Time to Take the Board Temperature


Maybe it’s the H1N1 flu that’s got me thinking about temperatures. Boards vary a lot in their effectiveness. Some are too big to reach consensus, others too small to have the right mix of skills. Some have had so little turnover that they’re hidebound, while others so young and new that they’re deer in the headlights. Some Board silently and don’t rock the boat, while others make speeches rather than foster dialogue.

That said, there are a lot of well meaning and talented people serving on nonprofit Boards. But even good boards can get better.

The early part of the year is a great time to consider fielding a board self-assessment tool. I constructed the one below — this was a paper version though it could easily be set up on Survey Monkey — for a local nonprofit that had added quite a few new members. The tool helped them to determine opportunities for improvement, and resulted in changes to their board agendas and reports. Because they had circulated a similar self-assessment three years before, they were also able to track change.

What questions have you found most helpful to Boards that undertake self-assessments? How have you used the results to foster dialogue and improvements in Board functioning?

Overview:  It’s considered a good governance practice for a Board of Trustees to regularly evaluate the work of the Board and the organization.  Your answers will help us pinpoint opportunities to improve our governance and the way we work together, to further our important mission!

Instructions:  Please circle the item that best represents your response.  Where appropriate, please provide added comments in the space provided or on additional paper.

For questions 1-19, the rating key is: 1 = Strongly Disagree (SD)   2 = Disagree (D)   3 = Agree (A), 4 = Strongly Agree (SA)        ? = Don’t Know (DK)

Mission, direction and planning

1.  [    ] has a clear and important mission.

2.  [    ] has a clear set of priorities and direction.

3.  The Board has the opportunity to provide input to [    ]‘s strategy and priorities.

4.  The Board gets enough data and information, of the right kind, to be able to monitor [    ]‘s progress towards its mission and strategy.

5.  I am confident about [     ]’s financial health and sustainability.

6. The Board has the opportunity to approve [     ]’s annual objectives.

Financial and risk management

7. The Board monitors the financial performance of [     ] including its adherence to the budget approved by the Board.

8.  I have a good understanding of the risks facing [     ] and [our category of nonprofit] in general and feel comfortable raising issues to protect the organization and its mission.

9.  I have a clear understanding of [     ]‘s revenue sources, expenses and liabilities.


10.  I understand how [    ] is structured and staffed.

11.  I understand what services [    ] provides, for whom.

12.  [    ] has clear policies and guidelines for its operations, to ensure consistency and continuity, and the Board reviews key policies periodically.

Board Role and Communication

13. The Board gets the right amount of good quality information, in a timely manner, for it to fulfill its responsibility to the mission of the organization.

14.  The Board gets enough information about [our issue] and [    ]‘s services to the community.

15.  I understand the roles and responsibilities of the Board of Directors.

16.  [     ] makes appropriate use of its Board members’ expertise.

17. There is a healthy back-and-forth of questions and discussion at Board meetings.

18. [     ] calls upon its Board members appropriately, including asking them to give charitably to the organization, and to encourage friends and colleagues to donate.

19. Board meetings are devoted to topics and discussion that are important to the success of the organization.

Board composition and satisfaction

20.  The Board has the right mix of skills and experience to support [     ]’s mission. (Yes, No)

21.  The Board is getting stronger. (Yes, stronger; No, weaker; Neither, about the same)

22. The demand of my time as a Board member is (Appropriate, Too Much, Too Little)

23.  Being a Board member is fulfilling (Yes, No)

24. I would recommend being a member of this Board to others (Yes, No)

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Don’t Let Moss Grow on Your Nonprofit Website

keyboard image by inhabitat.com

There’s no such thing as being “done” with your website. You can’t check it off your list. If your nonprofit is like most nonprofits, it’s been at least a couple of years since you updated or revamped your website.

But it’s been over three years since Microsoft brought its distinctive tile navigation to smart phones, and already four months since Apple transformed the look of its home screen with ios7. Out went “start” buttons and busy black backgrounds. Things got leaner and cleaner.

Website conventions change and not just to present a fresh aesthetic. They’re designed to make the user experience easier (although many of us don’t appreciate it, at least initially, when we have to think twice about what we’re doing).

An effective website is still a nonprofit’s most effective communications tool. As software advances have put user-friendly tools and templates within the financial and technical reach of all nonprofits, there’s no longer a good excuse to let a website grow moss.

That said, just slapping content into a template does not make for an effective website. It takes answering questions like the following:

1) Who is the website for? And who is it MOST for? (many organizations have volunteers or members and have to weigh whether the website is being used to attract new supporters, or meet the needs of existing constituents)

2) What are the organization’s top three goals that a website can help support?

