The State of the Nation: Board Culture, Practices and Performance

Boards that describe themselves as being a collaborative team working toward a common goal are also more likely to report they specifically incorporate time for socializing among board members. That’s just one of the fascinating insights to be found in Leading with Intent: 2017 National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices published by BoardSource. The report and presents the results of a national survey of board chairs and executives from 1300 nonprofit organizations across the US and illuminates current trends and dynamics in board composition, practices, performance and culture. In this issue of iBossWell Updates, we’ll explore some of the high-level take-aways, including a few surprises, the report reveals.

1. Diversity: Everybody’s talking about it but not much change is occurring.
The survey response tells a surprising and disheartening story. The survey asked: How satisfied are you with the racial/ethnic diversity of your board?

• 65% of NP Executives reported being somewhat or extremely dissatisfied
• 39% of Board Chairs reported being somewhat or extremely dissatisfied

NP executives responding to the survey reported that board diversity is Important or Very Important when it comes to:

• Understanding the changing environment from a broader perspective (89% reporting)
• Developing creative new solutions to new problems (84% reporting)
• Understanding the client populations served by the organization (82% reporting)
• Planning effectively (77% reporting)
• Enhancing the organization’s standing with the general public.” (80% reporting)
• Increase fundraising or expand donor networks (72% reporting)

Yet when asked about priorities for board recruitment only 30% of ED/CEO’s and 28% of board chairs rated demographics as a high priority.

Clearly, there’s a disconnect between how NP executives and board leadership view the importance of diversity around the board table, and perhaps more disturbing, there’s a disconnect between what people are saying is important, and what they’re doing about it. That’s not just unfortunate, it could threaten the ability of a nonprofit organization to fulfill its mission. As the Leading with Intent report summarizes, “A board that is homogeneous in any way risks having blind spots that negatively impact its ability to make the best decisions and plans for the organization. The blind spots created by a lack of racial and ethnic diversity are particularly concerning, as they may result in strategies and plans that ineffectively address societal challenges and inequities, or even reinforce them.”

2.) Boards are more actively embracing their role as advocates and ambassadors, but they need guidance. Survey results tell us the majority of boards are successful at completing fundamental board work—understanding the mission and providing financial oversight. When it comes to advancing their external responsibilities, fundraising, advocacy, community building/outreach, NP executives and board chairs graded their boards as only a C to C+. When asked to identify the top areas for performance improvement for their boards both groups rated outreach/ambassadorship and fundraising in the top two areas for improvement.

A key take-away from the survey data is that the difference in how effectively boards advance these external facing roles is closely related to how well defined the process for advancing these efforts is, and how clearly the role and expectations for board member participation are outlined and communicated.

• Only 15% of nonprofits have a written protocol to guide how they will — and will not — engage in advocacy.
• When fundraising expectations are clearly articulated during board recruitment 52% of NP executives report their boards are actively engaged in fundraising.
• When fundraising expectations are not clearly articulated during recruitment, only 12% of NP executives report their boards are actively engaged.

Given the importance of fundraising for the vast majority of 501c3 organizations, and the growing importance of advocacy across the nonprofit sector, one immediate and high impact change board leaders can make is to ensure all board recruits understand how they will be asked to support these efforts before they actually commit to joining the board. Establishing an annual calendar/agenda for board development that includes skill building in all areas of fund development, from researching potential donors to making asks, and in advocacy, should be a high priority focus for organizations that want to increase the engagement and effectiveness of their boards.

3. The better a board understands your programs, the stronger their engagement, strategic thinking and external leadership will be. The results of the Leading with Intent survey show a strong correlation between a board’s knowledge of an organization’s programs and its overall performance in several critical areas: strategic thinking and planning, commitment and engagement, and fundraising and community outreach. Boards that have weak knowledge of an organization’s programs are less capable of thinking strategically, less able to balance short-term and long-term needs, less committed to the organization, and less engaged in governance, fundraising and outreach.

