Archive for the ‘nonprofit, governance, leadership’ Category

Lessons From the Second Mile


This article highlights — and provides some excellent suggestions — on one of the many reasons it is important for all Board Members and organization founders who are still involved with the organization to sign a conflict of interest policy. And, so important to make this document a living, breathing document — a document discussed at least quarterly in Board meetings, not “just signed and sealed” — How you LIVE the conflict of interest policy is more important than just signing it. Creating this discussion as part of your living, breathing, acting mission-driven culture builds strong, successful nonprofit organizations.

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As we are about to enter 2010, and the dawn of a new decade, my thoughts go back to the early 1990s. I had just completed graduate school and went to work in the social sector and was hooked.  I loved it.  I loved that every morning I woke up and  did something good for the community.  Times were, in some ways, a lot easier then.  If you had a strong mission and passion, and committed leadership there were people and organizations that would want to support you. The economy was solid, there was an abundance of corporate philanthropy and a number of new foundations entering our community.
Today our world is much different.  The proliferation of new nonprofits, significant rise of need, and weakened economy have required supporters to demand impact; to know how their contributions have a real return on investment. It is no longer enough to have a strong mission.  Organizations need to prove their impact in their community.
In 1994 I went to work for a new organization, HandsOn Greater Phoenix created by a group of enthusiastic young people who wanted to create a new way of volunteering; a powerful, simple program to “make it easy for busy people to volunteer.” Our goal was to create an organization that provided rewarding “done in a day” volunteer projects that could take place on nights and weekends, wouldn’t require extensive training and would be completed in two-four hours.
It was simple.  Truthfully we weren’t thinking about grand visions, logic models, or scalable impact; all we knew was that a few hours of volunteer service could make a difference. We knew the food boxes we packed and handed out were going to help a family have food for the next week’s school lunches; the meal we served to a homeless family was going to make sure they weren’t hungry for the next few hours; and that new books, a big cheerful mural and some new shelves at school library could brighten someone’s day.
Our first three years we were a fledging, though passionate and committed, organization.  During this time we spend a lot of time focusing on our mission, “what we did.”  After a few years we started to see something magnificent happen, that many of our community organizations and neighborhoods were benefiting from, and more importantly, benefiting, HandsOn Greater Phoenix volunteers. It started to add up into real impact. In a year 20,000 volunteers each giving two-four hours had an powerful affect.  We got that our mission was how we created the experience; and our vision was to build an engaged, stronger, vibrant community.
I vividly remember one Board retreat where we were tasked to define our “primary customer.”  There was a lively discussion about who our customer was, was it the “volunteer” or was it the “community?” We never resolved that debate.  And, I admit, I am not convinced that need to have one “primary customer”.  Our a-ah moment was “mobilizing volunteers” was the “how — the people we mobilized and the projects we developed.  The community was the “why”; what mobilizing volunteers was going to create for nonprofit organizations, neighborhoods and our community.  What was the vision we wanted to see.  What would be possible if everyone was engaged?  The dynamic process of creating a “vision statement” began.
One of my favorite community development experts is Hildy Gottlieb of the Community Driven Institute. She developed a process to create a vision statement that is so clear, so easy to understand, that had we found it earlier it would have saved us many hours of work.  The mission is the how part; how we do what we do.  The vision is what we want for our communities, how are they going to be better. Our mission is how we are going to help make sure that vision is a reality.
Hildy created a template that I think needs to be a part of  every community organization’s planning process — she states that while it is powerful to talk about the work that we do, it is even more powerful to talk about it in the context of why we do it, we do it to make an outstanding place to live. This is the template. Simple and powerful.
Our vision is a community where  ________. To bring this vision to reality, we do _______.

A vision is a compelling, powerful, easy-to-understand description of the future your you want for your community.  A mission describes how you are going to create this vision. These are a few questions to help an organization create a vision statement:
What could be possible in five, ten, or twenty years for our community and how can we help make this happen?
What will our organization’s role be in creating that future?
How will we measure our success?
What would the headline be in the local newspaper if we were successful?

In between our mission and vision, is the measurable impact we make.  In is important to focus on the process goals: how we do what we do; how we make sure our organization is strong and sustainable; and impact results; what is our impact on the community and how do we measure it.  Don’t be afraid to reach for big impact goals.   Here are some questions to help frame the discussion.
What are we passionate about? What is the community impact we want to create?
How are we making this impact happen?
How is our community, nation, world a better place because we exist?
How do we measure our impact? How could we be doing it better?

