How Healthy Do You Want Your Nonprofit Board to Be?

check (2)By Anne Wallestad, president & CEO, BoardSource

Last spring, I had a tough conversation with my doctor. I’m diabetic and have to be very careful about my health — exercise, eat well, monitor my blood sugar, take insulin several times a day…the list goes on and on. For the most part, I do relatively well with all of this maintenance. But there are definitely places where I could do better.

As my doctor made suggestions about how I could improve my health, I squirmed in my seat a bit and made pathetic excuses about why I just couldn’t do more. “I travel a lot and can’t always choose what I eat,” I said. “I work long days and don’t always have time to exercise.” Whatever she suggested, I had a reason why it just wouldn’t work.

And then she looked at me and said, “Well, I guess it’s just a question of how healthy you want to be.”

Ouch! That hurt. But it was the truth. And I needed to hear it.

When it comes to nonprofit board development, many board members and CEOs throw up similar roadblocks to improved board performance. “I don’t have time.” “We don’t have the resources.” “How can I possibly think about strengthening the board when I’m worried about how we are going to deliver programs and meet payroll?”

These roadblocks don’t serve us, or our nonprofit organizations, well.

According to the Executive Director Listening Project conducted by the Meyer Foundation, “Strengthening the Board of Directors” is listed as a top challenge affecting executive directors’ personal and professional effectiveness (“fundraising” and “managing human capital” were the only two challenges ranked higher).

Can you imagine saying “I don’t have time to manage my staff” or “We don’t have the resources to fundraise”? No, it wouldn’t happen, because it’s understood we have to invest in these things for our organizations to flourish.

But for whatever reason, there is a disconnect when it comes to investing in our boards. According to the most recent “Daring to Lead” study, despite the fact that only 20 percent of executive directors are “very satisfied” with their nonprofit board’s performance, the majority of executive directors (56 percent) spend 10 hours or less on board-related activities each month. This finding is significant when you learn there is a striking correlation between the time CEOs invest in board work and overall satisfaction with the board — those who are the most satisfied invest significantly more time than those who are not at all satisfied.

But since time for time’s sake isn’t the point, I offer a few thoughts about how to leverage limited time for maximized impact:

1. Get it Right from the Beginning: Invest heavily in orienting and educating new board members, and making sure that they are the right fit before inviting them to the board (for more on screening board candidates, check out BoardSource’s Board Recruitment Center). Be honest about your board’s expectations — regarding time, fundraising, and overall engagement — and resist the temptation to downplay them. You’ll save countless hours of misunderstanding and frustration by ensuring that they’re on board with organizational needs and board member expectations, and that they have the information and knowledge they need to help them succeed.

2. Assess Performance Before There’s a Problem: The board’s regular assessment of its own performance and the CEO’s performance identifies challenges and opportunities long before they become significant problems, and ensures that your organization has a roadmap to self-improvement and ongoing board development. BoardSource offers tools for both nonprofit board and CEO assessments if you need help.

3. Challenge the Board to Manage Itself: Build a strong governance committee that takes responsibility for managing and cultivating board performance. The committee can help maximize the effectiveness of each individual board member and address issues of disengagement or dysfunction head on. Not only does this share the workload, but it creates greater buy-in and accountability across the board.

So, just as my doctor challenged me to reconsider my values and the amount of time I invest in them, I challenge each of us: How healthy do we want our nonprofit boards to be? And what are we willing to do about it?

If you’re interested in learning more about BoardSource’s year-round board development program for organizational members, which provides ongoing educational and assessment resources for your board, visit here.

This post also appears in HUFFPOST IMPACT.


20/20 Hindsight


By Vernetta Walker, chief governance officer and vice president of programs, BoardSource

A recent article, “World Vision Reverses Decision To Hire Christians in Same-Sex Marriages,” really caught my attention. Irrespective of whether this board’s decisions were “right” or “wrong,” its actions are illustrative of reasons why effective board governance is often the driver of a nonprofit’s successes and failures. Just two days after announcing the adoption of a policy codifying World Vision U.S.’s openness to hire Christians in same-sex marriages, the backlash from some Christian leaders, donors, employees, and affiliates led to the board reversing its position. In fact, World Vision U.S.’s board and CEO issued an apology, asking for forgiveness for their mistake.

