The Necessary Leadership

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what enables an executive director to be successful.

I’ve had both good and not-so-good experiences serving as CEO of nonprofits, and it seems to me that the most important element–the sine qua non of nonprofit success–is accountability, both of the volunteers and of the staff.

The relationship between the board chair and the ED is a microcosm of the larger relationship. While the ED may be leading the organization as a whole, the board chair is responsible for guiding. motivating, and holding accountable the board of trustees.

I’m a big fan of fairly detailed job descriptions for volunteers as well as paid staff. Increasingly, I’m also a fan of asking board members to sign their job description, as a way of acknowledging the responsibility they’re taking on. But I’ve had board leadership tell me, “These are volunteers–you can’t hold them accountable.” I couldn’t disagree more.

Sometimes an organization can weather a period of weak leadership, but in times of significant change, the board and staff MUST have a shared vision and a shared sense of what has to be accomplished to make that vision a reality, and everyone has to be accountable for their part of it–otherwise, it’s just not happening.

Other Ways Foundations Can Help

Traditionally, foundations have played the role of funders to nonprofits almost exclusively. Lately, in the spirit of “give a man a fish…,” a number of forward-thinking foundations have looked at other ways to support individuals and community-based groups.for the longer term.

One group I have a lot of respect for is the Rhode Island Foundation. Rhode Island is a small place with perhaps a disproportionate number of artists (RISD is located in Providence) that is headquarters of the Alliance of Artists Communities, a group I became familiar with while I was working with La Reunion TX. The two groups are collaborating this year to present the annual Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowships, which are grants of $25,000 awarded to individual Rhode Island artists. The Foundation provides the funding and the AAC folks, who know the artists, administer the program. That’s refreshing: many foundations, in part because of tax laws, will not support individual artists. This collaboration supports both artists and a significant arts group.

The Foundation’s other individual-oriented program is a fellowship for mid-career nonprofit executives designed to give EDs the chance to take “productive, short-term sabbaticals from their organizations.” What a great idea, and in many ways of greater value to a nonprofit than a simple program grant. A gift that keeps on giving.

Good ideas for foundations across the country.

Membership Development–Changing Rapidly

National Trust Membership Development monographIt was rewarding to learn recently that the National Trust’s template for organizational assessment includes in its references a guide to membership development I wrote for them many years ago.

As flattering as that might be, I’m not so sure it’s still relevant. The concept–and perceived value–of membership is changing rapidly, with young people not feeling as compelled to be part of a club as they once were.

There is a real movement toward experiential participation, through events and one-shot volunteer opportunities, especially those that don’t require membership as a prerequisite to participation.

This is a topic I hope to develop in a future post; it is of critical import for nonprofits that have traditionally relied on membership dues for a significant part of their revenues.

The Job That an Intern Might Find Insignificant

Some years ago, I moved back to my native Atlanta, where opportunities for geologists were few, so I had to find another career. My college placement office showed an opening for an intern at the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, one of the larger preservation groups in the country. Having just returned from Maine with a new-found interest in historic buildings, I decided to accept the internship while I found other work.

Little did I know that that internship would evolve into a career in nonprofit management that included almost 20 years with historic preservation organizations, then arts groups, conservation organizations, and others. It changed the course of my life.

The fact of the matter is that those who are connected will find it much easier to find a job, and internships provide an important means of meeting and becoming connected to leaders in the field.

Besides the importance to the individual, frequently interns make remarkable discoveries that aid the organization–and the community–in the long term. Here are two illustrations:

15-Year-Old Intern Discovers Planet
The Trinity Connection: A Student Uncovers the Lost O’Neil Ford Drawings

Job Reviews are Critical

One of the most important duties of the nonprofit board of directors/trustees is to ensure review and evaluation of the work of the executive director/CEO. In my opinion, the first job review should take place 90 days after the hire.

A three-month review gives everyone the opportunity to evaluate the fit and to learn, early on, expectations of the ED and of the board, and, if things are clearly not working out, it gives everyone an out. The review doesn’t have to be a formal affair, but it should include some written conclusions, both from the board or board chair and from the ED.

Writing it all down ensures there’s a permanent record of the event, and also, I think, helps people to be thoughtful about the process. This recent article about gender differences in job reviews is particularly relevant in the nonprofit community, where many CEOs are women. It bears thought.

I have to say–and of course this is from the perspective of a perennial staff person–I deplore the concept of a “performance review.” The relationship is mutual, and boards have to do their jobs, just like staff members and volunteers, so the job review should always be a two-sided affair.


Organizational Assessment

Want a strong organization? Just as you might review a staff member at least once a year, every group–nonprofit or for-profit–should put aside some time during the year to assess where the board and where the organization is, relative to where it wants to be.

Presumably you have a strategic plan, and that can provide some good metrics for the process. But in addition each board member should take a good look at the contributions he or she is making, whether their expectations as a board member are being met, and how to work most effectively with board colleagues.

There are a million templates, some so simplistic that they really don’t help much. One I’ve found to be very useful is from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it looks at a variety of areas: administrative, governance, and programmatic. Take a look at the National Trust’s organization assessment form and adapt it as you see fit. But make sure the board is taking a good, hard look at itself, so that it can be the best steward possible for your donors and for the community.

Eight Resolutions for Fundraisers

Guidestar, a group that promotes best practices among nonprofit organizations, always has good information for nonprofit staff and board members. This new article, Eight Resolutions for Fundraisers, has great ideas. The first one may be the best: Sit down with each of your board members, figure out what they do best and what they want to do, and always make one-on-one requests rather than lobbing them “like water balloons across the board room.”

Ineffective executives make blanket requests (or demands!) at board meetings or, worse, by email, and then wonder why the board doesn’t respond.

Effective nonprofit executives are always looking for better ways to engage their constituency, better ways to communicate, and better ways to serve. It’s the responsibility of leadership.

Art as Effecter of Public Policy

Three years ago, the Texas legislature was considering reducing the allowable rehabilitation period for patients suffering from traumatic brain injury. A worker in the field conceived of the idea of commissioning highly detailed photographic portraits of survivors of TBI, collecting the stories of the patients and their caregivers, and mounting a week-by-week campaign to send the photos to members of the legislature.

Funding was preserved. The photographs and the personal stories affected the legislators in ways words alone never could.

Now the Brain Injury Association of America is working on a nationwide campaign that we hope ultimately will result in broader exposure and then increased empathy for these individuals who have been injured in combat, in sports, through a momentary lapse of judgment, or through violence. Ultimately we hope to ensure that they have the support they need to lead the most productive lives they can.

Striving for Nonprofit Excellence

1098047_701588636523903_868406439_nAttended a West Dallas Chamber workshop today on volunteer recruitment and management by Gina Parker of the SPCA of Texas. The SPCA has grown tremendously in the last ten years and has a lovely new facility that is helping them further their mission even more.

What strikes me about them–and about every other nonprofit that is able to grow over the long term–is that they are all committed to excellence.

What does that mean? It means always looking toward improvement, incorporating the best practices of others, broadening the constituency, increasing volunteer involvement, learning new technologies. In short it means never being satisfied with the status quo or thinking long experience has made you an expert on everything. Things are changing all the time.

We as nonprofit professionals have to always remember that there are so many groups where individuals can donate their time and their money, and that they, like us, want to be associated with a place that does things well. We want to be that place, and constant self-assessment is the way to get there.