Highlights

Thank You for Making this the best BLF Ever

New Orleans BLF15

BLF 2015 was a huge success, and we have all who attended the event to thank! With 50+ sessions, 70+ speakers, and 900+ attendees, it was a lively two days. Below are some of the highlights, and check out the session details for handouts. Photos and videos are below!


Featured Sessions

Carville and Matalin welcome conference attendees to New Orleans with wit and wisdom  

The BoardSource Leadership Forum got off to a lively start with a plenary conversation between Anne Wallestad, BoardSource president and CEO, and two of the country’s most respected – and entertaining – political consultants and commentators: Mary Matalin and James Carville.

James “The Ragin’ Cajun” Carville has a long list of electoral successes, including helping Bill Clinton win the presidency in 1992. Matalin, a popular conservative voice in America, made her mark as George H.W. Bush’s campaign director and as assistant to both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Now married and living in New Orleans with their two daughters, Matalin and Carville spend much of their time helping rebuild and promote that city. These efforts, as well as the couple’s insights into the current political environment and presidential race, were the focus of their BLF comments.

Looking back 10 years to August 2005 – when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast and an engineering failure left New Orleans underwater for weeks and without basic services for months – Matalin and Carville noted that when civic necessity drove everything, nonprofits stepped in immediately. “Nonprofits had a hand in everything you see in New Orleans today,” said Matalin.

When asked what it takes to create sustainable change, as New Orleans has done these past 10 years, the couple spoke of

  • a willingness to open your mind to a new way of thinking – New Orleans, which Matalin described as an urban renewal prototype, “took ideas from everywhere,” including Amsterdam and Rotterdam in The Netherlands and from architects throughout the world, thanks to Brad Pitt’s work.
  • a need for strong, transparent leaders as well as passionate followers — “It really matters who is in charge,” said Carville, but you also need people who are willing to follow. “People wanted to be lead; they wanted an assignment.”
  • an understanding of skill set – “It’s important to understand people’s strengths” and utilize those strengths, said Matalin.

Peppered with wit and repartee, the discussion included Matalin’s and Carville’s perspectives on the current political environment. “If you think this is ugly, read history,” said Carville. “This is what politics looks like, and we’re about to have even more turbulence, so buckle your seat belts.” They described the upcoming presidential election as a watershed event that will force the losing party – be it Democratic or Republican – to take stock and adapt. “Change is coming,” said Carville. As for Donald Trump’s candidacy, Carville said, “No one saw him coming, and no one knows his exit date, but he will exit.” In his place, Matalan longs for a “common-sense conservative.”

In parting, Carville told the nonprofit leaders in attendance that “Politicians need good information – evidence, data, solutions that work. You are the solutions bringers, as opposed to the problem bringers…‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,’ and there are a lot of candle lighters in this room.”

“Heroism has shaped the New Orleans you see today,” Albert Ruesga, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, told those lucky enough to attend the BLF concurrent plenary focused on the ways in which New Orleans nonprofit and community leaders came together to defend and rebuild the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And joining him on the stage were three people he introduced as “heroes” – Anne McDonald Milling, founder of Women of the Storm; Keith Liederman, chief executive officer, Kingsley House, Inc., and LaToya Cantrell, former president of the Broadmoor Development Corporation and current member of the New Orleans City Council – all with inspiring stories to tell and insights into leadership to share.

Anne Milling and Women of the Storm:

Anne Milling began her story on a positive note: “New Orleans is experiencing a renaissance,” she said with obvious pride. What she didn’t say is that she has had much to do with it! One of the 1.3 million people who were evacuated when Katrina hit in late August 2005, Milling returned to her beloved city in November to find no electricity, no services, and a lack of attention from the nation’s government leaders.

“The government failed us at all levels,” she said, “so we had take the power in our own hands,” To do so, she founded the grassroots organization, Women of the Storm, in January 2006 in her living room with the support of a small group of independent-minded women with a track record for activism. Just 20 days later, Anne and 130 economically, socially, and ethnically diverse women from metropolitan New Orleans and south Louisiana descended on Washington, D.C., with a simple mission – to invite and encourage every member of the House and Senate to see first-hand the devastation and challenges that the region faced. Over the next few months, 58 Senators and 142 members of the House of Representatives accepted the Women of the Storm invitation to visit New Orleans, money was secured for the Road Home housing restoration program, and revenues from offshore oil and gas leases were approved for coastal restoration.