Boards cannot lead if they don’t understand an organization’s work. To ensure board members are well-prepared for that role, the report authors outlined several practices they urge all nonprofit organizations to embrace to build and advance the knowledge and skills of those sitting around their board tables:

• Comprehensive orientation for new board members including
• both an orientation to their role as a board member and to the organization and its work.
• Focused educational sessions or “Mission Moments” included as a regular feature of board meeting agendas to deepen understanding of the organization’s mission, programs, and impact.
• Opportunities for ongoing education and discussion about the board’s role and how best to leverage its full leadership potential.
• Board materials that provide context and background to support effective engagement, deliberation, and decision making without overwhelming members with unnecessary or irrelevant detail.

4.) Boards that assess their own performance regularly perform their core responsibilities more effectively. Boards that assess themselves regularly, and especially those that have assessed their performance within the past two years, were graded more highly by their NP leaders and board chairs across all areas of board performance. 58% of survey respondents reported their boards have conducted a formal self-assessment at some point—up significantly from the 23% who reported doing so in 1994—only 40% of respondents reported having done an assessment in the past two years. Those that assessed themselves within the past two years were rated more highly in several key categories of performance:

• Evaluating the chief executive.
• Adopting and following a strategic plan.
• Monitoring organizational performance and impact against strategic plan goals.
• Understanding board roles and responsibilities.

Board assessment is the starting point for understanding what is working well and identifying what needs improvement or what should be changed. Perhaps most importantly, a board assessment process provides valuable insight into topics for board development as well as into potential changes that may be needed to meeting structure, agenda, or reporting to enhance the engagement or effectiveness of the board.

5.) The board’s understanding of its roles and responsibilities, and the its ability to work as a collaborative team toward shared goals, are perceived as central to its ability to positively impact organizational performance. The survey shows a strong relationship between perceptions of the board’s impact and how NP executives and board chairs rate board performance in the areas of: thinking strategically as a board, adopting and following a strategic plan, and monitoring organizational performance and impact against goals or objectives in the plan. While more nonprofits report having written strategic plans, the survey reveals that transforming those strategies into action remains a challenge for many boards:

• 84% of organizations report they have a written strategic plan.
• 64% say their board is good at thinking strategically.
• Only 54% report their board is good at monitoring organizational performance against the strategic plan.
• Just 26% report that board meetings focus on strategy and policy versus operational issues.

The boards with the highest impact make strategy an ongoing board function. They regularly:

Explore what is happening in the organization’s operating environment.
• Establish performance/progress indicators as part of strategic and operational plans to help them track and understand what is working well and where expectations are not being met.
• Are attuned to feedback and use it to understand market/community changes and to support adjustments or adaptations in programs, services or operations to meet changing needs.

“Leading with Intent” presents a wealth of information as well as thought-provoking opportunities for reflection about board culture and practices. The report raises many of the questions and ideas the iBossWell team often helps clients wrestle with as part a strategic planning process or during board development work. The highest impact boards and organizations are the ones constantly searching for ways to improve their work, their practices, their thinking. In this report, BoardSource and the Leading with Intent team provide context for the current state and powerful food for thought about how to raise the bar in the future. To find the full report visit the Leading with Intent website.

Finding the Unicorn: Developing Meaningful Performance Measures

Published in the June 2017 issue of The Strategic Edge, Association for Strategic Planning
Ask someone who works in a nonprofit organization what they think about tracking the performance and outcomes of the work they do, and odds are, you’ll hear them say they believe in having a systematic approach for evaluating the effectiveness of their programs and services, and they want to quantify the impact those efforts have on the communities and constituents they serve. Then, if they’re like many people working in the sector, the next thing you’ll hear is a sigh. Possibly a heavy one. That’s because while the nonprofit community is abuzz with talk about program performance and outcomes, and there are literally hundreds of articles and websites explaining how vital it is to measure these efforts (believe us, we googled), there seems to be no universal agreement about what a good program outcome measure looks like. The search for performance measures feels a little like searching for a unicorn.

Understand Your “Why” (aka the Purpose of Your Organization & Programs)
Organizations are different, programs are different, constituents served are different, financial and staff resources are different, levels of experience in assessment and measurement are different. While you can find examples of program process measures (how many, how often, where, who) and progress/performance measures for areas like fundraising, HR, marketing, and financial analysis, trying to find outcome measures that match up with the specific efforts/intentions of your programs or services, is a little like searching for a unicorn.

