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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Where Should the Board Chair, the ED, the Staff Sit?

Sounds like a trivial question, but where everyone sits not only reflects organizational philosophy, it sends a strong, visual message to everyone about authority, participation, and the role of the board. (Bonus: cartoon about nonprofit boards at end)

How is a board meeting affected by where the board chair and the executive director sit? Where each sits, particularly in relation to each other, sends a message and influences how the meeting goes. Some board chairs and execs make a point of sitting next to one another at the head of the table: a clear signal about their authority and their partnership.

Reader M.K. Wegman of the National Network is even more detailed: "The board chair sits between the CEO and the COO at the top of the U." And executive director Roger L. explores the idea but rejects it: "Most board presidents have wanted me to sit right next to them so that I could provide tidbits of information as necessary or write a brief note regarding another member's comments. I have always found these activities a bit disconcerting. . . I prefer . . .

Finding the Right Next Board to Join

If you aren't on a nonprofit board yet, you should be (especially if you are a nonprofit manager)! And if you are already on a board, there's another board in your future. First we have questions to ask yourself before seeking a board, and then how to find the right next opportunity for making a difference:

Imagine you were about to make a major donation, say $100,000. You would start by thinking about which areas mean the most to you -- perhaps care for the elderly, or civil rights, or the environment. After settling on a cause, you might then look into several different organizations in that field and investigate ones that seem to have high impact and where your donation would mean a lot.

Contrast this with how we often choose which board to join: someone asked us! While on a board you'll be making a huge donation of time, attention, and your heart (and maybe money). It's worth being proactive.

Questions to ask yourself:

Stick With Old Media: Not Cool But It Works

In the age of social electronic media, media expert Holly Minch dares to defy the Twitter evangelists and makes the case for the power of traditional print and radio:

There's tremendous strategic value in traditional media . . . yes, still! Three reasons why writing press releases and pitching reporters are still worth it:

1. Third-party validation. As pithy as your latest tweet is, as fun-filled as your latest Facebook update is, there's one thing that social media simply can't give you: third-party validation. Don't forget that more than 58 percent of people get their news from television and 34 percent read the newspaper. Face it: an article about you in the Chicago Times will impress your funders and donors; a post on your Facebook page won't.

2. A reach . . .

Meaningful Budget Work by the Board

For many nonprofits, the annual "approval of the budget" is the cornerstone of board financial oversight. However, this annual approval is frequently an empty ritual: one where board members peruse a budget that they are unsure is realistic or appropriate to the planned activities.

Consider the following scene:

The budget discussion is at the end of the agenda, and things are running late. Given a complex budget that "needs to be approved," board members react first by looking for things that they can understand . . . usually a relatively small expense item: "Why is this travel budget so high?" "Can this phone budget be reduced?"

As each question or suggestion is raised, staff respond by explaining why each suggestion for a change is unrealistic. "The travel budget has been funded for Program X so we have to do it." "Actually the phone budget is not that big." After a few instances of staff "explaining" line items, board members realize that asking such questions isn't really going anywhere.

In the backs of their minds is the thought, "It's probably okay. It was okay last year and I didn't understand it then either." So they vote to approve the budget.

In short, . . .

What is Micromanagement and What Isn't?

Micromanagement: whatever the board is doing that the executive director doesn't like. :)

From an executive director: "The board is micromanaging! They're driving me crazy!"

And from a board member of the same organization: "Every time we make even a suggestion the executive director flies off the handle and accuses us of micromanaging! Aren't we supposed to be guiding and leading?"

Wryly, we might say that "micromanagement" is whatever the board does that the executive director doesn't like. For example, let's imagine a board reviewing a budget that has $10,000 included for lighting fixtures. Some board members don't see the point of . . .

Five Tips for Better Board Packets

Having been both an executive director and a board president, I'm on both sides of the board packet question. I know the staff's temptation to send a ton of stuff, the better to inform and impress the board. I also know the board member's tendency to run out of time to read the material, but still to be annoyed if the materials are either late or questionably useful.

