Posts Tagged ‘Boards of Directors’

Dear Nonprofiteer, Is the banquet deductible?

March 5, 2013

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am the Development Manager for a small nonprofit that operates on a budget of around $500,000 a year. Something came up this year for the first time, and I’d like your opinion.

The ticket price to our annual benefit is $100, and we routinely send acknowledgements to guests that $50 of their $100 ticket is deductible. This is a fairly accurate estimate of the value of the food, drink and entertainment cost, and according to our business manager and auditor, standard best practices (as well as the way benefit tickets have been handled at every nonprofit for which I have ever worked, during the past 20+ years).

This year, we got an RSVP from one guest with a note saying, check to follow. When the check arrived, it was from a donor advised fund with a letter stating that endorsement of the check would confirm that the full amount was tax-deductible and that no goods or services had been received in exchange. My Executive Director and I felt that to treat this differently from all other benefit ticket purchasers would be inappropriate, and compromise the integrity of our nonprofit. I contacted the donor advised fund representative, and explained the situation. I made it clear that the woman would be welcome at our event, but that we would not deposit the check without further instruction from him.

At the benefit, the woman handed me a check for $50. She was very kind, but basically said, these things are done all the time, there’s a fine line, you are on the wrong side of it, but “you’ll learn.” She also told me that the board member who invited her will be speaking with me about this.

I realize this is a relatively small amount, but it’s a larger principle. One of the reasons I value my job at this particular nonprofit is that there is a strong commitment to integrity, consistency and transparency here. My ED and I both feel that we made the right call; but this is very likely not the end of it, as we haven’t heard yet from the board member.

What do you think?

Sincerely, Just Following The Rules

Dear Following:

It’s not a matter of what the Nonprofiteer thinks; it’s what she knows, and you know and your Executive Director knows.  There’s nothing at all “fine” about the line between deductible and non-deductible payments: the IRS permits deduction of the amount that goes to the charity, and not of the amount that goes into a guest’s belly.  It’s what any lawyer would refer to as “a bright-line rule.”  So maybe the banquet guest just got her lines mixed up.

Seriously, this isn’t even a close call.  What this person has asked you to do is to lie to the IRS on her behalf.  Let’s leave aside ethics, integrity, all those mushy things.  Lying to the IRS is a really bad idea–just ask Al Capone.

Now, is your agency likely to be audited for breaking the rules (also known as “the law”)?  No.  Nor is the guest likely to be audited for misreporting her charitable contributions.  But that’s not a reason for you (or her) to pretend that she received no value for the money she handed over.  You were wise not to endorse the donor-advised fund’s check embodying such a pretense, and you will continue to be wise by not issuing a tax-deductibility receipt for the $50 personal check she ultimately forked over.

If and when the Board member comes at you, you will reiterate what we all know to be true: that the IRS does not permit you to certify the food, drink and entertainment costs as tax-deductible contributions, and that you’re sure she wouldn’t want an agency she governs to participate in such a dangerous and false maneuver.  If she presses, observe that the guest may make any use she pleases of her cancelled $50 check.

If the Board member continues to press, turn the matter over to the Board president.  It’s her/his responsibility to make sure no one member of the Board in any way tarnishes the reputation of the whole group.  If s/he resists addressing the issue, try using the words “tax evasion,” and if s/he continues to resist, try using the word “fraud.”

You don’t have to be in the business of judging or disparaging the guest (though she richly deserves it. Wealthy enough to have a donor-advised fund and wailing about $50?).  But you likewise don’t have to be in the business of abetting her dishonesty.  And if anyone argues, “Well, it’s only $50,” make sure to agree.  “Our agency’s good name isn’t for sale,” you’ll say.  “But if it were, it would cost a hell of a lot more than $50.”

Keep on abiding by the law, and may the Force be with you.

Dear Nonprofiteer, When is a Board member not a Board member?

February 28, 2013

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I came across your website as I was searching for information on Board members’ volunteering in programs. I’m wondering if you might have some advice on a situation I’m trying to handle.

I work in a service agency, which relies heavily on volunteers. Recently, one of our volunteers became a Board member. She has continued volunteering in the program and a couple of issues have come up that the program director would normally address quickly and easily with a volunteer. However, because this volunteer is now also a Board member, there is a hesitation because she is somewhat of a boss.

The issue has been brought to the attention of the Board president.  He and the program director have different ideas on how to handle the situation.  The president wants to handle the situation one on one because he doesn’t want to discourage other members from volunteering more.  The program director wants a limit on how much time a Board member can spend volunteering in a program.

I’m the Executive Director and can see both sides.  I’d like for the president to deal with it one on one, but to then adopt a policy/guidelines for Board members as volunteers to avoid conflicts of interest.  I can see where this particular person likes to make decisions and that easily oversteps the program director’s role.

I’ve been searching on line for a policy around this, but have found nothing.I would greatly appreciate any insight or resources that you might have to help with such an issue.

Sincerely,

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

Dear Clowns:

This is only a problem because of what seems to be a fundamental misconception about the role of Board members, as opposed to the Board as a whole.  No individual Board member is “somewhat of a boss;” in fact, from the standpoint of the program director, the only boss she has is you, the Executive Director.  You, on the other hand, answer to the Board as a whole, and the Board as a whole has the right to hire, evaluate, discipline and if necessary fire you if it’s not satisfied with the job you’re doing.