Other nonprofits have been grappling with similar issues lately. The Boy Scouts of America’s policy banning gay troop leaders led the Walt Disney Company to cut its funding. This came after a long-awaited decision by the Boy Scouts board of directors last year to admit openly gay youth.  The difference here is that the Boy Scouts, for better or worse, is standing behind its decision.

The World Vision U.S. board, according to the article, prayed for years about its hiring policies after a U.S. Supreme Court decision supported World Vision U.S.’s ability to hire based on its religious beliefs. With such a quick reversal, though, it is clear that the board needed to do more to understand the core values that united its internal and external stakeholders—its values. The “more” in this case was the generative work of the board.

In Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards, authors Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor talk about the need for boards to work in three modes: fiduciary, strategic, and generative.  Generative work can be defined in a number of ways, but it includes engaging board members in framing the issues and asking catalytic and probing questions that provide insight into the organization’s purpose, mission, and core values.

According to World Vision U.S.’s own branding, it is “a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.”  Notwithstanding, a quick internet scan reveals that others, like Christianity Today and the ever-present Wikipedia community, often describe World Vision as an “evangelic” organization. The board is in a position to decide what it means to be a Christian humanitarian organization and how to best carry out the mission.  But it is the generative mode that helps the board make sense of the organization and determine the path forward that is both evidence and values based.

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Building Trust Through Transparency

photo (4)By Anne Wallestad, president & CEO, BoardSource, and Jacob Harold, president & CEO, GuideStar

There is much debate about how to measure the effectiveness — or strength — of a nonprofit organization. Some argue that measures like percentage of “overhead” or CEO compensation tell you everything you need to know about an organization. Others, including both of us, argue that organizational effectiveness cannot be reduced to crude financial measures — that to truly understand organizational effectiveness, you need to understand what the organization is trying to accomplish, what its track record of success has been, and what its plan for future impact is.

At the heart of this debate is the critical question of trust. Donors are asking, “Can I trust this nonprofit to do what it says it is going to do?” “Will it use my resources wisely and effectively?” “Is it stable and sustainable enough that an investment in it is an investment in the future?”

These questions are both emotional and rational, and get to the core of the delicate and essential trust between donors and organizations. And while there are lots of mechanisms to help donors and organizations build that trust, we often overlook the very important role of the board of directors.

Boards — by definition — exist to preserve and protect the public’s trust. They have both a legal and an ethical responsibility to ensure that there is meaningful oversight of their organization’s operations and finances. They guarantee that the chief executive is held accountable to an independent body of individuals who protect and serve the organization’s mission and — by doing so —safeguard the public’s trust in the organization.

All too often, though, basic information about nonprofit boards is hidden from view. Left with no way to tell which organizations are following clearly established governance best practices, the public is left in the dark and organizations are subject to speculation and skepticism.

That is about to change. In a move that we believe will create a seismic shift in the public’s understanding of governance and board leadership, BoardSource and GuideStar are launching a new tool to help organizations share information with the public about its highest level of leadership: its board of directors.

Beginning today, organizations will have an opportunity to share information about their board’s practices as a part of their profile on the GuideStar Exchange. It now includes questions about board orientation and education, CEO oversight, ethics, board composition, and board performance — key elements of strong oversight and accountability. Soon, as a part of the ongoing evolution of GuideStar’s website, this information will be visible to the public in a new section of the GuideStar profile focused on “People and Governance,” creating transparency around what has all too often been hidden from the public’s view.

We hope that organizations will embrace this opportunity to share more information about how their boards are leading their organizations in thoughtful, intentional ways and help build trust with their donors and the public at large. And for those organizations that have not yet embraced the essential governance practices that are highlighted in the profile, we hope that the questions will serve as a catalyst for self-reflection and change within their boardrooms.

Ultimately, we hope that boards begin to be seen for what they truly are: an essential mechanism to ensure that nonprofit organizations are worthy of the public’s trust. And for those boards that might be asleep at the wheel, we hope that this will be a wake-up call — and an opportunity to fulfill the promise of good governance.

Anne Wallestad and Jacob Harold are the presidents & CEOs at BoardSource and GuideStar, respectively. BoardSource is the recognized leader in nonprofit board leadership and supports, trains, and educates 90,000 nonprofit board leaders from across the country each year. GuideStar is the go-to resource for individuals searching for reliable information about nonprofit organizations, with more than 6 million users in the last year.

