Posts Tagged ‘governance’

[Podcast] Need to clarify roles between your nonprofit staff and board?

Board leadership is an area that demands much of our attention and effort due to its critical role in helping an organization “thrive or dive,” says Jean Block, author of The Invisible Yellow Line: Clarifying Nonprofit Board and Staff Roles.

Block decided the Invisible Yellow Line is a perfect metaphor for the working relationship between a board and staff in a nonprofit organization. If you’ve ever watched a football game on TV or your personal device, you have the benefit of a yellow line on the field that shows you how much yardage the team must gain in order to move down the field for a touchdown.

Even though the line is invisible to the players, it’s constantly moving and hotly debated at times. Board members and staff have cooperative roles and responsibilities that seem to be constantly moving depending on the “field position” or goal at hand.

In a recent author podcast with Block, we asked:

CausePlanet: What is the most common signal that tells you that your board and staff need a conversation about roles and responsibilities?

Listen to her answer hereJean Block on signals

CausePlanet: In chapter nine, you talk about the Invisible Yellow Line Test. Could you explain what some of those questions might be and how the test can help staff and board members move forward?

Listen to her answer hereJean Block on testing the clarity of your yellow line

If there was one universal nonprofit rule book that contained a set of guidelines defining the roles of the board and staff, we could avoid an incredible amount of miscommunication and angst over getting things done at the leadership level. The fact is it doesn’t exist because things change, asserts author Jean Block.

She adds that organizations and people evolve. Block has written The Invisible Yellow Line to provide a way for board and staff leaders to communicate about their roles and “reduce the trap of assumptions and defensiveness.”

Learn more about Jean Block and her services at

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Ten characteristics of great nonprofits and the four critical skills that empower them

Author, writer and consultant Peter Brinckerhoff claims it’s an exciting time to be in the nonprofit world. He asserts, “There are more challenges, more opportunities and more ways to respond to the increasing needs in a community.”

Three guiding principles are at the core of high-impact nonprofits

The third edition of Mission-Based Management bestows on the reader a comprehensive look at what today’s nonprofit managers should prioritize in order to model the best high-impact nonprofits. The premise of the book, is based on three philosophies that have informed Brinckerhoff’s entire career of 30 plus years: “Nonprofits are businesses.” “No one gives you a dime.” “Nonprofit does not mean no profit.”

He convincingly demonstrates the truth in each of these points throughout the book and in each of the management competencies he explores—from leadership, governance, and finances to marketing, mission, ethics, and more.

Dangerous assumptions, four critical skills and 10 characteristics of great charities

Brinckerhoff also broaches the dangerous assumptions that have surfaced in our sector over the years, such as foundations controlling nonprofits after giving them money and nonprofits needing to take a “vow of poverty.” He gives four essential skills for mission-based managers and introduces the 10 characteristics of successful nonprofits.

The four skills include the ability to:

1)     balance the needs of the community with the organization’s available resources;

2)     innovate as a social entrepreneur, taking reasonable risks on behalf of the organization’s beneficiaries;

3)     lead the organization by example and motivate the staff, board and community; and

4)     communicate effectively the mission to the staff, board, public and stakeholders.

Brinckerhoff then covers the 10 characteristics of a successful nonprofit in the rest of Mission-Based Management, each chapter tackling one characteristic.

The section below lists each characteristic he discusses in depth:

1)     A viable mission: The mission is why your organization exists so utilizing it to the fullest extent is your first priority. The author recommends reviewing your mission statement at least every three years when you write your strategic plan in order to make sure it is accurate.

2)     Ethics, accountability and transparency: “There is nothing more important to your mission success than [ethics, accountability and transparency]. Nothing.” Mission comes first and values follow.

3)     A businesslike board of directors: Brinckerhoff provides a list of desirable characteristics in a board, a list of items that prevent effectiveness and a list of responsibilities surrounding the three general functions of a board—preserving the trust, setting policy and supporting the charity.

4)     Leading your people: People usually work for a nonprofit for the mission and respect, not for the money. Brinckerhoff uses the inverted pyramid of management to illustrate how best to value and keep your people.

5)     Embracing technology for mission: Technology serves some important purposes for nonprofits, namely for education, volunteers, new employees, transparency and development.

6)     Creating a social entrepreneur: Brinckerhoff emphasizes the need for nonprofits to return to their start-up, entrepreneurial phases in terms of increased flexibility, willingness to embrace and shape change, and inclination to take risks.

7)     Developing a bias for marketing: “Of all the business skills you can put to work for your mission, marketing is the most applicable in the most areas.” The author emphasizes this slogan, “Everything that everyone here does every day is marketing.”

8)     Financial empowerment: Using financial skills and concepts from the business world can help you achieve your mission without always having to comply with the restrictions traditional funders place on you.

