Should a CEO sit on the board of his/her own directors' companies?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Back to School

Q: I would like to do a masters degree in nonprofit management online. I have over ten years of experience volunteering and working in this sector and have a great passion for it. But, I can’t seem to find any information on such a program and would appreciate any ideas you can provide.

A: A couple times a year I get a question about schools of nonprofit management. While a relatively new course of study – such programs have only been around approximately 20 years, which is a drop in the bucket compared to something like philosophy, which dates back to the time of ancient Greece – a wide variety of options are available. The best source is the list maintained on the Seton Hall University website, based on research originally done a number of years ago by Roseanne Mirabella and Naomi Wish and kept up to date. There are currently close to 300 schools listed that are searchable by level (non-degree, undergraduate, masters or doctoral), state, region or whether the program is available online (47 are!). To access the list go to

But finding a school requires more than going down a list. You will obviously have to do some due diligence to determine the one that will best meet your needs.

One of the first questions you should ask is whether the program is a standalone, where your degree would be in nonprofit management, or a concentration in a larger school. That will impact the number and content of the courses you take in nonprofit management specifically. If it is a concentration, you should check out what department the program is being offered through. Typically nonprofit management programs will be located in business, public administration or social work, but I taught in one program that was located in the education department. Each discipline has its own focus, advantages, disadvantages and politics. The Seton Hall website can walk you through some of these, but again you need to know what you are going back to school to learn.

Check out the core courses you will be required to take and the availability, type and variety of elective courses. You’ve been working in the field. Are there enough courses in your particular area of interest? Will those courses give you the range of knowledge you are looking for? What about when they are offered? Just because they are online doesn’t mean that you can necessarily take them on your schedule.

Look at the faculty. Review their curriculum vitae. Have they worked in nonprofits or sat on boards? Do they publish? Present at conferences? Does that matter to you?

If you are doing an online program, will you have to spend some time in residency? If so, how long and how often will you be expected to attend? Can you get the time off from your job? Can you afford to travel to the school to meet this requirement?

Will you have to do a thesis? Would you rather have an extra class or two instead? Can you do a thesis even if it’s not required if you feel that will give you critical experience?

What is the cost? Is there any financial aid available if you require it? Will you be required to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or an equivalent?

This is not a decision to be taken lightly. I commend you for wanting to go back and get an advanced degree. Just be sure that the choice you make is the best one possible because you will be making a big investment in both time and money.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Providing Value

Andrew Kakabadse, Professor of International Management Development in the School of Management at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom, recently conducted a study of over 1200 boards from around the world. Fully 75% of those boards reported not knowing how they contribute value to their organizations. While sad, I am not surprised by this finding. The culture of most boards precludes engagement. And, if there is no engagement how can we expect anyone to have even a sense of belonging, let alone of providing import to the organization?

For instance, when was the last time your board was engaged in a substantive discussion? I don’t mean that the directors were asked to vote on a recommendation or to discuss the merits of the two companies submitting bids to fix the roof. Rather, they were expected to ask “What if…,” to explore working in tandem with a group that has always been seen as the competition or to consider how to turn a risk into a unique opportunity to move the organization forward?

I routinely ask boards with which I’m going to work to share with me their typical agenda. Most follow a format that is strong on reports. How much value can board members bring if all they are doing is listening to reports? What’s worse: reports focus on the past. Nobody can change the past. If you want board members to feel they are bringing value to your organization, you must engage them – their excitement, commitment and unique talents – around issues that they can impact. This requires providing them with the information they need or request, turning them loose to grapple with the issues and supporting their conclusions. If you have grounded your board around your organizational vision and values you have nothing to fear and much to gain.

There’s an old adage that, “If two people in business think alike, one of them is unnecessary.” We need the diversity of thought that our boards bring to the table. Our decisions become better. Best, the process cuts both ways. People who have had the opportunity to offer input feel valued.

