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February 20, 2012

Nonprofit Board LeadershipFor every nonprofit organization, existing or new, transforming an intangible idea into a concrete asset is a challenging task. This is especially true when facing today’s increasingly competitive economic landscape.

Quick reflexes are required of your leadership and staff now more than ever, to give supporters the opportunity to engage with your nonprofit in relation to events happening in the world around them, from natural and man-made disasters to economic conditions to nationwide calls to service. Organizations must engage and rally new audiences while re-invigorating existing ambassadors. The most flexible and responsive organizations will thrive in this environment.

Thriving requires that organizations be acutely aware of the changing dynamics of community needs and where their supporters get their information. Trends like digital fundraising, micro-philanthropy and social media have emerged quickly, creating opportunities, as well as challenges for nonprofits that have in the past operated using older, more traditional models.

These new modes of communication also mean that the organization’s reputation and public standing are always on the line, and can quickly change based on actions or stances taken by the board on current issues (even perceived ones), both for the positive and for the negative. The importance of considering public responses, soliciting feedback and constantly interacting with stakeholders in this environment cannot be overstated. A glaring example of this lightning-fast shift in social opinion can be found in the recent Susan G. Komen foundation’s disaster involving Planned Parenthood, a case study on mishandling public relations by a non-profit.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure is one of the largest charitable organizations in the nation, with the various Komen Race for the Cure events attracting 1.6 million participants in 2011. The pink ribbons (and many other items in the signature pink) of Komen are now a well-known symbol of support for the fight against breast cancer. Komen's more than 140 races worldwide every year help drive nearly $420 million in donations annually, making Komen a powerhouse among private breast cancer charities.

On January 31, 2012 the Susan G. Komen foundation announced a decision to cut all funding of Planned Parenthood. The change in policy was led by the newly appointed VP of public policy at Komen, Karen Handel, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate who had voiced her strong personal opposition to the mission of Planned Parenthood during her election campaign. This cutting of ties with Planned Parenthood created an instant and passionate uproar, thrusting Komen into the middle of the nation's polarizing debate on abortion.

The new policy stance quickly put the Komen foundation into a no-win situation. Intense outcry from liberal groups regarding the policy change was immediate, igniting a firestorm of criticism that spread like wildfire in traditional and online news sources and through social media, with journalists feeding the flames. The most popular hashtags on Twitter, where hundreds of thousands of tweets were made relating to the story, included #RaceToStopChoice, #stopthinkingpink, #corruptcharity and #boycottKomen.

Story after story cast the defunding as the act of a “bully” and a “battle between women’s groups.” Members of Congress and Komen affiliates accused the group's board of directors of bending to pressure from anti-abortion activists. Anti-Komen sentiment and outright contempt, led by influential liberal commentators, bloggers and online news media, reached fever pitch by the time the Komen board issued a statement reversing its course on the policy three days later. Their statement said “we apologize to the American public for our recent decisions.” This policy re-reversal then encountered harsh resistance and vitriol from many Catholic leaders and a host of other conservative groups which supported the original withdrawal of support to Planned Parenthood.

Handel resigned on February 7, stating "I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it." Komen founder Nancy Brinker added that she “made some mistakes” in the case and “mishandled” the controversy.

For many Race for the Cure participants the event is deeply personal and far removed from abortion politics. It’s only about their memories of loved ones lost, their own battles with the disease, and raising money to find a cure and provide health care services in their communities. The public relations debacle however offended Komen supporters on both sides of the abortion issue, each claiming that the organization “caved in” to pressure from the other side. Many previously unwavering Susan G. Komen supporters have stated they will now reconsider their future involvement with the organization due to the public relations disaster.

The policy had been fully vetted by the Komen board of directors before it was announced, and no objections were raised by any members. Not considering what the possible reactions to their new Planned Parenthood policy might be was certainly a major failure by the Komen board to judge the effects of its own actions. The end results of this failure are serious concerns about what the future attendance and enthusiasm of past event participants and donors will be in wake of this very public controversy.

Illustrating this case study has nothing to do with our own personal stance on abortion or any other women’s health issue. The point being made is that the public opinions and support of your organization can change instantaneously in this on-demand and socially-networked world. Though the reaction to your board’s decisions and policies may not be as enflamed as those experienced by Susan G. Komen, you must work to understand as well as you can beforehand, how your actions will be perceived by the general public and your supporters.

Beyond these fundamental changes in how non-profits are perceived, how public opinions are formed, and the flexibility required to respond to this environment, today’s board of directors faces a wide range of other organizational goals and challenges. It’s critical that an organization have a very clear vision of who they are and what they represent; what organizational culture they look to create; how they will operate; what their goals are and how they will evaluate their progress; and how their board should perform, among many other components. Working to define each of these components and addressing each of them is vital to the successful board.

The Essentials Of Any Board

So what are the most essential things that a board must identify and act upon to ensure their highest level of success? What must be considered to put a non-profit in the best possible position to individuals, groups, communities and causes that it exists to serve?

There are ten basic responsibilities or steps that a board must address to succeed. For each step in the process, we will take the time to examine the duties of the board, their accountability in relation to each topic, and what actions a board of directors can take to effectively address them.