9)     A vision for the future: Strategic planning is essential to have purpose, coordinate all other planning (budgets, staffing, fundraising), delegate more effectively, be flexible, and exhibit good business and stewardship.

10)  The controls that set you free: For a leader to delegate (an important skill for a leader in order to free up time to be a visionary), controls must be in place in areas such as bylaws, conflict of interest, financial, human resource, media, volunteers, disaster, program and quality assurance policies.

Brinckerhoff establishes in the introduction of his book that much has changed since he wrote the first edition of Mission-Based Management in 1994. His effort to keep pace with change in our sector is a bellwether for nonprofit leaders to match his ongoing pursuit of what defines a successful mission-based nonprofit. Brinckerhoff challenges you to embrace the good business practices that can be adapted for mission-based management. He tempts you to strive for a profit because that margin will empower you to be financially viable and sustainable. He invites you to recognize that donors are paying for service—you earn everything you get.

See also:

12: The Elements of Great Managing

Building Nonprofit Capacity: A Guide to Managing Change Through Organizational Lifecycles

Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World

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Clear up blurred lines of responsibility between nonprofit board and staff

If there was one universal nonprofit rule book that contained a set of rules defining the roles of the board and staff, we could avoid an incredible amount of miscommunication and angst over getting things done at the leadership level.

The fact is it doesn’t exist because things change, asserts author Jean Block. She adds that organizations and people evolve. Block has written The Invisible Yellow Line to provide a way for board and staff leaders to communicate about their roles and “reduce the trap of assumptions and defensiveness.”

Is your organization thriving or diving?

Board leadership is an area that demands much of our attention and effort due to its critical role in helping an organization thrive or dive. The Invisible Yellow Line author, Jean Block, has taken the literature on this topic one step further.

Block recognizes that a lack of clarity among roles between board and staff members is one of the most common reasons for conflict and inefficiency at the leadership level. Block provides leadership guidance in the areas of governance, management, operations and development as well as the key responsibilities where most gray areas (or what Block calls Invisible Yellow Lines) exist.

How to get started with using The Invisible Yellow Line

We asked Jean about how to get started with her model:

CP: The list of key responsibilities at the end of each core chapter (worksheet) is very helpful for generating conversation about the many Invisible Yellow Lines that may arise as board and staff work together. How did you create these lists?

JB: Practice, practice, practice and on-the-job experience as both a board leader and staff leader. These are the kinds of things that apply to most nonprofits and create a stepping-off place for discussion as to how you might handle them in your particular organization. I mean for these discussions to be ongoing because as organizations change and the people running them change, the roles might change.

CP: You state the obvious in the beginning of the book when you emphasize how communication is essential to manage the inevitable Invisible Yellow Lines. Yet knowing this fact still doesn’t always help boards and staffs work together. What’s the best way organizations can start and keep the communication going?

JB: Obviously, when things go wrong, fingers start to point and often there is no good way to get back on track without feeling defensive. I have seen organizations that have adopted the Yellow Line terminology as a way to communicate without pointing. In fact, using the Yellow Line can even be an icebreaker in tense situations.

CP: Is there an area of leadership (governance, management, operations or development) where organizations should start defining responsibilities or do you recommend a different beginning for nonprofits looking to avoid conflict at the Invisible Yellow Line?

JB: I think the answer to this question has to be defined by the organization. For some, defining governance versus management responsibilities is difficult. This is especially true in situations where the board has to transition from a “working board” status to a governing and policy-making board. For others, defining resource development is a critical issue. And let’s remember, these roles are likely to change with changes in staff and volunteer leadership as well as changes in an organization’s focus, maturity, etc.

Get the best of both worlds—our free summary and 20% off the book

If you feel like your staff and board would benefit from greater clarity, consider downloading our free summary of the book. Inside the summary on the cover page, we’ve included a 20% discount promotion code for the book.  Open up communication with your board and staff and prevent critical tasks from becoming enormous problems later.

See also:

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

Super Boards: How Inspired Governance Transforms Your Organization

Image credits:, JeanBlock

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Kick these tires before you embark on challenging roads ahead

Last week, we introduced Mission-Based Management by Peter Brinckerhoff and his three philosophies that informed his 30-plus years in the successful business of guiding causes. They are:

“Nonprofits are businesses.”

“No one gives you a dime.”

“Nonprofit does not mean no profit.”

He convincingly demonstrates the truth in each of these points throughout the book and in each of the management competencies he explores—from leadership, governance, and finances to marketing, mission, ethics, and more.

But what exactly do these philosophies mean?