But there’s a reason the Nonprofiteer keeps repeating “as a whole . . . as a whole.”  Individual Board members have no supervisory responsibility for personnel, even when they’re members of the Personnel Committee.  Personnel decisions belong to the Executive Director, except for decisions about the Executive Director’s tenure which belong to the Board—all together now—as a whole.

So the Nonprofiteer doesn’t see any reason why there should be a policy prohibiting Board members from volunteering in the program, or limiting the amount of time they can spend doing so.  What there should be is

  • a statement by the Board president to the volunteer in question that there seems to have been some confusion, what with her going from volunteer to Board and back again, and that it needs to be clear that when she’s a volunteer she’s not a Board member.  He doesn’t need to go into the subtleties of her general lack of power as an individual Board member.  He just needs to tell her that in the land of program, the program director is king, and thus that she should expect the program director to treat her exactly as she was treated before she joined the Board—that is, to supervise her.
  • another statement by the Board president to the program director reiterating what he said to the volunteer and reassuring  her that she’s not dealing with “somewhat of a boss” and should therefore not hesitate to resolve the problem with this volunteer as with any other.  And
  • a third statement by the Board president to the entire Board at the next Board meeting, leaning again on the “confusion” meme: “We’ve had some questions about the circumstances under which Board members are welcome as program volunteers.  So I thought I’d make clear that each of us is welcome under all circumstances—but when we’re program volunteers, we shed our Board identities like fur in the summertime.  None of us is enforcing policy, or overseeing staff, or evaluating operations—we’re just volunteering.  Which ought to be a great relief for each of us!”  Thus he’ll encourage Board members to volunteer without having them confuse their collective governance role with their individual participation role.

The reason you can’t find any relevant policies is that this isn’t an occasion for policies—it’s an occasion for common sense applied to clearly-understood roles.  Or, in other words, there’s no need for a conflict-of-interest policy because individual Board members have no recognizable interests; their task is to participate in group decision-making about what’s good for the agency.

If you also have a Board Personnel Committee that tries meddling with individual personnel decisions (as opposed, say, to writing policies and procedures applicable to all personnel), then you have a bigger version of the same problem and need to have a bigger discussion about the difference between the Board—what?—as a whole and individual Board members.

But there’s no reason either the problem or the discussion should lead you to limit Board members’ participation as program volunteers.   As a Board member told the Nonprofiteer just last night, the main satisfaction Board members get from their often thankless jobs is contact with the people you serve.  Unless your goal is to produce unhappy Board members and a short-handed program director, you don’t want to restrict or prohibit that contact.

Or, more pithily: damn the Board member!  Full speed ahead!

Dear Nonprofiteer, . . . And we all lived happily ever after, thanks to you!

December 25, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

It was at this time one year ago that I wrote to you about my horrible “School Director” job. Your reply helped me see that it was not only horrible, but hopeless.

For six months, I’d been optimistic in thinking the situation couldn’t possibly be as absurd as it seemed. Surely there was some logical (and legal) explanation for all the things that made my jaw drop, one after another — I just needed to understand how it made sense. (It didn’t.)

I repeatedly asked for clear communications with the board, and for clarity about my relationship with them individually and collectively. That too was sure to happen any day, I thought, and everything would be cleared up and straightened out. (They didn’t tell me when the meetings were scheduled, let alone allow me to speak with them.)

You may recall that the Board Chair was also Artistic Director of the organization and director of the “professional” performing group; also, the highest-paid employee, hour for hour. Yet as a resident of another state, this Uber-Boss was a very rare presence in the building, with no direct knowledge of school operations or clientele.

Worse, all of the other board members were involved in the organization—performer, teacher, parent, etc., so they were ever-present in non-board-member roles. I wondered things like: If a board member is acting in her role as a teacher, must I take orders from her? If a board member is acting in her role as a parent volunteer, must I acquiesce to policies that favor her child? And is the Uber-Boss EVER not the boss of everybody? (Answer: No.)  Like a team of Gladys Kravitzes, they scrutinized me minute-by-minute and gossiped in personal phone calls. (You know the game of “telephone,” where the original statement gets garbled? Like that, except it started out garbled.)

I was a subordinate not worth listening to until the day I resigned. Then they wondered why! (I didn’t bother to explain.)

It stung for a long time, and it still pains me to think about it. I put my heart and soul into my work there, and accomplished a lot for them in a short time. Goodness only knows what was told to faculty and parents, as only one parent has made any contact with me since I left. The organization is in my community, and I dread running into board members in the grocery store. It’s like some special nonprofit arts brand of PTSD.

I only wish I’d had your advice sooner, because you were so right. My “normal” is back to normal, free from being bossed, berated and belittled. I work with wonderfully creative people, with mutual respect and appreciation, and make more money with far fewer hours and none of the stress. And when “Board of Directors Horror Stories” come up among colleagues, I can top them all. Easily.

