What To Include In Board Self-Assessment

The Board performs many critical functions for the nonprofit organization, including fundraising, setting strategic direction, hiring and evaluating of the chief executive, and recruiting and training new board members.  One important responsibility of the board, sometimes overlooked, is to ensure that the board is functioning well.  A candid, annual self-assessment process can help the board to see and address its own weaknesses so that it can function more effectively in executing all of the important responsibilities listed above.

According to a BoardSource webinar, the following are characteristics of a good assessment process:

  • A confidential online survey
  • A third-party administrator
  • Only aggregated results are reported along with an interpretive memo providing a qualitative analysis of the results and benchmarking data
  • Results are discussed during a special meeting/retreat at the nonprofit’s location and action plans are developed
  • Results are tracked and compared from one annual assessment to the next
  • The board follows through to implement the action plans that came about as a result of the recommendations

Sample evaluation forms to assess the effectiveness of the board as a whole, the effectiveness of board meetings, and the effectiveness of board members (individual self-assessment) are available from BoardSource.  I also have assessment instruments that I have used successfully and am happy to share. If interested, please e-mail me at kathy@sparknpc.com.

Are You a Social Entrepreneur?

The concept of social enterprise, by definition an initiative that operates like a business, producing goods and services for the market, but managing its operations and redirecting its surpluses in pursuit of social and environmental goals, is increasingly acknowledged as a strategy to help nonprofit organizations diversify their revenue streams.  While some traditional nonprofits shy away from this “new approach,” my own sense is that many have the skills needed to be successful at creating social enterprises.

Here are some key concepts pertaining to social enterprise (taken from Enterprising Nonprofits by Dees, Emerson, and Economy) and some reasons I believe you – and many nonprofits  – may already have a “leg up” on being a social entrepreneur.

1. An entrepreneur is “an innovative, opportunity-oriented, resourceful, value-creating change agent.  (Most of the nonprofits I know were established by people that meet this definition to perfection.)

2. The best measure of success for social entrepreneurs is not how much profit they make, but rather the extent to which they create social value. (Nonprofits are skilled at identifying needs and figuring out how to create the greatest social value for the lowest cost.)

3. Mission is at the center of successful social enterprise. It is the lever that moves hearts and minds and creates the “bottom line that all social sector organizations hold in common: changed lives.” (Nonprofit leaders are skilled at leveraging change through the effective communication of and engagement with the mission.)

So, what’s different about social enterprise from what nonprofits do on a daily basis?  Basically, it’s an openness to experimentation with market-based approaches and businesslike methods within the social sector.

How can nonprofits build knowledge and a comfort level with this kind of experimentation?  I’d suggest this is an ideal opportunity to engage board-level volunteers who may bring a wealth of experience with markets and business methods. As with anything new, expertise can be developed. And this can happen all the more speedily and readily if trusted volunteers are engaged to advise and reassure us.

Curious Boards?

Nancy Axelrod, a self-described “board anthropologist,” commented insightfully on the importance of creating a culture of inquiry on a nonprofit board of directors.  In her article, “Curious Boards,” published by BoardSource in 2010, she writes:

“If you’ve ever had your thinking challenged and been forced to defend or abandon your ideas, you know that this questioning, this sort of curiosity, can be uncomfortable. But a common ingredient of a high-functioning board is the presence of individual members who regularly turn to inquiry over advocacy, especially on matters that are not as clear-cut as other board business that can be tackled in a more perfunctory manner.”

Axelrod suggests the following steps that a board can take to build trust among its members to help them feel safe in expressing their diverging viewpoints:

  1. Provide social forums for individual board members to get to know each other and the chief executive.
  2. Make sure everyone has easy access to the organization’s documents.
  3. Make processes transparent.
  4. Permit individuals to express dissenting views, and, if necessary, coach them on doing it in a constructive way.
  5. Distribute leadership across the board.
  6. Do regular board self-assessments.
  7. Provide opportunities to share accomplishments as well as concerns with the chief executive through ongoing communications, annual performance assessments, and executive sessions.

How should you decide?

When your nonprofit organization faces a significant challenge or a new opportunity, how does it decide what to do?  Do we go with the executive director’s gut reaction?  Or does the E.D. trust the gut reaction of the board chair, hoping that the chair and the board will bail the organization out if the decision turns out to be a bad one?

