Nonprofit Board Management, Governance and Advice

Last weekend I was in NYC for the Craigslist Foundation’s Nonprofit Bootcamp. As a one-day conference, I’ve really enjoyed it as having a wide variety of informative sessions. This is my second time going and for 2 out of 3 of the sessions, I attended the Board Governance track. The following are my combined notes from 2 sessions: Board Governance 101 by Michael Davidson (Governance Matters), and Managing a Board by John Brothers (Cuidui Consulting) and David LaGreca (Volunteer Consulting Group).

7 Board Roles (from Michael Davidson)

  1. Setting Strategic Direction

  2. Providing Financial oversight and management

  3. Protecting assets and ensuring legal and ethical integrity

  4. Ensuring adequate resources

  5. Serve as advocates and ambassadors for the organization

  6. Developing and maintaining a cohesive and committed Board of Directors

  7. Select, support, partner with and evaluate the executive Director

4 Board Roles (from John Brothers and Dvid LaGreca)

  1. Know why the organization exists… and annually review why it should

  2. Interpret the organization’s work to the public in words of 2 syllables

  3. Combine a sense of obligation with a sense of humor

  4. Give money, or get it, or both

Board Structure: structure should be determined by what you are doing, not bylaws or god.

Board Giving: every board member should give a personally meaningful value. This can be arrived at through dialogue began by other board members who have already given.

Board Fundraising: The actual ask by a boardmember is easy (though no one ever wants to do it). The harder and more involved issue is how do board members represent the organizing and cultivate potential donors.

Executive Leadership: When your Director retires and you being a new search, often the discussion turns to: “Our last ED successfully led the organization for 20 years. We want someone exactly like her.” Instead, the board should continually evaluate the question: does our Executive Director have the skills and vision for the organization and world right now?”

Excellence: The New York Time’s Award of Excellence focuses heavily on board involvement and controls contributing to organizational effectiveness and success.

The Engaged Board: Through dialogue with your board, you should define the vision and characteristics that will have board members:

  • Expend significant time and effort

  • Make a meaningful financial contribution

  • Solicit contributions

Common Board Issues: vague expectations; not knowing what having “success” as a board member means; no feedback loops (was I good or bad as a board member); hot romance/cold match syndrome (hot and heavy dating/recruitment but a cold marriage/service)

The Board Chair: It is the Board Chair’s (the President usually) responsibility to create a functioning board. The board chair doesn’t support the organization, they support the board.

Terms and Limits: Michael strongly recommended terms as opportunities to review performance and lead some structure and legitimacy to ditching unengaged board members (deadwood). He was cooler on mandatory term limits, recommending instead board assessments to be more active. While the purpose of limits is to get fresh blood and ditch deadwood, they also mean that you lose your best members—even with by-years, they’ll find another cause to commit to. Also, Worrying about the problems takes our eyes off of motivating the good people

Creating Director Expectations: Have a board member Report Card that is completed every year for each board member.

Explaining benefits: the board as a whole has a responsibility to its members. This includes:

  • Sending information in a timely manner

  • Giving members training on how to explain, promote and raise money for the organization. Make it fun, interesting and absorbing

Engaging Board meetings: Board meetings can suck, no doubt about it. This is because they are used for reports that everybody can read, and not dialogue that requires people together to have. Michael recommended Consent Agendas: Send out all of the information (ED Report, Budget report, committee check-ins, etc.) in advance. Questions can be raised via email. If face-to-face discussion is still needed, it can be discussed during the meeting. This reserved the agenda for real, necessary, generative discussions. Bring in an outsider to start conversation or have real dialogue around the strategy or future of the organization.

Everyone at board meetings should have (eg be explicitly given) opportunities to “chirp”. Everyone loves to feel needed. Don’t typecast board members: for example, the treasurer shouldn’t be excluded from programmatic goal discussions.

Tell people at what points they are working: within the agenda, note “discussion only” or “discussion needed”, and make sure to include this at least once every meeting

ED Review: Yearly, have your Executive Director put together a review of their view of their own accomplishments. This leads to a dialogue with board of priorities for next year and allows the board to fill in where needed.

HR Policies: Make sure there is a mechanism in the HR manual for staff members to discuss the ED with the board.

The New 990: “The IRS can do things by regulation that could not be done by legislation” (referring to the failed Senator Grassley bill to bring Sarbannes-Oxley-type requirements to the nonprofit sector. While the new 990 form dramatically increases the level of disclosure of internal processes and controls, it’s also an opportunity to present your organization in a positive and effective light (since any organization’s 990 is available publicly through services like Guidestar or the Foundation Center ).