Thank you for helping me restore my sanity! It’s been a good year, and no doubt 2013 will be even better. Signed,

Happily No Longer Hanging

Dear Happily:

That’s terrific–”some special nonprofit arts brand of PTSD.” Over Christmas dinner the Nonprofiteer was telling her own tragic story of working in the nonprofit arts world, and though it’s been nearly 30 years, she can taste the bile in her throat every time the subject comes up. So don’t be surprised if you’re not fully recovered a mere six months later.

The other really powerful observation you’ve made is that you weren’t worth listening to until you resigned. It’s not clear why nonprofit Boards are so frequently deaf until it’s too late, but it’s certainly the case; and then they wonder why they have trouble keeping personnel!

Finally, you’ve offered a word to the wise: nonprofit arts Boards dominated by people whose primary connection to the organization is through their non-Board roles are nonprofit arts Boards looking for trouble. If roles and responsibilities aren’t clear, nothing gets done and everyone blames everyone else. People should have to choose how they want to be involved in the organization; and, if the artists’ fear is that the Board will take the group away from them, the artists should arrange to be represented on the Board—but as a group, not as individuals. Representing your fellow artists is one thing; feathering your own nest is something else, and the latter is conduct unbecoming a Board member.

Thanks for letting us know you made a change for the better—you never know who may be out there in nonprofit arts hell, reading and being inspired.

Dear Nonprofiteer, If a Board member’s gift falls before year-end, does it make a sound?

November 30, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I serve on the board of a nonprofit. 100% of our board gives in some form monetarily throughout the year through event sponsorship, general giving, donations at events, etc. With all the year-round giving, many of us were not making a gift to the annual appeal. Recently, we were informed that funders look at what percentage of our organization’s annual appeal total comes from board members. This has the board scrambling to make sure everyone gives a significant sum here at year’s end. It also has many of us questioning the timing of our gifts for the next year. Do we not sponsor the gala or give to summer programs, but instead save that donation for the annual appeal? There is only so much to give for many of us.

While I know that funders want 100% of board members to give, the desire for that giving to come in the form of the annual appeal is new to me. I find it especially surprising that they would ask what percentage of the annual appeal comes from board members. Have you heard about this stipulation? Is it widespread?

Obviously we all want what is in the best interest for our organization to be positioned for future funding. However, I don’t want to lose the help and momentum the organization gets from year-round board giving if it isn’t necessary.

Signed, Surprised and Scrambling

Dear Surprised:

First, let the Nonprofiteer congratulate you on having a Board that gives 100%. It’s bizarre to imagine that some additional hurdle should be placed in the way of a Board which has already cleared that one. Institutional funders are notorious for always asking for one more thing; but this hoop is a brand-new one.

The Nonprofiteer suspects that what we have here is a failure to communicate*—that is, a misunderstanding of what the funder actually wants to know. If the program officer asks (or the guidelines say) “What percentage of your annual fund comes from your Board members?” the English translation is most likely, “What percentage of your annual donated income comes from your Board members?” NOT “Which appeal do your Board members respond to?”

The funder’s concern may be for institutions whose Boards donate 75% of the group’s contributed income, reflecting a failure to reach out into the broader stakeholder community. Conversely, the funder—which mostly doesn’t deal with Boards as generous and active as yours—wants to know if Board member donations are significant or merely pro forma: if every single member of the Board gave $1, that wouldn’t be the kind of Board participation the foundation wants to see, or intends to spark through its inquiry.

If in fact the funder cares about the Board’s response rate to the annual appeal, meaning the end-of-year solicitation letter, this is a classic example of a wider problem in the nonprofit community: the “it doesn’t count” syndrome. Oh, members of your Board buy and sell tickets to the benefit event? “It doesn’t count” because there might be something involved in the transaction beyond a straightforward check and tax receipt. “It doesn’t count” syndrome leaves Board members feeling unappreciated and nonprofit executives feeling unsupported; so repeat after the Nonprofiteer: money is fungible; IT ALL COUNTS.

And if the funder disagrees: so the funder is stupid! Having money is no guarantee of having brains, and that’s as true in the philanthropic sector as anywhere else, though it’s harder to remember when we’re spending all our time trying to please people with money.

The Nonprofiteer’s advice: call the program officer and say, “Do I understand you want to know what percentage of the response to our end-of-year solicitation letter—what we call the annual appeal—comes from the Board, or do you just want to know what percentage of our annual contribution income is donated by the Board?” If s/he really means the former, then yes, just shift the timing of your contributions in future years.

“Teach your funders well . . . . just look at them and sigh, and know they” don’t understand you at all.**

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*Cool Hand Luke
**Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: “Teach Your Children”

Dear Nonprofiteer, How do we reach consensus on our Executive Director’s performance while preserving every Board member’s perspective?

November 20, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer:

What is the best way for a Board to review its Executive Director?  Our current review process involves each Board member’s completing a review of the ED and then our Board president’s “averaging” the reviews (without further debate or discussion from the Board) into the final document.  While this is an effort at broad input, in reality it results in producing only the most general review, with minority viewpoints often dropped.

As  Board treasurer I work with the staff and Executive Director often in different ways than other Board members and this give me the opportunity to see areas of weakness and strength others may not see.    Likewise I’m sure other Board members, due to their unique positions of involvement, are seeing still different weaknesses and strengths but because their observations may not be those of the majority,  they never make it into the final report.

