Tag: board

Small doesn’t mean you can’t be great: Nine things to pay attention to if you want you charity to be great.

     Brinkerhoff in his book on the subject talks about the concept of stewardship as a concept of leadership. He reminds us:” …in the not for profit sector, organizations actually belong to the communities they serve, the leaders have temporary stewardship over their assets.” He goes on to describe:” The key concept here is this: as a steward your job is to manage  your not-for-profit with the same care , the same attention to detail, the same level of responsibility that you would give to someone else’s property- because that’s the reality.” Your” not-for-profit is not, in actuality yours; it really belongs to the community and you are the temporary steward of its resources.”  What is really exciting is Brinckerhoff goes on to describe nine characteristics of nonprofit organizations that allow you to be successful, attending to these characteristics will enable your leadership to be good stewards and maximize your fulfillment of your mission. Here are Brinckerhoff’s nine characteristics of successful nonprofit organizations:

A viable mission

A business like board

As strong well educated staff

Technological savvy

Social entrepreneurship

A bias for marketing

Financial empowerment

A compelling vision

Tight controls

            Before I go on to describe these characteristics a little, I would suggest if you are on the board or an executive in a nonprofit organization, Brinckerhoff’s book is worth a read. Actually all his books are worth a read and a re-read. Brinckerhoff has done quite a bit of work for the Global RMHC organization, and as a result the Ronald McDonald House leaders have had more than a few opportunities to listen to Brinckerhoff speak on a number of topics important to nonprofit leadership.

Viable Mission

Having a viable mission is pretty straight forward. We are all involved in our organizations because we want to carry out our mission. Most of us are not interested in building one more widget ,we want to make a difference for people and we want to change our world. Your mission and your mission statement need to describe in an achievable way how you will make a difference for people and how will you change your world. Brinckerhoff reminds us the statement itself must be :  “ short, easily memorized and quickly (and often) quoted.”

A business like board

          I would like to think I am an expert at all aspects of running an organization or nonprofit, but the reality is I rely on other peoples expertise and advice. Some of this I get from my staff who are experts in their own areas, but a great deal of this I rely on from members and past members of our board. Nonprofit organizations need to populate their board with the best and broadest skill set they can achieve. This is necessary both for the advice, counsel and decision making they bring to the organization as well as the new relationships they will bring to the nonprofit.  Brinckerhoff suggests:” Business people are individuals who understand cash flow, feasibility studies, budgeting, human resources, and marketing. These people keep you true to the second rule of not-for-profits which is “No money-no mission.”

          I worked with our sister House in Northern Alberta as their Executive Director for about four years. When the two boards started “sharing” me I meet a board member who had been on the board almost 20 years (there were no limits on their board terms in their bi-laws- this is a topic for a whole different post). He used to describe to new board members when he was asking them to join RMHNA. “It is the greatest board in the world, you don’t have to do any fundraising, or make donations, you don’t have to do anything just come to a meeting once a month and have a free dinner”. If you have someone like this on your board and you are the CEO- you need to have some provocative conversations with your president and the board member.

A strong well educated staff

            As nonprofit organizations our human capital is our most important asset. For many NGOs it is the resource we spend most or a great proportion of our revenue on, in terms of salary and benefit expenses. However for small nonprofits we can be tempted to spend less on competitive wages and as a result have less qualified employees than other charities in the sector. Additionally it can be hard to invest in staff training and development as these investments are exactly that “investments” and the benefits and outcomes for direct service are not always or immediately observable.

            Most of the RMHs in Canada were built and started in the 80’s. For decades most were run like little mom and pop shops with little focus on hiring staff with any specific education or training. Most didn’t have a lot of staff and their employees seemed to be selected from the local bridge club. Most don’t operate this way anymore, we can’t not only if we want to deliver our mission but also if we want to remain completive with our charities in our market. You could write endlessly on this topic, but if you want to be a great organization you need to hire people with the right degrees to do the right job, and you need to continuously invest in on-going staff development.

Technologically Savvy

          Brinckerhoff (2004) tells us;” Intelligent use of technology can increase productivity resulting in much better stewardship of the communities resources.” If you have read any of my previous posts you will know that I am a fan of using new on-line tools to enhance your marketing and fundraising.  The good thing about new technology is that it is always improving and changing which in general means it gets cheaper and becomes more accessible and affordable for smaller charities. This however is also the down side of new technology as well; you have to determine when the right time to jump into a new technology or tool is. Sometimes being an early adopter can give you an advantage over other charities in your marketplace, sometimes early adoption just means you pay more for “glitchy” technology. Marketing and Fundraising are not the only areas to be technologically savvy. Charities should consider if new technologies can offer them improvements in their direct service delivery, the accounting, volunteer management and outcome measurement. 