Addressing each of these topics properly is vital to developing a sustainable organization and a strong brand identity – one which effectively tells your story, gains the attention of donors, volunteers and partners, and fosters critical relationships. We should also note that although these Board Essentials are designed with non-profits in mind, many of the concepts and applications are applicable to all types of organizations and companies that have or are building a board of directors. To get started, let’s review each of the essentials to an effective board:


  1. Determine the Mission and Purpose of the Organization
  2. Select the Chief Executive Officer
  3. Support and Evaluate the Chief Executive Officer
  4. Ensure Effective Planning
  5. Monitor and Strengthen Programs and Services
  6. Ensure Adequate Financial Resources for the Organization
  7. Protect Assets and Provide Proper Financial Oversight
  8. Build a Competent Board
  9. Ensure Legal and Ethical Integrity
  10. Enhance the Organization’s Public Standing

Nonprofit Mission and VisionOur first Board Essential may seem the most obvious of all, especially for well-established nonprofits. However it’s easy to see why this is the most crucial component to begin this list, and how it guides all decisions that will come after. Even for organizations with long histories, regularly taking the time to review, refine or rework their mission and purpose to better align with how they exist in the present can be of great benefit.

The leading nonprofits continuously express this mission, vision and the values that stand behind them through all decisions and actions of the board, staff and volunteers who represent the organization.

Another Essential of building an effective board is defining and documenting the roles and requirements of board members. This process can be of great benefit to the overall success of the organization and can definitely have an impact on the long-term sustainability of the organization. We should note that this concept of documentation and accountability will be addressed throughout this entire series, especially so when we reach Board Essential #8.

We look forward to providing you with a framework of steps that you and your board can take to ensure the maximum success and level of benefits that you provide to the individuals, groups, causes and communities which you support.

Up Next:Essential #1 – Determine the Mission and Purpose of the Organization

*Richard T. Ingram, Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards, Second Edition (BoardSource 2009)

Posted by Tiffany Applegate on February 20, 2012 at 1:44 PM
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Categories: Board Governance
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January 18, 2012

Nonprofit Board AssessmentBill Weir, ABC’s 44-year old News Anchor, just found out he may not see his 50th birthday. Though Weir believed he was in good health, he had a full body CT Scan while working on a story about the doctor who treated Lance Armstrong and Steve Jobs. After the scan, his doctor told him, “Boy, I’m glad we caught this. You have heart disease and probably within the next five years you would have gone for a jog and dropped dead.”

This news came as a shock to Weir. As it turns out, even though he was exercising regularly, there were other things in his life that put him at risk. The full-body CT Scan exposed these risks, allowing Weir to make the necessary changes to live a longer, fuller life.

Some nonprofit boards are in the same position as Weir. The members believe the board is strong and healthy when in fact there are issues that will ultimately impact the “life” and effectiveness of the organization. Self-assessments help boards identify these issues so they can take the necessary steps moving forward.

The Maine Association of Nonprofits has summed up the importance of board assessments well:

“A strong, vibrant board of directors is a clear indicator of a healthy organization. Yet even the best organizations need a periodic check-up to ensure that they cannot just survive but will really thrive in today’s environment. To check your board’s vital signs, or to put in place practices and strategies for a healthy and energized board, the best place to start is with a board self-assessment.”

Self-assessments impact the health of the organization in a variety of ways; however, we are going to focus on 3 Key Benefits Stemming from Board Self-Assessment:

1. Reinforces Expectations
During a coaching session one of my clients expressed frustration with her board. She shared, “I don’t know what’s wrong with our board. They aren’t doing anything they are supposed to be doing. I need a working and fundraising board, but no one seems to be willing.”

Upon further discussion I learned that though expectations were being communicated to board members, there was no assessment process in place to evaluate board member performance. The goals were being set, but there was no accountability measure in place to make sure they were being achieved. As a result, the expectations were perceived as suggestions rather than requirements. Once the assessment process was implemented, board members understood the importance of meeting and even exceeding expectations.

2. Identifies Challenges
Like Weir’s CT Scan, board assessments can help identify areas of weakness. While I believe in taking an asset-based approach to building the health of your organization, I am also an advocate for identifying opportunities for growth and working to overcome any challenges these opportunities provide. Because of the CT Scan, Weir has been able to make changes to his lifestyle (eating, less sitting through the day, etc) that have the potential to make a great impact on his overall health and lifespan. Assessments can provide the same opportunity for nonprofit organizations.

3. Encourages Discussion
Finally, board assessments provide the opportunity to engage board members in a discussion around expectations and how meeting these expectations will ultimately impact mission fulfillment. During the assessment process, take time to focus on how the board furthers the mission and vision of the organization. Discuss why board service is important and the difference it makes on behalf of your clients, communities, or cause. This conversation can serve to excite and inspire your members on behalf of the organization.

Board assessments are an extremely valuable tool in managing the health of your organization. If you don’t current have a process for assessing the performance of your board, consider making this a priority in 2012.


BoardSource recommends that the board assess its own performance every two years.

Council of Nonprofits Sample Member Self Evaluation

Northland Foundation Board Assessment Survey

Community Resource Exchange Board Assessment Questionnaire

Posted by Tiffany Applegate on January 18, 2012 at 2:13 PM
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Categories: Board Governance
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