April 23, 2018

How do we know what we don’t know?

I know that I don’t know much about sports (of any kind). And I don’t care that I don’t know much. I can make fun of myself. I can ask others. And there’s no substantive impact on my life or my friendships or my business or….

There’s lots of stuff I do know. And I know how to fill in the gaps of lots of my not knowing.

But what about the important stuff that I don’t know and don’t know that I don’t know it? I think that matters.

Not knowing what I don’t know…That’s worrisome. For me and my life. For my business. For my clients and my community and my society and my world.

How do we know what we don’t know? By reading lots. By connecting with diverse people. By exposing ourselves to unfamiliar things. By venturing beyond where we’re comfortable.

It’s the same for our organizations. First, decide it’s important to monitor what we don’t know and figure out how to know what we don’t know. Build this into your organizational culture. Establish systems and procedures to do this. Engage regularly in conversation at both staff and board levels.

Knowing what we don’t know… And knowing what we don’t know that we don’t know… Both are super important!

December 12, 2016

Read research. Learn stuff. Help your NGO.

How frightening if you and your staff colleagues don’t read research. Really frightening.

I’m not just talking about fundraising research. It’s all research. Any research that might be relevant.

Read these articles. What are the implications for your nonprofit organization? How will you introduce this information to your boss and your board and your staff colleagues? How will you apply this research to your NGO?

Human Service Agencies’ Contributions Soar But Retention Rates Plummet for All Nonprofits. (Retention rates – loyalty – are the primary measure for effective fundraising – and any other business!)

Harvard Sciences and Sugar Industry Hook Up to Lead Public Down Dangerous Path.

Public Losing Faith in Higher Education as a Jumpstart to Work Lives

Fundraising Effectiveness Project

Are you reading any of the research at the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy or at the Lilly School?

I read neuroscience marketing research about consumers. Written in a user-friendly way!

Read research! Explore implications of research! Apply research to your work!!!

Any research you suggest? I’ll post it!

Filed under: Resources / Research

November 7, 2016

Donor Bill of Rights

Has your organization adopted the Donor Bill of Rights as a policy? I hope so. It’s policies like these that help hold your fundraising accountable.

Have you engaged your board in a conversation about elements of the Donor Bill of Rights? I hope so. The most effective boards talk about this stuff.

So what are some of your favorite elements in the Donor Bill of Rights? Which ones do you think might surprise your CEO? Or surprise your program staff?

Which parts of the Donor Bill of Rights might be particularly difficult for your board to understand? For example:

#2: To be informed of the identity of those serving on the organization’s governing board, and to expect the board to exercise prudent judgment in its stewardship responsibilities.

#3: To have access to the organization’s most recent financial statements.

#9: To have the opportunity for their names to be deleted from mailing lists that an organization may intend to share.

Talk about all this with your board. Make sure every single board member – and the board as the collective – understand why and how your organization applies the Donor Bill of Rights.


September 15, 2016

Errant thoughts…#2

Sometimes I write multiple blogs at a time. And then schedule them into the future. Sometimes I have so many thoughts crashing around in my brain that I have to write multiple blogs and a newsletter or two all in one sitting!

So I’m still in the plane flying to Anchorage. The students in Cohort 25 just keep inspiring me – so I keep writing.

Here’s another errant thought:

  1. Have you asked your board members how satisfied they are with board meetings? For example:
  2. Are we talking about the right stuff?
  3. Have we provided you with the right information to talk effectively about the right stuff?
  4. Have all of us together create a safe environment to ask questions, challenges our own assumptions and those of others, talk candidly…And disagree?!?!?

Notice that these are evaluative-type questions. These are not the type’s of questions that would, necessarily, generate conversation. These questions might just produce responses on a likert scale.

I think that’s okay for this kind of evaluation. Then the board can talk about the results. Because sometimes we’re just so mad at the board and we blame everything on the board members. And we forget to look in the mirror at ourselves!


September 9, 2016

Errant thoughts…#1

I’m in an airplane flying to Anchorage, Alaska to work for a couple days. I’ve been thinking lots about governance. Just cause I often do. And because I’ve been reading final papers (on governance) from Cohort 25 at SMU.

So here’s an errant thought: What if we constructed a set of games (maybe like Jeopardy or ??) and used it as part of a screening interview with candidates for board membership? Then we’d grade how well they did and if they qualified…

Okay. That’s not practical. But what questions do you think should be asked of candidates? Just like the questions you invent for interviews with possible employees…

For example:

  1. What does the concept “corporate governance” mean to you?
  2. What have been your best and worst governance experiences?
  3. If you were assessing the quality of a board and its members, what kinds of questions would you ask?
  4. How would you explain the purpose of a board to someone who has never served on a board?
  5. How would you describe what makes an excellent board member to someone who has never served on a board?