In my next post I will talk about the remaining characteristics of a successful nonprofit




Brinckerhoff, P.C (2004) Nonprofit Stewardship: A better way to lead your mission-based organization:

            New York: Fieldstone Alliance


You need to provide good information to have good governance.



           If you want your board to be able to think strategically and make good governance decisions you need to provide them good reports and good information. Not that most leaders out there are providing bad information or inaccurate information, but you also need to think –if you have the right people on your board they are likely very busy in their personal and professional lives. Therefore you need to provide them information in a format that is easily understandable.  Brinkerhoff (2004) states: “Mission effectiveness, the goal of a good steward, is nearly impossible without an inspired, motivated board and staff. And thus successful stewards have the ability to motivate others, to get them to go beyond the adequate to the excellent, to help them overcome obstacles; set high goals strive to be the best at their chosen craft.”  This is becoming a tall order, you have to provide information that is brief, easy to digest and remember, and it has to be exciting and inspiring.

          A few years back our organization was engaged in a lot of activities and there was a lot of growth going on. At the time our board met monthly (we meet every two months now). Every month my CEO report became bigger and bigger. I realized that quite a few of the board members were not reading the report until the meeting even though I would email it out to them a few days before. There was so many great things going on in the organization that I wanted to report on it all, but in reality as the report became a single spaced twenty plus page document most were not reading it. Not that they were not interested they would usually make me walk them through the whole report during the board meeting. The problem with this is board members were on the spot to decide what there impression of the outcomes in the report were, they did not have a lot of time to consider the reports before at times making decisions about action items. I was getting frustrated as I knew there were a lot of impressive things going on but we were hard pressed to give the items a lot of consideration during the board meetings. I decided to make two major changes. The first was to consider our board members like any other group we would market or promote ourselves too. We do newsletters and collateral for the public, our donor’s, volunteers etc. Essentially I got our Marketing and Communications Director to help create a newsletter format for the board. Not unlike our other newsletters, it has photos of what is going on in the Houses and it is rich with info graphics and charts and not quite so heavy on the text.  There is text for sure describing outcomes and initiatives but it also has a lot more white space and the information is easier to digest. Essentially we knew for our board like any other stakeholder group we needed to grab their attention as their world was full of reports, data and other information competing for their attention.

            The second thing I started to do different was I started sending a weekly email every Friday afternoon. I call it simply “The Top 5”. The email is a list of the most exciting top 5 to 10 things that happened that week. Could be a donor story, someone gave us $100,000 or two little girls had a lemonade stand and raised $49 bucks for us. I try to mix up the items quite a bit, stories about good things that happened to our kids, volunteer statistics, and how many hits on our website that week. Only rule is the “stories” have to be sound bites- each item can only be one sentence or at very most two. Now shortly after I started this practice our board members started talking about how much more they knew about what was going on in the organization. They didn’t need to orient themselves to what was going on –they felt more in the loop. Now the reality was I was actually providing them less total information. The newsletters were less than half as many pages and the text was much thinner. The information however was in formats that were easy to both digest and remember.

            The interesting thing is the practice has had an impact on the internal operations as well. I have been doing the top 5 for six years now. Imagine if you asked the CEO of IBM to list 5 to 10 awesome things that happened in their organization every week, do you think could do it? I don’t know the answer but doing it is an incredible discipline. It forces you to look for great things big and small happening in and for your organization.  To come up with at least 5 sound bites each week takes a little bit of thinking, so I have all my staff on alert to “catch their co-workers doing a good job”. Essentially the whole staff group knows to email ‘Great news stories” to the Director they work for each Friday morning. In turn the Directors email the good news in their department to me. Usually by Friday morning I have a few Top Five items typed and ready to go, but our staff team always has a few items that I hadn’t noticed or wasn’t aware of.  Anyway the short story is our organization has become better at celebrating our successes but also in always attending to items that we should inform and promote to our other stakeholder groups.


Brinckerhoff, P.C (2004) Nonprofit Stewardship: A better way to lead your mission-based organization:

            New York: Fieldstone Alliance