David La Piana’s book, “The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid-Response World” creates clarity and a process for:

  • framing the key questions
  • identifying options
  •  evaluating them in light of the organization’s mission, market position, and competitive advantage.

It is well worth reading. (And implementing!)

Here are four criteria you should always consider  :

  1. What is its value to our mission?  Is the proposed activity of high, medium, or low importance?
  2. Will it pay for itself? Does the activity have a dedicated income stream?  Will it generate a surplus or a deficit?
  3. What is our competition?  How will this activity position us vis a vis our competition?
  4. Do we have the capacity? What will it take for us to begin to produce this activity? What kind of strain will it put on our administrative structure?

La Piana suggests we leave the gut behind, create a better understanding of our own organization, generate criteria (like those above) for evaluating options, and hold each opportunity up for careful evaluation.

I believe there will be great long-term value in this course of action for nonprofit organizations that pursue it.

Mobile Misconceptions

Another natural disaster. Another chance to see that mobile devices can bring in a lot of money for organizations at their most critical times.

Still, many nonprofits are dragging their feet about using mobile technology to fundraise.

Why? Some worry about what kinds of information can be collected, how data correlates to existing databases and that a new method of reaching out means a lot more work for fundraisers.

Most supporters actually expect you to use mobile systems. For some nonprofits, 20 percent of their web traffic comes from mobile devices. And those users are more engaged donors.

To do mobile right, consider these facts from mGive and The mGive Foundation:

  • Many nonprofits have multiple emails going to one person and many dead emails. Today, people average three email addresses compared to one mobile number.
  • According to the 2012 eNonprofit Benchmarks study, email lists have an open rate of 14 percent; text message open rates are 97 percent.
  • Emails are more likely to be left unread compared to text messages. Text can also drive supporters to open emails for more information.
  • You can use mobile to conduct polls, receive live feedback at events, track open rates of text campaigns, generate ROI for social media through giving apps and social sharing options, plus so much more.
  • Capturing survey and other information via mobile enables you to collect the data shared in the heat of the moment – not just when someone is online. You can use that data to drive awareness, giving and more when you combine it with information you already have.
  • People use their mobile devices to text, visit websites, post to social media sites, email, share photos and videos – and take or make a phone call. So mobile engagement creates a more personal relationship between you and your donor.
  • You can measure your relationship with donors. When your organization sends out a mobile call to action, the feedback is more immediate and complete, allowing you to tailor your tactics as needed.

How to start your mobile strategy? First, change every form (online and offline) to capture a mobile number.

Then start tracking — age ranges, giving rates, volunteer hours and more. That information will help you establish your mobile strategy.

Great Fundraising Letters Do This!

Today’s donors — and don’ters – are being assailed from all directions. How can you make your end of year appeal letter stand out and get the funds you need for your non-profit?

Remember these tried-and-true-but-somehow-not-followed-by-most-fundraisers tips:

  1. Write to a person – from a person.
  2. Make sure the letter fits the addresses. If that person is new to your organization, a line or two explaining what you are doing is needed. If that person is a donor, start with thanks!
  3. Be specific. If you need $10,000 for the new heart monitor, say so. And let them know how close you are to getting it.
  4. Give them limits. If $10 will feed a family of four for a month, ask for that amount – but make sure you also give them the opportunity to feed 3 families or 10 families.
  5. Tell a story – and tug on those heart-strings. Paint a picture about the problem and how your organization fixed it to make your message – and your mission – more compelling.
  6. Add visuals – a lunch bag for food appeals, a child for pediatric research.
  7. Make it scan-able – short paragraphs, simple sentences, vivid words, subheads in bold, lots of white space. Use the word “you” often.
  8. Use colored paper to stand out.
  9. Include your website many, many times. (Most donors will go online to check you out or donate.)
  10. Add a P.S.  This is the most widely read part of the letter. Include the call to action and a deadline. Keep it to a line to two.

Making the Most of Your Volunteers – Part 2

Last month, we shared five ways to involve and properly manage volunteers so that they can add the greatest possible value to your nonprofit today and grow into an even more important role in the future. Here are five more ways to maximize the value of your volunteers.

1. Create a schedule of volunteer activity and stick to the schedule as closely as possible. Frequent changes convey a lack of appreciation for the volunteer’s time.

2. Orient volunteers to the organization, not just to their tasks. Provide training as needed, including periodic sessions covering the organization’s overall mission and programs.