“It is so important, so vital, for our leaders to hear our voices,” Anne concluded, “and when there is a void, people will step up.”

Keith Liederman and Kingsley House

Keith Liederman picked up where Anne left off, noting that she and Women of the Storm worked at a macro-level, while he and his colleagues at Kingsley House, the oldest Settlement House in the South, worked on a micro-level to provide basic human services to those affected by the hurricane.

He opened his remarks by noting the extent of damage caused by Katrina: 1.5 million people were displaced; 430,000 homes were damaged, including 180,000 of New Orleans’s 200,000 homes; 90,000 square miles were affected; 80 percent of the city was flooded; more than 80 percent of social services were knocked out; and the city of New Orleans closed down completely for more than a month. As for Kingsley House, its board and staff members were scattered in 10 different states, and its physical plant sustained more than $4 million in damages.

“And yet,” Liederman said, ”within a few days of the storm, our board was able to connect and approve keeping the full staff on the payroll, even though we had no operations and would see a revenue drop from $430,000 a month to $35,000 a month. It agreed to exhausting our operating surplus and drawing on reserves, and it made a decision to rebuild our campus, taking on more risk, more debt.

“As a result of this leadership, we were able to launch the region’s first Resettlement and Recovery Center in October, and in November, we were the first Settlement House to reopen its preschool and adult services programs. The board also authorized entering into new multi-agency partnership to pool resources and coordinate efforts to form a community-based services network to meet the needs of ten of thousands of families throughout the region.

“Throughout the recovery process, the board engaged in unprecedented risk-taking and experienced a paradigm shift that has resulted in it now being much more strategic about risk-taking. The nonprofit sector needs board members like those who lead Kingsley House – board members who are comfortable with risk, and who, when necessary, are willing to use reserves to invest in your programs. Adversity to risk equals mission risk.”

LaToya Cantrell and the Broadmoor Neighborhood

The city of New Orleans has 73 neighborhoods. Post Katrina, the city recommended that seven not be rebuilt. Broadmoor, a low-lying neighborhood with a diverse population, was one of those seven. The city’s urban planners recommended that it be razed and turned into a drainage park – and that, according to LaToya Cantrell, a long-time Broadmoor resident, is when “all hell broke loose. We felt we were viable. We wanted everyone to have the opportunity to return.”

Building on the community’s indignation – “From the ground, you can never go wrong,” said Cantrell – the Broadmoor Improvement Association, under Cantrell’s leadership, created a comprehensive redevelopment plan, independent of City Hall, with the support of public policy students from Harvard University that resulted in the neighborhood being removed from the “green dot” list.

“We were committed to Broadmoor coming back better than before,” Cantrell said. And it has. Broadmoor now boasts a neighborhood-oriented charter school (Broadmoor was not on the public education list), a public library that also serves as a community center, and a health clinic. And a decade after the storm, the neighborhood serves as model for disaster recovery throughout the world.

Those who attended the session heard words of advice throughout on the role of leadership in a time of crisis:

  • Take risks.
  • Do not waiver.
  • Build from the ground up.
  • Be realistic.
  • Look inward, be thoughtful.
  • What you do before a disaster will separate you post-disaster.

Improvise when necessary; be fluid, as opposed to just flexible.

A standing-room-only BLF session on generative governance featured current and former board chairs as well as chief executives from the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and Cedar Crest College. Moderated by consultant Cathy Trower, author of The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership and a BoardSource board member, the panelists described their organizations’ experiences adopting a generative practice of governance, the difficulties it presented, and the benefits it provides.

Trower provided an introduction to generative governance, describing it as an organizational identity based on generating insight and identifying problems, not as a radical departure from mission or a tactic to be used in lieu of fiduciary and strategic thinking. Generative governance is not the answer to every question or crisis, but is a way for nonprofits to improve their leadership and govern in more discerning ways.

Despite the benefits of generative governance, it is a difficult strategy to adopt. If a board has governed a certain way for a significant period of time, it is easy to become resistant to change. As the panelists’ experiences indicated, though, it also has the ability to transform organizational leadership.

Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Cedar Crest College, was joined by the college’s board chair, David Keller. She began the conversation by emphasizing that the biggest benefit of adopting a generative governance strategy has been the ability to take more risks to launch new initiatives. Jennifer Sampson, CEO of the United Way, noted that their board has learned to embrace discomfort and be okay with tough conversations. She was echoed by Clint McDonnough, the former board chair of the United Way, who emphasized that the board had to realize it was okay to disagree.

High-level discussions and the full commitment of both board and staff are requirements for adopting generative governance practices. All board members must pledge to come to board meetings prepared for and open to discussion, while staff are charged with developing conversation topics that will encourage complex dialogues.

As part of encouraging robust discussions, staff must be willing to ask questions of the board that they do not already have the answers to, and the board must accept that it does not always have to come to a conclusion – sometimes introspection is its most important task.

The panelists briefly described the process their organizations went through in changing their governance practices. The board of the United Way was asked to assess its performance and, after receiving a C, came to a consensus that it wanted and needed to govern at a higher level.

Cedar Crest College adopted new governance strategies after parting ways with a president who led the college for less than a year. The board took responsibility for the quick departure and its openness to look at its own performance created a commitment and set the stage for the adoption of generative governance strategies.

Establishing generative governance also requires strong communication between an organization’s board and staff, and a strong relationship between the board chair and chief executive. It was no coincidence that the four panelists represented two board chair/chief executive partnerships.

While adopting generative governance practices may be difficult, the examples of both Cedar Crest College and the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas showed that it is possible and will result in more organizational impact.

From the streets of Philadelphia to the corner office  

Gracing the stage at the Judith O’Connor Memorial Fund Plenary Lunch on Tuesday, November 10, were two friends who grew up together in Philadelphia — Art Taylor, president & CEO of BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and Kevin Washington, president & CEO of YMCA of the USA.

Washington, a 37-year YMCA professional, joined Y-USA after serving as president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston and president of CEO of the YMCA of Greater Hartford, where he is credited for investing in communities, increasing access to the Y, and implementing programs that are helping thousands of children and families to learn and thrive. He is the 14th person, and the first African-American, to lead the Y in the U.S.

Taylor, a respected and sought-after voice in the sector on charity accountability and transparency issues, oversees all aspects of BBB Wise’s work, which includes setting standards for soliciting organizations, evaluating charities in relation to these standards, publishing the Wise Giving Guide, assisting local Better Business Bureau charity review programs, and providing a variety of materials on informed giving to individual, institutional, and business donors. He has served on numerous nonprofit boards throughout his career, including Independent Sector and Franklin & Marshall College.

Taylor and Washington wove in personal stories and narratives as they talked about a variety of issues affecting nonprofit board leaders today. Angela Williams, executive vice president, general counsel, & chief administration officer, YMCA of the USA, and member of the BLF Host Committee, moderated the discussion. Paraphrased bits of pieces of the conversation follow.

Millennials in the boardroom:

Washington: Millennials are empowered by different tools, and want to apply these new tools to change the world for a purpose. In context of the board, however, we must balance our desire to bring Millennials on with the understanding that they need to earn the opportunity. We should bring on only those individuals who should be there, whose understanding of how to use these new tools is aligned with an understanding of why to use them.

Taylor: Millennials want to move quickly, are willing to take risks, are aware of their biases, and are far less tolerant of bigotry. That’s good for the world, and when we have these different perspectives around the table, the outcome will be better.

Investing in technology and overhead:

Taylor: We need to stop thinking of technology as a barrier and start thinking of it as an opportunity to enable us to do more. We need to get ahead of it, ramp into it; the danger is when we wait. We need to spend 20 percent of our day thinking about what is next.

Washington: The Y has an innovation department, but remember, innovation is not always transformation. We’re looking at processes and how we can improve them. Technology is one of the ways we can improve processes, and we have to invest in it. We can’t run away from it.

Taylor:  Many people are hung up on overhead metrics. How much money an organization is spending on overhead is not the way to assess an organization. We need to invest in overhead. Overhead will drive our organizations forward. And sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. Some organizations, for example, produce literature that says they don’t spend a single dollar on overhead. We help make overhead seem like a bad thing. We’ve got to move away from this.

Washington: Compensation is a part of overhead, and we don’t pay as well as we need to. Nonprofits are complex organizations and need great talent. Charity shouldn’t mean giving up a life.