Signed,  Minority Report

Dear Minority:

You’ve put your finger on an important but oft-neglected aspect of nonprofit management: the need (as in the wider political arena) to protect the rights of the minority while preserving democratic governance by a majority.  Nonprofit Board members are often so averse to conflict that they unintentionally shut down opposition—even their own—to preserve the illusion of unity, or at least consensus.

But it’s not consensus if it doesn’t include acknowledgement of minority opinions, particularly when those opinions are informed by special expertise.   Board members are charged with governing agencies, which largely means overseeing the work of the Executive Director.  Many Board members ask how that’s possible when everything they know about the agency comes from that selfsame Executive Director; and the only good answer is to secure information from within the Board itself.

As Treasurer, you know whether the ED is a spendthrift or a penny-pincher; whether s/he manages cash flow well or whether every month is a festival of white knuckles; whether s/he is carrying the appropriate share (or much more, or much less) of the fundraising burden.  If you don’t share these data with the rest of the Board, all the other members are operating in needless dark.

The Nonprofiteer suggests that you propose to the Board president a relatively minor modification of the current approach:  that after s/he’s crafted what’s designed to be a consensus report on the Board’s behalf, s/he bring it back to the Board for final approval.  At that time, every Board member should get to see the comments of every other Board member, which enhances the likelihood that someone will say, “Wait a minute–we can’t gloss over these comments about how the Executive Director abuses the staff in public.”

The Board president probably wants to make sure that the ED isn’t getting feedback from all directions, because that sort of cacophony is to no one’s benefit.  That’s a fine goal, but it should be balanced with the goal of making the ED’s review as comprehensive and nuanced as possible.  Your agency’s decision to gather all the Board feedback gets you half the distance to the goal line; sharing and incorporating that input as a group will earn you a touchdown.

Dear Nonprofiteer, What’s this “shared sacrifice” I keep hearing about?

July 30, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

My mom works for a small nonprofit that recently went through financial hardship.  The organization did everything in its power to keep afloat, including (unfortunately) firing employees and cutting pay, hours, and health benefits for the people remaining. And it has bounced back, for the most part.

Recently managers have given themselves raises based on their own research about pay scales elsewhere. First, is this a conflict of interest? Does it seem unethical to give yourself a raise based on your own research while other employees are not given one at all?

My mom works in the accounting department and has been there for over 10 years. While the company wasn’t doing well she accepted all the cuts while taking on the work load of the people who were let go. Since then, other employees have been given raises, and now make nearly double what she does. She was even promised a pay increase for obtaining her BA in Accounting but it was never delivered.

She has brought these issues up but nothing has been done for her. She’s a dedicated worker, going out of her way to take on more work and more education for nothing more than the occasional cost-of-living increase.

Does this happen often? Is it common to see managers in non-profits overcompensate themselves even though it was their poor decisions that almost caused the organization to go under? Does it seem wrong that the employees who fought to keep it afloat have not been given the same percentage increase?

Have you come across any literature or articles on the subject?   I feel terrible for my mom because I know her work ethic and her commitment to the good the organization does for the community.  She deserves to be paid more than an entry-level accountant and her employer should have recognized that long ago.

Signed, Daughter in High Dudgeon

Dear Daughter:

You’ve asked two separate questions, really: first, is this ethical behavior?  Second, is it common behavior?  The first question is easier than the second.

Of course it’s not ethical for leaders to provide themselves with raises before restoring their subordinates to their pre-emergency level of compensation.  Employees who are considered essential enough to be retained during times of crisis, albeit at reduced pay and benefits, must be considered essential enough to be rewarded once the crisis is through.

However, many managers (and the Boards of Directors to whom they report) assume that employees are working there for the love of the agency and/or that any monkey could do the job those employees are being underpaid to do.  This is the proverbial Catch-22: we pay you so little, you and your work must be worthless; since you’re worthless, why should we pay you any more?

The only way to respond to this is to document how people who do the same job are paid elsewhere.  Your mother should use her financial skills to find out what BA accountants with similar responsibilities are paid at similar-sized agencies in your city or county.  Then she should take this documentation to the Executive Director with a specific demand for an increase in pay and benefits to at least parity with her professional peers.  It’s always harder for an ED to refuse a raise based on outside comparables, whereas if your mother tries to compare herself with people in her own agency the ED can always checkmate her with, “Well, but Ellen works three extra nights a week,” or, “But Josephine has been here since 15 minutes before you arrived.”

The other advantage of seeking outside comparables is that it will give your mother a sense of the job market.  It’s hard to think of moving elsewhere after years of loyal service, especially while feeling committed to the agency’s mission and clients.  But that’s no reason to be treated like a slave.  (And salaries from other agencies may include ones paid to men.   No one ever believes that women are paid less than men for the same work until they encounter the cold hard facts for themselves.)

Notice that the major fault is the agency’s unwillingness to restore your mother’s salary now that there’s money available again.  The fact that managers documented the market for their services, and then rewarded themselves based on that documentation, is more an apparent conflict of interest than an actual one.  If everyone does his/her job it doesn’t really signify who did the research about comparable compensation: only the Board of Directors can give the Executive Director a raise, and the Board is designed to be independent of the ED.