That’s because the best, most meaningful outcome measures are the ones that help explain the unique “Why” of your work. They tell the story of the change and impact you are working to achieve and demonstrate the tangible difference your program or service makes in the lives of individuals, families, organizations, or communities you serve. No wonder it’s so hard to find “one size fits all” outcome measures, and why writing these measures is so difficult. They need to be as unique as the organization, program and constituency served. You can interpret that as more work, or, you can embrace it as empowering–you get to define the outcome measures that are most aligned with the work you do and most meaningful to your organization.

Begin with the End in Mind
So, how to get there. Start by taking a step back and articulating what you hope to achieve in each of your programs/services/efforts. In other words, begin with the end in mind. The clearer you are about the ultimate intention of each effort, the easier it will become to identify the kind of data and information you could gather and present to tell the story about outcomes and impact. Consider a literacy organization for instance. Questions they might ask include: Why do we partner with the Birthing Center at the local hospital to include reading readiness tools in the discharge package given to low income mothers? Why do we conduct quarterly reading readiness workshops for child care providers? What do we know about the current state of literacy among children entering kindergarten? When an organization understands the answers to questions like these, creating outcome measures becomes less intimidating and more relevant.

As the question of “what to measure” comes into focus, it is essential to also build alignment throughout the organization–staff, board, and with key funders as appropriate–about the measures you will track, and about the culture of performance measurement as a whole. The leadership of the organization needs to agree that the measures identified will provide evidence that meaningfully demonstrates progress and impact. Staff members need to understand why these measures have been chosen, and to recognize the role they will play to gather, analyze and report data to demonstrate outcomes. Key funders and organizational stakeholders need to agree that the measures align with expectations.

Consider the Continuum
For most nonprofit organizations defining success or failure is not an easy yes/no assessment. The challenge many organizations face in creating outcome measures is that the outcomes achieved by participants in the program/services they provide are not always linear, and even more difficult, they’re not always predictable. How do you track the impact of a relationship developed between a program participant who becomes homeless again and the program case worker who convinces that person to re-enter rehab? Your staff, your program, a distinct positive impact on person you served…how do you quantify it on a scorecard?

It’s helpful to consider measuring progress and outcome as a continuum. The activities you engage in and the outputs they generate are indicators that can help you get a sense of trends, and viewed long term, allow you to gain insight into the longstanding ramifications of the work you do. In order to advance your measures along this continuum, it’s important to recognize the difference between outputs, outcomes, and impact. Sending out five news releases is an output. That can be a useful metric for an organization just launching an external communications effort, or for one that has struggled to meet its existing communications goals. Having at least one news release picked up a quarter is an outcome. Becoming the “go to” source for local media on topics related to your programs or services is impact. As your skill at delivering a program advances, and your understanding of the effect of that program evolves, the measures by which you track progress can also evolve along this continuum, allowing your organization to evaluate the deeper impact of your work.

Be Realistic about the What and the How
As you have these conversations it’s important to be cognizant of the difference between what you can measure, and what you should measure. As Einstein said, “Not everything that can be counted, counts; and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Finding the right balance between delivering programs and tracking, analyzing and reporting on progress and outcomes is a particular challenge in an environment where time and dollars are precious commodities. The reality is, some outcomes/impact take years of data to measure, data that may not even be feasible for your organization to collect. It’s worthwhile to determine if there are evidence-based practices being employed by other organizations within your service sector, and to identify ways you can align the measures you track with these proven efforts. Even if the best data you can provide to support these evidence-based practices is limited to outputs, measures such as these are relatively easy to adopt and provide a solid case for demonstrating the effect of your work.

Reviewing an organization’s internal resources and capacity must also play a crucial role in making decisions about progress reporting. Discussions about what to track should incorporate honest evaluation of staff capacity and the processes, systems and technology you’re currently using to gather information. Understand what you can do, and align your measures accordingly. Commit to changing your processes or invest in new ways to gather information so you can expand your measurement and tracking abilities. Measures created with no understanding or acknowledgement of internal infrastructure are measures doomed to go unmet.