** Board Toolkit**: Documents that your board can create to guide and improve its ability to fulfill its leadership and governance responsibilities. From Governance Matters

Metaphors: John says that managing a board is nearly identical to caring for standing herds of horses; just replace “horse” with “board member” in the literature”.

Lessons for Nonprofitteers from Majora Carter

This is more notes from last weekend’s Craigslist Foundation’s Nonprofit Bootcamp.

Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx, gave the afternoon keynote (I think the afternoon speech of a conference should be called a plenary). She spoke from experience in designing socially and ecologically sustainable projects. I think she covered some good points in her speech, but overall I felt like she was pitching to investors more than having an intimate discussion with peers—the latter being a tone I think Nancy Lublin nailed at last year’s Bootcamp ( audio; my notes). Also, I felt that her points were somewhat antagonistic (though perhaps reasonably so) but left out a sense of reality-check: yeah, you’re pissing off The Man, but does that mean that you’re changing society, or just being a nuisance?

  1. Take neither a vow of poverty nor stupidity

  2. Fight for something, not against something.

  3. Help can come in man forms

  4. Groundbreaking solutions abhor orthodoxy

  5. If nobody knows what you are doing, how are people going to care?

  6. Build on sucess and momentum. Why reinvent the wheel?

  7. If you feel like you have a target on your head, you are probably doing something right

  8. Be part of alliances that make sense for your organization

  9. When the time is right, don’t be afraid to move on

  10. You will know who your real friends are when you are doing well (I may have written this down wrong)

Caring on the Internet

I really liked this series of comments on a BoingBoing post

#3 posted by pAULbOWEN , August 17, 2008 12:48 PM

I should care because?

#4 posted by zarl , August 17, 2008 12:53 PM

Nobody cares that you don’t care.

Cleaving Running Reds from Jaybiking

Great article on why drivers call the kettle black when they complain about bicyclists break road-laws. I found interesting the distinction between running a red light and jaywalking/riding:

Let’s talk about red-light running. There are two types of red-light running. “Catching an orange” - or running the start of a red light - which every class of users does. And jaywalking or jaybiking - waiting for the intersection to clear and then crossing against the light - which only pedestrians and cyclists do.

Also, covers interesting analysis of why there isn’t such a thing as jaydriving. Though, as I commented, in my hometown it was pretty common to drive through a red light, late at night.

Are you Ahw or Arr?

Via some fun copy on BoingBoing Gadgets (“These “Toastabags” (phonemologically Bostonian, apparently…”) and someone’s analytical comment

, I came across a way to cleave English speakers: those that pronounce R’s (rhotic), and those that don’t(non-rhotic). From the wikipedia page on Rhotic and non-rhotic accents:

English pronunciation is divided into two main accent groups, the rhotic (pronounced /ˈroʊtɪk/) and non-rhotic, depending on when the sound typically represented in spelling with the letter R is pronounced. Rhotic speakers pronounce written /r/ in all positions, while non-rhotic speakers pronounce /r/ only if it is followed by a vowel sound (see “linking and intrusive R”), and not always even then.

What to ask before building a website

I’m always curious to see what people spec out for consulting (since I have my own template as well). Found this great listing (pasted below) from SitePoint

via one of our VISTAs’s personal website UI and Me.

Background * Goals. What are your specific goals? Consider: o company/brand awareness, o product/services awareness, o product/services sales, o community building, o entertainment, o knowledge sharing, and o internal communications. * Promotional Fit. How should your Website fit with current promotional and marketing strategies and materials? * Deadlines. What are the schedule or deadline requirements? * Funding. What are the budgetary constraints? * Measurement. How will you measure the success of the site? Next Steps: 1. Develop a ranked (from most- to least-important) Goals Master List. 2. Create a mission statement for the site. 3. Identify how the mission and goals of the site might change from short-term to long-term, given the direction of your organization and industry. Audience * External. Who is your EXTERNAL audience? Consider: o current customers, o potential customers, o suppliers, o professional/trade organizations, o investors, o competitors, o children, o schools/educators, and o the sight-impaired. * Internal. Who is your INTERNAL audience? Consider: o all employees, o management, o marketing/sales, o operations, and o IT. * Sub-groups. Determine all subgroups within the audiences identified above. * Define. Identify the interests, technical skills and special issues for each audience group and subgroup. Next Steps: 1. Create a ranked Audience Master List. 2. Develop an Aligned Master List by matching the Audience Master List to the Goals Master List. 3. Create usage scenarios based on Aligned Master List. Resources * Project Roles. Who are the resources that will be responsible for content management and technical support (include their names, titles, roles, and contact info)? * Team Skills. What are the technical and content management skills of each resource? Next Steps: For each resource, identify any training, software, hardware, scheduling and budgetary issues. Competition * Identify Competitors. Identify the sites of competitors and others that may provide direction for your site. * Important Elements. Identify the important elements of each competitor site: o functional features, o technologies used, o breadth of content and o look-and-feel. Content * Functionality. Which functional features should your site offer? Consider: o ecommerce/shopping cart, o site search, o customer service/support, o tech support, o discussion forums, o newsletter, o catalog/information o order forms, o feedback form, o member logon, o password protected areas, and o SSL-encrypted areas. * Information. Which informational elements should your site contain? Consider: o About Us page, o Contact Us page, o copyright notice, and o privacy statement. * Structure. What is your site’s hierarchy? For each of the 4-7 (though you can have more or less) main areas of the site, identify: o each main menu item, o all submenu items, and o additional content. Think of a tree-style hierarchy with the home page at the top. Next Steps: 1. Describe in detail each functional feature. What exactly will it do? 2. Identify the resources required, and any technical and budgetary issues associated with each functional feature. 3. Provide detail for each informational element. 4. Assign content responsibilities to the resources identified above.