3) What are the top three actions that we want our top priority audience members to perform easily?

4) What is the most frequently viewed content on the current website that should continue to be easily within reach?

5) What must the website communicate about us through its look and feel, its imagery and tone, to support our brand?

Most nonprofit executive directors or fundraising professionals don’t have a lot of experience with website designs. It’s hard to know where to begin.

Fortunately, Idealware (itself a nonprofit) has just begun a five-part series of webinars called “From Audit to Redesign: the Complete Nonprofit Website Kit.” I think the content is bang-on, and the price tag ($200) should more than pay for itself when you consider what a well-designed website can do for an organization. The first session, “Starting the Audit Process,” was held January 28 but it’s not too late to jump on this moving train. Upcoming on February 11 is “Defining Your Design and Content Strategy.” The third session on February 28 should be a great introduction to the “nitty gritty” of web design and cover best practices for usability and accessibility. The last two sessions get into content management systems (the tool that lets non-technical people easily update content), search engine optimization (so people find you), integration with tools like online donation systems, and an overview of a website development process.

As a former Northwesterner, I love moss. But not on websites. Get moving!

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Three Fresh New Year Tips for Nonprofits

What nonprofits do in these first ten days of the year will leave a lasting taste in the mouths of their supporters. Will it be the feeling of a warm hot toddy on a cool winter’s eve? Or a sip of eggnog that’s been in the fridge a week too long?

Here are three tips — two things you should do plus one idea that might intrigue your supporters, a best practice gleaned from the news publishing industry.

1.  Say thank you, and do so in a way that reflects your brand. By now most nonprofits know they have a brand image, whether they choose to manage it or not. In the midst of the charitable gift acknowledgement letters that are fluttering in was this little gem, a handwritten note from Betty Cooper, development director of the American River Natural History Association, and artwork created by one of ARNHA’s little clients (click images to see full size):

Is it practical for every nonprofit to send out a handwritten note? Of course not. The point is that it is important to capture the feeling of the nonprofit’s mission. Run the organization like the responsible business that it is, but for heaven’s sake don’t sound like an accountant. (Sorry, accountants.)

2.  Remind supporters what THEY accomplished by getting behind the nonprofit’s mission. I gave small amounts to over 20 nonprofits this year (due partly to journalistic curiosity about events like #ArtsDayofGiving) and I subscribe to probably a dozen nonprofit newsletters. I received TWO emails with subject lines that congratulated supporters. My favorite was an email from No Kid Hungry with the subject line, “Look what you helped do in 2013.” I don’t actually donate to No Kid Hungry — I prefer to support local food banks and closets like River City Food Bank — but I thought this was a brilliant piece, complete with video. Listen to the music. It’s anthemic. Listen to the words. They’re hopeful. You end up singing along, “We could do this all night!”

A more basic but still effective approach was taken by Appleseed, a nonprofit network of public justice centers. The subject line of its January 3 email was, “Looking back, looking ahead.” Betsy Cavendish, the president, wrote:

As we start a new year, Appleseed joins millions of Americans in reflecting on the past year and thinking about our potential for 2014. Before I get into that, I first want to thank all our supporters. As you may know, four Appleseed board members offered a $20,000 challenge grant in the waning days of 2013, matching each dollar we raised. I am delighted to report that donors rose to their challenge! 

And now for the look back. My law school classmate Ken Stern wrote a powerful critique of the nonprofit sector last year, taking to task nonprofit organizations whose programs don’t work effectively. I’m glad to say that, as broad as Appleseed’s mission is, we are effective at what we’re doing. We’re not content to simply identify a problem and call it a day: we translate our research into lasting solutions. Here are some of those recent successes from the Appleseed network…

3.  Look ahead. As soon as newspapers and magazines have finished their year-in-review and their best-pictures-of-2013, they’re off to the races hooking readers for the year ahead. City Arts, an arts magazine based in the Pacific Northwest, promoted its January issue with “The Future List: 12 Artists and Innovators Who Will Define 2014.” Why not a list of ideas for solutions, or program improvements, or hopes for 2014? As we start the new year, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Hope that things will get better? A plan for change that we can support?

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Top Planning Retreat DON’Ts

Courtesy kccollegegameday.com

Ah… September is around the corner. And with the return of fall, college football, a fresh season of The Big Bang Theory,  and… planning retreats.

I’ve been to a lot of planning retreats over the years and facilitated a fair number, for organizations big and small, for for-profits and non-profits.

