Great Board Members

The qualities and characteristics of great board members are similar, though not identical, across the nonprofit sector—regardless of organization size, staffing, or mission. While it’s cathartic and even fun to complain about the less-desirable actions and behaviors of some board members, it’s far more useful to emulate the best qualities of high-performing Board members and officers. In my experience, GREAT board members have some things in common. They:

  • Know WHY they are involved with their organization. They have a connection to the work of the nonprofit that is real, reinforced often, and actively reflected upon. They understand the importance of the work the organization does, they know the role of the organization in the community, and they are committed to assisting it to the best of their abilities.

  • Fully understand their personal legal duties to the organization. Further, they understand their role in governance and are aware of the organization’s policies and procedures. This includes having a sophisticated understanding of the areas where their input/guidance is NOT needed and/or helpful for the organization.

  • Understand the nonprofit’s mission, vision, and work fluently, and can speak about it to others (evangelizing is a crucial role of board members).

  • Realize that the most important duty of board members is fundraising, for the majority of nonprofit organizations. They commit to supporting the organization via their board member give/get, fundraising events, and other fundraising efforts.

  • Commit to identifying productive ways their support is helpful, useful, and productive for the organization, recognizing that power dynamics may play a role in whether or not an Executive Director/CEO may feel comfortable accepting offers of “help” that may not in fact be helpful.

  • Master the skill of serving as a resource or support by serving others within the organization; rather than directing, inflicting, or imposing their skills or methods upon the organization or it’s staff.

  • Recognize that their professional expertise does not automatically render them an authority in nonprofit governance or management. There is a learning curve, and specific, highly specialized skills are required to successfully manage a nonprofit organization.

  • Communicate effectively with fellow board members and nonprofit staff. Board members who listen as much as they talk demonstrate willingness to gather information and learn, as well as guide and govern.

  • Assist the organization in developing strategy, making connections, fundraising, and more when asked. Board Members should be involved at the strategic level, helping to ask salient questions and guide the organizations they serve to answers that address long-term, complex, and strategic positioning questions.

  • Understand that board service is a job, that their roles have definition and specific expectations (which organizations that do a good job of orienting their board members succeed in communicating effectively), and that their contributions should be in alignment with these expectations.

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Nonprofit Myths...Part 2 (Money Issues)

Nonprofit Myth #2: Donor and/or grant funding shouldn't support salaries, or overhead for organizational operations. See also: Low overhead and/or administrative costs are a sign of a healthy nonprofit organization. See also (also): Nonprofit organizations shouldn’t spend money/resources to engage in fundraising activities.

I would really like to exist in the mythical land where we don’t have to PAY PEOPLE to DO IMPORTANT WORK. Truly, this particular myth gets under my skin so much. See my post on how change sector work is valid, professional, and highly skilled work. I do not understand how funders, donors and supporters of nonprofit organizations expect that things will get accomplished if not by dedicated, talented, resourceful, professional staff with specialized skill sets—who need and deserve to be compensated fairly for their time and expertise.

Paying living wages and offering benefit programs to nonprofit employees to, you know, actually DO the work of the organization, ensuring that the mission is carried out is one issue. Supporting the costs of doing business (i.e. overhead, administrative costs, management & fundraising costs) is a closely related issue. It feels like we’re in broken record territory within the nonprofit sector—there’s nobody I’ve encountered who doesn’t see the logic of reducing restrictions on funding to better allow organizations to meet their missions. There’s also now a chorus of voices arguing for unrestricted and general operating funding in the sector, see some great information from: Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, Propel Nonprofits, The Overhead Myth and Nonproft AF. The pursuit of low overhead costs is harmful and destructive, because it undermines an organization’s ability to provide stable, quality services to beneficiaries and feeds into the Nonprofit Starvation Cycle. Overhead isn’t a measure of nonprofit effectiveness, it’s one financial measure—of inputs. There’s no correlation between how much an organization pays for rent, utilities, fundraiser’s salaries, executive pay, etc. and the impact it has on it’s community.

So, the solution? Provide unrestricted monetary support (donations and grants) for organizations. Encourage nonprofit organizations pay living wages to personnel to carry out their missions. Find ways of measuring impact and effectiveness that are unrelated to an overhead ratio. Support spending on necessary overhead, including costs to fundraise.

Next time…Part 3 of Nonprofit Myths!

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Nonprofit Myths...a multi-part series!

I recently sat down with some outstanding fundraising & nonprofit management colleagues (who also happen to be kind and wonderful people and good friends) to discuss an upcoming presentation we’ll be giving to a group of local business and community leaders. Very quickly, as it often does when in the company of kindred spirits and trusted colleagues, our conversation turned to the common frustrations we have with the various myths and misunderstandings we encounter as nonprofit professionals. We have each tried to counteract these as much as we can in our respective spheres, and I applaud the work that Stacey, Andy, and Clay do to fight the good fight for our sector through their endeavors: the Nonprofit Everything podcast, Annual Fund Lab blog, Valor CSR, Professionals in Philanthropy. Stacey and Clay are on Twitter too, dispensing oodles of fundraising wisdom!