This post also appears on the GuideStar blog.  Further information about this BoardSource–GuideStar initiative can be found here.


Getting Beyond the Blame Game

pointingBy Anne Wallestad, president & CEO

The challenges that organizations face in securing the resources they need to succeed is well-documented.  Many organizations are teetering on the edge of failure, and many more are forced to forego advances in their programs or services due to a lack of resources.

At BoardSource, we often hear the frustration and angst from chief executives who are facing these tough realities.  Said one chief executive in response to the 2010 Governance Index, “I am so busy writing grants and trying to raise the money to pay the mortgage and keep the doors open that I don’t have time to get out and development relationships, cultivate donors, etc.  The board has got to become more involved and committed to its fiscal responsibility.”

This connection between executive angst around fundraising results and frustration with board fundraising performance is real.  According to a 2013 report from CompassPoint and the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, “Underdeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising,” 75 percent of all executives say that board member engagement in fundraising is “insufficient,” with 17 percent of executives indicated that their board has no involvement in fundraising at all.

BoardSource’s 2012 Nonprofit Governance Index indicated that fundraising is the lowest ranked area of board performance, with only 5 percent of all chief executives assigning their board an “A” and 75 percent giving their boards a “C” or below.  And, underscoring the frustration around board participation in fundraising, 40 percent of CEOs report that their board  “relies mostly on the CEO and staff” to fundraise, despite the fact that 75 percent of CEOs report that “expectations related to fundraising are clearly explained during recruitment.”

But it’s not just boards that are shouldering the blame when fundraising results are lackluster.  According to “UnderDeveloped,” roughly a third of all executive directors are “lukewarm or dissatisfied” with the performance of their development directors.  And, conversely, fewer than half of all development directors say that they have a strong fundraising partnership with the executive director, with 21 percent of all development directors characterizing the partnership as “weak” or “nonexistent.”

The frustration between boards, executives, and development directors is understandable.  If you’re not getting the fundraising results that your organization needs to sustain its mission, then it’s reasonable to ask the question about whether or not you have the right people on board to deliver those results.

But boards, executives, and development staff all too often get stuck in a blame game focused on determining whose responsibility it is to fundraise, instead of tackling the core issues that might enable them to achieve stronger results (for more on what boards and chief executives can do to change their fundraising culture, check out my blog post on the subject). To move beyond blame requires courage and commitment, and a willingness on someone’s part to take the first step.

A new BoardSource book suggests that staff have the opportunity — if not the responsibility — to take the lead.  I would go even further and say that if staff — both chief executives and development directors — can’t get beyond blame to begin building and strengthening the fundraising partnership in their organization, then they have no one to blame but themselves when there is disappointment in their performance or — worse — the organization suffers financial blows that threaten its sustainability.

As Engaging Your Board in Fundraising:  A Staff’s Guide makes clear, board members’ limited time for — and interest in — fundraising often curtails their engagement in fundraising efforts, and staff members need to work strategically to engage board members more fully.  The book goes on to offer practical advice on how to go about doing that, and challenges staff members to make that effort.

Here are some key take-aways:

  • Connect to Mission:  Successful fundraising efforts start with a passion for your organization’s work.  Taking the time to be deliberate about engaging your board members with your mission will ensure that they are inspired to raise the dollars you need to succeed and can be authentic and compelling when they do it.
  • Build Relationships & Trust:  For lots of folks (board members and staff alike) fundraising can be incredibly scary and intimidating.  Staff members are often in the uncomfortable position of asking board members to step outside of their comfort zone and — to do so — there needs to be a foundation of trust and understanding.  Taking the time to cultivate those relationships — especially with your most connected board members — can pay off in a big way.
  • Provide Support to Make it Easy:  Board members are busy.  To maximize their fundraising capacity, you need to use their time wisely.  Don’t waste their limited availability on activities or tasks that staff members could do.  Instead, be organized in your preparation and follow-up and ask them to do the things that only someone with their connections, relationships or stature can do.

Don’t get mired in the blame game.  A stronger, more productive fundraising partnership is within your reach.  Are you willing to take the first step?