We realized that our “product” was: volunteers, project management expertise, and   committed supporters who provided both financial resources and volunteers to make our projects happen. Then we started to measure our inputs/outputs.  How many volunteers? How many hours? How many projects completed (the activities we were doing created the outcome)? The results were pretty astonishing.
In one neighborhood alone 30 houses were painted; 25 children at the local school had a Bookworm Buddy, and the students with Buddies saw reading levels increased an average of 2 levels;  a community garden was planted, providing fresh produce for the residents and a community center and playground refurbished, creating a bright, fun, safe place for the children to play.
We had impact.  Once we started to track everything we did, we saw how much we had accomplished.  Our board was excited, we shared this with everyone, our funders, our volunteers, our community partners. With that sharing resources started to come.  Once we started to measure what we were doing, and telling the stories of our volunteers, our agency partners and our community more started to come to us — more volunteers, more corporate partners, more strategic alliances and more funding. By telling the story of our “impact” we gained many new supporters. We were making a difference.  When we started, we our goal was to mobilize 300 volunteers, today, you can’t drive down the street and not see the impact of more than 20,000 volunteers EVERY year. Mission Accomplished.
Call to Action:  If you have stories to share about an organization who engaged in a successful vision, mission and impact process and have ideas to share, please post a comment below. Would love to hear your success stories!

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The Board Experience

Ask people about their experiences on nonprofit boards, and answers can be downright jaw-dropping, “The meetings aren’t productive,” “This wasn’t what I expected when I joined the board,” or “I don’t see how these meetings make a difference”.  We join boards to make our communities healthy, vibrant places, to use our time and talents to support causes we care about, and to become part of a network that shares our passion about issues important to us.

A troubling new norm is developing — we start believing this “rather dull” experience is what we should expect. Many people tell me, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”  Although, I believe that’s not the way it has to be.

This norm is that it a rare experience for  a board member (or CEO) who thinks prior to a Board meeting, “I can’t wait to go to the meeting today, I expect to be inspired and energized.”

I think about this a lot.  I have spent the last 20 years serving on numerous boards representing of all types of organizations — local, municipal, regional, and national.  I have  also served as a CEO to four community organizations and have worked with some extraordinary people.  And,  I have the joy of engaging in the extraordinary Board meeting where everyone said, “Wow that was great, we accomplished so much, I can’t wait until we meet again!” In short,  I have left board meetings  exhilarated  and I have left board meeting exhausted.  Given the choice,  I will pick exhilaration any day!

Often we  leave Board meeting feeling like the greatest accomplishment was “we ended on time.”  For a room full of intelligent, committed people this is deflating.  This doesn’t happen because the people aren’t committed, it happens because often the structure isn’t designed to focus on the most important issues. We approve the minutes, give reports (and more reports), and bemoan the budget situation.  We don’t spend much time on the “good” stuff” — what have we been doing right for the community, for our organization, for our clients? And, how can we do more of it even better?

Highlighted below are 10 tips for making Board meetings more engaging, productive and enjoyable.

1. Focus on the most important issues.  Plan to discuss the most critical issues first. What do we need to discuss/accomplish to move our mission forward.  Support this by: placing the organization’s mission and vision on the top of every Board meeting agenda. This keeps members focused on the key reasons they are there; to support the mission and vision the organization has for its community. Start each meeting with discussion about the most important issues on the agenda first.

2. Determine if it is Decision/Advice/Information. When discussing important issues, clarify how you are asking members to respond.  On each agenda item note: 1) does this issue need a decision, action or vote 2) does this issue require advice or guidance, is this an issue that the organization is seeking collective wisdom to make the best decision, or 3) is this an agenda item that is for information purposes, to inform and educate board members.  Again, place the most important issues on the top of the agenda. (“Act” and “Discuss” first, “Report or Information” second).

3. Create Opportunities for Creativity, Imagination and Vision. If the rule in real estate is location, location, location, the expectation for Boards is vision, vision, vision.  Create opportunities for the board to spend time focusing on vision; the vision they have for the community how the organization is meeting this vision. Ask them, what is the legacy you want to leave?