Measure What’s Meaningful to You
Scientifically valid evaluation and reporting of outcomes is a wonderful goal, but requires more time and money than the majority of nonprofits have. Therefore, they must rely on “imperfect” measures–subjective, interpretive, based on a small sample size–that deliver trustworthy, meaningful evidence about progress or outcomes generated by a program. Identifying what these meaningful measures are begins with understanding what’s really important to your organization, your staff, your board, your community.

The iBossWell consulting team excels at facilitating planning discussions that lead to the creation of focused strategic plans powered by relevant, impactful metrics. Contact us to learn how we can help take your plan, and your organization, to the next level of success.

Defining the Board’s Role in Strategic Planning

As we work with nonprofit organizations around the country, we are reminded again and again that the people sitting around the board table have the capacity to be the sail that helps drive an organization forward, or the anchor that holds it back. The manner in which the board of directors engages in the strategic planning process has significant implications for how the organization moves into the future. The question, of course, is how to steer individual board members, the board as a whole, and ultimately the organization, in the right direction?

The consulting team at iBossWell is deeply engaged in the Nonprofit Center for Excellence (NPCE), a community of practice sponsored by the Association for Strategic Planning. Denise McNerney is an ASP board member and NPCE chair. Lynne Brown plans, promotes, and has facilitated First Mondays, the monthly “community conversation” hosted by the Nonprofit Center. Each month, nonprofit strategy leaders and managers from around the world log into an open forum and take on a different topic about strategy creation and implementation in the nonprofit sector.

On May 1st, 4:00-5:00 pm US Eastern Time, the group will be exploring the board engagement conundrum. What is the appropriate role of the board in nonprofit strategic planning, and what are some effective practices for guiding that engagement?

Among the questions we’ll be discussing:

• The Carver Model of board governance suggests that boards are responsible for setting the strategic direction of a nonprofit organization, and staff is responsible for implementing that direction. Do you agree? Should staff have a role in defining this direction? Why or why not? What do you do if board and staff have differing visions of the future and how the organization should get there?

• In his book, “The Strategic Board” one of the “realities” author Mark Light points out is the limited amount of time most board members have to devote to their board work (20 hours/year vs. 2080 hours/year a full-time staff member spends.) Given this reality, what is the best use of the board’s time in relation to strategic planning? How have you engaged board members in the planning process?

• Many nonprofits, and many nonprofit board members, have no or limited experience with strategic planning. What should they consider before starting the process? What resources or tools might be helpful to them?

We invite you to add your voice to the discussion. First Mondays forums are open to all. Participation is free, but registration is required to attend. Learn more about the Nonprofit Center for Excellence and the First Mondays events here.

Who Are We? The Nonprofit vs. Community Benefit Organization Debate

As we work with clients on the development of strategic plans, or toward building stronger, more effective leaders, teams and boards, we are constantly reminded of the impact language has on how an organizations’ purpose and intention are perceived. Lately we’ve been wondering, if this is true for our clients, is it also true for the sector we work in? What implications does the term “nonprofit” have on how the clients we serve, and the work they do, is perceived?

Maybe it’s time for a change.

Focusing on Finance Not Mission?
It’s the end of the year and your nonprofit organization has finished with a surplus on the books. When you report the good news at the board meeting one of the board members pipes up, “Wait, we’re a nonprofit! We can’t have a surplus!” And thus begins another round of the age-old conversation about what a nonprofit is, what it does, and lastly, how it is financed. While we might roll our eyes, let’s be fair, you really can’t blame the board member. For a lot of people, the term “nonprofit” is confusing.

That reality is why a growing number of people advocate for changing what we call the nonprofit sector in general and charitable organizations in particular. Search online and you’ll find thoughtful and well-reasoned arguments for changing the phrase nonprofit sector to delta sector, (a reference to the Greek word for change), social sector, third sector, independent sector, even humanity sector. The discussion seems to have gained the greatest traction, however, around defining a new term for describing the organizations that make up this sector. An expanding chorus of voices suggests rather than focusing on the financial structure of these organizations—nonprofit—a better, more accurate description would express what these organizations do and why they exist—to deliver community benefit.