Adapted from the foreword to a new BoardSource resource, Engaging Your Board in Fundraising:  A Staff’s Guide, by Kathy Hedge.

Boards and Public Displays of Disaffection

photo (4)By Vernetta Walker, vice president of programs and chief governance officer, BoardSource

A few weeks ago, there was a news story indicating that the entire 20-member board of the Minnesota Dance Theatre had stepped down en masse. In three paragraphs, we learned that the theatre is solvent and successful, and that the outgoing board says it hopes the theatre will continue to succeed. We also heard that the group is led by the daughter of the founder; we are then left to color the picture in as we will.

The adage “actions speak louder than words” seems to apply here. Who could read this and not wonder what fight was going on in that boardroom that required such dramatic action? Perhaps it’s best that we don’t know the details or drama, but it would be shortsighted to think no damage has been done. The stakeholders of nonprofits tend to believe that they have a right to know why the stewards of an organization they love or do business with would just desert the ship.

Internal strife comes in many forms. As a consultant for a national organization that focuses on strengthening nonprofit governance, some of the more fundamental breakdowns I see occur when there is a lack of a shared vision among the board and chief executive, an inability to form a constructive partnership, or a disagreement over strategic direction and how to proceed. Most boards and staff are committed enough to work through these issues, so when more drastic measures are taken — like this situation, or the one in which a CEO tried to “fire” his entire board, or where another board resigned in the wake of a criminal investigation —  organization’s reputation suffers, as do individual players.

Boards can never underestimate the impact of their actions on an organization’s image and reputation. Most nonprofit organizations depend on positive relationships outside the organization for resource development and the distinct competitive advantage that comes with having a positive public persona. As guardians of organizational mission and resources, the board must understand that those partners begin to get nervous when they see public displays of disaffection.

Bad news travels and spreads at the speed of light, maybe even faster in the age of the Internet, and there’s no opportunity to unring the bell. Recovery can be slow and painful. Just think about Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure and their continued struggle to bring in fundraising dollars at the level they enjoyed prior to what many claimed was a politically motivated decision to defund Planned Parenthood in 2012.

The lesson as I see it is for every board to consider how its behavior will impact the reputation of the nonprofit among its various constituencies. It is important to ask, “How is this action taken or message sent likely to play among our stakeholders?” Whether fairly or unfairly, the public and an organization’s stakeholders often make judgments about an organization based on what they know about the people who serve on the board. What people see and hear can influence what they will give or the decision to support an organization moving forward.

The post also appeared in The Nonprofit Quarterly.

Ten Things Boards Do Right (Without Even Realizing It)

photo (4)By Jan Masaoka, publisher, Blue Avocado; CEO, California Association of Nonprofits

No matter what goes wrong in a nonprofit, somehow the board gets blamed. If the executive director embezzled money, people say, “Where was the board?” Why don’t they say: “Executives are always at the root of the problem. Why don’t we just stop having them?” In fact, boards and board members don’t get credit for some important work they do without even realizing they are doing it. Think about it:

1. Safety net

The confident trapeze artist doesn’t really see the point of the expensive safety net. Few people appreciate safety nets — or boards — when things are going fine. But when a nonprofit’s staff leadership falls off the tightrope, nonprofit boards step up, govern, fix things, and hire a new, better executive.

Think of a nonprofit scandal such as the executive of a halfway house molesting residents, or the executive of a disaster relief nonprofit embezzling money. In virtually all of these cases, the board — whether previously asleep or lied to — stepped in and saved things.

In a for-profit small business, such a problem would simply bring the company down. But nonprofit boards know that communities and people are hurt when nonprofits fail. Those silent, unappreciated safety nets do their jobs when called upon.

2. Speed limits patrolled by aircraft

When people drive down an empty country highway and see this sign, they slow down, even if there don’t seem to be any planes overhead. Even executives who speak contemptuously about their boards end up being more careful because the board is there. When a board member reviews the CEO’s expense report, the CEO is more likely to keep those expenses reasonable, even if that board member signs the report without really looking at it.

And having to report to the board — such as through a quarterly written report — acts to help an executive reflect on past activities and re-focus on priorities.