3. Request and value input from volunteers. A true relationship includes talking and listening. You may learn much by listening to volunteers. Provide an opportunity to interact with the Executive Director and the Board, on occasion, to share information in both directions.

4. Engage volunteers beyond their tasks. Invite them to events, hold listening sessions, and include them among stakeholders participating in strategic planning sessions. Provide mission-related education opportunities that volunteers will value as another way of thanking them for their service.

5. Track volunteer involvement and recognize it on a regular basis and at an annual recognition event.

Making the Most of Your Volunteers – Part 1

Volunteers provide valuable support for nonprofits, contributing significantly to their mission impact. Even more importantly, when volunteers are engaged and their experience properly managed, they have the potential to become generous donors and effective board members.

But how do you engage volunteers now for maximum long-term benefit?

Consider these five tips:

1. People volunteer because they are asked. Use “consider” language when asking someone to get involved: “Would you consider volunteering with us? We could use someone with your skills to help out in our XYZ program.”

2. Get to know each volunteer, her abilities, and interests.

3. Outline volunteer opportunities, identify potential matches, suggest and agree on the assignment.

4. Provide a job description and written instructions to remove uncertainty about the assignment.

5. Have one person, a volunteer coordinator, consistently greet volunteers, thank them, and provide instructions. By getting to know each volunteer, the coordinator makes each person feel known, welcome, and appreciated. This will keep volunteers coming back.

Look for more ways to maximize your volunteers for the sake of your mission next month.

Three Keys to Successful Board Recruiting

A recent post by Rick Moyers (Against the Grain) emphasizes the importance of recruiting the right people to be on nonprofit boards.  Moyers suggests that the lackluster performance of many nonprofit boards may have more to do with difficulty recruiting the right people than with a lack of board training or confusion over board roles (the typical scapegoats).

You can read Moyers’ post here:


I agree.  In fact, I think it is fair to say that many nonprofits feel hopeless about their ability to recruit and retain the strong and committed board members they require to succeed in their mission and, particularly, in fundraising. Their desperation leads them to think they should take anyone they can wrangle and be grateful for whatever limited time (let alone money) those individuals are willing to give.

I believe great board members are out there waiting to be asked to join the right board. But they have to be identified and approached by the right people in the proper way. Successful board recruiting, in my opinion, requires three things:

1. The right mindset. When we go into our recruiting activity with the idea that nobody is going to say yes to us, we virtually guarantee failure. Likely volunteers can smell our desperation. Instead, we need to remember how important our mission is and how valuable and important is the role of the board. We are providing an opportunity to lead. The right person will be honored to be approached and will look at us as carefully as we look at her when considering the right fit for our board.

2. Widespread outreach. We need to cast our net farther than those few families in our community who are approached for every leadership opportunity. There is a great pool of talent and wealth out there, and many people with a reason to care about our mission. Finding them is a networking challenge that is best accomplished by talking with a lot of people about the qualities and skills we are seeking for our board and what we will require of a board member.

3. A systematic approach. Keeping track of the connections made during the kind of networking envisioned above is a good way to identify potential board members and donors. Keep an active spreadsheet of contacts and what is learned through them. This information will be critical to evaluating and selecting the right board members and following up appropriately with all of the nonprofit’s new community connections — whether for future volunteer opportunities, donation requests, or to seek advice when a particular form of expertise is needed in the future.


Show Donors You Get Results — and Get More Donations

A new survey of 15,000 donors, published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, says that they want to give to organizations that achieve strong results. Fundraisers need to show their charities are fulfilling their mission.

This is great news for fundraisers because four out of five Americans plan to give at least as much this year as in 2011.

That information should also resonate with the 44 percent of donors who said they could have afforded to give more last year.

Who is most apt to give?

More than any other age group, donors age 65 and up cited nonprofits’ need as a reason to give.

Middle-age donors want to know the charity they give to is the best of all organizations working on that mission.

While donors under age 35 care about results, they care more about building a community of like-minded givers: They want to get their friends and family to support a cause they believe in. They are also more apt to give to new causes. And they plan to give more in 2012 than in 2011.

An executive summary of “The Cygnus Donor Survey: Where Philanthropy Is Headed in 2012” is available free online.

You can read the complete article at http://philanthropy.com/article/Many-Donors-Would-Give-More-if/132437/