But perhaps the Board isn’t actually independent, which leads to the question about whether your mother’s situation is a common one. It’s very common in nonprofit organizations for the Board of Directors to be utterly in the Executive Director’s thrall and prepared to do as s/he says without any independent evaluation whatsoever. This is partly because many nonprofits are still run by their founders, to whom every Board member is personally loyal, and partly because Executive Directors manage their agencies full time while Board members govern them only part time.

So if the Executive Director of a small nonprofit wants to skim off a raise for him/herself while withholding money from his/her subordinates, it’s easier for him/her to do so than it would be in a larger nonprofit with a professional human resources department, or in a regular business.  (The Nonprofiteer herself once succeeded an ED who had helped herself to a raise: knowing that the Board Treasurer signed checks without paying attention to the amount, s/he simply took advantage of that fact.)

But however easy, or common because easy, such practices may be, they are unethical.  If your mother can’t get the raise she deserves by offering honest comparables to her boss, she should find a new job and, on the way out the door, send a letter to the Board president and treasurer (or the whole Board) denouncing the ED’s shoddy financial practices.  It won’t get Mom the raise she hungers for but she will get to enjoy the dish best served cold: revenge.

Nonprofit Corporate Governance: The Board’s Role

April 19, 2012
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation; it is reposted to the Nonprofiteer by permission of the author Lesley Rosenthal.   Ms. Rosenthal is the general counsel of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the author of Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits. Bart Friedman, senior partner at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP, contributed to this post.
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Governing boards in the for-profit and nonprofit contexts share many legal precepts: the oversight role, the decision-making power, their place in the organizational structure, and their members’ fiduciary duties. But in the nonprofit setting, misconceptions about corporate governance abound. Are board members primarily fundraisers? Cheerleaders? A rubber stamp to legitimize the actions and decisions of the executives? Do they run the organization to the extent staff is unable? Are they window-dressing to spruce up the organization’s letterhead? If they are rich or famous, must they attend board meetings? How do they know whether they are doing a good job, or when it is time to go? Despite the common ancestry and legal underpinnings, nonprofit corporate governance places heightened demands on trustees: a larger mix of stakeholders, a more complex economic model, and a lack of external accountability. This post explores how substituting a charitable purpose for shareholders’ interests affects the board’s role.

In organizations of all kinds, good governance starts with the board of directors. The board’s role and legal obligation is to oversee the administration (management) of the organization and ensure that the organization fulfills its mission. Good board members monitor, guide, and enable good management; they do not do it themselves. The board generally has decision-making powers regarding matters of policy, direction, strategy, and governance of the organization.

The board of a well-governed nonprofit organization, like the board of a well-governed profit-making company, will do all of the following:

  • Formulate key corporate policies and strategic goals, focusing both on near-term and longer-term challenges and opportunities.
  • Authorize major transactions or other actions.
  • Oversee matters critical to the health of the organization— not decisions or approvals about specific matters, which is management’s role—but instead those involving fundamental matters such as the viability of its business model, the integrity of its internal systems and controls, and the accuracy of its financial statements.
  • Evaluate and help manage risk.
  • Steward the resources of the organization for the longer run, not just by carefully reviewing annual budgets and evaluating operations but also by encouraging foresight through several budget cycles, considering investments in light of future evolution, and planning for future capital needs.
  • Mentor senior management, provide resources, advice and introductions to help facilitate operations.

Similar to for-profit corporations, the power to control and oversee the management of the affairs and concerns of a nonprofit corporation is set forth in its corporate charter. Generally speaking, state law permits both kinds of corporations to self-direct significant allocations of power and responsibility, and then requires them to follow their own corporate governance and operational policies. The familiar fiduciary duties of care, loyalty, and – sometimes – obedience, undergird these requirements in both sectors.

In a well-governed organization of either the for-profit or nonprofit kind, the board does not permit executives to run and dominate board meetings, set agendas, or determine what information will be provided to board members. Under the leadership of an active and functioning board chair, there is adequate opportunity at board meetings for members to receive and discuss reports from not only the chief executive, but also, as appropriate, directly from other executives, in-house and outside professionals, and independent consultants if necessary. Time should be reserved for executive sessions, at which management should be excluded so that its performance may be fully and freely discussed.

Mission is what distinguishes nonprofits from their for-profit cousins: Nonprofits have missions instead of owners or shareholders. While the prime directive for board members of for-profit organizations is to ensure the highest possible value for owners, by contrast, nonprofit board members’ prime directive is mission fulfillment.

Board independence and board attention are of paramount importance in good nonprofit governance.  The independence of the board is key because of the non-distribution constraint – nonprofits exist to serve the public interest, not to benefit owners or other private parties.  Business or family relationships between the organization or its executives and a board member or her firm are frowned upon and should be strictly scrutinized under a conflict of interest policy administered by independent directors.  Even absent outright business or family relationships, a common shortcoming of nonprofit boards is that they are too small, too insular, or too deferential to the founder or chief executive.