More than 50 Blue Avocado readers sent in their comments about what they like -- and can't stand! -- in board meeting packets. Two striking takeaways: board members feel disrespected when board packets are late or sloppy, and feel railroaded when background information isn't included for an upcoming decision.

The angry comments from board members over irrelevant or unexplained materials reflect anger over the message they are getting from staff about how the staff values and respects the board's ability, authority, and responsibility to make decisions. A thoughtful packet not only provides the board with the information it needs for the meeting, but increases board confidence in the staff and in the board-staff relationship.

More specifically:

1. Why is this in the packet?

Board members want information that will be needed for the next board meeting. If approval of a new program or a new budget is on the agenda, a clear statement of the proposal must be in the packet, along with identifying . . .

A Board-Staff Agreement for Financial Accountability

Not all board members need to be familiar with financial terms and concepts, but each organization needs to develop a clear and explicit agreement for how financial accountability will be ensured. The following is a starting point for an agreement that the board and staff can make to ensure a partnership for accountability.

Starting with this template, a discussion on the finance committee with the executive director and the finance staff will go a long way towards clarifying roles.

Sample Board-Staff Agreement for Financial Accountability

Read more for sections on accounting, budget, personnel, more . . .

Board Email: Reduce, Reflect, Rejoice!

Most nonprofit boards use email, and most board members get driven crazy at some point by it. One such person -- Mary Broach, co-president of Impact100 in Philadelphia -- was getting 30 - 40 emails from other board members every day [yikes!], and she decided to draw up some guidelines:

Four ways to immediately reduce the number of emails:

1. For many items, pick up the phone first. If a topic is complex or nebulous, start by talking it over with another board member. That way a clear proposal (perhaps with alternatives) can be sent to everyone on the board. Or consider a conference call among a few people rather than an email to everyone on the board.

2. If you're mad or upset, wait 24 hours before replying, and think about using the phone to resolve the situation instead of sending an email.

3. If you get an email from someone who's mad or upset, don't "reply to all."

  • Bad: [reply to all] Your tone really bothers me and you don't understand the situation.
  • Better: [reply to one person] I'm not sure how to interpret . . .

What is an Advisory Board and Should We Have One?

Recently several Blue Avocado readers have written to say their organizations are considering creating advisory boards or advisory committees of one kind or another. At the same time, others write to ask how to disband troublesome or obsolete advisory committees. Here are some guidelines for advisory committees, as well as a sample letter inviting an individual to join such a group:

The board of directors of a nonprofit organization is its legal, governing body. In contrast, an advisory board does not have any formal legal responsibilities. Rather, an advisory board is convened by the organization to give advice and support.

Probably the most common experience nonprofits have with advisory boards is that they invite people successfully onto such a board, and then fail to have that board accomplish much of anything. So it's worth a few minutes to consider the options for doing it right, and even whether to do it at all.

There are four common types of nonprofit advisory boards, illustrated in the following examples:

Fundraising: Organization W wants to invite prospective donors onto some kind of official body, but it doesn't think these individuals would be good board members. In some cases the individuals probably don't have the time or interest, and others are not seen as being appropriate (for a variety of reasons) for the board. By creating an advisory board, W hopes to . . .

How Much to Pay the Executive Director?

Nonprofit board members are often puzzled when it comes to setting the salary of the executive director. On one hand, we want to keep our talented staff; on the other hand, we know the budget is tight. Some legal and practical guidelines:

It's maddening and ironic that the press focuses on the extremely rare cases of high salaries for nonprofit executives, when salaries in nonprofits are typically 20% - 40% less than their counterparts in foundations, local government, and the business sector. Mistaken public perception that nonprofit salaries are high has even led to New Jersey now limiting the amount of state funds that can be spent on nonprofit executive salaries.

But despite the press, community nonprofit boards are more frequently worried that they are paying their executives too little, a feeling shared by many executive directors themselves.

Unfortunately, survey data is often of little use, because of small sample sizes, samples weighted towards universities, and the reality that all surveys show enormous variation in salaries for nonprofits of the same fields and sizes. An example of the inconsistency of data: one recent national survey showed average executive director salary to be $60,000 while another reported $158,000.

"Under $50,000, people aren't going to move," says...