It’s worth asking and answering because these “Brincker-isms” are not a passing phase. Brinckerhoff has written three editions of Mission-Based Management—much to the appreciation of the sector. In other words, the nonprofit sector has kicked the tires and liked the journey in this book. So let’s take a closer look at what informed so many other readers’ decisions after reading it:

Nonprofits are businesses. “Your organization is a mission-based business, in the business of doing mission,” claims the author. He adds we don’t have license to be sloppy or ignore a good idea simply because it was originally designed for the business sector. “Using good business skills as a mission-based manager does not, I repeat, not mean dropping services simply because they lose money, nor does it mean turning people away because they cannot pay. But it does mean paying attention to the bottom line, having a strategic vision, and negotiating in good faith and from a position of strength—in short, being businesslike in pursuit of your mission,” explains Brinckerhoff.

No one gives you a dime. Brinckerhoff explains that nonprofits don’t get gifts. If a donor writes you a check for $100 to your social services organization, she isn’t making a donation. Rather, she is purchasing services for someone or some family she will never meet. Brinckerhoff says the business community calls this giving money in exchange for an expectation of outcome. When you purchase concert tickets, you have an expectation of entertainment. When you purchase an airline ticket, you have an expectation of transportation. When you send money to a nonprofit, you have an expectation of service. In other words, “you earn all the money you get,” asserts Brinckerhoff. An interesting paradigm shift.

Nonprofit does not mean no profit. Brinckerhoff encourages you to consider this point. Making money in a nonprofit is legal. Nowhere in the state or federal law does it say nonprofits cannot make a profit. He asks, “If you cannot make a profit, why do you need a tax exemption?” Profit is essential and a key tool for financial empowerment, a subject the Brinckerhoff covers at length later in the book.

As you move forward with your organization, ask yourself if anyone on your team subscribes to the thinking Brinckerhoff tries to overcome in these three philosophies. If so, how is he affecting your decision-making and outcomes? I know, it’s challenging to turn the corner on new thinking but well worth the effort.

Challenging terrain ahead

While I have you thinking about challenges, I’ll add one more. We asked consultant Raylene Decatur what she thought was most challenging about being a mission-based manager today:

CausePlanet: Where do nonprofit managers most commonly find challenges with leading a mission-based organization in your experience?

Decatur: Discipline is the number one challenge. The manager may be a disciplined individual but leading a disciplined department, division or organization is challenging. In a corporation, the bottom-line (profit and loss) creates discipline. Mission-based organizations have multifaceted impacts, which lack the quantified clarity of financial results. The board members, staff and volunteers may each love that mission differently and each be pulling the organization in slightly (or profoundly) different directions. It is the manager’s job to harness that energy and achieve the organization’s stated outcomes, year in and year out.

If you find yourself looking for a comprehensive analysis of how high-impact nonprofits lead their causes, consider Mission-Based Management; it’s grounded in Brinckerhoff’s road-tested philosophies and you’ll benefit from years of wisdom gained from many journeys.

See also:

Building Nonprofit Capacity: A Guide to Managing Change Through Organizational Lifecycles

Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World

Forces for Good: Six Practices of High Impact Nonprofits

Image credits: Brinckerhoff,,



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CEO Survival: Thou shalt not get (too far) ahead of thy board

It’s the first commandment of nonprofit CEO survival: thou shalt not get ahead of thy board. At least, not too far . . . But you do need to be a little ahead of them . . . Just not so much that they notice and get offended.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Most veteran nonprofit CEOs have a sack full of stories about interactions with their board. One of the mistakes that is most frustrating — and potentially damaging — is getting too far ahead of a board of directors. The result is the collapse of a seemingly promising idea or policy change, and possibly a severe dent in the CEO’s credibility.

What follows are some thinking points to help negotiate this always treacherous interpersonal whitewater. The central premise of each approach is simple: Ideas and concepts are easily discussed and changed, and this is the proper role of leadership, including the board. Plans are also easily changed, but the effort that goes into them increases the commitment to their plans. Stick with ideas in the boardroom, plans outside of it.

Too far out on growth (Egos and economics)

Two of the most powerful motivators swirl around the intersection of the CEO and the board: ego and economics. By tax law, neither board members nor executives can have a private ownership stake in a nonprofit. But the executive (and other staff) have a potential economic interest, in the form of salary and benefits, financial stability, and improved systems. They also have an ego investment in the form of pride of performance. Together, these constitute a compelling package. This is one of the many reasons why executives will be more likely to propose growth strategies than will board members.

Board members can only invest their egos, so when presented with plans for growth their biggest ego investment can often be summed up in the question: “What if it fails?” This is one of the reasons why board members will be more likely to oppose growth than will executives.

To avoid getting too far out on growth, the CEO can frame the proposed expansion in terms of organizational ego. This approach might use arguments such as “this is an extension of what we already do well” and “if we don’t do this, [another organization] will, but we’re much better at it.”