3. Putting their own bank accounts at risk for staff wrongdoing

By being on the board, board members expose themselves to liabilities that D&O insurance doesn’t cover. (D&O by law can’t insure board members against tax failings or criminal acts. If it could, we would all get D&O insurance, and then fail to remit payroll taxes.)

When staff don’t submit the payroll taxes withheld from employee paychecks or the employer-paid payroll taxes, board members can be individually liable. We’ve seen board members of a small nonprofit alternative college have to chip in thousands of dollars because the staff was “borrowing” from the payroll taxes. We’ve seen board members have liens put on their houses.

By taking these actions, board members are not only helping the organization. They are helping the community served.

4. Baton relay

Boards take the organization back when the executive leaves, find a new executive, and then turn the organization over to that new leader. This is one way to understand executive director departure, and the board’s role in this transition.

5. SWAT team in waiting

It’s rare for executive directors to cry “help!” in despair to their boards. We executives like to tell the board about a problem just seconds before telling the board about the solution we have devised. (And then, of course, the exec wonders why the board always expects them to be able to pull yet another rabbit out of the hat).

But when an exec is really at a loss over a problem and asks in despair for help, board members leap in. A lawsuit? Board members identify lawyers to help pro bono. Someone has to drive the musicians to the concert at the prison tonight and there’s no one else to do it? A board member will cancel plans and volunteer. Being evicted with two weeks’ notice? Board members will pressure the landlord, call lawyers, try to get the city to stop the eviction. Is your nonprofit homeless shelter being blamed unfairly — something like where a man stayed at the shelter and three weeks later killed someone? Board members will stick up for the organization.

Executives seldom ask board members for help on urgent, crucial, big things. When we do, we usually get the help we need. To quote the Rolling Stones: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

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In Defense of Mission

By Anne Walhandslestad, president & CEO

Last week, the folks behind the “America’s Worst Charities” article, which triggered a widespread discussion about the fundraising practices of nonprofits, launched a new resource called “Charity Checker.” Designed to help donors access aggregated data about nonprofit financials, performance, and commitment to transparency, one can understand the appeal of this new resource. It’s easy, straightforward, and helps donors evaluate whether an organization is worthy of their hard-earned dollars.

Many would argue that a resource like this is desperately needed, given some of the scandals that have rocked the charitable sector, not the least of which is the recent exposé done by The Washington Post about the number of organizations that have fallen victim to fraud and theft. I don’t necessarily disagree with the value of this type of donor-focused resource (though I think that between Guidestar, CharityNavigator, and BBB Wise Giving, we are pretty well covered), but would argue that we need to do more to ensure donors do not miss the big picture about what the charitable sector was created to do.

Oftentimes, when a charity experiences a scandal, the public outcry is “How dare they abuse donors’ funds that way?” While perfectly understandable, I believe this is a misguided outrage. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that organizations have not only an ethical responsibility — but also a legal duty — to be honest and forthright in their interactions with donors. We owe those who invest their hard-earned dollars in our missions honesty, integrity, and clarity; without it, the charitable sector will not deserve or receive the support that it needs to fuel its important work.  But the greater tragedy and offense when nonprofits abuse the resources entrusted to them is against their own missions, and the people and communities they serve.

Why is this such an important distinction? From a societal perspective, we are miseducating donors about what makes an effective organization (hint: it’s not all about avoiding scandals and having low overhead) and — more broadly — we are mischaracterizing the purpose of the charitable sector.

If we’re going to rally resources to help donors better evaluate organizations, let’s focus on their strategies and impact, not just their accounting practices. And if we’re going to take to the streets to defend those who have been wronged when nonprofits falter, let’s focus on the communities and individuals who need the support, strength, and integrity of the nonprofit sector, not those who fund it.

This post also appeared in The Huffington Post.

Don’t Wait to Be Asked

walkBy Anne Wallestad, president & CEO

In the world of fundraising, there’s a mantra, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”  And it’s true.  Organizations that wait for donors to come to them don’t typically do so well when it comes to fundraising.  And fundraisers – whether board or staff members – learn early on that leaving fundraising to chance is a recipe for disaster and disappointment.

The same could be said for board recruitment:  Waiting for potential board members to find you is not a winning scenario.  From a practical standpoint, you’re unlikely to have enough potential board members find you to effectively populate your board.  And from a strategic standpoint, you’re even less likely to find the blend of skill sets, community connections, and interpersonal dynamics that characterize the most effective boards.