Collaboration:

Taylor: One of the skills we have to learn is to collaborate. I know of a women’s shelter that found that 60 percent of battered women won’t leave their homes when an animal is present. So the women’s shelter started collaborating with the animal shelter. There are millions of relationships like this we can’t see. Boards have to lead that.

Washington: But collaboration has to happen from the ground up; it can’t be forced by funders. And collaborations aren’t easy. You need clear MOUs, and everyone needs to buy in, including the board.

Board-CEO partnership:

Washington: Transparency is key. If I know something is wrong, my board chair is the next to know. We also need to make sure we utilize our board members well and are clear about expectations.

Taylor: Focus on the right things and bring them in early. I report to my board members on the “now” and want them to think about what’s “next.” I want fewer conversations about financials and more talk about how to advance mission.

Washington: I’m a big fan of executive sessions, which give board members time to coalesce as a group. It’s a standard part of the Y’s board agenda.

Parting advice regarding effective leadership:

Taylor: Effective leadership is all about trust. Everything cascades around that, around trying to live and operate in a way that is beyond reproach. We need to build trust individually and organizationally. It’s essential that we work together, and we can’t do without trust.

Washington: I’d add transparency to the equation. We must be clear about our goals, aspirational in our thinking, and inspirational. Trust, transparency, aspiration, and inspiration – those are key to leading effectively.

What will the nonprofit sector look like in two years? In 30 years? That was one of the questions posed at the BLF closing plenary. Jacob Harold, president & CEO of GuideStar; Richard Mittenthal, president & CEO of TCC Group; Glen O’Gilvie, CEO of the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, and Anne Wallestad, president & CEO of BoardSource, were on hand to answer it as well as field questions posed by the audience. All provided food for thought for the hundreds of nonprofit leaders wrapping up their two days of learning.

Here are some paraphrased highlights of the conversation.

What do you imagine the sector will look like in the future?

Harold: In two years, I think there will be signs of transformation in how people make judgments of nonprofits. I think there will be more acceptance of a common, multi-dimensional profile of nonprofits. In 30 years, there will be real transformation. Like the swooping flocks of birds I used to watch with fascination as a child, I see nonprofits coming together, collaborating, breaking apart into individual organizations, then coming together again, over and over again. And I’m hoping we will learn to celebrate entrances and exits, much like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs do when their companies are acquired. They view it as an affirmation that they have built something that is worthy and viable.

Mittenthal: I foresee three things: A surprise financial crisis and chatter about who’s fault it is; increased talk of standards, but, unfortunately, doubtful adoption of best practices; and money from large donors pouring in to influence public policy with little regulation from Washington to stop it.

O’Gilvie: When I look into my crystal ball, I see us investing in education as a capacity builder, embracing real-time evaluation, and investing in our infrastructure – we are only as good as the people we work with.

Wallestad: At BoardSource, we’re thinking about the generational shift we’re going to be seeing in the boardroom as more and more Millennials become board leaders. Will it even be a boardroom? and how do we anticipate this? And I think we’ll see more mergers and acquisitions with cause or mission coming first and structure and sector coming second.

Will co-leadership become more common?

Harold: Co-EDs makes me nervous because co-leadership is hard to do. It requires clarity of roles.

Wallestad: I think we will see more of it. The key is to learn from the early adapters and to ask what it means for both the board and employees.

Mittenthal:  It fails more than it succeeds.  It depends on the chemistry.

O’Gilvie: I put a lot of stock in partnerships. If the board is functioning well, I think it can work, but the reporting lines must be clear. And it helps to have one extrovert and one introvert.

Do you think there will be more or fewer nonprofits?

Harold: If we move in the direction of the flock of birds analogy, fewer.

Mittenthal: More. Young people in particular are starting nonprofits.

O’Gilvie: More – there is no shortage of great ideas, but I’m not sure all will be financially viable.

Harold: I think the definition of leadership is too tied up with entrepreneurship. Leadership can play out in other ways than starting something new.

What can the sector do to really move the needle?

Mittenthal: We need to do a better job of evaluating outcomes and asking if our donors are really getting return on their money?

Wallestad: Collaborate and use evidence-based decision making.

O’Gilvie: We need to do a better job of telling our stories so more people get it, and talk more about what we are and less about what we’re not.

Advocacy and fundraising should not be viewed as two disparate organizational activities. Rather, advocacy can support a nonprofit’s mission and directly impact its fundraising efforts.