Too creative (Divergent and convergent thinkers)

During the 1960s, a researcher named Joy Paul Guilford suggested that people think in two different ways — divergent or convergent. Divergent thinking is creative in nature, while convergent thinking seeks the “right answer.” Most individuals are instinctively comfortable with only one of these approaches.

Nonprofit CEOs, because of the nature of their pro- scribed roles, are more likely to engage in creative thinking. Boards are more likely to prefer discovering the “right answer.” This also tends to be true because the CEO is usually more knowledgeable about the field than the board as a whole, since board members are typically volunteers without extensive opportunities to learn about the sector. This tendency of boards to seek the “right answer” also explains why so many motions are passed unanimously.

The creative (divergent) CEO will sometimes have a difficult time with the board because of this difference in thinking styles. When the CEO is too creative for the board’s taste, outsiders such as authorities, respected peers, and consultants can often be a buffer. Note that the board doesn’t necessarily want to diminish the CEO’s creativity – which they probably respect. They want to find independent reassurance that they’re on the right path. Convergent thinking is often done in stages. We drill down to the first correct answer, then the next one, then the next. Bringing the board along might also need to happen in stages.

Acting before deliberation (Getting it done versus deliberating over it)

CEOs are in charge of getting stuff done. Boards are in charge of deliberating about stuff. The tension is obvious. Putting these two approaches carelessly together can result in wasted time, hurt feelings, and worse.

While taking action and deliberating policies are about as different a pair of activities as it is possible to have, a little role clarity will help things go more smoothly. Translation: with a little mutual candor, the CEO won’t always be trying to jump ahead while the board won’t always be trying to slow things down.

At the risk of oversimplification, boards make choices and executives make decisions. Individuals tend to be good at sizing up a situation, making a decision, and carrying it out. Groups, on the other hand, are simply better at refining and improving ideas, plans, and strategies. The CEO will not get dangerously in front of their board if they build in the opportunity for its members to sincerely try to improve the quality of the CEO’s decisions.

This is not second-guessing. It has been proven that groups  that  emphasize  collegial  conversation  and  can evaluate  themselves  honestly  make  better  decisions than  do  individuals.  The inevitable problem is process and time required to get there. Researchers have also shown that people tend to have an exaggerated sense of their own individual capabilities, which is why the CEO/board split can be particularly intense.

The ideal situation exists when an executive’s approach to an issue is vetted by the board in a supportive way. This fits the expected roles — the CEO by definition has to be the public face of the organization, while the board should concentrate on the quality of the outcome (the choices above).

Too risky (Lead with ideas, not plans)

It will come as no surprise to veterans of nonprofit board rooms that CEOs can get too far out in front of their boards on all matters involving risk. This is a structural inevitability — the CEO (as well as other executives) is almost required by the uniqueness of their position to be the designated risk-taker.

The real challenge from a risk management perspective is how quickly the CEO can bring the board around to their position. Considering the baked-in conservative nature of most nonprofit boards as described earlier, this could take some time.

One good way to gain board support for a strategic risk is, again, to lead with ideas, not plans. This is one of the reasons why good strategies, as opposed to strategic “plans,” are not filled with details such as assignments, dates, and activities. Most boards go through three stages of reaction when confronting new ideas for the first time: learning, analysis, and acceptance. Committing to details too soon disrupts this flow and can waste time.

Leading with ideas also makes it possible to work through various scenarios without committing resources. If the dialog is genuinely open it enables the board to safely explore the risks abstractly before encountering them in real time. Note that all parties must be sincere about this process. It can lead to long board meetings, but the offset is that board members will be more committed and will usually report greater satisfaction in their roles.

Another way to avoid getting too far out front is for the CEO to anticipate and cope with real risk as a regular practice. Dealing with a board’s fear of risk is a different problem. This should happen anyway, but doing it routinely helps the CEO establish their conservative bona fides.

The first commandment of CEO survival is to never to get too far out in front of the board of directors because they too have a responsibility to shape the future. But the CEO doesn’t want to be behind the board, because their job is to lead. It’s a structural dilemma, but most of the pathways to success are based on the second commandment of CEO survival: Lead with ideas, then talk about plans.

See also:

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

Super Boards: How Inspired Governance Transforms Your Organization

Reprinted with permission by The Nonprofit Times and Thomas McLaughlin.

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Checking in on 10-year predictions for the New Year

Kicking off a New Year seems like a perfect time to recommend our upcoming addition to the CausePlanet summary library. Frankly, any time is the ideal time to pick up this book. Peter Brinckerhoff has written not one, not two, but three editions of Mission-Based Management, which should give you a sense of its value to nonprofit readers.