But the importance of proactivity and thoughtful selection of board service opportunities goes both ways.  Individuals who are considering joining a board are wise to think about what they’re looking for in a board service opportunity.  And, once they know what that is, I would argue that it’s not smart to wait for it to come to you.

Why?  Because the most effective board members are individuals who are truly passionate about what an organization does; are willing to commit time, resources, and energy to strengthen and sustain it; and embrace board service as a serious commitment.  Self-identifying your commitment to an organization is a powerful first step in the right direction.

There is power in knowing what you want and going after it.  Here are good things to keep in mind when you do:

  • Consider working through a partner:  There are lots of organizations that help to identify and source board members for nonprofits in a specific community or mission area.  They’re a great place to start when looking for a board service opportunity.
  • Do your homework:  Learn about the organization’s programs and what its key strategies are for the future.  Read up on who’s currently serving on its board to get a sense of what the organization looks for in terms of its board profile and whether you could bring a new perspective or skill set.
  • Go with your gut:  You may find — once you get to know the organization a bit — that something feels “off” and that the thought of joining its board is making you uneasy.  Don’t ignore that feeling.  It’s much easier to avoid a bad board situation than to get out of one.  Check out Rick Moyers’s post Want to Avoid a Bad Board Experience?  Consider Saying No for some specific things to watch out for when considering a board.
  • Take no for an answer:  Just because a specific board service opportunity seems like the right fit for you doesn’t mean it will be the right fit for the organization.  It’s critical that organizations and individuals are honest about what they both are looking for and need.  If this particular organization isn’t looking for someone with your experience and background, that’s ok.  Move on and look for an organization that is.  For more on that topic, check out my previous post on What Online Dating Can Teach You About Boards.

Do you have a good story about going after a board service opportunity?  We’d love to hear about it.

Meet Our New Board Member of the Month

photo (4)By BoardSource

BoardSource and Points of Light are pleased to announce that Sheff Crowder is the newest Board Member of the Month. BoardSource and Points of Light created the Board Member of the Month Award to honor outstanding individuals for their commitment to advancing the public good through exceptional nonprofit board leadership.

Sheff serves as the founder and a volunteer board member of the Nonprofit Leadership Center of Tampa Bay, FL. He is president of the Conn Memorial Foundation.

In nominating Sheff for the Board Member of the Month Award, Grace Armstrong, executive director of the Nonprofit Leadership Center, noted the following:

“In his role as a funder in the Tampa Bay community, Sheff saw the need for education of area nonprofits so that they could have the skills to achieve their missions effectively and efficiently. And in 1996, he brought together a coalition of community funders to create the Leadership Center, which teaches nonprofits the skills to run their businesses.

“Since that time, Sheff has served the Center as board chair, board treasurer, and as a board member while observing appropriate best practices in term limits. He has not lost his passion for or involvement with the organization. He develops other board members into leaders, elicits generative thinking from both the board and the staff, and is always willing to take a back seat when others have stepped up to provide leadership. Sheff uses his sphere of influence to bring resources to the table and is not afraid to make an ask on behalf of the Center. He is a volunteer instructor in our finance series, actively participates on committees, and is a thoughtful sounding board for me, as he loves to engage in analytical thinking. Among the initiatives he has helped develop is a partnership with the University of Tampa that resulted in a graduate-level Certificate in Nonprofit Management, a Leadership Conference now in its third year, and a Fund Development Academy within the Center. As a board leader, he maintains the perfect balance of involvement, engagement, and listening/observing.

“Sheff’s commitment to the Center has spanned 16 years. He created a resource that has changed the nonprofit landscape in the Tampa Bay area and is untiring in his belief that the best way to positively impact the nonprofit sector and subsequently change the world is through education.”

Recently, BoardSource asked Sheff a few questions about his board service:

What inspires you to serve on this board? I am the president of the local foundation, hired in 1993. The chair who hired me was a long-time community leader and wanted me to build the nonprofit structure.  Three years later, in 1996, I founded the Leadership Center, and my focus has been there ever since.  We have found that many nonprofit leaders come from the program side and are thrust into having to run the business side without the skills and knowledge needed.  We therefore mentor in the business aspects of running a nonprofit. One of the programs allows you to get a M.B.A. and a certificate in nonprofit management from the local college.

