Nonprofit boards focus of online matching service

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Serving on a nonprofit board can be a tough job: Boards ultimately are responsible for the organization and its work, finances and staff. They also must recruit new members, and anticipate and adapt to change.

And boards often fall short of their responsibilities and the roles they should play.

Many nonprofits lack a formal, professional process for selecting board members and are “not concerned with leadership development and succession planning” for their board, says Trudy Smith, executive director of Executive Service Corps of the Triangle, a Durham nonprofit that enlists retired and active executives to provide pro-bono consulting to nonprofits.

To connect the more than 2,200 nonprofits in the Triangle with individuals wanting to serve on a board, and to help companies find opportunities for their employees to serve on nonprofit boards, Executive Service Corps is launching a free web-based board matching service for nonprofits in Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake counties.

Built over the past year-and-a-half by Brian Breneman and Nic Versmissen, two information-technology professionals working as volunteers, buildabetterboard.com invites nonprofits and individuals to complete short profiles about themselves, and uses an algorithm to connect them.

The website provides private, internal communications between nonprofits looking for board members, and individuals looking for board positions, until the individuals opt to reveal their identities to the nonprofits. The parties then can continue their communications through typical channels.

The website features resources about boards, written by experts, that address issues such as what it means to serve on a board, questions to ask in interviews for board positions, and how a nonprofit should market its board.

Demand for board development is among the highest for the services Executive Service Corps provides, Smith says.

“We help nonprofits identify gaps in their board membership to help them fulfill their strategic mission,” she says.

Depending on a nonprofit’s mission, size, field of interest, and programs and services, and the role the board should play based on the organization’s stage in its “life cycle,” she says, the board will need members with specific talents, expertise and experience.

Yet too often, she says, nonprofits limit their recruitment of new board members to their own networks of acquaintances and colleagues.

buildabetterboard.com will expand the pool of prospective board members by marketing itself to larger employers such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, which provided a $20,000 grant to Executive Service Corps to develop the online matching service.

It also is working with five partners — Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of the Triangle NC; Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce; The Triangle Nonprofit and Volunteer Leadership Center; North Carolina Center for Nonprofits; and Triangle Community Foundation — to promote itself to their networks and members.

And Executive Service Corps representatives will be speaking to civic groups, chambers of commerce, and other organizations about the new service.

While it plans to keep the matching service free in the Triangle, Executive Service Corps hopes to sustain it  financially by rolling it out to other communities throughout the state and U.S. and generating income through corporate sponsorships.

Over 60 nonprofits and over 60 individuals already have completed profiles on the website, which currently lists over 50 open positions on local nonprofit boards.

Charles Brown Jr., pro-bono commercialization manager for buildabetterboard.com and a pro-bono consultant for Executive Service Corps, says the web-based matching service also will appeal to younger prospective board members because much of their communication is online.

For-profit companies want to support nonprofits, help develop their boards and build a brand tied to corporate social responsibility, says Brown, retired chief administrative officer and senior vice president for Eastman Kodak Co.

He says companies also recognize that their own employees with high potential to become members of their management team can develop their leadership and decision-making skills through service on nonprofit boards.

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Nonprofits not tapping staff for senior posts

Succession planning consistently is the top organizational concern of nonprofit boards and CEOs, yet nonprofit leaders are not promoting current staff to fill senior positions, a new study says.

In the past two years, only 30 percent of senior roles in the social sector were filled by internal promotion, or about half the rate in the for-profit world, says “The Nonprofit Leadership Development Deficit,” a paper from The Bridgespan Group published on ssir.org.

The study found “a broad gap in leadership development,” says Kirk Kramer, a Bridgespan partner and co-author of the paper.

“Promising leaders, frustrated at the lack of professional development and mentoring, are not staying around long  enough to move up in the ranks, he says. “CEOs want to exit, too, because their boards aren’t supporting them, a syndrome that is coming at a significant financial and productivity costs to organizations.”

Among 438 survey respondents, one in four said they plan to leave their roles within the next two years, with nonprofits providing the biggest source of people to fill those positions.

That creates a “turnover treadmill,” says Katie Smith Milway, a Bridgespan partner and co-author of the paper. “It exacerbates the succession planning problem at a time when the sector needs capable leaders more than ever.”

Fifty-seven percent of respondents cited low compensation as the cause of their departures from their organizations, compared to 50 percent who cited lack of career development opportunities.

Also cited were a lack of mentorship and support, particularly from their boards.

Only 17 percent indicated they wanted a different work environment.