In their session at BLF 2015, Laurel O’Sullivan, founder and principal of The Advocacy Collaborative LLC, and Laura Kaufman, principal of Partners in Effective Philanthropy, described the connection between advocacy and the success and sustainability of nonprofits. O’Sullivan champions a technique termed AdvocacyForward™ – a business model for nonprofits that emphasizes advocacy as a core management priority.

Making advocacy a part of organizational culture requires the right organizational mindset, internal structures, and a plan for sustainability. Both the board and staff must be committed in to advocacy to achieve maximum impact and support fundraising.

O’Sullivan and Kaufman used The John Howard Association of Illinois as a case study to connect their techniques to a real organization struggling to increase funding. That association, which provides public oversight of Illinois’s prisons, jails, and juvenile correctional facilities, engaged in public-facing advocacy with the support of its board and leadership from its chief executive. The result? It was able to boost its profile and create more public stakeholders.

O’Sullivan and Kaufman emphasized engagement as the connection between fundraising and an organization that has fully committed to an advocacy-based business model. Organizations must craft an engagement strategy aimed at not only securing new funders, but also at identifying and cultivating their most staunch supporters – those who support their mission without receiving anything in return.

Advocacy creates impact, which is key to fundraising success. Nonprofits that create value and clearly convey their mission attract more stakeholders and generally have a more sustainable fundraising strategy. According to O’Sullivan and Kaufman, one of the most effective ways for organizations to define their impact and engage supporters is through storytelling. While most organizations understand the concept of storytelling, many fail to emphasize the middle of their story – the section in which the hero is facing long odds and continues to struggle before eventually prevailing. Using data also helps the public understand why an organization’s mission is important by contextualizing the problem it helps solve. Furthermore, data show the long-term and short-term impact on the community served and help define eventual victory.

Engagement also helps secure repeat donors – a huge problem for the nonprofit community as the majority of donors only give once. It is expensive to secure a donor at any level, so failing to retain them is financially limiting. Once an individual becomes a repeat donor, organizations can leverage their commitment as an evangelist who can encourage more individuals to become donors.

Advocacy plays an important role in donor engagement by helping to connect individuals to the mission of an organization. Understanding why donors give allows organizations to leverage their donors as volunteers, directly involving them with the organization. Nonprofits can then use advocacy to help donors build on their experience by learning to make the case for the organization.

Advocacy and fundraising are intertwined. Organizations must embrace their mission and use public commitment to change to boost their image within the community and create funding evangelists.

As a nonprofit sector, we have come to some consensus on “good governance” and the things boards should do to effectively govern nonprofits. We have identified the board’s basic roles and developed metrics to gauge organizational success. What we DON’T know is if there is a relationship between board effectiveness and organizational effectiveness. Until now.

At BLF 2015, Julie Simpson, director of nonprofit strategy and capacity building services at TCC Group; Charles Gasper, senior evaluation consultant at TCC Group; and Anne Wallestad, president and CEO at BoardSource, shared the preliminary results of a study that identifies the ways in which strong board performance correlates with overall organizational strength in a session titled “Why Boards Matter.”

Analyzing the data from TCC Group’s Core Capacity Assessment Tool (CCAT) — an organizational diagnostic that has been taken by more than 5,200 nonprofit administrations (representing more than 23,000 individuals) between 2004 and 2015 – and using a sample of 855 organizations that have taken the CCAT more than once, TCC Group has determined what boards do that result in stronger leadership and adaptive capacities.

CCAT measures a nonprofit’s effectiveness in relationship to four core capacities – leadership, adaptability, management, and technical capacities. Additionally, the tool helps organizations identify their lifecycle stage.  Pulling out questions related to the board, TCC Group sought to discover if six board capacities – board vision, outside engagement, internal engagement, strategic planning, board relationship with the chief executive, and governance – correlate with the four organizational capacities. What came first? What shifted first? The board or the organization?

Good news – it was the board! Slicing the data further from both a narrow perspective (analyzing CCAT questions that directly pertain to board responsibilities) and a broad perspective (questions that pertain to both board and staff), TCC Group discovered that the most powerful board capacities from a narrow perspective are strategic planning and board relationships and from a broad perspective are internal and outside engagement.

So where do you get the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to board strengthening work?