Another frequent error of nonprofit boards is inviting new members because of their marquee name within a certain field of endeavor (e.g., a famous dancer on the board of a dance organization) or their means and inclination to donate, without due consideration to the person’s ability and availability to fulfill fiduciary duties, providing the critical oversight function. The governing body of a nonprofit must be made up entirely of people in a position to govern it—setting the strategic direction of the organization and overseeing management’s execution of the mission. Wealthy or prominent persons— donors, artists, scientists, public officials, and others—with an interest in the organization’s program but lacking the time, availability, or expertise to provide meaningful oversight may serve the organization in a non-fiduciary capacity, such as an honorary or advisory board, donors’ circle, or professional council.

Governance is more complex in charitable nonprofits for a number of reasons. Public charities (501(c)(3) organizations) are intended to serve a public purpose, and the board must bear in mind that broad interest.  Depending on its mission, history, and geographic reach, a nonprofit may also have specific stakeholders or different groups of stakeholders, some or all of whom may be represented by categories of board members under the organization’s by-laws. The interests of the organization’s ultimate clients, who may be indigent or otherwise disadvantaged, are another important consideration. The organization’s management and workforce may be paid less than their for-profit peers for similar work – if at all – further complicating the board’s oversight duties. In addition, nonprofit trustees may feel role-strain – or worse – because of real or perceived obligations to interact with, attract – or even be – charitable donors. These additional factors make nonprofit board decision-making arguably a much more complex process than the straightforward mandate of maximizing return.

Moreover, nonprofits’ economic models may be more complex than for-profits’ models, including a dynamic blend of earned revenue (ticket sales for a symphony, fee-for-service billings by a hospital, tuition payments to a university) and contributed income (annual fundraisers, “Friends of” membership groups, end-of-year solicitations, capital campaigns). Wealthier nonprofits with endowments can also count on a stream of revenues from investments. In harsh economic climates, however, there is a high correlation between reduced contributions and weaker investment returns. Compounding the difficulty, hard times on the revenue side often coincide with heightened demand for organizations’ services, particularly social services, increasing expenses and creating cash crunches, trouble balancing budgets, or even persistent deficits. Savvy nonprofits have added “third streams” of revenue to supplement and diversify traditional two sources. Entrepreneurial initiatives may include leveraging real estate or other assets, monetizing treasure troves of intellectual property know-how, or engaging in joint ventures with fellow nonprofits or even commercial entities. In envisioning and evaluating such enterprises, board and management must observe regulatory requirements and consider tax implications.  In lean years and in growth years, the board must be deeply engaged in overseeing the organization’s investments, its other sources of revenue and expense, and the planning of new initiatives.

What happens when board members fail?  In theory, the mechanism in a for-profit corporation for correcting errant board members is straightforward:  if the investors don’t like what the directors are doing, they vote them out of office. But in the absence of investors, nonprofit boards must be self-correcting. No one has ever made a tender offer because a nonprofit was inefficient. Moreover, governmental agencies regulating the sector tend to be small and under-resourced, making it highly unlikely that any but the most obvious misconduct will be detected and corrected from the outside. Unless board members are doing something illegal or are term-limited out of office, they may serve in perpetuity, giving them ultimate power over the organization. In this regard, nonprofit trusteeship is a unique and privileged role.

By a number of measures, nonprofit and for-profit board governance are similar: the board’s oversight role, its decision-making power, its structural place within the organization, and its members’ legal duties. The similarities end, however, where shareholder interest in maximizing returns gives way to mission fulfillment, a multiplicity of stakeholders, more complex business models, and self-accountability rather than external accountability.

Dear Nonprofiteer, If I want higher wages will you tell me what to do?*

April 17, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I work at a major environmental NGO.   I am well compensated, but I can’t help but think my colleagues and others in the sector (I did not always used to be so well compensated) would benefit from Unionization.

What unions exist for non-profit employees? How could we make more?

Signed, In Solidarity

Dear Solidarity:

It does you credit that you remain concerned about the poorly-paid even after you’ve left their number.  But the question you raise can only be answered with a frustrating, “It depends.”

Individual circumstances dictate whether any particular nonprofit would benefit from a union.  Certainly nonprofit employees are a resource for unions looking to grow—our institutions are rooted in the community and therefore unlikely to pick up and move to Dixie (or China) when the union comes to call.  But whether unions are a resource for nonprofit employees looking to grow is a separate question.

If the morale at an agency is poor, and a significant component of that morale is poor wages, hours, benefits and working conditions, then talking union only makes sense.  But if morale is poor because the Executive Director is a dingbat, then unionizing is pretty much beside the point.  And if morale at an agency is high, then there’s unlikely to be much support for the idea of bringing in a third party to mediate between the working and the worked-for—particularly as the organizing process can be so disruptive and embittering.  That’s not a rap on the unions: you’re going to have disruption in any context requiring the taking of sides, whether the subject is program expansion or relocation or mission creep—or union representation.

The issue is certainly not that there aren’t enough unions organizing in the sector, though they may not be organizing enough.  The Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees and even the Teamsters have taken their turns organizing nonprofits, often following jobs government agencies have chosen to outsource.  (See the Nonprofiteer’s earlier discussion of the “progress” from government employees [unionized] to nonprofit employees [non-union, at least at first] to faith-based employees [presumably too holy to strike].)  So we don’t need to “make more” unions; we need to encourage more nonprofits to adopt either significant improvements to compensation, benefits and work rules or a relationship with a union designed to provide those significant improvements.

