If "best practices" are used in good times, bad times may not be so bad, panelists suggested at the June 18, 2009, Roundtable on Building Capacity in Tough Times: What a Board Can Do.
Panelists included Lauren Antelo, member services associate at United Neighborhood Houses of New York; Deborah E. Reid, director of Management Assistance and Professional Development at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Inc.; Patricia Swann, senior program officer at New York Community Trust. The panel discussion was moderated by John Brothers, principal of Cuidu Consulting and senior fellow with the Support Center for Nonprofit Management.
Two themes recurred during the discussion. The first was that every nonprofit is in business to accomplish a mission, whether it is to feed the hungry or provide education and advocacy. The first order of business for any board is to determine if the organization's programs are "on mission."
The second was that all the recommended board practices -- from monitoring to board involvement -- should be in place at all times, not just during bad times. Board members should be engaged and questioning all the time; the fiscal health of the organization should be monitored all the time; program effectiveness should be assessed regularly.
Questions boards should be asking
- How viable are our programs and are they really benefiting customers? Are we running this program because we always have done so or because it still serves the organization's mission? Is the program really doing what we want it to do?
- What are the outcomes of each program and service we deliver? Is the impact of the program high or low? Do we want to keep it?
- What is the financial viability of each program? Is it sustainable?
- Should we restructure the programs we decide to keep? Is there a better way to deliver the same service?
- Revisit the Strategic Plan. What do we need to adjust or augment in light of the economic crisis?
- Implement internal cost savings, such as double-sided photocopies, less color copying, and lights out in unused areas.
- Can we implement furloughs rather than layoffs?
- Can we get pro bono professional services?
- Can we partner with other agencies to increase purchasing power, to share space or services, such as IT?
- Can we partner with agencies delivering similar services?
- Are there income-generating opportunities that flow from our services and conform to our mission?
- Create a board/senior staff task force or "crisis team." Such a group serves two purposes. Good ideas will come out of it and the team will improve communication between board and staff. Such a team makes staff aware of the seriousness of problems and the commitment to solving them. Board members become aware of ways in which they might help by donating space, skills, money or contacts.
- Collaborate/communicate with other agencies, especially those providing similar services. Brainstorming with other executive directors or board members facing the same problems can generate solutions. Among those solutions may be ways to work together to save money.
Duties of board members
As summed up by the panel, board members have the duty to actively take part in the deliberations and decisions that ensure fiscal stability while achieving the organization's mission. Decisions must be made in the best interest of the organization -- not for the self-interest or self-advancement of board members -- and they must be made in conformance with state and federal laws.
A well-functioning board will have
- a screening process for new members,
- training for new members,
- an annual review of board operations.
Boards are not static; they change over time as members are added or leave. All members, new and old, must be well grounded in the fiduciary responsibilities of the board, the commitment required of members, and the mission of the organization. Organizations with boards that rigorously use these "best practices" are more likely to survive an economic crisis.
Recommended links for more information:
From Governance Matters:
How to Survive in a Difficult Economy
Creating a Productive Board Culture
The Board Leadership Project
Assess Your Board!
Managing During Difficult Times
Other sites of interest:
United Way of NY City: Linkages
The TCC Group
Nonprofit Finance Fund