Sunday, July 24, 2011

Worst Practices

For the past few weeks, an interesting LinkedIn online discussion among Professional Speakers on Philanthropy has revolved around “worst practices” in philanthropy. Here are some thoughts offered by experts with decades of experience:

The practice that traps so many nonprofits is looking for new donors rather than focusing on their current donors and stakeholders, and especially looking for rich people, when the people who are already connected to them could be turned into major donors if they were thanked well and engaged more deeply in the organization

Recruiting board members for reasons other than their utter passion for the organization's mission. "We need some big hitters on the board" = kiss of death.

Hiring a professional fundraiser and then expecting that person to raise three times as much as they ever have before and to do it without board or senior leadership involvement...guaranteed to fail...

Many small organizations warp their missions chasing money. It's easy to get diverted when it's possible to successfully pitch a grant for an ill-fitting program or a shotgun partnership encouraged by a funder…"Any dollar" is not necessarily a "good dollar" if it derails the organization or subjects it to the whim of a self-serving donor.

Another common mistake is using anecdotal "evidence" to guide decisions. I see many organizations that are too eager to grease the squeaky wheel when that squeak is coming from just one or two constituents. Often, these constituents have limited involvement with the organization and mission, but they exert outsized influence on the board and executives, because they make the most noise. If complaints raise concerns about organization practices, programs or policies, it's time to gather real evidence to guide decisions rather than to respond in a knee-jerk fashion to a constituent who may just be a jerk.

The lack of being very definitive of expectations when recruiting Board members. Plus, allowing members to serve for too many years - terms. On the flip side, someone who has served the Board well, including the fund raising process, should not be "dismissed" after reaching the maximum number of years of service. Give those productive individuals an "emeritus" title and invite them back for periodic updates on what is happening - - in essence don't lose that good advocate!

One of the worst practices is the lack of a definitive and complete "case for support" that has the vision to excite in both the short and long range and the proper financial expectations and resources to make the organization successful in the eyes of the donors and other stakeholders. This would apply to small and large organizations.

Neither being successful in one's professional career nor having a personal stake in the mission nor being "connected" are enough to make someone a good, skillful board member. But those are often the key criteria by which board members are identified to govern. For-profit professional experience is only vaguely related to nonprofit board governance, and yet many (not all) successful professionals feel as if they come to the table as turn-key board members. Their well-intentioned ignorance can manifest in many ways.

I see some organizations replicating and expanding practices that have not been show to actually produce good results, or at least not better results than other practices they could be doing instead.

Breaching donor intent after gifts are made or "changing our minds" about key funding opportunities having pitched case initially.

In monitoring this important discussion, I was intrigued to see how many comments focused on boards – especially board recruitment. Yet, I agree that if one is looking for either best or worst practice, the wellspring is the board of directors. For that reason, my nomination for “worst practice” would be that board that sees advancement as an out-of-body experience, something they look down on but have no influence over. In healthy environments, board members do far more than evaluate or, even worse, flog the CEO and/or advancement leader. They understand that leadership is not a matter of telling people what to do or demanding that things be done; it is a matter of holding themselves to the highest standards, demonstrating what needs to be done, then asking others how they can help them accomplish the same. Human achievement does not flower in us-them environments but it does when “we the people” commit our lives and fortunes to forming “more perfect” societies.

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