4. Create an Outcome Measurement Matrix. Create a chart  updated  at each meeting informing the Board about how organization is doing in critical areas: program and impact, fundraising, financial health, Board of Directors engagement, human resources and risk management/compliance.  Use a matrix or dashboard metric to show process on  quantifiable measurements.  Color code progress to goals (red=act; yellow=watch; and green=celebrate). Use the matrix  to focus on important areas without searching though pages of reports.  An excellent example of a good dashboard is available on the Blue Avocado website (www.blueavocado.org).

5. Change it up. Host meetings at different locations and consider incorporating different formats into the meeting agenda.  If there is a major issue that needs discussion, break people up into small groups for 10-15 minutes, then have groups briefly report back.  This gives everyone a chance to engage in the conversation.  When people engage, people commit.

6. Include Stories and Testimonials at Every Meeting. Stories are powerful.  Include at least one story about someone affected by the organization at every meeting.  People want to hear about people. Share the stories of those who benefit from your organization’s great work.   Testimonials are inspiring and give members stories to tell when they go out to fund/friend raise for your organization.  Stories give members the information they need to serve as champions, ambassadors and advocates for your cause.

7.  Build Trust. Create trust by creating a culture where confidentiality is respected, engagement is encouraged and final decisions are  presented to the community with “one voice,” Ask members to leave negativity and cell phones at the door.

8. Spend twice as much time discussing as reporting. Create opportunities for people to engage, deliberate and contribute.

9. Reflect and Evaluate. Take time to reflect. We tend to plan to implement and miss the opportunity reflect and evaluate is an important part of the process: (plan-implement-reflect).  Conduct an evaluation of the Board at the end of the year.  During the year provide feedback cards for optional thoughts and comments. If members have feedback there is a venue to share comments with the board leadership or CEO.

10. Celebrate! Annually (or more often!) share the organization’s accomplishments with the Board. Ask members to take part and share what they think are the greatest successes.  Take time during every board meeting to celebrate at least one major accomplishment and take time to acknowledge the excellent work of individual Board members and staff who have gone “above and beyond.” Celebration and focusing on the positive can have a contagious reaction that impacts the organization, board and staff.  Make sure to take time to celebration the organization’s accomplishments.

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The Board of Directors – the most ubiquitous topic in the nonprofit sector containing volumes of research on 1) what it takes to be a good Board member and 2) the responsibilities of a Board member (organizational oversight, fiduciary oversight and fundraising)….which would be a whole lot more fun if we called it advocacy, friend-raising, relationship building, movement building (alas, that is a convo for a different day…).  Although, I have not found much material on the questions to ask yourself before agreeing to serve. Most of us get a phone call, or invited to a lunch with the CEO and Board Chair or an invitation from someone we like and admire. Flattered, we say “yes” and then get home and ask our dog, “what did I get myself into?”

Being on a Board can be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences; serving a Board can be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences. However, I think we can enhance the “rewarding” component by asking ourselves these four questions before making the important commitment to serve on a Board.

Questions to ask yourself before agreeing to serve on a Board:

1. Is this an area where I have real passion. Do I care deeply about this cause and am I willing to commit my precious time, talents and treasures to it? Be really honest with yourself here. There isn’t a right or wrong answer; there is just THE answer.

2. Of all the organizations engaged in this cause is this one whose culture resonates with me? Do I feel like it is a fit? Will I enjoy being a part of this organization’s journey? Do I believe in the leadership, culture, and values of this organization? Do I feel like I can make an impact? Do I feel as if my voice will be heard, my talents put to their best use, and that this experience will provide me with an opportunity to learn and grow.

3. Do I have the time, energy and resources to give this organization my best? Again, there is no right or wrong answer to this question; sometimes “right now” is not the best for the engagement required to be an excellent Board member and there are other important ways you can serve the organization such as financial supporter, advocate, volunteer or friend.

4. Do you have an interest in governance — wanting to support the organization in creating and moving a vision forward, thinking about “the change they want to see in the world because they exist?” “the relationships in the community that need to be developed to create this change?” and “the measurable, tangible benefit to they are providing to the community?”

If you can answer “yes” to these four questions, you are probably on your way to the beginning of a rewarding Board experience. I have served on many Boards, and these are the questions I wished someone had given me to deeply consider before I committed. The most rewarding, fun, meaningful Board experiences have unequivocally been the ones where I was able to answer YES to these four questions.

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