For your consideration, here is a list of my top “don’t’s” for retreat planning:

1. Don’t turn the planning retreat into making a new list of stuff to do. One Board I used to serve on created a new “strategic plan” every three years. Every three years, they started over, brainstormed a list of possible new programs, prioritized it and called that the strategic plan. We did not get a chance to talk about how the environment was changing, how the portfolio of current programs did or didn’t make a difference. Planning retreats were about adding rather than winnowing and refining.

2. Don’t let fun and games dominate the agenda. If you’re Herb Kelleher and a fun-loving attitude is a core value, that’s one thing. Touchy-feely stuff has its place, but people are time challenged and resent what they view as a waste of time. Volunteers on an effective nonprofit board presumably are there for the right reason: they want to share their expertise, talents and connections to help achieve the mission. That means they need to use their brain cells and contribute. Retreats must feel productive.

3. Don’t wring the juice out of it. I know one CEO who was so terrified by the prospect of free-ranging discussion that he turned the retreat into a three-ring circus of management presentations. Discussion was to consist of limited opportunities to react to the presentations capped by a request for approval of management’s strategic plan. I said “was to” because the Board chair hijacked the agenda and said the Board was going to have the conversation that it wanted to. He even drew a picture of himself wearing a cowboy hat. Yee ha!

4. Don’t forget where the group is in its formation. Despite the warning about the “touchy-feely” stuff, Boards with new members need to take time to loosen up. Ice breakers have their place even among grown ups. Have some fun! The facilitator has an important role in setting discussion rules including reminding participants that everyone, even new members, are there for a reason. The facilitator can also help to draw out participants.

5.  Don’t assume the CEO or executive director knows where the Board is. Board interviews or a survey can be very helpful in discovering issues that may need to be discussed, or concerns that could take the retreat off in an unexpected direction if not accommodated or dealt with. I’ve seen CEOs conduct the interviews themselves (which can be relationship-building) or they can be undertaken by the facilitator.

6. Don’t ignore pacing. We as humans are primed for stories: we need a hook that grabs us, a desire to achieve something, conflict we can gnash our teeth over, rising energy, and satisfying resolution. Good stories don’t drone on. In a retreat, pay attention to the movement created by the length of the presentations, their point, and the balance between presentation and dialogue. Avoid death by Powerpoint!

7. Don’t forget to start with clear objectives for the retreat itself. You know the old dialogue from Alice in Wonderland:

Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

As an example, yesterday, I met with an executive director to discuss objectives for an upcoming retreat. Here were the five we identified based on her perception, Board interviews and a Board survey: 1)  Check in on the progress of the strategic plan to ensure alignment and/or identify any new steps that need to be taken to ensure its implementation; 2) Engage the entire Board in a strategic discussion about a new program, in development; 3) Continue to develop relationships among Board members, since the Board has a number of newer members; 4) Identify ways to enhance the Board’s functioning so that they are fully and appropriately engaged throughout the year; and 5) Enhance Board understanding of their group governance role and their individual responsibilities.

With that under control, you can worry about the important things this fall. Will the Huskies get back in the national conversation? Will Cal’s new coach be able to speed up the Bears? Will Leonard return from his research trip and Amy and Sheldon get together? Stay tuned…

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TEDx Talks, Deconstructed for Nonprofits

As mentioned in my last blog post, nonprofits could learn a few things from the way TED and TEDx approach presenting to live audiences. I asked Carlos Montoya, who led speaker development for the 2013 Sacramento event, to describe how TEDx manages to produce such moving presentations, and to provide tips for nonprofits.

1.  As nonprofits consider who tells their story, have you found that there are certain characteristics of people who can make good speakers? Are good speakers made or born?

TEDx talks have a format that is different from what most speakers are used to. Those speakers who are the most successful often share a willingness to learn, explore, and engage in the TEDx format. With regards to whether a speaker is made or born, I have to say it could be either. There are some speakers who are natural on stage and others who are not but are so passionate about their idea that with a little practice they can deliver just as well.

2.  What’s the first step when you begin working with a speaker? They have an idea, you know what format works best for TedX. Then what?

The first step usually starts a little earlier and consists of an initiation email that includes a lot of information such as TED guidelines and process timeline. In this email we request that the speaker send us a one page treatment or outline of their idea. With treatment in hand, an initial conversation is scheduled.

The initial conversation varies and depends on how detailed the treatment is at this point in the process. However, here are three things that I generally try and accomplish during that conversation:

·         Ask the speaker to run through their idea and what they have so far.

·         Listen to every word and try to get a sense of the speaker’s natural delivery style and the structure of their key points from the perspective of an audience.