Priority 1:

  • Engage in strategic planning that features clarity of vision and purpose, agreement on priorities, full board engagement in planning, and regular data-driven reflection on progress.
  • Foster a strong relationship between the board and the chief executive that is based on mutual respect, trust, transparency, and accountability.

Priority 2:

  • Engage the board internally and externally so that it is taking and encouraging a mission-centered, vision-based, focused, and inclusive approach to decision making; inspiring and motivating staff and stakeholders; helping secure necessary resources for efficient operations; and advocating for mission.

Most studies on board chair behavior and practices survey chief executives instead of the board chairs themselves. The Governance Affinity Group at the Alliance for Nonprofit Management set out to launch the first nationwide survey to directly ask board chairs about themselves.

The survey, titled “Perspectives of Nonprofit Board Chairs: How They Prepare for and Perceive Their Role in Relation to the Board, Community, and CEO,” includes responses from more than 600 board chairs from across the country (and world). The results were the basis of a session at BLF 2015.

The Highlights:

51 percent of board chairs took no specific action to prepare for the board chair role. Of the 49 percent that took actions:

  • 82 percent chaired a committee
  • 70 percent observed the prior chair
  • 58 percent asked the CEO
  • 51 percent chaired another board

What was the most helpful sources of information on the board chair role? The Internet, according to 42 percent, followed by local workshops (37 percent) and books purchased (33 percent).

Those surveyed rated the following as their top three duties:

  • Focus on strategic direction
  • Fulfill governance responsibility
  • Manage board meetings

While 80 percent of those surveyed feel “confident, supported and competent,” 69 percent still report that the experience can be sometimes frustrating.

The board chairs surveyed mostly (64 percent) saw the board and CEO as equally strong. 73 percent reported spending most of their time as a “leadership partner” with the CEO.

When asked about the role relative to the community at large, a surprising 56 percent report that they sometimes or frequently engage in advocacy.

Also surprising was the relatively short tenures of board members before becoming chair: 39 percent reported that they only served on the board 1-3 years before becoming chair, with another 16 percent serving less than 1 year before taking on the role!

After reporting the results, the presenters – Judy Freiwirth, Psy.D., Mary Hiland, Ph.D., and Michael Burns, MA – asked the session attendees to share some of their strategies for success as board chairs. Of the many idea proffered, most revolved around time management, as attendees cited time commitment as the toughest challenge of the role. One attendee shared that she gathers other board chairs in her community for a monthly breakfast with the mayor so that they can discuss issues. Another suggested that boards develop ‘redundant resources’ to deal with the problem of individual board members shirking responsibilities and tasks. Several attendees cited the need to partner with other organizations and nurture relationships to get things done. The attendees also worked through a few case studies and discussed the importance of regular self-assessments.

Money first, mission last!

According to David Greco, managing partner of Social Sector Partners, and Sylia Obagi, executive director of the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation, the nonprofit sector is being hit by a tornado – right now. It’s fast moving, powerful, and comprises five major trends:

  1. Technology and data – massive amounts of data – that need to be collected, stored, and analyzed.
  2. Big money in politics – 150 people account for the money going into Super PACs; they are a major influence, and there are limitations on nonprofit lobbying.
  3. Government changes – it’s not funding the way it used to, resulting in less money for nonprofits and increased competition for that money.
  4. Blending of sectors – a new wave of donors is looking for innovative means to invest in social outcomes that are blending the capital and social markets (e.g., social enterprise, impact investing, social impact bonds)
  5. Regionalization and collaboration – a metropolitan revolution is occurring; cities are becoming economic engines, requiring nonprofits to be intentional in building networks and in collaborating.

How can nonprofits survive the tornado when doing so will require substantial sums of money? When we’re stuck in the past, trying to do more with less? When our biggest asset is sweat equity – not cash? “Boards aren’t fundraising, and there is a culture of scarcity marked by an inability to scale, a major lack of liquidity, and ongoing disinvestment, “ Greco said. “We need to make the culture of scarcity a thing of the past – and board members need to be the visionary leaders, the Steve Jobs of the nonprofit sector.”

So, he asked the roomful of board leaders, how would you invest in your organization? “Usually,” he said, “the answer is ‘Let’s expand our programs.’ Everyone wants to double down on mission, but that’s the old way of thinking. Program first is a scarcity mindset. We need to flip that – we need to think money first, mission last! Nonprofits need profit! We need to put an end to starving our organizations.”

