At a time when many are resolving to make 2009 the year they finally get in shape, I’m suggesting that nonprofit board members consider a similar resolution. Rather than physical shape, however, I think they need to assess their leadership fitness.
With nonprofits employing 14 percent of Maine’s work force and generating 15 percent of the state’s gross product (according to the Maine Association of Nonprofits), the importance of this sector reaches far beyond the lives they touch. In today’s economic environment, never has the value of real leadership been more important.
While nonprofit staff take the lead day-to-day, the board of directors has the ultimate leadership responsibility for the mission, strategic direction, governance and fiscal oversight. In good times, with strong staff leadership, it is easy for board members to become disengaged and fill their roles by monitoring the organization. Monitoring is not leading, however, and when times get tough, it is not surprising to find that leadership muscles are flabby and the board is unready for the heavy lifting ahead.
So here are some resolutions for nonprofit board members to consider in the new year.
Return to the mission and vision. Dust off the mission statement and engage in discussions about the future and what you want to accomplish together. A clearly described vision is essential in order to convince others to join your efforts, make your case with donors, or advocate in Augusta.
Make sure programs and services align with the mission. “We could do that!” is often the response to a new funding opportunity. As a result, organizations end up struggling to maintain programs peripheral to their missions. Now is the time to look closely at your programs. If stopping a program cold is too severe, consider a graceful hand-off to another organization. This is among the hardest work for staff to do, so provide them with support.
Take greater responsibility for communication. You are more likely to have community support during bad times if you’ve done a good job communicating during better times. Ask yourself, “If we faced a drastic state funding cut, who would join our staff and clients in the public outcry?” If that list is short, then the board must get active in attracting new supporters and igniting their passion.
Step forward on resource development. Ensuring that the organization has the essential resources it needs is a core responsibility of nonprofit boards. The board must now own up to that responsibility and join staff in implementing fundraising strategies, including those outside your comfort zone. If you truly can’t ask others to give, help to identify potential donors, secure non-monetary resources, contact legislators, or pave the way for those who ask. At a minimum, give generously.
Look carefully at the budget. Assumptions made six months ago may no longer be valid. The entire board should take time to understand the financial realities and consider the options. Rather than the knee-jerk reaction of across-the-board cuts, return first to the mission and the vision and determine what you want to accomplish now and in the future. You may decide that the best strategy is to actually increase your investment in some aspect of the organization. While that will likely mean cuts elsewhere, it is a more strategic way to approach the future and position the organization for whatever lays ahead.
Explore meaningful collaboration. In good times, organizations talk internally about the concept of collaboration but rarely get much further. It is now time to invite potential partners to join in considering the options. These don’t have to be merger talks, but they should be about establishing formal relationships with value for all involved. There should be a high level of receptivity now for these discussions.
Build a stronger board. Undertake a board assessment to determine how the board can improve its performance. Consider whether the board has the necessary skills and expertise the organization needs to move ahead and not dwell in its past. It is easy to pass a critical eye over the staff, but taking a good look at the board should be your first order of business.
When you fail to follow through on a new year’s resolution, the consequences can be minor — a gym membership goes unused, an exercise bike collects dust, or a yoga mat remains in the closet. However, when it comes to board fitness, particularly in these challenging times, a failure to get the board in shape and exercise your leadership responsibilities may be the difference between your nonprofit succeeding or failing.
Jeff Wahlstrom of Bangor provides counsel to the nonprofit community as a managing director of Starboard Leadership Consulting.