Change the Name, Clarify the Purpose
Hildy Gottlieb, a social scientist and co-founder of Creating the Future (an organization dedicated to engaging people around the world in asking questions that inspire catalytic thinking) has been an eloquent advocate for making this change in terminology. In a blog post first published in 2009, articles in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and in numerous speeches delivered around the country, Gottlieb has articulated six clear and thought-provoking reasons to make the switch from nonprofit to Community Benefit Organization:

1. Community Benefit says what these organizations are and why they exist. What’s more important? The financial means that allows organizations to do the work, or, the work they actually do?

2. The meaning of Community Benefit Organization is clear and straight-forward. There’s no question what a Community Benefit Organization is about: to make a positive impact on the life and well-being of the community.

3. The term Community Benefit Organization creates a strong, powerful self-image. Gottlieb suggests the term nonprofit puts organizations on the defensive. It creates a perception these organizations aren’t “really” businesses and can lead people to overlook the fact charitable organizations possess knowledge and skills critical to addressing issues and meeting need in their communities. The term Community Benefit Organization is an empowering message for staff and volunteers, and a potent reminder of the unique and valuable work they do in the community.

4. Community Benefit Organization is inclusive. The term nonprofit suggests that only those organizations with tax-exempt status do good for the world. That discounts the growing number of for profit businesses that are incorporating nonprofit components into their work. Community Benefit invites all organizations to the table to join the effort to build better, stronger communities.

5. Community Benefit Organization provides direct marching orders to the Board: Focus on providing benefit! The essence of the board’s role is to be the eyes and ears of the community, to ensure that the organization’s programs are relevant and impactful, and that the mission is being fulfilled. Identifying as a Community Benefit Organization keeps everyone’s “eyes on the prize.”

6. The phrase Community Benefit is a promise. Gottlieb asks: “What is the highest priority outcome of the work these organizations do? Is it a vow to never make a profit? Or, is it a promise to provide benefit to their communities, now and into the future?” For her, the answer is clear. If that’s your promise, it should be your name.

Not so Fast! Embrace the Nonprofit Label
While Gottlieb advocates for change, Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, champions the opposite position: We should embrace the word nonprofit, not change it. In a blog post on the Center for Effective Philanthropy website, Buchanan argues that the very “nonprofitness” of nonprofits is what enables them to play the essential role they do in transforming lives and communities. Society needs, and benefits from, organizations that pursue a mission, not a profit. Nonprofitness, Buchanan says, matters, and it is time the sector stopped apologizing and started wearing the nonprofit label proudly.

What do you think? Nonprofit or Community Benefit Organization?
Is it time for a change or should we stick with the tried and true? Should we embrace the nonprofit name or encourage a switch to the term Community Benefit Organization? We’re interested in hearing your opinion on the subject. Follow this link to cast your vote for “Nonprofit” or “Community Benefit Organization.” You’ll be able to see immediate results to learn how other readers see this issue. We’ll report the results in a future post.

There’s Still Time! High Impact Board Workshops

Every nonprofit leader, and every board chair and member, wants to serve on or be supported by a board that is passionate about the mission and impactful in its work. The question is how do you create one? You begin by attending one of the High Impact Board Workshops the iBossWell team is presenting in conjunction with Nonprofit Connect in Kansas City. There are a few seats available for our session with staff leaders on April 6. We’ll be presenting a repeat session targeted to board leaders on April 27. Visit the Nonprofit Connect website for details and to register.

GuideStar’s New Nonprofit Reporting. Game = Changed.

GuideStar just changed the game on nonprofit outcome/results reporting with the introduction of a new format for organization profiles. The profiles continue to include basic summary information about an organization, now though, the 7 million users who go to the GuideStar site annually will also have the opportunity to review three additional categories of information: Programs & Results, Operations and Finances. Note what comes first.

Read the article we authored for The Strategic Edge, the monthly e-newsletter published by the Association for Strategic Planning, to learn more about what has changed and what it mean for your organization.

