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Archive for March, 2010

Success at Succession Planning: Board Leadership

Think Tanks are worry-warting over the next wave of nonprofit executives to take CEO positions when the current crop of Baby Boomers all retire. Worrying over this is not time or energy well spent. Board search committees will not have to look very far to find competent, capable leaders in the X and Y Generations. They are right there in front of our eyes. They may think differently, they definitely are coming from different experience, but they are bright, insightful, full of beans and ready to go when given the chance. I see a number of these younger folks in my graduate level marketing and fundraising classes at Northeastern University in Boston. I read the tweets and blogs of the X-ers and Y’ers on the Internet.
Look out world, here they come.
I am more concerned with what I see on boards of directors of these same nonprofits, worrying over executive succession. They have a leadership vacuum right on the board. They keep asking the same volunteer to serve “just one more year” (how much is too much?). There are things that can be done to remedy this situation. It takes some work. So lets look at some steps nonprofit boards can take to get folks moving up the leadership track to chair or preside over the board of directors.
  • Term limits. I recommend two or three three-year terms of service on a board. This creates a continuous rotation (with a set number of members rotating off each year) of members leaving, new members arriving. If the same group of guys (some boards still have some work to do on gender and race diversity) are sitting on the board for ten, twenty years, the nonprofit runs out of capable leaders prepared to take charge.
  • Leader orientation. The nonprofit CEO works with current board leadership to design an orientation for newly elected leaders, so they get the lay of the land. So they understand the parameters of leadership. So they are clear on the CEO role and how that is different fom the board chair role.
  • Active working committees. The finance, progam, development, marketing & communication committees (perhaps one or two more) have real work assignments from the board, meet regularly (but not too often), and stay in touch so agreed-to work gets done. The committees are great proving ground for up-and-comers. And they consist of some community members who are not on the board, grooming for membership down the road.

Staff and volunteer leaders can see leadership potential in new board members within the first six months, or year at most. These are people eager to take an assignment…well, willing if not really eager. They get their work done on time, they have thougtful comments at meetings, they don’t try to take the nonprofit down a road it’s not ready or capable to travel.

So. If you’re finding yourself in a maze, wondering “where oh where will the next board chair be?” it’s time to put some practices in place that’ll get a smooth flow of energy moving through your organization.

In my experience as a nonprofit executive with the American Lung Association, and in my consulting work currently, I see clearly how these steps work advantageously. For more detailed references, some tools to help, feel free to contact me at

Attending to succession planning for the nonprofit board of directors is time and energy well spent.

Steve Smith is Principal of It’s The Results, LLC. This practice focuses on board development, strategic planning, and fundraising.

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2- 4- 6- 8: How We Gonna Communicate?

I hope you’ve de-soggified from last weekend’s torrential rains (particularly if you live and work in the mid-Atlantic States or New England). The sun has been good to us, we’ve mostly dried out. Some folks still don’t have their power back, and some towns are still bailing out. I and my readers wish you all well. Hope you are finding help. Let us know if particular nonprofits stepped up in your community and deserve a special shout-out.
If you tweet on Twitter, give those great helping NPO’s a #CharityTuesday hashtag. Regular contributors/followers on Twitter know about this, and look each week for a nonprofit to support based on tweets they receive. This is why every nonprofit should be working Twitter, Facebook, You Tube….various social media to extend out your network.
This week, I want to talk with you about the newsletter.
1. Use social media.
2. Communicate with a newsletter.
On a regular basis, let your followers know what’s cooking at your nonprofit. How your primary customers are finding your service, employing your service, benefiting from your service. Some newsletter tips just for you, because you are special:

  • Publish regularly: monthly is good. Your volunteers, primary customers (those who use your service), donors like to know what’s up. Most of those people feel a sense of relationship with you, with an employee, with a board member. They feel the connection. They appreciate your effort of staying in touch.
  • Highlight upcoming events. Your readers are interested in meetings, special speakers, special events. Repeat these each issue. Those who follow you, who make the link, will get the information on their calendars.
  • Print or e-mail? Use e-mail. Use Constant Contact: the newsletter is embedded in the message. No attachments to mess with. Nice graphic design, if you like. Some of your followers, perhaps donors and/or primary customers over age 60 prefer snail mail. Limit the amount of snail mail. It’s a green thing (that carbon footprint thing).
  • Ask for letters, short articles. Print occasional pieces from your readers. Ask for photos. Link these to your website so folks can find back issues, point friends to your website to read their stories, see their photos.