If you can get from a nonprofit Board of Directors the improvement in wages and working conditions you want, there’s no need to go union.  But those Boards of Directors are apt to be resistant to your demands, because they regard it as their fiduciary duty to direct money to programs rather than to the salaries of the people who run those programs.  (If this strikes you as a distinction without a difference, you’re completely correct—but you’re also obviously unfamiliar with the rhetoric of charities and their funders.)  Or they might resist your demands just because they’re lazy and don’t want to raise money.

In either case of resistance, having a union organizer in your back pocket (or at least on speed dial) may be what’s necessary to get the Board’s genuine attention.  Just as the prospect of being hanged concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully, so the prospect of being unionized concentrates the minds of charity Boards.

(A rigorous research paper on the subject reported that nonprofit organizing drives succeed more often than those at for-profits.  But does that mean that nonprofit employees’ sense of social justice makes them/us more receptive to unions, or just that unions don’t bother to organize at nonprofits til they can see it’s going to be a slam-dunk?)

The Nonprofiteer always snorts when she hears employers talk about how it would be a shame to insert a stranger between them and their employees, who are just like family.  Especially at nonprofits, if a workplace is like a family, it’s generally like the family in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  But small and medium-sized nonprofits do have a uniquely porous relationship between management and labor, as well as between management and governance; and a union, or even a failed organizing drive, will disrupt that once and for all.

Thus, unions make the most sense at the largest nonprofits (the hospitals and universities), which are practically indistinguishable from for-profits.  At smaller agencies they may make sense, but only if employees are already up in arms, and only if there’s blood left in the turnip.

Oh, and only if fresh employees will be hard to find.  It’s illegal to fire someone for union organizing but you can be made uncomfortable enough to quit, and that may be a higher price than you’re willing to pay to make sure your fellows can send their children to college.  Or perhaps not.

Solidarity forever!

———————

See Talkin’ Union

Dear Nonprofiteer, Why do nonprofits ask for the moon?

March 23, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am a nonprofit professional “in transition” otherwise known as job hunting.  In the course of my job search I have come across two  job postings that have left me incredulous and I was curious as to your opinion.
  1. An executive director position listed for $32K/year. Granted this was described as a half time gig but is there any such thing as a half time ED? Maybe it means you can take weekends off. The job description/requirements were just as detailed as any full time description.
  2. A director of development position for $20-25K.   Again this is listed as 3/4 time. It comes with a very detailed laundry list of expectations but again is this really a job that can be done well with less than full attention?

Something seems really off here. My gut (and review of their 990′s) tells me that these are marginal organizations to be avoided.  Do I seem unrealistically fussy in today’s job market?

Signed, Born At Night But Not Last Night

Dear Born:

You are not unrealistically fussy, especially when “today’s job market” in the nonprofit sector seems to include a number of jobs that are going begging for want of the right candidate.  And you’ve put your finger on why that should be the case: because the job descriptions (and presumably the jobs that accompany them) are a pile of unrealistic expectations held together with the glue of employer entitlement.  This glue is particularly thick in the nonprofit sector, where hiring managers presume that their poverty entitles them to your services for less than they’re worth.  But, as the workplace sign has it, Bad planning on your part doesn’t necessarily constitute an emergency on my part.

And you’ve identified a favorite gambit of those self-entitled managers/agencies: pretending that a full-time job can be done part-time because they know the proposed salary is an insult.  (For what it’s worth, the Nonprofiteer was paid $25K as an Executive Director of a small organization in 1987; if salaries haven’t increased 20% in the past 25 years, they should have!)  As you say, it is virtually impossible for anyone to be a part-time Executive Director, and the length of the list of responsibilities demonstrates that the agency knows this as well as you do.  You could do it simply by specifying the number of hours you’re prepared to work (e.g., 30), but sure as death and taxes would come a grant application deadline which must be met, and your self-imposed part-time-ness (part-time-itude?) would go out the window.

The Nonprofiteer just had occasion to help a client work on a job description for a part-time professional position. The original description had two problems.  First, it specified more than 40 hours’ worth of work for a 20-hour position.  Second, its qualifications included both items that couldn’t be expected from someone willing to work part-time for $20 an hour (such as a roster of contacts in high-profile media) and items that shouldn’t be expected from a professional (such as facility with word processing programs).  If you’re hiring a professional, don’t ask for secretarial skills.  And if you’re hiring a professional, be reasonable about how much professional service you can get for $20 an hour and/or 20 hours per week.

By contrast, another client has recently shifted its budgeting from “How much can we spend based on how much we raised last year?” to “How much do we need to raise to support what we need to do?”  Moreover, one of the things the agency realized it needed to do was steadily increase the salary of the Executive Director so that when the current martyr departs, the group will be in a position to offer a living wage to the next group of candidates.

(Consider, by the way, that the people offering such meager salaries are Board members who probably chafe at being asked to give $1000 a year.  They don’t hesitate, though, to ask you to forego $25,000 or so of income.  This is why the Nonprofiteer doesn’t advocate asking staff members to donate to their agencies: they’re already doing so at a level no other donor is likely to match.)