Author, writer and consultant Peter Brinckerhoff claims it’s an exciting time to be in the nonprofit world. He asserts, “There are more challenges, more opportunities and more ways to respond to the increasing needs in a community.”

The third edition of Mission-Based Management bestows on the reader a comprehensive look at what today’s nonprofit managers should prioritize in order to model the best high-impact nonprofits.

The premise?

The book is based on three philosophies that have informed Brinckerhoff’s entire career of 30 plus years:

  1. “Nonprofits are businesses.”
  2. “No one gives you a dime.”
  3. “Nonprofit does not mean no profit.”

He convincingly demonstrates the truth in each of these points throughout the book and in each of the management competencies he explores—from leadership, governance and finances to marketing, mission, ethics and more.

We invited Raylene Decatur of Decatur & Company to participate in our guest interview about the book. Since 2004, her firm has provided strategy and leadership transition services for nonprofit organizations ranging from start-ups to complex, mature organizations.

CausePlanet: What do you think about Brinckerhoff’s ten-year predictions? Are there any you would modify, emphasize or add?

Raylene Decatur: Brinckerhoff was brave to present his ten-year predictions and prescient regarding the future. From our vantage point in 2015, I would emphasize the following of his predictions:

Role of Government: Brinckerhoff was very accurate in his assessment of the diminished resources that local, state and federal governments would be investing in programs implemented by the nonprofit sector. For many nonprofits, especially in the health and human services sector, diversification of funding streams and reinvention of their business models will continue as trends for the foreseeable future. (Read more in our Page to Practice™ summary of Super Boards: How Inspired Governance Will Transform Your Organization)

The Impact of Generational Change: The baby boomers continue to age and have maintained greater longevity on boards and as organizational leaders than might have been anticipated five years ago. The generational change is much more complex and multifaceted than the compelling math of aging and its impact on the transfer of power. The values of a new generation of leaders and funders are raising questions regarding all aspects of nonprofit sector operations and outcomes. The recession stimulated change, and the generational transfer impact will create new and perhaps more challenging dynamics for the examination of sector practices. (Read more in our Page to Practice™ summary of Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement)

Cost of Services: Brinckerhoff notes the increased cost of providing services to a population of clients who have greater and more complex needs. More competition from both nonprofit and for-profit companies in an environment where it is more expensive to serve will accelerate as a challenge for the sector over the next decade.

Impact of Technology: As Brinckerhoff observes, the nonprofit sector must make the investments necessary to fully utilize technology to accelerate progress on mission. The transformation of client, donor and stakeholder expectations has evolved even more quickly than could be anticipated five years ago. Today, many nonprofits are facing almost insurmountable challenges related to reporting outcomes and results because their investments in systems and technology have failed to keep pace with these new norms. (Read more in our Page to Practice™ summary of Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission)

CausePlanet: If you could consult on a fourth edition of this book, what topics(s) might you envision adding?

Raylene Decatur: Talent is one of the greatest challenges facing the nonprofit sector today and in the foreseeable future. How will the sector transform its capacity to attract, retain, train and reward the people who are essential to achieving mission outcomes? This is not a new topic, but there is urgency in reimagining our assumptions regarding both paid and unpaid staff.  (Read more in our Page to Practice™ summary of The Abundant Not-for-Profit: How Talent (Not Money) Will Transform Your Organization)

In the spirit of Raylene’s final answer about resources—specifically talent—I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotations from Brinckerhoff: “A charity views its resources as a combination of four things: people, money, buildings, and equipment. … A mission-based business also has the same combination of four resources: people, money, buildings, and equipment. But it looks beyond just those four and also considers business tools in performing mission.”

See also:

12: The Elements of Great Managing

Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World

Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability

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Does your organization have a high impact board? Seven questions to ask

Great boards have a significant impact by adding value not available to their organization’s current resources and means. High impact boards are the key difference between achieving good results and great results. They don’t spend their time micromanaging, listening to reports, approving predetermined decisions and second guessing their staff’s decisions. Instead, they act as a high performance team using their member’s skills, talents, knowledge and expertise to make key decisions and build organizational capacity for producing results.

How can you ensure your organization benefits from a high impact board? Here are seven questions to ask:

1.      Do you have the “right people (board members) on the bus”?

Jim Collins in Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001) stresses the importance of having the “right people on the bus” for building a great organization. High impact board members have a passion for the mission, vision and the organization. They act as team players using their individual knowledge and expertise to engage in collective decision making. These board members put their egos aside and have the ability to engage in strategic thinking that builds on one another’s ideas, thoughts and opinions. Each board member adds specific value to the board that would greatly impact the organization if he/she were to leave.

2.      Does your board partner with the chief executive officer (CEO)/executive director (ED) to operate as a championship team?