While you’re doing your newsletter thing, you’re also building community in your nonprofit. Making the communication two-way, making the newsletter interactive, you’re building your network, reaching new people.

Share your comments on this blog if you like. Or if you seek private contact, you can reach me directly at, check my website, tweet me @STEVENETWORK.

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A Shot of Red Bull for the Board Meeting

Here we are, counting down to the first day of spring, looking for that energy boost to get spring cleaning underway.
Coming out of our winter hibernation, it’s a good idea to check in on the energy level for our board. Are meetings lacking some zip? Are our financial numbers not quite where we’d like to see them, but in need of some constructive attention?
It’s tough. Rumor has it we’re moving out of recession and recovery is just around the corner.
For the moment, we have some work to do, some tough decisions to make and, we’re struggling to find the energy…to get all members of the board out, at the meeting, coming ready to engage in what can work for us to get us over the hump.
Cans of Red Bull probably aren’t really what will do the trick.
But what the heck. Maybe have a few cans on the refreshment table to perk some interest, get a chuckle, maybe provoke a lecture on healthy diet from the board scold.
Here are some tips that can provoke a needed jolt:

  • Put a story on the agenda. Ask a person or volunteer who benefits from the service you provide, share a story about the value you deliver.
  • Shake up the line-up. Oral reports at the board meeting? Keep these at a minimum. But if there’s one or two that will be requiring board action, ask the committee chair to designate a member on the board to give the report, or augment the report. Engage more members in the process of the meeting!
  • Sweeten Up the refreshments. Ask a member if they’d bake or pick up from a bakery a special treat for the members to enjoy. A bit of sugar can add energy. Something special can add a smile, share some appreciation.
  • Allow for some “Generative” time. Set aside a fifteen-to-thirty minute discussion time. No Roberts Rules. A conversation around something real happening in the community or the economy that’ll be good for all to know, that impacts decisions, adds to the board’s knowledge base. Get into the habit of asking different members of the board to come prepared to lead discussion time.
  • Did someone say fundraising? What can the board do to stimulate revenue? It can’t always be about cutting expenses. There needs to be some creative, new effort by members to devise a way they can add to the treasury. Will someone step up, propose an idea with some forethought/planning, and solicit members to pitch in?

So, let’s find some energy sources to stir things up a bit, leave members thinking as they head for the door following adjournment, “Now that was a good meeting!”

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An Act of Inspiration

I don’t know where you were Super Bowl Sunday about 9:00 when CBS Sunday Morning came on. It’s among my two or three appointment TV times. On that Sunday, I was blown away by a segment entitled, “Selling Your Home for Charity.” Yes, you read that right. The Selwen family of Atlanta, Georgia sold their home and donated $800,000 of the proceeds to charity.
Hannah is the daughter in this family, and she couldn’t reconcile seeing homeless, hungry people around her while living in the lap of luxury. So, she got the ball in motion.
Americans are generous. On average, we give 2.2% of what we earn to charities of our choice, including our church, synagogue, mosque…wherever you may go to worship. In 2008, our charity accounted for $307 billion (Giving USA, 2009).
The Selwen family has written a book, “The Power of Half.” They took half the proceeds from the sale of their home and donated it to the Hunger Project; specifically, to build a mill in a town in Ghana. They used the other half to buy a home for themselves a few blocks away from where they once lived that occupies about half the footprint of their first home. In their book, they describe how the came to this act that goes beyond our understanding of “generosity.” A twist on the saying, “build it, and they will come.”
This Act of Inspiration came from a personal experience. Hannah Selwen had a philanthropic urge, and recruited her family to act on it. I wonder if there was some deep-seated sense for doing the right thing that drove her to act.
Stories like the Selwen’s are good to hear.
I advocate nonprofits I work with to find their stories. How the program services they provide have changed peoples’ lives for the better. How, if they could do a bit more, they could reach and serve a few more people. So the mission and the services provided can tap into the philanthropic spirit that lies within each of us. Well, at least 75% of us.
Henry David Thoreau said, “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Indeed.
In the same segment, CBS also interviewed Willie Mae Dorsey, a checkout clerk at an Atlanta supermarket. Willie Mae told CBS she makes $25,000 a year and gives 10% of what she makes to charity.
Willie Mae is an inspiration.
We have lots of inspiring stories. Find them. Tell them. They bring out the best in people. They give people good reason to want to join you in making a difference in the lives of people you serve.
Use this link to see the CBS Sunday Morning segment:
To check out my consulting practice:
To follow me on Twitter: @STEVENETWORK.

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