·         Ask a few questions and provide some speaker specific feedback.

3.  What’s the rest of the process look like, between that initial meeting and standing up in front of TedX?

Many more conversations like the one described above working toward refining the key message and pairing that message with other elements such slides, props, video, or performance. Two weeks prior to the event we request the near final presentation and schedule 2 or 3 rehearsals with the entire TEDx speaker team to provide additional feedback. The day before the event we hold an in-person dress rehearsal at the venue.

4.  (If one comes to mind) What’s the most powerful talk you’ve ever heard given by a nonprofit at TedX? What made it so compelling?

This is an interesting question. A specific talk from a nonprofit doesn’t come to mind immediately. But there is a reason for that, a TEDx talk according to the guidelines should not have a commercial agenda.

“Speakers should not promote their own products, books, or businesses or those of a company which employs them. The only exception is where they have specifically been invited to give a powerful product demo, or to describe the ideas in their book, and here the focus should still be on the technology and/or the ideas.” – TED.com

That said, Ron Finley, Salman Khan, Bill Gates, and Mark Roth have each delivered great TED talks, Melinda Gates delivered a TEDx talk that shares some key lessons for nonprofits. At last year’s TEDx Sacramento, Chris Ategeka delivered a talk that ended in a standing ovation. In my opinion, the power comes not just from the idea but from the story behind the idea that resonates with our own experiences.

5. You’ve probably heard some pitches or presentations by nonprofits. What do you think nonprofits do wrong, or could do better?

The few pitches or presentations by nonprofits that I have heard usually do a great job at presenting information. However, in today’s world, with the abundance of information available at our fingertips, information has become somewhat disposable so we have to look at new ways at extracting meaning from information and make it accessible. I think this is one of the strengths of TEDx talks because the story is as important as the idea. The story is what connects us to the idea and drives the audience to action.

6.  You appear to have some guidelines, like using slides, but emphasizing a limited number and using images intensively rather than words. Throwing in a few humorous lines, etc. What are the guidelines you’ve found work best to grab and inspire an audience.

There are speaker guidelines developed by TED that are sent to each speaker that discusses the format and what has worked best at TED. Here locally, we have found that shorter talks work better. We often work with speakers to cut each talk down to 10 minutes, to focus both the speaker and the talk.  Another guideline is to have the delivery be more conversational rather than a presentation. We also recommend that if using slides that the slide present only one piece of information and not detract the audience from the speaker. Beyond these guidelines, I often borrow from various storytelling devices that I think could enhance the speaker’s ability to share their idea.

7.  So what do you want to do before you die (per the blackboard in the park)?

For me at this point, the list is still too long but one thing would be to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and reach the summit on a clear day.

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Ten Things Nonprofits Can Learn from #TEDxSacramento2013

TEDx Sacramento held its “Confluence” event on Friday, June 28. Its rapid-fire series of brief talks aimed to pique curiosity and encourage the bubbling up of “ideas worth spreading.”

The audience sat rapt.

As I participated, I thought about how TEDx does what it does, and what nonprofits can learn about attracting attention and/or provoking action.  Here are my top 9 tips:

1.  TedX chose speakers who had done or experienced something unusual. Novelty is important. People are programmed to identify patterns.  If you hear a list like this — monkey, banana, jungle, airplane, sun – you’ll remember the thing that doesn’t fit the pattern best. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the whole day, but here are a few thumbnail examples:

  • a banker-turned-change-agent re-interpreted the model of payday loans to help the 45% of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck get access to fairly-priced short-term financing and build credit history
  • a 9-year-old persevered in his quest to be admitted to college courses
  • a woman whose travails with MS taught her the value of humor has been inspired to pursue a career in standup
  • a teacher whose desire to live legally with his husband of many years took him to the forefront of an educational revolution in Brazil
  • a high tech entrepreneur turned the image of hacking on its head, as a power for creation rather than destruction or other nefarious ends

2.  The speakers weren’t famous. They weren’t celebrities promoting a cause, nor were they recognized leaders of organizations or companies. This wasn’t the Sacramento Speaker Series. Part of what made the presentations interesting was the ability to see yourself in the speakers: hey, they weren’t famous or rich and they saw a way to do something!

3.  Every presentation had a good hook. Nine year old Tanishq Abraham began his presentation, “I know what you’re thinking. Why college at age 7?” It was so ludicrous that it worked. (Of course just seeing a 9 year old address an audience of 500 with a precocious intelligence is jarring all by itself.