As the four of us chatted, we collectively created a list of more than a dozen irritating, harmful, and downright absurd myths and misconceptions that we encounter frequently in our work. Often, these questions are posed by folks who aren’t intimately familiar with the nonprofit/public sector, or who haven’t been in/around the work long enough to understand some of these challenges. Many who ask these questions genuinely don’t know the reasons why these issues are irritants to those of us who spend our entire lives in this work, and they mean no harm or disrespect—it’s often simply a lack of exposure.

So, over the next several weeks, I’ll be tackling the issues on our collective list, starting with myth number one: Nonprofits need goods/services or time & talent from board members, volunteers, and the broad community more than anything.

I’ll start with the aspects of this myth that are accurate: Many nonprofit organizations lack deep capacity in certain operational and/or other specialized professional services areas…this is true. Nonprofits recruit board members that have specialized skill sets, professional connections, and access points that they would otherwise not have access to, due to limited or restricted funding, and lean operations. Many nonprofit organizations seek to place individuals on their boards and committees that have the ability to bring goods and services to the table (donated, at-cost, or discounted) for the benefit of the organization. Likewise, nonprofit organizations may seek the involvement and professional skills from people in various fields to supplement their operations or other functions: for example, many nonprofits seek to have attorneys serving on their boards, to have the option of accessing or obtaining legal advice should that be needed.

Here’s where this issue becomes an irritant for nonprofits: Those that are tapped for board, committee or volunteer service with an organization often see that as the only contribution they can or should make, or that the goods/services they are donating are all that the organization may need. The hard truth: For nonprofit organizations, the best thing to receive as a donation is cash. Dollars. Unrestricted funding. Moolah. Bucks. Money. While it is valuable, necessary, and even vital for many organizations to receive donated goods/services, the almighty dollar is the highest value donation, and the unrestricted dollar is the gold star ultimate donation.

It’s easier for many board members who are volunteering their time and are likely not fundraisers by profession to ask for goods/services to be donated. It’s easier not to have to make a direct ask for financial donations. However, that does a disservice to nonprofit organizations that are almost always in need of additional financial support. As a volunteer, how can you counteract this? ASK the organization their needs. Ask them to prioritize their requests. There are need to have’s, and nice to have’s, and “oh god, now we have this thing we have to deal with” on the nonprofit side. Make sure you are assessing whether your gift of goods/services is truly beneficial for the organization, and whether it creates additional burden for an organization to administer, manage, or otherwise address. Also, give cash whenever you can :)

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The Scarf Store

I've been a nonprofit/public sector professional for my entire career, beginning 16 years ago in college as an unpaid intern at a non-public school for children with ADD/ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Over the years, I've worked in direct service in a variety of functions, on fundraising teams, as a development shop of one, in nonprofit senior management, for public and quasi-governmental agencies, as a consultant, as a university professor & instructor, and as a speaker. I have seen and experienced a lot throughout my career, much of it fascinating, inspiring, and uplifting, but also frustrating, challenging, and agonizing. As I have moved through each phase of my career, my motivation and passion has grown and changed. I'm now solidly and confidently mid-career, at a phase where I know enough to be dangerous; but I also recognize that there's far more that I have yet to discover. A side effect of growing out of Impostor Syndrome & caring less about what others think as you grow into experience and wisdom *(ahem, aka aging) is that illusions tend to fall away also. Long gone are my Pollyanna days where I believed everyone always acted from pure intentions and wanted the best for our organizations, our clients, and our communities. These realizations have been difficult at times, but they have also been instructive and powerful.

Facing mediocrity head-on is it's own unique challenge that comes with a huge energy drain. On occasions when I feel particularly flattened by the realities and disappointments of my sector, I find myself dreaming of an escape to an easier path, one with less complexity and lower stakes. Enter, the concept of The Scarf Store. One day, while discussing our annoyance at some inane leadership decision or bureaucratic nightmare with my girl tribe, I hit my limit of exasperation, and proclaimed "That's it! This is insanity! I'm quitting all of this! I'm just going to open....a....scarf store, or something!" (Now: caveat that I fully understand that running a small business is no joke, and this wouldn't be a realistic escape from the frustrations of Interacting With Other Humans, but, the fantasy of a simpler life is appealing.) The concept of Scarf Store has now become shorthand among some of my friends--a recognition that at times, this work is so intricate, infused with power dynamics, and frustratingly layered with divergent motivations that it can feel like no forward progress can be made. Sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and mentally escape for a minute. #nonprofitselfcare

The Scarf Store will not ever likely be a reality, at least not in my world. I'm too committed to the field, to advancing progress and justice in any small way that I can. This work is difficult, infuriating, heartbreaking, inspiring, joyful, transformative, crazy, and weird. I love it. 

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Grant Professionals are matchmakers

Grant professionals occupy an interesting place in the nonprofit ecosystem. In an ideal world, the grant professional in any organization is responsible for the full spectrum of activities involved in a complete grant lifecycle, which range from deeply understanding the work and programs of the organization; identifying and researching prospective funding sources; developing relationships with funders; preparing, submitting and monitoring grant proposals; managing compliance for existing grants; maintaining grant records; collaborating with colleagues on organization and program development, fundraising, and other institution-wide activities; and much more.