Over half of respondents ranked their organizations lower than six on a scale of 10 for their ability to develop staff.

The report says funders can foster the development of existing staff for leadership roles.

Libbie Landes-Cobb, Bridgespan manager and a co-author of the paper, says effective development “calls for capacity investments in recruiting, training and performance measurement.

Yet in the past two years, she says, 58 percent of survey respondents received no funding earmarked for talent development.

Kramer says Bridgespan’s research and experience “indicate that the solution to this  problem, while addressable, requires the skill and will to build an ecosystem for leadership development within organizations, involving senior management, boards and funders.”

Todd Cohen

Board effectiveness tied to ‘cultural forces’ at nonprofits

The success of nonprofit boards, whose role has changed dramatically and become increasingly critical to the success of their organizations, depends on

“cultural forces” on the board and at the nonprofit, a new white paper says.

Those culture forces include capable leadership, a sound organizational structure, attention to fiduciary duties, and a culture that binds board members to one another in a cohesive unit, says the white paper from Commonfund Institute.

“How well a board functions determines, in large measure, the fortunes of the organization it governs,” the paper says. “Mediocre or middling performance may enable an organization to survive, but rarely to thrive, while weak or dysfunctional boards may jeopardize their organization’s very existence.”

Strategy, not tactics

The paper, “Strive for the Best: Building and Maintaining an Excellent Board,” says a board’s role is strategic, not tactical, and that its main task is oversight, or reviewing and assessing management’s success in carrying out its job.

The board should engage in active supervision of management and staff, it says, setting standards that are clear and objective, making sure job descriptions are known and understood, and seeing that senior staff members do a good job supervising the organization’s actual operations.

Because of its fiduciary responsibilities, a board must protect it’s nonprofit’s mission and protect against drifting from that mission in ways its charter does not permit, says the paper, which was written by John S. Griswold, executive director of Commonfund Institute, and William F. Jarvis, managing director.

Purpose and direction

In defining the mission and monitoring progress, the paper says, the board must provide purpose and direction to the staff, while in its oversight duties it needs to stay focused on governance and avoid getting involved in operations.

The paper says policies must be in place so that in case of conflicts of interest — with board members’ own interests, or with the interests of another organization with which board members are involved — the conflict will be disclosed and neutralized.

The structure of a board can help or hurt its effectiveness and is key to improving its performance, the paper says, and smaller boards generally are believed to function more effectively.

Picking board chair, executive director

Selection of the board chair is the single most crucial factor in a board’s success, and board orientation is the crucial first step, the paper says. A particularly useful practice, it says, is to assign an existing board member to serve as mentor to an incoming member.

And arguably the most critical task for the board, it says, is to select, hire, support, evaluate and, if needed, replace the president or executive director.

“Only a high level of board performance can create and sustain the energizing, inspiring and motivating environment in which the organization and its constituencies can excel,” the paper says.

The biggest impact on improving a board, it says, may be rooted in “cultural forces inside the board and organization.”

The most important of those forces is “trust among the board members, the chair and the senior staff,” it says.

Beneficial outcomes of that trust, it says, include “elimination of functional silos and narrow mindsets that can result in turf battles or in refusal to become involved outside the well-defined limits of a particular committee function,” it says.

Trust, recruiting, metrics

The “climate of trust must be created from the top,” it says, “with the board chair serving as the role model and this behavior as the template for committee chairs and committee members.”

Recruitment also is critical for creating a board that can excel, the paper says.

“Effective board members need not be heroic leaders or deep visionary thinkers,” it says, “but they must be thoughtful and authentic individuals who can inspire by example and motivate others in a non-threatening way.”

Also essential for successful boards is creating a “measurement system for the board that is comprehensible, relatively simple and not susceptible to manipulation,” the paper says.

Boards need “reasonably objective methods of assessing their own accomplishments, recognizing areas for improvement and development appropriate action plans,” it says.

So a board should try on a regular basis to “obtain a comparatively objective set of measurements by which it can judge its success against the goals it has set for the organization and itself,” it says.

‘Cultural attributes’

“Excellent boards are built on a clear understanding of their duties as fiduciary and governing bodies” of nonprofits, the paper says.

With that foundation, it says, a board “is positioned for maximum effectiveness when it can benefit from strong leadership by the chair, a properly structured committee system, engaged and committed board members and a sound relationship with senior staff members,” particularly the president or executive director.

“Cultural attributes such as leadership, trust, transparency and candor,” the paper says, “are an essential adhesive that binds the board together and constitutes the indispensable ingredient in the formulate for success.”

Todd Cohen