The Impact of Results Reporting on NP Fund Development

Results reporting is no longer something nonprofits can just talk about. If Charity Navigator, Board Source, and other leading voices in the sector are successful, charitable giving will increasingly be directed to those organizations that can demonstrate they are having a meaningful impact on the communities and people they serve. Read more about it in my article in the September Issue of The Strategic Edge.

Congratulations JCHED Accredited

Congratulations JCHED Accredited

We are delighted to congratulate Johnson County Health & Environment Department (JCHED) for gaining national accreditation through the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB). Receiving PHAB Accreditation is fantastic! PHAB reports that “44 public health departments have achieved national accreditation as of June 18, 2014…” and that is out of the thousands of HD’s across the country. We are proud to have played a piece of the support role in serving as JCHED’s consultant in strategic plan & implementation development and ongoing implementation tracking. The following is a direct quote from their site visit report:

“JCDHE in some ways may have a model performance management system. Based on its strategic plan, performance measures were developed, a monitoring system was created, and a structural system for reviewing the data and discussions for improvement occurs.”

This was referring to both the WePlanWell® system as well as their ongoing policy and practice of quarterly plan assessment reviews and reporting.
As you can imagine, we were all pretty excited about this! To read more on JCHED news, click here.

(Koff, Koff) A WePlanWell Humblebrag

(Koff, Koff) A WePlanWell Humblebrag

We love it when the work we do with clients results in them receiving positive recognition. The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment, based in Olathe, Kansas recently received high praise from the national Public Health Accreditation Board’s Site Visit Team. These intensive site visits, conducted by experts in the public health field, are an essential step in the accreditation process and, let’s be honest, they’re a little nerve-wracking. So, a positive report is a good thing. One that hands out compliments is even better! Here’s what the team said:

“JCDHE in some ways may have a model performance management system. Based on its strategic plan, performance measures were developed, a monitoring system was created, and a structural system for reviewing the data and discussions for improvement occurs.”

Well! And what is the plan monitoring system JCDHE is using? Yes, it is indeed WePlanWell® and the routine periodic assessment and reporting process they have implemented for ongoing plan oversight.

We couldn’t agree more. WePlanWell® is a model for a simple, yet effective method of assessing and reporting on strategic plan progress, not just for health departments, but for nonprofit and government organizations of all sizes.

What model are you using? Let us show you how WePlanWell® can help you take your organization to new levels of strategic plan success. Visit www.weplanwell.com to learn more.

Join us at ASP on 5/13 for Program Assessment: Preparing for Strategic Decision Making and Direction Setting

Join us at ASP on 5/13 for Program Assessment: Preparing for Strategic Decision Making and Direction Setting

Join us for “Program Assessment: Preparing for Strategic Decision-Making and Direction Setting” Tuesday, May 13, 2:15pm PDT, at the Association for Strategic Planning national conference – Long Beach, CA – there’s still time to register! In this conversation we will review practices regarding program assessment that successful NPOs across the country use to prepare for strategic planning and will introduce two high impact program assessment tools.

Learn more about how the work you do to prepare for strategic planning can dictate how successful both plan development AND implementation will be. The key to strategic decision-making and direction-setting is considering and comparing sustainability of all programs, including which ones to expand, reduce, stop and/or start.

Strategic Planning Matters. Here’s the Proof.

Strategic Planning Matters. Here’s the Proof.

The Association for Strategic Planning suggests there’s a reason successful organizations are successful–it has little to do with size and EVERYTHING to do with how well they create, and even more importantly implement, a strategic plan.

In a nutshell, the survey suggests there’s a reason successful organizations are successful–it has little to do with size and EVERYTHING to do with how well they create, and even more importantly implement, a strategic plan.

Strategic Planning Practices Result in Higher Performing Nonprofits

Sponsored by Association for Strategic Planning and the University of Arkansas, Department of Political Science. Presented by Denise McNerney (iBossWell, Inc.), Dominic Perri (Essential Conversations Group) and Margaret Reid (University of Arkansas) at Annual Meeting of the Association for Strategic Planning – Atlanta GA April 23, 2013. Full Survey

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