High impact boards have a culture similar to a championship sports team. Their focus is on becoming or remaining number one, so their culture is built upon using the individual skills and abilities of each team member collectively to achieve their goal. Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002) lists these characteristics of high functioning teams:

·        High level of trust between their members

·        Willingness to engage in conflict

·        High level of commitment to each other and their organization

·        Collective accountability for following through on board agreements

·        Attention to producing results

3.      Does your board chair and CEO/ED act as one leadership team?

There is a high level of trust between the board chair and the CEO/ED of a high impact board. They act as one leadership team communicating the same message about the organization. They are clear about the differences in their individual roles and build on each member’s skills, strengths and expertise to complement each other. They feel comfortable disagreeing with each other respectfully at board meetings and putting their unfinished thinking on the table for others to build upon.

4.      Does your CEO/ED take personal accountability for building the board’s capacity and leadership to govern with excellence?

CEOs/EDs of high impact boards understand their critical role in building their board’s capacity to lead. Most board members have little, if any, training in how to effectively govern a nonprofit organization. They often think that their governing role is to manage the day-to- day operations of the organization. CEOs/EDs need to constantly educate their board members about effective governing practices and provide them with the skills, information and support to successfully carry out their roles. The CEOs/EDs must also learn about what motivates each of their board members and about important aspects of their life (i.e. family, passions, etc.).

5.      Does your board have a “Culture of Inquiry?”

Most boards see themselves as policemen or compliance regulators. High impact boards add significant value by engaging together with their CEOs/EDs to determine future directions, impacts and strategies. They have what Nancy R. Axelrod calls a “Culture of Inquiry,” in which they are constantly learning and sharing knowledge and information about how they can have greater impact. They are not afraid to question complex, controversial or ambiguous matters or to look at issues from all sides. They are clear about their decision making authority, as well as about those they have delegated to CEO/ED, which allows them and their staff to feel comfortable discussing any key issues impacting their organizations. They have active feedback mechanisms, employing board and board member assessment processes, that help them engage in continuous improvement.

6.     Do your board and CEO/ED constantly recruit and groom future board leadership?

Most organizations wait until the board chair announces that he/she plans to retire to begin succession planning. They often end up “twisting the arm” of some unwilling board member who is often not the most qualified person, but who is willing to serve as the next board chair. A high impact board, usually through its governance committee, and the CEO/ED, think about who will be their next board leaders when they recruit and select new board members. At least a year ahead of the retirement of their current board chair and other board leaders, high impact boards have identified their next board leaders and have begun grooming them for their jobs.

7.      Do board members feel a significant return on their invested time?

Board members who feel that they are in an exciting learning environment, meeting interesting new contacts and friends, having fun and feeling that they are part of a winning team, are more willing to give of their time, expertise and resources to the organization. If their board service significantly enhances their life experiences, they will make it a high priority in their day-to-day activities.

A high impact board adds significant value to an organization that can be measured in terms of organizational resources, organizational performance and organizational influence. The board plays a leading, proactive role partnering with the CEO/ED, rather than merely serving as an audience for staff or as a regulator providing oversight. If the high impact board vanished, the organization would suffer.

See also:

Super Boards

The Board Game

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

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Improve collective decisions by overcoming “group grope”

Dick and Emily Axelrod waited until they had developed the perfect methodology for effective meetings before publishing Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done.

Rather than simply contribute to the “noise about meetings,” they waited until they had something new to say. They present what they call a “seismic shift (not a set of tweaks) in the way you view, use and participate in meetings.” Let’s Stop gives you a logical system that will help you restructure your meetings so that work gets done; everyone is engaged and respected; the meeting is energizing rather than draining; and time is valued, not wasted.

Today, we wanted to highlight the meaty part of every meeting: decision making. The entire group must be clear about the following items to make a decision: who is making the decision, how they will go about deciding and what they are deciding.

The group will bring different levels of engagement based on if it is giving ideas or collectively making the decision. Clarity of the process will prevent frustration caused by believing one way (e.g., the group will make the decision) and discovering the other (e.g., the leader is actually making the decision) is happening.

Do you want your group in the loop?

Leaders can either make the decision, seek advice from the group but maintain the final say, work as an equal with the group, or delegate the decision to the group and let the group decide. Victor Vroom, BearingPoint Professor of Management and a professor of psychology at the Yale School of Management, along with Phillip Yetton, suggests that if there is clearly one right answer and people will accept it, make the choice yourself. “If, however, you need a high-quality decision and you need everyone on board with the decision, then you should shift toward a group decision-making process” (Vroom and Yetton 1973).

