Monday, July 21, 2008

Serving on the Board

Serving on the Board or Committee of Management for a non-profit can sometimes be exhilerating and other times damned frustrating. One thing is guaranteed it will likely always be interesting.

Unless your being asked to serve on the Board of a biggie such as Red Cross or the Salvation Army or something similar then it is unlikely you will be faced with issues of global significance. You will, however, be served a wide variety of regional or local issues to work upon. You will also likely be asked to give up far more time than the minimal one meeting per month; especially those with skills and experience in areas such as strategic planning, financial management and human resources - areas where small non-profits are particularly deficit.

Everyone knows the boardroom of your average non-profit is a hot-bed of conflicting interests and petty politics. These are people with passion. They are there because they believe. This passion does not always lead to logical decision making. For those of us that are more logic-driven than emotion-driven, the process can be frustrating. Despite the best intentions of those more anal creatures who actually believe logic overrules emotions, there will always be people on your board that will never follow logic. At least not your perspective and definition of logic.

Logic-driven people need patience. Lot's of patience. They also need well developed communication skills, the ability to sell a big picture. This helps to counter the narrow interests (and vision) of those on the board due to their passion. It's a complimentary process as those committee members with a global perspective often do not have a good understanding of local issues. This is the challenge faced by various chairpersons as they seek to bring together various perspectives. The chairperson needs to have a well balanced personality and be respected by all board members for his or her ability to blend the various perspectives.

Repore between the Chairperson and the organisations Executive Officer is critical. When relationships break down between these two people the potential for conflict and personal lose is great. The Executive Officer heads the organisation at the request of the board and reports directly to the board. While it requires extreme dislocation for a board to remove an executive officer from office; it is a brave, or foolish, executive officer that goes head to head with the governance group. Far better to spend time discussing and understanding the needs of all board members and using that understanding to help create healthy debate and informed decision making.

In theory the governance group are there to help the Executive Officer to establish policy and strategy and to provide advice when sought. It is also a role of the board to hold the Executive Officer accountable for the implementation of strategy. In practice, the theory isn't always applied. The low level of suitable candidates to serve on boards, particularly in rural areas, can lead to a form of in-built nepotism, where board members become 'yes' people and serve to simply rubber stamp the ideas of the executive officer. The risk here is that mediocrity can set in and the best qualified people end up leaving the board. The key strategy is to have in place a robust process for recruiting new board members and rotating existing members, rather than just making a 'mates appointment' when a vacancy occurs.

Membership of many non-profit boards is membership driven. You become a member and then become eligible for board membership. Given the shortage of suitable candidates for board duty, the selection process is often superficial. Very little consideration is given to required levels of expertise or skill. It is important for boards to conduct an analysis of the expertise required by the organisation they serve and proactively seek out potential board members with that experience.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sustainability is created through meeting community needs

The bottom line for community organisations is sustainability - the ability to effectively deliver services, as funded, to those in need; and where possible, to also add value through the creation of community programs designed to meet the needs of those that fall outside funding body guidelines.

An organisation can only effectively deliver services if it has in place three things. One, effective systems and processes, including quality financial management systems. Two, management and administrative support and three, a team of experienced people to deliver services. These three form the legs of a triangle. Remove one of the three legs and the ability of the organisation to remain effective will be severely compromised.

Sustainability is created by ongoing funding. This can only be ensured by achieving outcomes. Funding bodies are overwhelmed by submissions for funding. To be considered your organisation must be seen to be able to achieve the outcomes it committed to achieving. Your ability to do this is enhanced by having in place appropriate systems and support.

The key to achieving outcomes is for all involved with the organisation to remember the reason for their existance; that being to help those in need within the community. All the funding, all the systems and all the people should be in place to achieve just that. Your organisation will be judged by funding bodies based upon your ability to implement programs and achieve agreed upon outcomes or service standards. Ongoing funding is dependent upon your ability to meet agreed upon outcomes.

One of the risks of being a recipient of funding grants can be that the focus is entirely on service delivery in line with funding requirements. The ease of accessing mainstream funding can often remove the need to understand the needs of the community; instead the funding guidelines become accepted as the indicative community need.

Sustainability is enhanced by understanding community need and being in a position to meet as much of that need as practical. Don't become reliant upon the guidelines of funding bodies. Become familiar with the needs of your community and with the capacity of both your organisation and others in the community sector to meet that need. The greater your understanding of community need the better your ability to attract greater levels of funding from multiple sources. In that way your organisation will achieve sustainability and the community will benefit.