But, all of this is for naught if we don’t share with our boards the results of their efforts. Otherwise, for all they know, they wasted their time in merely a mental exercise. If we want our boards to feel valued, we have to demonstrate that their product – their intellectual capital and their efforts – made a difference. And, it doesn’t hurt to thank them for that, either!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

There's a New Normal in Town

I’ve been hearing it for awhile, now… we cannot hope to hang on until things return to “normal.” “Normal” has gone for good. There’s a new “normal” in town and it only promises to keep morphing. Regulations will become tighter. Technologies will continue to change the way we do business. Upcoming generations will want to mold projects and processes in their image. The community will demand increasing levels of participation, accountability and impact. Collaboration will emerge as something necessary, something real, something more than a “front” to satisfy funders. Creativity will rule. The sharing of knowledge will become the norm. And, so the list grows.

How can we deal with these shifting sands? People a lot smarter than I have failed to come up with a definitive answer. However, I do have some thoughts. We cannot look backwards with longing. We, like Lot’s wife, will be buried in that sand.
We must realize, as my friend and colleague Hildy Gottlieb says, that we are creating the future now, whether consciously or not, with everything we do or say. So, we need to define our desired future, claim responsibility for our actions, see the elements dropped in our laps as constructive and utilize them, moving quite deliberatively in the direction that will take us where we want to go.

We must have faith in the community – the combined intelligence and experience sets of diverse individuals, all with skin in the game – and embrace what it has to offer. This might mean flattening our organizations’ hierarchies, or at least encouraging people to build the networks they feel would be most effective without attention to reporting lines.

We need to stop viewing our organizations as turf that must be protected from trespassers and poachers at all cost. Thinking about the value easements on personal property offer to the owners of the property, as well as to the greater community, might help here. As a first step to breaking down the walls between “us” and “them” we could encourage that those in our organizations start talking to and working with individuals at all levels in other organizations, even other communities. And, we should start looking at how to leverage resources between organizations, as well.

We must encourage out-of-the-box thinking. In fact, we should be encouraging people to burn that damn box for once and for all! This might mean that we take a lesson from some Fortune 100 companies and give people time each week to work on projects unrelated to their jobs that are of personal interest to them. Incredible ideas have come out of such policies in the for-profit sector. Why aren’t we encouraging people to dream, then share what they are developing? My guess is that we’ll find things in these projects that will move organizations closer to not only their own visions, but to healthier, more vibrant communities.

It won’t be easy. Real change rarely is. However, there is a saying that “change is inevitable, only the struggle is optional.” Let’s embrace the new “normal” and together clean up Dodge.

It's Time to Judge on the Basis of Impact

The end of the year is approaching and people are hastening to make their 2009 gifts. Some generous souls will respond to any organization that makes an ask. For most, however, the process involves either going through the stack of envelopes received from organizations to which they’ve given in the past, merely to decide how much to give this year, or logging on to a charity watchdog site, such as those run by Guidestar and BBB Wise Giving Alliance, to see which organizations serving a personal passion get high marks. But, are any of these means the best way to approach this important task?

A small but increasingly vocal number of people are suggesting we should be looking at impact when we make our giving decisions. Has the organization to which we’ve given loyally over the years really lived up to its promise to the community? I can hear the contingent that turns to watchdog groups saying, “But that’s why I check these groups out!” The problem with the watchdog groups is that the criteria upon which they’ve been rating organizations are criteria that are easy to measure. They are not necessarily criteria that speak to impact.

One of the key factors upon which high ratings have been given in the past is the maintenance of low administrative costs. However, nonprofits have rightly complained for years that it takes people, facilities and equipment to provide services and achieve impact. People, facilities and equipment cost. Other key factors that result in a strong ranking include the number of dollars that are spent to raise money and the period of time the organization could maintain itself without any further fund raising. While clearly related to good business practices, neither of these criteria speak to results. Frankly, even factors such as numbers of programs, numbers served or satisfaction levels speak more to busyness than they do to impact.

Ken Berger, the CEO of Charity Navigator – one of the foremost watchdog groups – bravely came out this month to say that Charity Navigator will be redesigning its rating system to focus on impact. He admits that it won’t be easy, but believes it is necessary and doable.

Until all the watchdog organizations do our work for us, I propose that we put aside emotion and analysis based on easy but less-than-meaningful numbers to do our own assessment of impact. Is, for instance, our favorite homeless shelter merely serving more people or is it putting the people it does serve into their own homes and providing them with the skills to pay the rent and take care of the maintenance?