How can we do that? According to Greco and Obagi, we need to determine what our real costs are and adopt real-cost operating and fundraising budgets. We need to ask ourselves: What are our outcomes? What do those outcomes cost? And what are the types and amounts of money we need? Simply put, the real cost includes all necessary costs – program expenses, administrative and operating expenses, and reserve and capital expenses — for us to deliver on mission and be sustainable over the long term. And when we reach that point of sustainability, when revenue exceeds expense, we need to reinvest it toward future growth and/or improvements.

“What is needed to overcome the barriers to change?,” Obagi asked the leaders in the room. The answers included the following:

  • Leadership buy-in from the board, the CEO, and the CFO; internal champions
  • Training and analysis
  • Honest conversations with donors, grantmakers, and other stakeholders
  • Sharing of results
  • Creation and adoption of new standards around overhead

Obagi’s and Greco’s parting message? We need to advocate for a new mindset, to fight for what we believe in.

Recent recipient of a Board Leadership Award from the Center for Nonprofit Advancement, the YWCA National Capital Area (YWCA-NCA) was a perfect choice to lead a session at BLF 2015 on lessons learned from a high-performing board. Tamara A. Smith, CEO of the YWCA-NCA, and Artencia Hawkins-Bell, YWCA-NCA board chair, were eager not only to discuss the factors that improved their board’s performance, but also to foster an interactive session that enabled audience members to guide the discussion to the issues that most affected their own organizations and boards.

Smith and Hawkins-Bell kicked off the session by sharing their definition of a high-performing board. High-performing boards

  • ensure resources
  • provide programmatic and financial oversight
  • define board structure
  • create systems of accountability
  • are strategic as well as creative

Both presenters were up front about the effort and commitment required to transform a nonprofit board. Nonprofits cannot change their governance structure overnight.

To contextualize the roles and responsibilities of a high-performing board, Smith and Hawkins-Bell referred back to the YWCA-NCA throughout their presentation. For example, the organization’s leadership set direction through off-site annual retreats focused on key issues impacting the organization, including programming, board engagement, and sustainable partnerships.

Taking the lead from the audience, the presenters spent a significant portion of the session discussing board recruitment and accountability. They stressed the importance of identifying board members based on the contributions they can make to a nonprofit’s area of need. Smith referenced BoardSource’s board recruitment profile sheet as a helpful resource for identifying program needs and current board demographics. She also underscored the concept of talking with prospective board members to understand in which areas they would like to contribute to the organization. An individual with financial expertise, for example, might not want to provide financial services to an organization.

Among the most popular board-strengthening tactics adopted by the YWCA-NCA was requiring all board members to sign an agreement each year. The agreement stipulates that board members attend meetings whenever possible, serve on one committee, and that the board achieves 100% giving (no set amount is provided). In addition to this agreement, the YWCA-NCA tracks attendance at all board meetings. The board uses this information to evaluate board member performance and encourage a commitment to board member participation.

Smith and Hawkins-Bell concluded the presentation by highlighting a few innovations that contributed to their board receiving the Board Leadership Award. In addition to developing a mission statement, the board developed a bold goal that led to the creation of a sustainability plan and to the setting of 36-month milestones to help achieve that goal. Additionally, as a part of a strategic realignment, the board built strong internal relationships to leverage its external connections. Smith and Hawkins-Bell emphasized the value of giving board members the opportunity to get to know each other through such activities as a wine tour, theater outings, and a pool party.

As was clear by Smith and Hawkins-Bell’s rapport throughout the session, the factor they both pointed to as having the largest impact on board performance was their strong chief executive/board chair partnership. It takes time to build trust and strong communication, but, as they said, a good glass of wine always helps!


2015 Prudential Leadership Awards for Exceptional Nonprofit Boards Grand Prize Winner

In recognition of the critical role that boards play in overseeing their organizations’ missions, finances, and strategic directions, BoardSource and Prudential proudly announce the grand-prize winner of the 2015 Prudential Leadership Award for Exceptional Nonprofit BoardsLegacy Foundation: Lake County’s Community Foundation.

Presented as part of the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, the $15,000 grand-prize award includes a BoardSource single-board organizational membership for one year.


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