Overcome “group grope”

Because a group decision requires each member to resolve his/her logic and emotions, the authors give four ways to combat group grope (when a group has trouble making a decision):

Thumbs-Up/Thumbs-Down: This is used to see if you have spent enough time discussing an issue. Majority rules to end or continue the discussion.

Voting: most effective after a high-quality discussion where all views are represented. The group can decide if it is majority/two-thirds, etc.

Put on your Thinking Hat to Answer these Questions: What are the facts that surround this proposal? What is your gut reaction to this proposal? What are your pessimistic thoughts about this proposal? Why won’t it work? What are your optimistic thoughts about this proposal? Why do you think it will work? How could you build on this proposal and make it even better? What conclusions can you draw from this discussion? All these questions cover the areas needed to resolve emotions/reason and optimism/pessimism.

Don’t try to eat the meal in one bite: Decide what you can agree to right now. Move ahead on some parts and create time for further discussion on the others.

Then, you need to identify the next steps and who is responsible for each step. The leader can appoint people, ask for volunteers, or appoint a task leader and ask for volunteers to join the task group.

When we asked the Axelrods what was most important about their meeting framework, they responded, “Clarity about the decision process is critical to success. In his review of Let’s Stop Meeting Like This in INC magazine, Ilan Mochari said it best when he said, “If you’re holding a meeting to canvas the opinions of your staff–but you know there’s a strong chance you’ll disregard those opinions–let them know early on. The deception of democracy bothers them more than the transparent absence of it.”

Ask yourself if your meeting topics genuinely merit group effort or if you’re better off simply updating the group about your decision and rationale. If you do enlist the group, enhance the process by enlisting the authors’ strategies for overcoming “group grope.” Learn more about all of the Axelrods’ effective methods for getting more done in meetings.

See also:

World Cafe: Shaping Our World Through Conversations That Matter

Death by Meeting

Image credits:,,,

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Save time and get more done in a “Meeting Canoe”

Meetings can be wildly successful and help your team reach new heights in performance or they can be an expensive waste of time. Unfortunately, many large and small organizations experience more of the latter. Authors Dick and Emily Axelrod have dedicated their careers to understanding and promoting what makes an impactful meeting in Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done.

The Axelrods explain step by step how to participate in highly effective meetings no matter your role: a leader, contributor or facilitator. The Meeting Canoe™ is an approach that helps readers understand the importance of order, shape and flow to your gatherings.

Are your meetings like a raft or canoe?

“The Meeting Canoe™ is a complete rethinking of the meeting design, execution and follow-up,” say the Axelrods. Compare the canoe with a raft, for example. When we think of rafts, we envision a lazy drift down the river that’s subject to the current while a canoe involves a team of oarsmen and the crew controls the direction. The Axelrods think there are too many meetings that feel like rafts when they could be canoes.

According to the authors, the Meeting Canoe™ is a relevant and useful system because:

The Meeting Canoe™’s parts influence each other.

The Meeting Canoe™ interacts with its environment as the crew adapts to changing conditions.

No single part is effective without the other parts.

How well the Meeting Canoe™ functions depends on how well the parts work together.

We’ve excerpted our interview with the Axelrods below to give you a sense of how their framework can transform your meetings and a look at bad meeting habits.

CausePlanet: Thank you for adding the Meeting Canoe™ framework to the body of literature about effective meetings. It’s a terrific addition. Which part of the Meeting Canoe™ do most users find most transformational when implementing the approach?

Dick and Emily: Welcome, Connect, and Attend to the End. Most meeting agendas call for a perfunctory welcome and do not spend time connecting people to each other and the task. The result is they fail to build a solid foundation to do the meeting’s work. Similarly, most meeting agendas ignore attending to the end. This results in people being unclear about what was decided during the meeting as well as next steps following the meeting. Failure to spend time discussing how to make future meetings better leaves the group without a self-correcting mechanism. We learned from an architect colleague that how people enter a space and how they leave a space is as important as what happens in the space. We believe this is true for meetings as well. By paying attention to the Welcome, Connect, and Attend to the End parts of the Meeting Canoe™, meeting designers create a complete, productive meeting experience.

CausePlanet: In your research or client experiences, did you discover why most people accept and perpetuate bad meeting habits?

Dick and Emily: The first is that when we asked meeting participants whom they thought was responsible for a meeting’s success, the most frequent response was “the leader.” This habit is an abdication of responsibility for what happens during the meeting, which allows meeting participants to sit idly by while a meeting goes downhill. We believe another cause is that people have come to think about meetings as painful experiences that must be endured. They do not think of them as a place where productive work occurs. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you begin to think about meetings as a place where people do work, then you can design your meetings using the five proven work design principles:

Autonomy: the power to influence the meeting’s direction

Meaning: the meeting has importance or significance to participants

Challenge: a call to engage in something that tests your knowledge, skill, ability or courage

Learning: acquiring new skills or knowledge through experience, study or being taught

Feedback: information that lets meeting participants know whether a meeting is making progress toward its objectives.