Drupal: theme override for Upload.module’s attachments list

Update: this functionality can now be achieved with the iTweak_upload module . Thanks to Damon for the tip!

I made a custom override for Drupal 6.x’s Upload.module’s attachments table that is displayed at the bottom of a node when you create file attachments. That table is, in my opinion, one of the ugliest common and default presentations in Drupal core. Below is an example of the before and after:

Example of override

To use it, unzip and drop the included folder into your active theme’s directory (e.g. /sites/default/all/garland), it should take effect without any other modifications—though you may have to reset the theme cache (goto admin/build/themes and click save without making any other changes).

Click Here to Download (

Also, I don’t know what the name is for these types of theme overrides: it’s not a module, and it’s not a whole theme. I posted this to a Drupal Group that, I think, calls them “ Themer Packs”.

The icon code is based on the CCK filefield module—but the current 6.0 version is kind’ve clunky and I wanted to port it to the core Upload module. The namespace is “shiny_upload”.

Also, as an aside, the reason doesn’t currently have this enabled is because it’s still running on Drupal 5.x branch

Digital Media Forensics

2nd rate band’s new single appears on bittorrent sites, band releases press release decrying leak, sleuthing ensues…turns out the band’s manager leaked the track himself. Damning on its own, but the interesting part is the forensic sleuthing that led to outing the guilty party:

With some help of a user in the community, we tracked down some of the initial seeders of the torrent. A BitTorrent site insider was kind enough to help us out, because BitTorrent is not supposed to be “abused” like this, and confirmed that the IP of one of the early seeders did indeed belong to the person who uploaded the torrent file.

It turns out that the uploader, a New York resident, had only uploaded one torrent, the BuckCherry track. When we entered the IP-address into the Wiki-scanner, we found out that the person in question had edited the BuckCherry wikipedia entry, and added the name of the band manager to another page.

This confirmed our suspicions, but it was not quite enough, since it could be an overly obsessed fan (if they have fans). So, we decided to send the band manager, Josh Klemme - who happens to live in New York - an email to ask for his opinion on our findings. Klemme, replied to our email within a few hours, and surprisingly enough his IP-address was the same as the uploader.

Individual Challenges for Nonprofit Leaders

Last month I was lucky enough to attend the NAMAC Leadership Institute in gorgeous Silver Falls, Oregon. The Leadership Institute was a weeklong exploration and advisement of leadership issues in the arts. Tucked away in the backwoods of the Silver Falls State Park, it was a great opportunity to network and dialogue with peers without internet or cellphone service—we all complained for the first 2 days; when we left it was hailed as a welcome relief.

I greatly enjoyed the Institute for a lot of reasons, personal and professional, but of the key highlights was being able to have substantive dialogue with other nonprofit peers. I was the youngest person there—the majority of the 20-or-so attendees seemed to be in their 30s—but a lot of what was talked about resonated strongly with what I’ve heard through my conversations with people working in nonprofits.

One of the most interesting observations came during an activity in which we were popcorning out what we like about our jobs and what we don’t. A pattern emerged from the answers:

  • The things that were liked by respondents had to do with broader organizational values, vision or impact. People really liked knowing that they the organization was helping people and doing so in a way that they believed in (these were all media and arts organizations).
  • The things that people disliked were all personal or positional issues: poor communication, poor management or supervision, workload, and unreliable committments to their projects.

After the activity I voiced this observation and it was greeted very warmly (several people told afterwards that they really thought this was an aha moment for them). In my work and observing others, there are often few opportunities to reflect upon personal positive impacts. This is particularly tough because there aren’t objective benchmarks from which someone can individually guage their effectiveness; there is no hard ROI.

