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Posts tagged ‘Minnesota Council on Foundations’

The Buck Stops with the Volunteer Board

Principles and practices resources from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits

Volunteer nonprofit board members must do their homework to govern effectively.

Arriving home last week from an overseas vacation, I was startled by more bad press for Minnesota nonprofits.

In the country I just visited, graft and corruption are commonplace.  So a story about nonprofit leaders spending tax dollars on lavish trips and spa treatments would not lead the news — or perhaps be reported at all.

But nonprofit leaders — including volunteer board members — must meet a higher standard in the U.S.  To maintain the public trust, they must act responsibly and ethically, as noted by  Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Executive Director Jon Pratt  in his open letter to members.

The Board is Ultimately Responsible
In the current Community Action of Minneapolis case, the state audit language is damning:

Our review found several deficiencies in the internal control environment, ranging from
inadequate board oversight of operations to inadequate allocation of costs and unacceptable
levels of documented outcomes.

The report’s findings emphasized especially the failure of the board members to “provide independent and objective oversight of senior management or program operations.”

Of course, insufficient board oversight makes headlines in the for-profit sector, too.  But our expectations for individuals who are dedicated to alleviating poverty are understandably high.

Don’t Be Fooled by the “Volunteer” Label
In my years working and volunteering in nonprofits, I’ve seen many bright, hard-working board members who bring their whole selves to their volunteer posts — carefully preparing for board meetings, asking insightful questions about programs and financials, and offering professional guidance that ensures good governance.

But I’ve also come across a few board members who don’t take their oversight duties seriously or who are ill-equipped to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities.  I understand (but cannot accept) how this happens.  The volunteer board member, who can dedicate only a few hours a week or month to her nonprofit work, may defer to the full-time executive director who is an expert in the field.  Or the volunteer board member has little experience reading financials or interpreting program outcomes.

But at the end of the day, the law is the law and the board members — volunteer or not — are ultimately responsible for the organization’s operations.

Easy Access to Resources
If you currently serve on (or plan to join) a nonprofit board and have any doubts about your responsibilities or skills, check out some of the many excellent local educational resources, such as:

Or, take a look at materials offered by BoardSource, the  national go-to organization for information on nonprofit governance.

You Can’t Pass the Buck
Finger pointing and political haymaking are already going full tilt in the Community Action of Minneapolis situation.

But if you’re a volunteer board member, don’t think you can pass the buck.  And anyway, why would you want to shirk your responsibilities?  By being a well-informed, active board director, you can build a stronger, more effective organization.  And that can create positive headlines for you, your cause and the public.

It’s Not Just the Words . . . It’s Your Reaction

Slice of PieI read with interest Lori Sturdevant’s opinion piece in the Strib about homelessness, bonding priorities and the size of the state of Minnesota’s bonding pie.

It appears that emotional reactions to just two little words may be blocking funding for some life-changing services at Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center (and for other urgent projects).

What are the words?  One billion.

Sturdevant and others have written and talked at length about the artificial $1 billion bonding ceiling.  Logic tells us that $1 billion 20 years ago does not equal $1 billion today.  So why the limit?

We’ll it’s not about logic, it’s about emotion.  After all, can’t you just feel it in your gut that borrowing more than $1 billion is just too much (even if interest rates are at an all-time low)?

In a post earlier this year on MCF’s Philanthropy Potluck Blog (“Sparking Action: What to Say and How to Say It“), I wrote about some sage persuasive communications advice from Bradford Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation:

” . . . most of us have a flawed perception of how our brains work: We think we make decisions by thinking and analyzing, but we really make decisions by seeing and feeling.”

So that makes me wonder . . . how might Catholic Charities and the dozens of other organizations in line for bonding appropriations reframe the conversation so we see it — and feel it — in a new light?  Certainly each one of their causes is worthy . . . and each has a multitude of stories that can instantly evoke a tear or a smile.  But how could they jointly negate visceral reactions to “$1 billion?”

In the waning days of this legislative session, I hope some astute policymakers and influencers in St. Paul can find the words that will arouse more positive feelings.  Then, maybe our legislators can see the way to increasing the size of the bonding pie . . . and leaders of our homeless shelters and other deserving projects won’t need to fight over the last slice.

Photo cc Pernilla Rydmark

Nurturing a Seedling of Hope

SeedlingI start this blog with a sense of hope.  Just like the optimism that compelled me to plant seeds in my garden last Saturday . . . even though miserably chilly, rainy weather was forecast for the week ahead.

Nonprofit leaders and philanthropists are eternal optimists, too.  Filled with hope, ambition and courage, they believe they can plant and nurture seeds that will ultimately change society’s landscape.

I envision my blog to become a sort of raised garden bed for worthy causes.  In a raised bed, plants enjoy a little extra warmth from the sun’s rays.  With my posts, I’ll try to shine a bit more nourishing light on all varieties of charitable activities.   Sometimes I’ll write about the newest nonprofit hybrids that promise big yields.  Sometimes I’ll feature heirloom organizations that have resisted blight and delivered bushels of common good in our communities for decades.

A raised garden bed and a bit of mulch also help ensure seeds and plants have a steady supply of moisture for healthy growth.  In my posts I plan to sprinkle in resources from across the independent sector — including from Minnesota institutions (such as the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, MAP for Nonprofits, Charities Review Council, and Nonprofits Assistance Fund) and from national and international thought leaders.

So, I’m simply the gardener.  If you’d like to supply some seeds of ideas that promise positive change in our communities, contact me.  I may add them to my garden bed to see if a little extra light will foster growth.  But no promises . . . because this blog is organic.  With favorable conditions seedlings may sometimes leaf out, blossom and bear fruit.  And sometimes the harsh environment may stunt their growth.  But that’s okay.  We’ll still have hope for next year’s abundant harvest.

(P.S. For the gardening record, in a previous season of my life, I also worked to lift up promising ideas to the light.  Search on “Wehr” to see some of my posts on the Minnesota Council on Foundation’s Philanthropy Potluck Blog.)