When you apply these design criteria to your meeting, you create the conditions for productive work to occur.

A quotation in Let’s Stop Meeting Like This by author, speaker and consultant Peter Block aptly describes the challenges the Axelrods address with their model. Block says, “If you look at the way we meet in organizations and communities across the country, you see a lot of presenters, a lot of podiums, and a lot of passive audiences. This reflects our naiveté in how to bring people together.”  If you find your meetings have fallen into an unproductive or passive pattern and you feel like you’re swimming upstream, get your team in the Meeting Canoe™.

See also:

World Cafe: Shaping Our World Through Conversations That Matter

Death by Meeting

Image credits:,,

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Three ways to become more attune with your donors

Bestselling author Dan Pink is asking you to call it what it is.

More specifically, your work. If in your job you spend any time persuading, convincing and influencing others, you are in the business of moving others. Frankly, he explains, you’re selling. And if you’re selling, it’s important to recognize major developments over the years that have changed how the best people are moving others. Through a first-of-its-kind study and a collection of a broad spectrum of examples, Pink has thoughtfully made the case for rethinking sales. You will learn how to be, what to do and how to put all the pieces into play in his new book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.

There are a broad variety of strategies at play in the nonprofit sector when executives are in the midst of convincing, persuading or influencing their boards, staffs and constituents. Some may be using old school techniques, and perhaps others draw on intuition. No matter what the convenient tactic at hand, a strong case can be made for formalizing our approach to moving others and understanding what motivates. It is, after all, the business we’re in.

Three truths about moving others today

Nonprofit leaders constantly find themselves asking how to move a donor to give, how to move a board member to lead, how to move the staff to act. Understanding today’s truths about Pink’s sales ideas such as Attunement, Clarity and Buoyancy is especially relevant due to the sector’s increased presence of competition and general misunderstanding of sales.


For example, Attunement honors the knowledge and goals of the buyer, jettisoning the old sales adage, “ABC” or “Always be closing.” Pink begins the new “ABC” with the first word, Attunement, or “the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people and with the context you’re in. Think of it as operating the dial on a radio. It’s the capacity to move up and down the band as circumstances demand, locking in on what’s being transmitted, even if those signals aren’t immediately clear or obvious.” He also calls this “perspective-taking.”

Pink describes three ways to become more attune with your buyer/client/funder:

Increase your power by reducing it. Through several social science studies Pink relates, it was found that people who perceived greater power became less attune with others’ points of views. And the inverse is true of those who perceive less power. Because a salesperson no longer holds all the information and therefore, the power, s/he must rely on taking the other’s perspective and giving up power in order to move someone.

Use your head as much as your heart. Perspective-taking is not the same as empathy. Pink describes perspective-taking as a cognitive action where you imagine what someone else is thinking. Empathy means you feel for the other or try to imagine what another person is feeling. Empathy can cause you to toss aside your own interests, as you may feel too deeply, whereas perspective-taking can help both sides achieve their goals. Therefore, perspective-taking with a cognitive focus on people, their relationships and context is more effective to move people.

Mimic strategically. Pink stresses that mimicking your buyer can help you negotiate better. Mimicry builds connections, trust and understanding. However, it must be treated with care so it is not obvious. Otherwise, it can backfire. Pink also discusses how touching (e.g., on the arm) can help build connections and foster negotiations.

Pink’s choice for nonprofits

In addition to attunement, Pink explores many other essential principles surrounding the notion of moving others. We asked him which one he felt was most appropriate for nonprofits for our Page to Practice summary and have excerpted here.

CausePlanet: Nonprofit leaders constantly find themselves convincing or persuading others to support their causes. Is there a principle from your book that you feel stands out as especially appropriate for nonprofit executives to apply?

Dan Pink: Make it personal. There’s an array of research showing that abstract and conceptual appeals (“Increase vaccination rates”) are far less effective than specific and concrete ones (“Vaccinate this child or she risks dying of malaria”). And the principle goes well beyond fundraising. There’s some great research from Israel, for instance, showing that radiologists who see both a scan and a photo of the patient whose scan it is spend more time and are more accurate in their evaluations. The same is largely true for leadership. When leaders put themselves on the line and when others see they’re real people, their leadership effectiveness rises substantially.

For those of you who find yourselves in the business of moving others (and Pink argues virtually everyone is in this business), consider how attune you are with your prospects and then ask yourself how you can make your appeals personal. Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks as we discuss Pink’s observations about clarity, buoyancy and other interview questions we had for him.

See also:

The Influential Fundraiser

It’s Not Just Who You Know

Yours for the Asking


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