This past October, the Friedman LLP team was a first-time sponsor at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum (BLF) held in Washington, D.C. The annual two-day conference was attended by BLF members from around the United States, which included nonprofits' board members, chief executives, staff and professionals.
BoardSource's mission is dedicated to the advancement of the public good by building exceptional nonprofit boards who will aspire to quality board service. BLF supports this mission by offering to its members over 70 sessions during the two-day period on current nonprofit governance hot topics and best practices. The 2014 session was divided into various content levels with seven different topic tracks, which included workshops, discussions and certification programs, on ways to be a better board member and fulfill your responsibility as one. Members of the Friedman LLP team who attended several of these sessions and hosted a roundtable discussion identified certain key buzzwords as a common theme during the conference. Here are those buzzwords.
One new trendy and efficient practice now is collaboration. The nonprofit sector has become more vulnerable to competition because many of the organizations perform the same service in the same manner, even though the way to differentiate an organization is to add value through a unique value proposition. So, the idea of collaboration is for organizations with complementary interests or goals to share resources, which then frees up time and energy for both organizations so that more focus is spent on the bigger picture. Examples for the range of three different levels of integration can be: joint programming, association, and merger. The less extreme type of collaboration is joint programming. In joint programming, organizations work with one another to deliver a mission-based service which is integrated and agreed upon in a contract, however, each organization continues to remain as a separately governed entity. The organizations that can be the most success with this type of arrangement are ones who can facilitate a vertically integrated program where each organization can fulfill different steps in the process with a non-competing service. In an association, each organization is governed on its own and the work is performed separately though towards a shared goal, usually within the community. While in a merger, two organizations are legally integrated into one entity but function as an association. Organizations should work with their board members to identify what programs or services they provide so they can identify those organizations that have the same or similar services or goals for collaboration.
Fundraising is one of the most difficult tasks for an organization and a large responsibility for a board member because every board member is essentially a fundraiser. Chief executives have identified fundraising as one of the top areas where their boards need improvement. In order to achieve better fundraisers among their boards, it is essential that organizations set expectations for their board members. Not only should a board member actively participate by attending all events and activities, a board member should make a gift large enough to care about how the money is spent so to act as an ambassador for the organization. A key strategy while discussing fundraising among board members is now called "friend-raising". A board member's responsibility is to learn the purpose and duty of being on a board, and have a passion for the organization's purpose. When achieving this, friend-raising comes naturally as the board member then genuinely cares about the organization and can talk about it with his or her established relationships to encourage support from them, which then will lead to support from their relationships. The board member must also be able to express the needs of an organization in the form of a story in order to communicate with donors on a primary level rather than just asking for funding or showing a spreadsheet. Through a story, the organization's needs are quantified and that will in turn differentiate it from other organizations who ask in dollar amounts over the importance of the goal. Communication by personal phone calls or emails shows how important each donor is to the organization, which then establishes a personal relationship that can potentially lead to future commitments in a long-standing relationship.
Board Building for a Changing World
According to BoardSource's 2014 national survey of nonprofit board practices, chief executives and board chairs graded board performance as a B-, and noted their boards are good at technical tasks where responsibilities include financial oversight and compliance but lack in fundraising and organizational strategies. During Friedman LLP's roundtable discussion, board members and nonprofits voiced their greatest concerns with their boards, mostly regarding awareness and communication, and considered what best practices should be implemented. Some suggestions the group came up with included sending board members meeting agendas ahead of time for the board member's review and preparation prior to a phone conference, for example, so that the best input is put forward in a timely fashion. Additionally, depending on the type and size of an organization, board members would benefit and appreciate monthly bullet points recapping the most important items occurring within the organization to keep them in the loop. During discussion, various organizations also mentioned familiarizing their boards with the dashboards they use. Dashboards within a nonprofit are the metrics management, and the board should use it to measure performance and successes within the organization. Another suggestion was for informal meetings to take place, such as casual dinners, where board members and management can get to know each other in a more casual setting to establish common ground and trust while learning about the opportunities and risks within the organization. At the conference breakfast, Jean Case of The Case Foundation shared another great way to help board members improve awareness and communication that was first implemented by Michael Dell, called "Board Days". During Board Days, Dell had his board members physically see the mission in place by having members spend the day in the shoes of management and seeing the talent among the teams.
Overall, the BLF proved to a successful meeting of the minds, with a healthy exchange of ideas and dialogue rich in information about thought leadership and ways to increase productivity through collaboration and communication, which ultimately created thought-provoking insights to board dynamics.
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