Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Boards, Management and It All

Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of employees who, for one reason or another, just didn’t work out. Once I actually left a job because two of my staff—one inherited and one who I inexplicably hired—were driving me to imagine inflicting unconscionable violence against them. Worse, the only grounds for firing at this organization would have been for them to be caught engaging in acts of public bestiality.

All that aside, whenever one of my staff didn’t perform at an acceptable level, I always felt it was as much a failure of management--mine—as it was their own failure.

Ditto with Boards. Volunteers are to some degree unpaid staff, performing vital jobs for the nonprofit. Or they would if only they knew what those jobs should be.

Too often potential Board members are recruited by being told that there is “not much” they will have to do…if they have to do anything at all. I’ve been asked to serve on Boards where the Executive Director tells me that my only responsibility will be to show up to at least one of the four quarterly meetings. Really? What, then, is the purpose of having me (or anyone!) on the Board?

Most likely it has something to do with financial support. There’s always a lot of discussion about whether nonprofits should have a “give and/or get” policy for the Board. Questions range from whether this is a good idea at all to should there be a specific size contribution expected from the members or just a “generous gift?”

This issue seems a wrong thing to focus on. It fragments the real job of your Board.

What is that real job? Let’s start by identifying what it is NOT. It’s not fundraising or attending at least 3 out of 4 Board meetings a year. Nor is it “serving on a committee,” though all these things are part of what you should reasonably expect from a good member of your Board.

A Board’s main responsibility is one of governance—ensuring that the organization is both well-run and running well . A big piece of that is the Board’s fiduciary responsibility.

As a Board member, you must help to guarantee that the organization is fiscally sound: Are programs effective? Are any fees that may be charged appropriate? Is there a net gain at the end of the year? If that doesn’t happen—and it often doesn’t—and if there is a gap between money needed and money on hand, then every member of the board has a responsibility to do what is necessary to bridge that gap.

Give and get in action.

A really well-run organization, however, focuses not on gaps but on what is needed to run the programs you want and be the organization you desire. There must be a clear understanding of what it takes to run the organization as you wish it to be. In other words, the goal is to support your vision as well as your mission.

The next step is a discussion and agreement on what funds are on hand for use, what is expected to come in and what is needed to get where you want to go (all this is called the budget process). Then, once that magic number--how much do we have to raise so that we can run the organization as we want it this year, with reserves and investment for next year and beyond—is known, we can intelligently discuss what the Board's responsibility for that number is.

So yes, I come down firmly on the side of a Board give and get policy. All Board members need to understand that there is cost to be on the Board. It is divided into two parts--the part the Board member personally brings to the table and the amount that the member helps the organization to get. What I don’t agree with is a size gift that has been arbitrarily chosen sometime in the past.

Each year, at the meeting where the budget is adopted, I believe Boards should agree with how much the give and get is--and define what they mean by "Get." Do they actually solicit for gifts by themselves or do they help in the cultivation of prospects who they have brought to the table; help with continuing stewardship of the donors who had been their identified prospects, and generally help to create that culture of philanthropy.

And that brings us back to management. Good management, I believe, all boils down to two things. The first is that those you are managing buy into what you trying to do. That segues nicely to the second—that those you are managing know what needs to be accomplish and what their role is in getting there.

Regardless of what give or get policy is on the books at most nonprofits, the reality is that few enforce it. Therefore, only a minority of board members comply. Far better to open the discussion up and let the Board decide what it will take this year to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility.

In my experience, not only does the Board take a greater role than what they merely accept, they are far more rigorous in meeting their target when have been part of defining it.

And just as poor performance can indicate a failure of management, when staff—paid and unpaid—exceed expectations, management can give itself a pat on the back for a job very well done.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at janet@janetlevineconsulting.com. Her online grantwriting class is available at www.janetlevineconsulting.com/classes.html.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Right Words

In five years, where does your organization want to be? That’s a question every nonprofit should be able to answer, but I suspect that for most, if they’ve considered the question at all, the answers they’ve come up with are sketchy at best.

It’s not that these organizations don’t have the ability to envision, or the desire to plan. They do but so many of us are completely focused on keeping our heads above water and getting to land that we don’t bother to think about which part of the beach we’d like to land on.

Fundraising ends up being a lot like that, too. We may consider how much we need to get through the year, but we don’t consider what it will take to allow us to do what we want to do next year.

This focus on survival rather than vision and growth may be why so many volunteers have a problem fundraising. No matter how you couch it, asking someone to help you keep the doors open feels a lot like begging.