 The grant professional in any organization should be a go-between, understanding their own organization and translating its’ needs to match those of prospective funding sources, ensuring that the mission, vision, and goals of the funder are met through investments of general and program support of their organization. The grant professional needs to thoroughly understand their organization’s mission and programs, opportunities for expansion and innovation, plus the ‘wish list’ of needs for future program and organizational development. Likewise, the grant professional needs to research, understand, and filter potential funding prospects with a similar focus. Grant professionals are constantly seeking the perfect match between their organizations and the current and prospective funders that are eager to effect change in the world through their investments.

Grant matchmaking requires several things to be most effective: the time and ability to thoroughly research prospective funders, commitment to extensively understanding your organization’s services and programs, the ability to effectively communicate internally with colleagues from various disciplines to obtain the information you need, the ability to communicate externally with current & prospective funders to tell effective stories and convey critical information, the discipline to synthesize a large volume of information, the ability to manage confidential information with discretion, a high level of sophistication in communication (in all forms), willingness and ability to build relationships with funders over time, and the skills of strategic planning, critical analysis, tactful communication, and high-volume multitasking.

Grant writing and management is a skilled, professional craft. An ability to write well is a prerequisite for becoming a grant professional, but it is only one component of the role. All of the areas of responsibility for grants professionals require a commitment of time and significant expertise to be done well. A specialized, skilled grants professional is a vitally important team member, one that many organizations mistakenly conflate with general resource development work or one of many duties assigned to an ED, top leader, or volunteer. Grants work is time- and effort-intensive, and producing high-quality, competitive grant applications and growing relationships with grant funders demands investment by organizations.

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On being a Social Worker

Upon completing my Bachelor’s degree (many moons ago) I got my first “real” job as the Early Childhood Parenting Coordinator for a School Readiness Program in Irvine, CA. The position was funded in part by California’s tobacco tax settlement funding, and in part by the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe Schools-Healthy Students grant program. This role was my first introduction to working in grant-funded programs, which sparked my 14+ year career in grants with nonprofits & public K-12 and higher education systems.

In that position, my programmatic work spanned a wide range of direct support services including counseling and providing case management to parents, families, and young children, teaching parenting classes, developing and delivering professional development for educators, evaluating and tracking my program outcomes, and a range of other services. My undergraduate degree in Cognitive Sciences (psychology) was helpful in theory, but in practice my academic background offered me little practical knowledge in my direct service role. A colleague observed my passion for both working directly with clients as well as managing the program and encouraged me to apply to graduate school in Social Work. It was something I barely even needed to consider before deciding that would be the best choice for me to further my education and my career. I was accepted to USC (a top 10 School of Social Work!) and completed my Masters in Social Work with a concentration in Industrial/Organizational Social Work (then called Social Work in the Workplace).

After finishing my Master’s, I got a job as a Grant Writer for a nonprofit social services agency in Orange County, where I discovered that my passion for serving people directly and my aptitude for thinking, planning, and communicating strategically fit perfectly with my training as a Social Worker to work as a grants professional. I have now been working in the grants space full-time for about a decade, as a grant writer, program manager, organizational leader, university instructor, consultant, and professional association leader. I believe wholeheartedly that my Social Work training and direct service background have helped me immensely during my career. As a result of my experience, I am able to fully understand the implications of grant program development on the implementation side, and I understand the intersection of organizational mission, strategic planning, board cultivation, and fund development with program services and client relationships. The broad skills development and background I’ve gained from my Social Work training in community and organizational needs assessments, asset mapping and development, program lifecycle development, and analysis has assisted me innumerable times over my career. I also firmly believe that the combination of my training, my personality, and my skills & aptitudes has helped me throughout my career to see and understand all sides of organizational development and management, program services and implementation, and funder relationship development. I am deeply proud to be a Social Worker, and I am so grateful that the field allows for the best expression of my unique abilities, talents, skills and experience. Social Workers rule!

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About this here little blog

Hello! I'm Beth, a veteran nonprofit professional, with over 14 years of experience in grant writing, resource development, program management, and organizational development.

I've decided to begin this blog as a way to explore ideas, best practices, complexities, and curiosities of the nonprofit and public sector that I've encountered throughout my career. I often find myself talking with colleagues, students, funders, and donors about similar issues (some that are applicable only to the unique community in which I live, Southern Nevada, and some that are much more broadly applicable).

I will be using this blog as a space to explore my own experiences, perceptions, and thinking on the issues within the changemaking space that I find interesting and compelling. The views in this blog are entirely my own, and are informed by my many years of experience working in nonprofit organizations, higher education, quasi-government agencies, and with professional organizations. I do not claim to represent the views or official positions of any of the organizations I have worked with or for. 

This is a space for professional and personal exploration and growth. I welcome respectful comments, questions, and interaction! Here's to a new adventure!