What does leadership mean to you? Having good strategy, fiscal oversight, and the right people on and off the bus. Sometimes hard decisions have to be made. You have to stay focused on what is right for the agency, and stop trying to please everyone.

What do you consider the most important quality in a nonprofit board to attract good board members? Strategic thinking at the board level is a quality that good board members will be attracted to.

What do you consider the most important quality in a nonprofit board member? The Leadership Center looks for board members who are passionate about our mission, bring a special skill set, are able to raise money, or have program expertise — all of these add value to the agency.

What do you think is the most important thing you have contributed to this board? Recognizing that there was a need for a regional asset and taking the steps to put it in place and grow it over the years.

What advice would you give to aspiring board members on how to make a difference? Find a mission that you are passionate about and make sure you fit the board’s culture and feel good about the organization’s leadership. Then, figure out how you can best contribute to the board and organization.  Providing strong fiscal oversight, developing strategy, and monitoring it makes a difference.

What does this award mean to you? I am honored to be recognized by two national organizations — BoardSource and Points of Light — that I think highly of. Both the current and past chief executives of the Center have gone through BoardSource trainings and our current CEO is a BoardSource certified governance trainer. Boardsource has been our go-to resource.

Interested in recognizing an outstanding board member for his or her contribution to your organization? Nominate him or her here.


Is Nonprofit Board Service Worth It? Reflections from a One-Time Skeptic

phil_blogBy Phillip Henderson, vice chair, BoardSource Board of Directors; president, Surdna Foundation

When I took the job as president of the Surdna Foundation in 2007, I was not surprised to be showered with flattery and pursued by people who hoped I might just write a check to support their work. What I hadn’t fully anticipated were the many requests to serve on nonprofit boards.

Early in my career, I have to admit, I was a bit of skeptic about boards, thinking they were really just window dressing. Wasn’t a board member’s job simply lending his or her name to the organization’s letterhead, attending quarterly meetings, and offering the occasional nugget of wisdom?  In other words:  Don’t board members just show up and smile? It would be difficult to convince a skeptic otherwise, for we’ve all heard the not-so-apocryphal-sounding stories of big corporate boards that were asleep at the wheel while their CEOs did nefarious deeds. 

Some of my doubt about board service stemmed from the utter failure of boards at companies like Enron and WorldCom. While these catastrophes did lead to legislation aimed at creating greater accountability at both corporate and nonprofit boards, the primary effect of that law, known as Sarbanes-Oxley, seems to have been an increase in paperwork and formal checklists, not to mention fees paid to lawyers and accountants.  It’s difficult to say how effective it has been. Board members do, however, pay far more attention to the tax returns and the work of audit committees.

So I harbored these doubts, but it was not until my first personal experience on a board that I awoke to the reality of the seriousness and responsibility of being a board member.

In 2003, while at the German Marshall Fund, I joined the board of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe, which included representatives from the funders who created the Trust — the Ford, Mott, and Open Society foundations, German Marshall Fund, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.  Soon after I joined, the board realized that the very future of the Trust required completely retooling the business model and transitioning to new leadership. It was the board, which I chaired, that was expected to roll up its sleeves and get this done. The work was serious and time-consuming, and the challenges could not have been bigger. And nowhere in sight was the ceremonial, make-wise-comments board experience I had anticipated.

I’ve since found that my Trust experience was not an anomaly. Board service is serious and demanding business, a reality that is often obscured by the fact that most nonprofit board members are “volunteers.” And, in many cases, board members are also donors — often significant ones. The checks they’re writing, in addition to the many hours they’re giving, only add to their sense of ownership and commitment to the organization’s success.

Since coming to Surdna six years ago, the invitations to join boards have been frequent.  I am now serving on three boards — Living Cities, Romanian-American Foundation (RAF), and BoardSource — plus acting as an advisor to Bard College’s Center for Civic Engagement.  I take board service seriously, and because I have learned it is time-intensive and demands year-round attention, I think I’ve got a pretty full dance card.

But why serve on nonprofit boards at all?  I have several motivations for my own board service, some of which can be broadly applied to all who are interested in social change:

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