Board Cafe

Short enough to read over a cup of coffee, Board Café has everything you need and want to know to help you give and get the most out of board service.

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In the boardroom: Asked to join that board?

Asked to join that board? Here's what to look for before you sign on the dotted line

Most board recruitment is relationship-based. Often a friend or colleague, already serving on a board, will recruit you to join their Community Benefit Organization (CBO) board. They'll offer lofty visions of how your service can change the world, while simultaneously suggesting a manageable commitment.

Being asked to join a board is an honor. If asked, you are right to feel flattered. But before you agree, I suggest you engage in a thorough due diligence process to know exactly what will be expected and to determine if the organization fits for you.

Gearing Up and (Teaming Up) for a Leadership Transition

Some of the hardest moments we face as nonprofit professionals happen during leadership transitions. That's why it's so great that Susan Poglinco and Priscilla Rosenwald took the time to very honestly chronicle for Blue Avocado the challenges -- both expected and unanticipated -- they ran into during one such transition at a charter school in the northeast. It's a fresh reminder for me that nothing is ever as neat as it looks on the surface.

Everything We've Been Taught About Major Gifts is Wrong

Of course, by "everything" for purposes of this article I mean "three big things." But conventional wisdom can lead us astray when devising effective fundraising strategies. Like leprechauns, these mythical truisms can mislead us into thinking we should be chasing pots of gold that will always remain out of reach:

Myth #1: People have been acculturated to resist asking people for donations. Training them in "doing the ask" and inspiring them about goals are good ways to overcome this resistance.

Actually, only a few people are very resistant to asking strangers . . .

The Definitive Nonprofit Board Book: Index (humor)

While the complete manuscript of this book on nonprofit boards were lost in a swamp, the title and index were salvaged for posterity:

Book title: Strategic, Transformative Expertise-based Roles Emerging Out of Thoughtful Year-round Paradigm Evolution (STEREOTYPE)


Advice to nonprofit boards, list of published books, 825 - 940
Agriculture, slash-and-burn, similarity to board agendas, 715
Blue Avocado, as best resource for nonprofits in world history, 1
Boardsource, "oil spill incident," 145
Carver, John, why boards shouldn't fundraise, 115 - 119
Carver, John, changing mind to boards should fundraise, 120
Deadwood on boards, compared to driftwood and petrified wood, 224
Diversity, see "Ways to Avoid Mentioning Race," 741
Executive directors' complaints about boards, 43 - 119, 875
Executive directors' complaints about funders, 18 - 65, 94 -123
Executive directors' complaints about staff, 119 - 260, 340
Foundations, how much to pay foundation board members, 415 - 417
Furniture, how "board president" became "board chair," xiv
Gum, Wrigley's vs. Orbit, 76
Major donor, see "Crazy Board Member You Can't Get Rid Of"
Minutes, the Corinthian Logic Model Approach, 675
Nominating Committee, research on why this committee is the most likely not to have done anything since the last board meeting, 15
One hundred percent board giving and other myths, 91
Qualifications for becoming consultant to nonprofit boards [Editor's note to indexer: why isn't there anything in this chapter?]
Reasons given by executives why board members should pay more attention to oversight of the executive, 21 (actually only one paragraph on page 21)
Sample RFPs for hiring consultant to tell board to raise money, 433 - 501
Seconding the motion, most popular board member action, 178
Vodka, second in popularity as beverage preferred by executive directors after board meetings, 903
Zzzzzzz, frequency of being heard in board meetings, 84

A Board Member's Guide to Nonprofit Overhead

Calculating overhead rates and managing overhead expense are important staff roles. Board members are not required to know how do staff accounting work, but we do need to bring an informed perspective to our oversight:

Harvard's indirect cost rate is 68% while Iowa State's is 48%. Should the board members of either institution be concerned? As a alumnus of one or the other, should these numbers affect our donations? As a parent of a high school senior, do these numbers influence where we want our child to go? Should they?