We can also look at how well the organizations we identify play well with others. Does that homeless shelter insist on hiring its own case managers, building out and staffing its own kitchen, or collecting its own clothing to provide to clients when it could reach out to other organizations in the community who already have case managers, a kitchen capable of feeding those in the shelter or sufficient clothing to share?

Doing this sort of research will take time, but the rewards go beyond knowing that you answered the call to ensure the status quo. It will draw you closer to the organizations you ultimately select. It will intensify the feeling you get inside when you give. It will force organizations to make a difference or leave the marketplace. And, it will allow you to live in a healthier, more robust community.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Asking for Donations? Be Sure You are Properly Registered

Q: Can you address what nonprofits must and should do about registering in their own and other states when they solicit donations? I am employed by a management support organization. Many of the nonprofits with which we work are not aware of the requirements and I would like to provide them with current information. I appreciate anything you can share with me on this matter.

A: You raise an issue that is getting a lot of attention today, especially from the states themselves and the IRS. The short answer is that organizations must be registered in the states in which they solicit funds. And, that might as well be every state if they have a “donate now” button on their website. While each state has different laws on the books – for instance, some allow for exemptions for such things as religious organizations, organizations receiving money from only a handful of individuals within the state or organizations receiving an insignificant amount of money from within the state – they are all looking for full compliance.

The registration requirements are not new. Organizations have long been obligated to register in those states in which they conduct a solicitation by any means – e.g., direct mail, email, raffle sales, telemarketing, personal visit and so on. This has been true whether or not the organizations have a physical presence in the state. Even the ubiquitous “donate now” buttons on websites can trigger registration requirements in states that argue that one of their residents could conceivably come upon one of these sites, see the button as a solicitation and be motivated to give.

Throughout the years, a number of organizations have received calls from states that proactively identified them as scofflaws, threatening fines and demanding immediate registration. In the grand scheme of things, it was not a large number. But, just because one of your organizations may have knowingly or unknowingly ignored these laws with impunity in the past, they do so now at their own peril.

Three situations have emerged to make this so. The first is the public’s growing unease over the scandals that have rocked both for-profit and nonprofit corporations, and the states’ corresponding desire to protect their citizens by, at the very least, keeping track of who is asking those citizens for money. Second, the poor economy has motivated states to look for every source of revenue they can find. Registration fees and fines for the failure to register contribute to states’ coffers. And third, the IRS did a major rewrite of the Form 990, which now requires nonprofits to report the states in which they must file a copy of their Form 990 and the states in which they are registered or have received an exemption from registering. These two questions allow the IRS to determine the states from which an organization has raised funds. Failing to answer is not an option. Answering falsely opens the leadership to charges of perjury. In either case, the leadership may be personally liable for civil and in some cases criminal penalties, which can bring fines up to $25,000 and potential jail time.

Ensuring one’s compliance to the filing requirements is not easy because each state has its own stipulations for registration. Some grant registration automatically if an organization files a copy of its IRS determination letter, along with a cover sheet that includes basic identifying information and any required filing fee. Thirty-six states, plus the District of Columbia, accept the Unified Registration Statement, version 3.20, which is available – with supplemental forms for 13 states – at But, organizations still have to file this form separately in each state, along with the applicable filing fee. Still other states require completion of a unique registration form, plus any filing fee. The filing fees can range from $25 to $400. On top of this, registration is an annual requirement, with different filing deadlines in each state.

There are companies that will process all of an organization’s registration materials each year. They tend to run around $7500 in professional fees (exclusive of filing fees), with some a little less and some a little more. If an organization goes this route, it should be sure to ask what the fee covers and what level of accountability the company assumes if they miss a filing deadline or makes some other mistake.

Obviously, an organization can file its own registrations. It is my understanding that this takes an average of two weeks of dedicated attention, though not all at one time and each organization’s unique situation will impact the actual number of hours. Contact the states’ Attorney General or Secretary of State (the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs in Florida and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Office of Tax and Revenue in the District of Columbia) for specific requirements and to learn of any exemptions and penalties that might apply in the organization’s case.

While complex, registration is a task that cannot be put off. Get going today. Good luck.