For a much broader look at this, I reccommend reading through all 75 pages of the Building Movement Project’s “ Generational Changes and Leadership: Implications for Social Change Organizations”, which has excerpts of a wide set of interviews with nonprofit leaders young and old.

Poverty as the singular moral challenge

We just had our AmeriCorps*VISTA orientation last week—which to our delight and hard work turned out great—and one of the things I’ve been ruminating on since then was one of the powerful dialogue we had around poverty. AmeriCorps*VISTA’s mission is to help individuals and communities out of poverty rather than focus on making poverty more tolerable; so it should come as no surprise that we talked a lot about poverty. But the substance of the discussion made me think a lot about how I view poverty. Making it doubly interesting, of course, is that I was running the orientation and manage our VISTA program.

I realized I take a very broad view of poverty; perhaps as broad as they come. One of the activities involved each of us (about 40 people in all) writing on a tacky note their definition of poverty. My definition I gave was:

Poverty is the inability to fully participate in or benefit from society.

The other responses were along the standard lines of material poverty (not having basic survival needs met), and what I would breezily (and in the current economy) define as the “making under $30k a year” type of poverty (and the personal/social issues that come along with that). And to be perfectly clear, I fully acknowledge that these are the standard and usual definitions of poverty—the attendees were a wicked smart bunch.

Now moving beyond that dialogue, what do I find interesting about my definition:

  1. It’s a continuum: I don’t believe there is a hard cut-off for, “ok, you’re good to go.” Obviously two people who are making $100k a year, one of whom went to a state college and the other went to Harvard, have perhaps a trivial separation, but there exists one.
  2. It’s relative to society: from the dialogue, it was pretty clear that the attributes we choose to evaluate poverty on are relative (thanks Abby for mentioning Ishmael)
  3. It’s about the interplay between individual and society: beyond strict material poverty—at which point personal survival make social needs effectively moot; i.e. dead people don’t have agency)—poverty is about an individual’s ability to effectively function as a contributory member of society. What form those contributions take are defined by the society (see above).

So where am I going with this?

Poverty is a moral challenge. The Moral Challenge. Moral as in God. God as (and this is the tricky part) being a superset of the human condition. For you non-set-theory people, that means that the the experience of being human is an essence of God. But I don’t want to get caught up on the metaphysics of it, since they aren’t the point, may be heretical depending on your beliefs, and I probably don’t know what I’m talking about away. But for legitimacy’s sake—and being breezy again—this is a belief of many religions like Buddhism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Kabalism and Sufism to name a few, each of which have also influenced their respective trunks (e.g. Sufism to Islam, Kabalism to Judaism)—pretty much anything with a touch of mysticalism. At least, that was my impression from reading books by Karen Armstrong.

But I want to move beyond the specific religion aspect and back to poverty for the next statement:

The conception of poverty is a secular humanistic version of what Buddhism calls dukha, a fundemental element of life. I’m the first to be suspicious of people quoting eastern philosophies, but the idea of dukha is illuminating: usually it’s defined as “suffering”, that something is wrong, that life is “awry”. I woul advance a more rigorous (and humanistic) definition along the lines of:

Human beings, as innately and uniquely compassionate, imaginative and intelligent creatures, have fundemental anxiety over existing within a universe/reality of scarcity. Not just a scarcity of energy/food/shelter, but of, among other things, time (our linear lifespan), physical space (our necessary physical existence displaces other beings) and understanding (we cannot perfectly communicate ourselves to one another). This anxiety is dukha, which is innate to being human.

As Karen Armstrong would argue, the purpose of a practical religion is to help people overcome, transcend or accept this suffering (or help people move towards such unattainable perfects). Such practical religions attempt to reach towards this goal through both material, psychological and social means (the latter two being what we might call spiritual means).

Of course, as secular humanists, we cannot define poverty to such a broad holistic and potentially spiritual scope: it touches upon elements that are outside rational discourse (how can we conceive of a goal beyond the realm of human experience?) and, within more practical terms, is of a breadth our current bureacractic institutions would be unable to handle.

In my next blog post, I’d like to explore how poverty stems from our collective inability to accept diversity. Also, I’d like to write about how the concept of poverty at its core cannot exist without reasonable antithesis, why we’re incredibly bad at conceiving of that alternative, and how we might reasonably search for it.

Lastly, just to make it clear, I don’t believe that by expanding the definition of poverty it negates or in anyhow diminishes the incredible contributions and advances having been made or being made by people across the globe to improve the conditions of people who need that assistance most. In other words, this is in no way, shape, or form a statement that current anti-poverty work is pointless, “a drop in the bucket”, or we should just stop trying because we’ll never fix everything. Also, this isn’t leading up to a nanny-state rant (pro or con) either.