
  • Make three in-person solicitation calls as part of your agency’s fundraising program (preferably the annual campaign pledge drive, but it can be a major gift solicitation or special event sponsorship call)
  • Spend one hour per year volunteering on the front line in a program (so that you can be credible when talking to others about your agency)
  • Participate in one standing committee or task force of the board
  • Attend at least 70% of board meetings
  • Be an advocate of 100% of the board making a personal financial contribution to the agency

There you go . . . pretty simple. Of course, this is one person’s opinion about what it takes to be a good board volunteer.

In your opinion, is there anything missing? Would you modify this equation? If so, then how would you do it? Do you have an easily digestible equation like this that you like to share with new board prospects? 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

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

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

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


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