Non-Profit Management Strategies for Executives and Board Members

Published on 27th January 2020

A lot has been said and written lately about the problems that have befallen the non-profit sector. Not that the compliance issues are not important, but the non-profit sector needs to fully embrace the opportunities that are uniquely available to it. And the non-profit sector needs to seize this important opportunity to serve the community through its mission like never before. Simply stated, the non-profit
sector needs to rise above its current challenges to its full potential.

How does a non-profit organization go about turning a challenging situation into a true competitive advantage you ask? This article attempts to answer that question. And, comments from readers are very much appreciated. The opportunity for on-line dialogue is readily available through this web site as we seek to move forward together.

The Non-Profit Sector enjoys unique opportunities to solve problems and address issues in ways that the Government or for profit businesses cannot. That’s a pretty bold statement and holds high the expectations of non-profits!

Question: How does a non-profit organization achieve excellence at such a challenging time? Answer: Distinction from its peers + Demonstrated commitment to its mission. In the remainder of this article, we will focus our attention on 3 issues:

1. For the Executive Director:

What does the Executive Director need to do?
Most Executive Directors today worry for the future of their organization due to the steady decline in unrestricted funding and the changing landscape of institutional funding. This is never a good feeling but, more importantly, it is also never a good strategy for achieving success. A strong focus on leading at best capacity via measurable targets may help dissipate the worry and reduce the distraction for mere

Discussions about time management and core management skills are a bore; the truth is that you are equipped with the necessary skills to manage your time and manage your organization or you are not. Managing yourself and your team is a requisite skill for the position of Executive Director. Most organizations are expected to do a lot with a little – now more than perhaps ever before, so you are not

You are uniquely positioned to rally your staff (which is probably shrinking in numbers and adding predictable stress to every member), the board (which may be shrinking also), the members, donors, and stakeholders of your organization, and the overall community, to achieve greater accomplishments than ever before. My advice is 3-fold:

(a) Be nice, be cooperative, but be confident in your leadership role. You must enjoy what you do and be comfortable in doing it.

(b) Review the mission of your organization, make sure that it is relevant, be sure that everyone in your organization understands it, can easily explain it clearly, and pursue it with a passion.

(c) Commit yourself and your organization to the relentless pursuit of excellence in service to your beneficiaries. Understand the difference between a stand-off, overly competitive and paranoid organization, and one that is confident in its mission, strong and calm, and able perform with confidence as a team member alongside other non-profits within the sector or community. You must be able to fit your organization into your community structure. If you do not know the structure or how your organization is viewed, make it a top priority to find out. You are in charge of the day-to-day operation of your organization. You are the Executive Director.

2. For the Board

What does the Board need to do?
The importance of board membership cannot possibly be overstated, neither in this article nor in any other. However, the current reality must be acknowledged: too few board members have time to serve as a result of professional and personal constraints.

Let’s not try to sugar-coat the realities of the challenge: as a board member, the likelihood that you are well versed on the governance or operational issues of the organisation are pretty slim. So, what can you, as a board member do about your current reality?

Well a great start is to ask the question, how did you become a board member? Presumably, you are a good manager, an executive, a respected community volunteer or someone that is highly regarded amongst peers or industry leaders.

Reflecting on personal observations – both as a board member and observing other board members, it has been surprising to see how many board members seemingly lose their ‘management guts’ when they walk into a non-profit board room. How can this be? One would expect the typical business manager to be a secure and thoughtful individual, yet dynamic professionals often melt into wallflowers; at the board meeting.

Board members must resist shirking their responsibility; it is far easier to attend a board meeting, say nothing, contribute nothing, and leave. The board member is usually secure in their understanding of their business, but is not quite sure of the business of the non-profit. My advice here is also 3-fold:

(a) Be yourself. Participate fully. Bring all that you are, all that you have to offer to every board meeting and do not let the feeling of a lack of sectoral knowledge prevent you from asking tough questions.

(b) Do your homework. The most common new-board-member example is the individual who is unfamiliar with the mission of the non-profit and its operating practices and decides to drill down on the financial statement without good reason. Read the board material (arriving at the board meeting with an unopened board packet is a telling sign!), talk to the board chair, the executive director and seek to learn and understand.

(c) Fully understand your fiduciary, legal, and community duties as a board member. The relationship between board member and executive director is regularly misunderstood. A very fine line exists between demanding performance by the executive director and trying to run the organization at board level. Learn those intricate distinctions and apply them. But also make sure that your board holds the organization to full regulatory compliance. If you have questions about this, do not hesitate to ask.

3. What can the Executive Director and the Board accomplish together that far surpasses what either could do alone? It is sad to observe the number of non-profits that have all the requisite tools at their disposal but fail to deliver excellence. While the Board is tasked with directing the mission of the non-profit, and the Executive Director is charged with delivering measurable outcomes in keeping with the mission. The reality is that neither is a precise science and it is far too common for the Board-Executive Director bond to weaken over time.
My advice is again 3-fold:

(a) The board must be organized in a manner that enables it to do its work effectively. Do not hesitate to make use of specific committees (not too many, not too few) with carefully identified deliverables in areas of importance. These include Audit, Strategy, HR, and Governance.

(b) The role of chairperson is crucial. Per most bylaws, the chair rarely has any authority beyond conducting the board meetings. However, in reality the chair is almost always the point person; for the organization. From a practical point of view, it is important for the chair and the executive director to ‘bond’ – not to the exclusion of other board or staff members, but to enable the support required from
each other. It may be critical to establish an executive committee or a non-board advisory committee but, the board and the executive director must recognize the mutual need for reinforcement, coaching, and overall support in order to address the daily and strategic needs of the organization.

(c) Experience suggests that a successful board/executive director relationship is more of an art than a science. There are no rules or quick fixes by which to make these challenges easier. But an organization that can find the right balance will achieve the excellence that we suggest is available.

At Findev Consulting Ltd, we have the expertise to provide grant, financial management and internal audit that will help to put you in good stead for the excellence that you desire. This is so that you can get on with what truly matters to you and your beneficiaries.