Monday, August 29, 2011

Ruined by Success? The Danger of Windfalls

The Young Parent’s Group won a grant of $50,000 to launch their program. It was a great step forward and, at the same time, almost did them in.

Senior Services received a bequest, from an elderly woman no one knew, for $250,000. It nearly ruined them.

Almost every nonprofit over time will receive one or more windfalls. At successful nonprofits, these windfalls create great celebrations. But after celebrating and investing the funds to better their mission and often to buy that new roof that caused so much anxiety, successful nonprofits return to their tried–and-true fundraising and income development plan.

For others, the windfall creates challenges. Like their successful counterparts they celebrate and often make similar mission investments. However, instead of returning to consistent fundraising and income development work, they fixate on obtaining more windfalls. At Senior Services, five hundred people visit them a year. How can they find the next person who will leave a bequest—when the last bequest was from a one-time visitor? The Young Parent’s grant came from the community foundation as it was launching a new initiative in the area. Which, they wonder, of the other 100,000 or so other grant sources available will give them $50,000 to operate next year?

How can you avoid a windfall from placing your nonprofit at-risk? First, be joyous and grateful. After the celebrations, return to a realistic income and fundraising plan that is based on consistent disciplined-work, proven outcomes and fit with your organization’s temperament. Follow the paths that successful nonprofits like you follow. When your nonprofit has lucky breaks—and you will, recognize them for what they are. Celebrate. Then, return to the tried-and- true.

How does your nonprofit handle windfalls? Have you developed a board policy about how to handle them? Has your nonprofit ever been “hurt” by success?

Friday, August 19, 2011

An Open Question to Board Chairs: Do You Dare to Lead?

Executive directors have thrown down the gauntlet. In “Daring to Lead 2011: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership” conducted by CompassPoint and the Meyer Foundation, only 20 percent of those surveyed reported being satisfied with their board’s performance. While a few of these executive directors might have a personality conflict with their current chair or have felt particularly frustrated with their board the day they responded, there must be something more significant going on to account for 80 percent of chief administrators indicating dissatisfaction with their boards.

Determining the underlying factor(s) is particularly important in today’s rapidly changing environment where boards must be strong, strategic and steadfast so that their organizations can be responsive and achieve relevant results. Research by the likes of Herman, Renz and Heimovics, Nobbie and Brudney and others have made very clear that there is a relationship between the effectiveness of a board and the effectiveness of the organization for which the board works. While none could prove causality, each found that highly effective organizations have highly effective boards.

I don’t believe that an organization’s effectiveness can be laid at the feet of just one person. Yet, I do believe that you, as board chair, have opportunity and influence that can be brought to bear in ways that you perhaps have not tested. Be honest with yourself. What more could you do to ensure a stronger board, and ultimately a stronger organization?

For instance, research again tells us that highly effective boards use more proven practices than less effective boards. There are a lot of accepted practices out there that are actually based on myth. Are you just propagating these or are you analyzing their effectiveness? Are you making the effort to regularly read or participate in workshops and webinars to learn about governance practices rooted in science? Are you implementing what you’ve learned? If not, why not?

As an unknown sage once said, “Hope is not a method.” You cannot afford to merely come in once a month to chair a meeting, check in occasionally with your executive director and write your column for the newsletter and expect an exceptional board to emerge. Nor can you rely on years of experience with a multitude of boards. The world has changed too much. If you dare to lead, tell us what you are doing differently and what impact it has made.