4.  They used stories effectively. Sasha Orloff described how “Michelle” got stuck in the debt trap when she needed immediate access to funds to pay medical bills. Greg Gopman put us on the scene as he talked self-taught Errol out of quitting New York’s biggest hackathon. “I was there when he walked out with the first place prize for the first application he ever built. He called me last week and told me he just raised $1 million for it.” Taniqsh and Sandi Selvi (the M.S. survivor) used their own powerful stories.

5.  They talked short. The beauty of TED and TEDx talks is that they are blessedly sweet. They don’t try to make a whole bunch of points. They make one point.

6.  They used humor. Okay, occasionally the funny lines were pretty obviously written by someone else for the speakers. You could almost imagine the Speaker Developer saying, “We need something a little light here. How about saying…” But the humor worked.

7.  They posed a question or offered a few lessons – no more than three. Brain science tells us that people can’t remember more than about seven things in a list (no mystery as to why telephone numbers are 7 numbers long). Sasha Orloff knew that the reputation of payday lenders is terrible, and deservedly so, but he reframed the sector by looking at the problem: people who can’t get loans from banks still need access to funds on a short-term basis, and a way to build credit. But he broadened out the appeal of his presentation by provocatively asking, “How can you rethink broken?”

8.  They understood the value of suspense. Many people follow the old speaking guideline of “tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” TEDx speakers don’t seem to do that. They say they are going to share three lessons, for example, but then tell them one-by-one. They don’t give you the outline upfront, and it seems to make the audience listen more attentively. Having heard lesson one, the audience is attuned for two and three.

9. They used slides, but sparingly. Atlantic Monthly had it right about 10 years ago when they began an article, “Before there was PowerPoint, there were conversations.” The slides were culled to the bare minimum, dominated by images, and contained very few words.

10. And yes, they were coached. The speakers weren’t perfect but their humanity and the fact that they weren’t professional speakers made them all the more appealing. They obviously had a coach working with them for hours on their material. More nonprofits should avail themselves of having an outsider who really understands oral presentations work with them on their elevator speeches.

Formulaic? Yes, but effective. I’d love to see every nonprofit have a version of a TEDx talk ready to give at a  moment’s notice.

Stay tuned: With help from Brandon Weber, TEDx Sacramento’s Curator, I made contact with the event’s speaker developer, Carlos Montoya, and have sent him some questions that I hope he’ll answer about how TEDx prepares their speakers.

P.S. Love TED? Capitol Public Radio now features the TED Radio Hour at noon on Mondays at 90.9 on the FM band or listen live on the website.

More about TEDx (independently licensed local events) and Sacramento’s own version here.

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Before I Die, I Want to _________________

That’s what TedX Sacramento asked participants to write on a big blackboard on Friday.

My best oldest friend recently reminded people what I used to say when we were teenagers. I told her I wanted to be wise. Maybe I thought that would be an admirable answer. But now that I am where I am in my life, I think it’s still a pretty good answer.

I spent a lot of time in the past 7 years with someone I considered very wise, and wisdom turned out to be something different than I imagined.

My father, who died in January at the age of 96, didn’t offer his opinions, although his were well informed by experience. He didn’t try to demonstrate how much he knew, although he was well educated and read broadly. He was patient, and humble to the point of self-effacing.

And to much of the world, he was invisible.

This, to me, is one of the great tragedies of our time: that we live in communities with more and more old people, and we mostly ignore them because they are seen as no longer beautiful, not useful as a source of social connections, don’t get the inside jokes, and – horror of horrors – they are not fast. They take too long pulling out of parking spaces and writing checks at the grocery store. Their stories can’t be condensed in 140 characters.

Until his last few months of life, my Dad was capable of listening with great empathy, as if he had nothing more important to do than to listen to my problems or those of others. And maybe that’s the point, he really didn’t have anything more important to do. He was able to devote 100% of his attention to anyone who was sincere and making an effort.

His wisdom was dispensed in stories, not just the ones with successful endings, but the things that caused him pain. Through these stories, he conveyed what really mattered: family, accountability, bravery, loyalty, integrity.

We have time and money to address childhood poverty, as we should. But there seems to be no moral outrage that one out of five of seniors in California is living in poverty, according to the supplemental Census bureau measure that factors in the cost of medicine, which is not an elective expensive for seniors. One in ten seniors doesn’t have enough food to meet their needs.

Seniors may not hold the future, but they may help us to live our future better. With their wisdom, maybe they will help us to avoid a few mistakes, or to correct a few that we’ve made. If only we can unplug from our social networks and pause from the demands of our lives long enough to notice the precious resources who lie hidden among us.

Lessons of a sometime-social observer, caregiver and her father may be found at TheHenryChronicles.com

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