(Consider also that the sums offered make clear that the agencies are expecting women, and only women, to apply for these jobs.  No one would dare offer such a pittance to a man.  The nonprofit sector operated for years on the unwaged labor of women, but there’s no reason we have to continue to provide this subsidy.)

Thus, your incredulity at the nerve of some agencies is perfectly well-founded.  That won’t help you get a job with them: but hey, why would you want to?  You’re a star, and you’ll find a place that won’t also ask for the moon.*

————–

“Oh Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”–Bette Davis to Paul Henreid, Now Voyager

Dear Nonprofiteer, Why didn’t I stay a volunteer?

February 22, 2012

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I need some advice.   I have been a paid employee of a non-profit for the last eight months. Before this I was an unpaid volunteer for several years. There are three of us in the office—the ED, the founder, and myself.

The Executive Director

For the last eight months I have been doing most of her job, and my own. As a result I am easily working sixty or more hours each week. Attempts to change this environment have been met with hostility. Despite repeated requests I still have no job description. My working relationship with the ED is close to breaking point. Simply put, I do not want to go into work tomorrow. I have my concerns about her integrity. At the start of the month I was told we were 20K above budget. Last week I overheard her tell the founder we were 40k under budget. I have no proof of mis-, mal- or nonfeasance, and to find that information would be extremely difficult. I would like to prepare a fact laden letter to the Board, but have very little proof.

The Board

I believe the Board has lost confidence in her ability. Their relationship with her appears strained. I also believe they have lost focus on what is best for the organization. A majority of the board are employees or board members of another organization, a non-profit in the same field. We take on the debt. They profit. The cynic in me wonders if there is an element of tax avoidance occurring. Despite repeated requests I am not shown Board minutes. There are open spaces on the Board, but only people friendly to this other organization are accepted. I have nominated two extremely qualified candidates to open positions. Emails inviting them to meetings have been “lost”.

The Numbers

We are a forty year old 501c3. There are three full time employees. During our busy periods we employ around 100 seasonal workers. Our turnover is approximately 300k a year. We provide a service to approximately 1400 children, teenagers and adults. We are four weeks away from the busiest time of our year.

The mission of the non-profit is very important to me. I want to do whatever is best for the long term health of the organization.

I have considered handing in my notice and writing an open letter to the Board explaining my decision. I love this organization though and don’t want to leave it. I have also considered raising my concerns with the state AG, but fear that could spell the end of the organization. Unfortunately I do not have the ear of anyone on the Board that I can speak to in confidence about this.

I am really torn as to what to do. Please advise.  Signed,

Concerned in Carolina

Dear Concerned,

You’ve laid out the central aspects of the situation very clearly: the organization has trouble in the staff, trouble on the Board, and at least the potential for trouble in its finances, which will make it difficult to continue serving this large number of clients and paying this large number of seasonal workers.  As you describe your own position, you are essentially powerless: the Executive Director doesn’t listen to you, the Board is unaware of your concerns, and you don’t want to damage an institution that you care about by involving the authorities.

But that leaves the Nonprofiteer with a question: what, exactly, do you love about an institution with an inept and/or dishonest Executive Director and a Board whose independence may be compromised by its relationship with another organization?  If what you mean is that you love the group’s mission, that’s all very well; but that’s like the Nonprofiteer’s saying she would love her boyfriend if only he were 6’10.”  This is a phenomenon therapists refer to as, “It would be so great, if only it were different.”  It’s not different, and if you have no power to make it so, your only realistic choice is to find another agency to work for: one whose mission you can believe in AND whose governance and management support that mission.

You are best off to find that organization and secure that new job before you leave this one, and certainly before you write any kind of letter to anyone about what you believe and suspect is going on.

It’s rarely worthwhile to burn bridges with that kind of valedictory note—all you get is a reputation as an arsonist, while the people on the other side of the river continue to do what they’ve been doing all along.  But if you feel you need to, you must do some more research to confirm or refute your suspicions.  The Nonprofiteer doesn’t quite grasp the relationship between your agency and the other one for which you think it may serve as a form of tax dodge, so she can’t suggest exactly what you need to find out.  But it would have to be something as clear as your Board members’ being paid by the other organization, which then reduces its own account of taxable profit, for it to be worth taking to the state’s Attorney General.  The very “mis-, mal- or nonfeasance” for which you don’t have evidence is what would be required to cause the authorities to step in.

If you feel you must speak up but don’t have this level of proof, simply write a post-resignation letter to the Board president (with copies to the rest of the Board) laying out only those facts of which you’re certain: that the Executive Director is in the office only 3 hours a week, that she’s using members of the staff to run her personal errands, or whatever the case may be.  If the Board is compromised, though, this won’t make any difference; and if the Board is honest and diligent, it will discover all this about the Executive Director as soon as you leave, because there will be no one available to cover for her by doing all her work.

The Nonprofiteer’s best advice: find a new job, send a one-sentence letter of resignation to the Executive Director, and write an intemperate five-page screed blasting the entire agency, which screed you will then put in your desk drawer or the fireplace.  You’ll have the release of having said everything that needs saying without putting yourself at risk—one of life’s rarest pleasures!

Write again so we know what you do and how it goes.


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