”Give me a script,” Board members say, but it’s not about the right words. It is about clarity on what the call is supposed to accomplish.

For years, I sold insurance—life, health, disability. In order to sell insurance, of course, I had to get in front of people and talk with them about my product line. I had no natural constituency, so I spent a lot of time cold calling. I knew the odds were dismal—I could count on one in every hundred becoming a client. And it wasn’t one for each 100 calls I made, but one, over time, for every hundred. So sometimes I would make literally a thousand calls before I hit pay dirt.

As any sane person would, I hated it. But my kid really did need new shoes, so I persevered. And I discovered a few interesting things. The main one was the odds were about the same whether I used the professionally prepared scripts my agency offered, talking about building wealth and security and such, or whether I simply cut the chase and said, “Hi, I sell insurance.”

Along with that, I discovered that the appointments I did get were much smoother when we—the people with whom I was meeting and me—were on the same page. When they knew I sold insurance, it was easy: that’s what they were interested in and why they had agreed to the meeting. There were no misunderstandings or crossed wires.

Fundraising is not insurance. And you may not be calling to get an appointment. You might not even be cold calling. So, who am I calling? And why?

Is this a friend—to me, to someone on the Board, to the organization? Am I calling to thank them for past support, invite them to something, or yes, ask for an appointment? What outcomes I am hoping for? Do I simply want to make them feel good, introduce myself, begin cultivation, connect them a little more closely to us?

The who, why and what will tell me how I will approach this person.

Remember, when you call, you have literally seconds to get someone’s attention. That’s why when I trained students to call alumni I would recommend that their first sentence be “Hi, I am a student at (Your Alma Mater)” and then say “my name is….” Their name would not mean anything to the alumni, but the fact that they are a student and the name of the Alma Mater would grab attention.

So, “Hi, it’s Janet,” to my friend assures that I will get my say; “John Jones suggested I call you,” will reach John Jones’ contacts, and “I’m calling from (the organization you care about)” will push the person you are calling to listen.

But if this call is to a person who I know about but they don’t know me, my organization, or anyone else involved with the organization, this may be a very cold and difficult call indeed.

In these cases, I try to use what information I may have about the person to get the person’s attention. Generally, I make the first contact via letter or—increasingly—email. In the letter, I explain who I am and why I am contacting them. And then I tell them what I want and close with the comment that I will be calling in the next few to days to arrange for a meeting.

Here, especially, keeping the doors open to an organization they are not tied to is not terribly compelling. Nor, frankly is letting us continue to do what we are doing at the same level we have been doing it. If that’s all you want, you don’t need new supporters.

Rather than offering your Board members scripts for phone calls or face to face meetings, engage with them in a conversation about where you want the organization to be next year, the year after that and the year after that. If you did get there, what would that mean? How would the world—the world that your organization impacts—be changed? How many more people would benefit from the good you do?

If you dream enough—and then make concrete plans to make those dreams come true—believe me, you won’t need scripts to get your passion across. And since you won’t be asking people to dig deep to help maintain the status quo, you may very well find that whatever words you use, as long as you convey the mission and the goals, you will be as articulate as necessary.

Janet Levine is a consultant who focuses on increasing productivity for nonprofit organizations, their staff and volunteers. She can be reached at janet@janetlevineconsulting.com. Gets Grants!, an online grantwriting class is is available at www.janetlevineconsulting.com/classes.html.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Blame Game

If I can blame you for all my problems, then I don’t have to face facts or—heaven forefend—reality. Kids do that a lot. It’s not my fault, they say, as if that solved anything. But kids grow up and we can hope that in growing up, they learn to take responsibility.

What about organizations? What happens when the organizational culture is one of pointing fingers rather than finding real solutions? Of refusing to accept culpability for bad or even neutral things?

Pointing fingers can wear many different guises. The organization who “can’t fundraise” because they “don’t have resources,” is playing the blame game just as much as the man who says his failures are all his mother’s fault.

It’s not, of course, just about fundraising, though organizational attitudes about fundraising do have implications that reach far and wide.

There are ongoing discussions about what nonprofits are and are not. Some of those discussions center around financial issues: Can or should a nonprofit actually be profitable?

Personally, I’ve always thought this as bogus. Yes, clearly what sets nonprofits apart from for-profits is the focus—the latter on earnings, the former on mission. And yes, frequently, perhaps always, that mission is by definition something that cannot pay for itself, let alone make surplus dollars. But the organization always has other options for earning revenue. Beyond that, the organization has an obligation to spend what monies it does have wisely.