Amid the crosstalk about nonprofit overhead, board members and staff do need to understand what the conversation is really about, and how to interpret "what is overhead" for your own organization. Here are eight key things to know about overhead:

1. Apples, oranges, and alligators: One of the more surprising facts about overhead is that while it seems that everyone is talking about it, everyone is actually talking about the different things. The word "overhead" isn't an accounting term, so different people define it differently.

Some accounting terms which are similar to "overhead" and often confused with it are:

  • Indirect costs
  • Administrative costs
  • Shared costs
  • Fixed costs

In one study, respondents were asked which of the above was the closest synonym . . .

Who's the Boss? The Board or the Executive?

There is an abundance of advice for nonprofit boards and EDs that speaks to the advantages of "partnership" and "open communications." But sometimes that advice just doesn't feel like enough.

Who's the boss? The board or the executive director/CEO?

The answer: it depends on whether the board is acting as a body, or whether board members are acting as individuals. The key is remembering that the board is different from board members.

It's not the board president who hires the executive director; only the board as a whole can do that. The treasurer doesn't approve the budget; the board as a whole does that. In other words, when the board is acting as a body, it is the boss. The executive is answerable to that body.

On the other hand, when board member act as individuals, they . . .

The Very Good but Seriously Flawed Executive Director

No executive director has all gifts, and many are brilliant. But what about the nonprofit CEO who is terrific in some ways but whose strengths are matched with some troubling flaws as well?

It's uncomfortable to be a board member when you have such a CEO. On one hand, it's exciting to be around her vision and her energy, and it's inspiring to see the work that is getting done. On the other hand, maybe the CEO has a blindspot for finance, and you're worried that financial problems may be leading up to a crisis. Or perhaps the executive is wonderful with staff, but he doesn't seem to be building connections with partners and funders.

Sometimes there's nothing really wrong with an executive director, but nothing really right, either . . .

Following a Founder or Long-Timer Requires a Hard Head

When Blue Avocado asked for potential interviewees who had followed a founder or a long-time executive, we didn't expect 58 people to respond. We interviewed 18 executive directors who followed founders, and another 10 who followed long-time execs. Last issue's First Person Nonprofit and this article are also ramp-ups to the national survey of nonprofit leaders in similar positions. CompassPoint Nonprofit Services has conducted a study of such executives among grantees of the Packard Foundation, with the data so interesting that we are pleased to partner with them on the expansion of the study to a national audience. Nonprofit executives: please! Click here to take the survey!

If founding a nonprofit takes strong self-confidence and a soaring vision, following such a leader takes hard-headed management skills and just plain hard work, according to 28 "followers" -- let's call them "successors" because they succeeded long-timers. They work at organizations that range from 2 to 300 staff.

Here's a story that combines several themes: "I replaced the founder of 35 years. Plus, she was my mother! I'll have been in this job for 10 years come July, and nine of them have been a financial struggle. I'd be putting on this warrior clothing to go out and battle and find money and keep this vision solid. And then my mother would come in and say . . .

Ten Things Boards Do Right (Without Even Realizing It)

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 . . .

DIY: Make a Bylaws Cheat Sheet

"What does it say in the bylaws?"

"Does anyone have a copy of the bylaws?"

"I know I got one when I started on the board but . . . "

Here's a new idea: a Bylaws Cheat Sheet. Even if there is a copy of the bylaws handy, it's tedious to have to look over all the legalese when you want an answer to a simple question. So a nice 30 minute Do It Yourself (DIY) project is to create one:

  • Legal Name of Nonprofit Corporation:
  • Tax Exempt Determination year:
  • Maximum and Minimum # of Board Members:
  • How many years in a term?
  • Are there term limits? If so, how many terms?
  • What are the officer positions?
  • What is the percentage or number for a quorum?
  • How can the bylaws be changed?
  • And a Yes/No checklist:
    Are board members indemnified?
    Is there a procedure for removal of a board member?

See also in Blue Avocado:


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