So OK, the core mission is a money-suck. The nonprofit is always scrambling to meet payroll, to pay vendors, to keep moving its mission forward. Organizations whose culture is one of accountability and responsibility, of understanding that part of running the organization is ensuring its fiscal health, seem do well.

Those organizations somehow understand that fundraising is as important a part of the organization as are the programs. It isn’t someone else’s responsibility—it is everyone’s. That doesn’t mean that every staff member and volunteer goes out and asks people for money. It does mean that development must be incorporated into the organization. As plans are made and budgets are developed, fundraising must be considered.

Every professional fundraiser will tell you that the hardest money to raise is unrestricted dollars….unless you can clearly show how that money will make a difference in your mission and why that mission matters.

Think about it. If someone asks for $1,000 to allow her to do what she does, your reaction won’t include reaching for your checkbook. But if that same person were to explain to you that the salary she gets from her part-time job leaves her $1,000 short in order to pay her school tuition, you may at least consider it. And if she can show you why her school tuition is important not just to her but also to you, odds are you will be moved to help.

Organizations where the leadership—and make no mistake, culture flows from the top—blame others for their failures do no service to the missions they claim to serve. It’s not the board’s fault that the needed funds did not come in; it’s not the development director’s fault if his job description wasn’t clear and no one bothered to monitor what he was doing, and it certainly isn’t the fault of those who haven’t given, especially if they haven’t been appropriately asked!

In fact, assigning blame for things that are less than successful is a losing proposition. It takes you off task, allows you to duck and not do what you should be doing. Far better to identify what the problem really is, and to create a real plan of attack that will if not completely solve at least begin to mitigate the problem. Who knows? If you stop playing the blame game, you may find yourself involved in activities with far better outcomes, ones that lead to success.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at janet@janetlevineconsulting.com. Her online grantwriting class is available at www.janetlevineconsulting.com/classes.html.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Here We Go Again

Edward and Marcia Dawson have made incomes commensurate with those of Wall Street bankers. They are, however, not bankers but the founders of Social Vocation Services, a nonprofit social-service organization in California.

Personally, I don’t care how much money Mr. and Mrs. Dawson have made. But they seem to have done it in not such an ethical manner. That will give a certain group of people the ability to say, “Aha! Those nonprofits—they are just not trustworthy.” And that I do care about.

Nonprofits, it seems to me, get tarred with two sides of the same brush. First we are told we are not business-like enough. We’re inefficient, poorly managed, and unrealistic. On the other side, organizations that play by business rules are bashed because they are untrustworthy and care more about the bottom line than the mission they were created to fulfill.

There’s truth and falsity in both those sides. Nonprofits are businesses, and there should be an expectation that they are run professionally and well. Not that all businesses meet those criteria, but we should be striving to be the best. But as nonprofits, we are also mission-driven organizations, and that mission—not profit—should be what rules.

I worked in higher education for a long time and over the years, the push was to become more “business-like.” The result, I think, is that universities and colleges focus on what brings in revenue rather than on education, which presumably is their mission. Programs are decimated not because they don’t bring value to an educational organization, but rather because they don’t sustain profitability.

The educational sector is not alone in this.

Over the years, I’ve seen too many nonprofits lose sight of their mission. I see that a lot when it comes to grants or gifts that the organization really shouldn’t be seeking.

More than a decade ago I was working with an organization that was offered a grant for a project that did not meet their mission in any way, shape or form. The CEO was all for it—the grant, after all, was equal to a quarter of his operating budget. Saner heads prevailed. They helped the funder find a more appropriate organization for their grant. And for their efforts they received a much larger grant to enhance a core project.

It doesn’t always work that way, of course. Greediness often prevails. People forget why they got involved with nonprofits to begin with. Or, like so many of us, they get seduced by easy money, access to powerful people—all the same things that entice most of us.

They may or may not be bad people, but they are bad for the sector. Not so much, I think, for what they do but for what others make them stand for. A CEO of a for-profit business makes obscene amounts of money, or runs the organization into the ground. People will shake their heads and some will even be enraged. But the business community as a whole isn’t excoriated.

Let the antics of an Edward and Marcia Dawson get out, however, and trust for charitable organizations plummet.

Perhaps it is understandable that we should be held to a higher standard. But until the many, many organizations that hew to that higher standard are topics of front page news, we will have to work harder to ensure that we are letting our supporters know that we not only do good works but that we do them well and we are, therefore, worthy of their gifts and of their trust

Janet Levine is a consultant and trainer, teaching fundraising, board development and grantwriting skills online and face to face. Contact her at janet@janetlevineconsulting.com.