What do you want to add?


November 16, 2015

Really good resources last forever

I’m sitting on the floor in the corner of my London hotel room. Feels good on my back. It’s actually 8:40 a.m. on October 16. This afternoon is the meeting of the Advisory Board for the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, Plymouth University. I’m the chair of the Centre’s Advisory Board.

Yes, I write some of my blogs in advance…for example this one. In fact, I intentionally post many of my resource blogs weeks after the origination of the resource. WHY? Because really good resources don’t go out of date. Really good resources last forever.

You may have read the resource back when it first came out – because I’m so often sharing from places like NPQ…The Agitator…Jeff Brooks…BloomerangThe HubHillborn…wherever and whatever and more. But I want to remind you of the resource a while later. Because I think the resource is worth remembering and keeping and applying.

So here goes, some resources I find very useful and applicable and and and ….

“Your donors are trashing your emails. Here’s what you can do about it.” Thank you, Jeff Brooks. So many emails…How many get opened?

Carl Sussman’s magnificent always useful read it now article: “Making Change: How to Build Adaptive Capacity.” This is a must-read for any fundraiser, all management staff, board members. This is a great article for management of your own life, too!

Check out the 101Fundraising Blog. International. Yippee! And here are their top 10 right now. And read this one about looking out the window, not in the mirror.

Resources? More resources? Damn. I am so far behind! Read Steven Shattuck’s post of the Top 40 Blogs to read in 2015. I’ve shared this with you before. I’m sharing it again. And kicking myself to read more of these, too!

Okay. That’s it. I’m getting up from the floor now. Nice for my back but too hard for that other part of me at the moment!

Share some of your favorite resources in the comments section of this blog. We can all learn more together.



November 2, 2015

Board members must attend board meetings

Or get rid of them . . . graciously!

I was looking through my blog archives…And encountered this 6-year old post. It’s time to share this again. Because the situation isn’t any better! So here goes, with modifications.


You’re not a good board member if you miss lots of board meetings.

What do I mean by “lots”? Attend at least 75% of board meetings. Miss more than that and the organization should professionally, objectively, and respectfully get rid of you.

And don’t start whining about this. Here’s what I hear all the time:

  • “Well, I travel lots and so I miss a fair amount of board meetings. But I’m a great donor and I always read board meeting material and send an email with my opinion.”
  • “We cannot remove our largest donor from the board, even if she doesn’t attend regularly. After all, she’s our largest donor.”
  • “It’s so hard to find board members. We keep the good ones even if they don’t attend regularly.”

Oh please. You’re missing a very important concept: Corporate governance is a collective act. The legal corporate entity is the board. The board is a group. The board does governance. Governance only happens when the board (e.g., the group!) is together, virtually or in person.

When a board member is missing, he isn’t a good board member. When a board member is missing lots, she’s a lousy board member.

Being a great donor doesn’t make the person a great board member. Keep the good donor through great relationship building. And remove the person from the board.

Sharing ideas and thoughts outside the board meeting does not make a good board member. It’s board conversation that matters. Together people share insights and wisdom. They listen to each other. They question each other and themselves. And together, through conversation together, they make a decision. Sharing thoughts outside the group that is the board isn’t useful.

Adopt performance expectations. See my sample performance expectations. Evaluate board member performance. See my sample evaluation tool. Hold your board members accountable. Enforce performance expectations.

Graciously, professionally, objectively — enhance attrition. That’s when you help the board member understand that s/he isn’t fulfilling the performance expectations. The board member acknowledges the problem and offers his / her resignation. And you accept it with alacrity.

And if the board member isn’t smart enough to honestly see his/her performance, then the organization explains clearly and explains why resignation is necessary. That’s thank and release.

Hold board members accountable. Each board member holds himself / herself and the others accountable. Staff hold board members accountable, too. Hmmm… How can you do that better? List cumulative year-to-date attendance in every set of board meeting minutes. Try this approach: Alpha list with a parenthetical note stipulating year-to-date attendance. Here’s what this looks like:

  • Attending: Mary Black (4/5), Bob Dylan (3/5), Enya (4/5), Eartha Kitt (5/5), and Bruce Springsteen (1/5)
  • Unable to attend: Pete Seeger (1/5)

By the way, even if they’ve informed you of their inability to attend — you still don’t keep trustees who miss lots of meetings. You don’t want board members who travel so much, are so important that your organization’s board meeting isn’t important enough.

Recruit board members who are so committed to you that they rarely miss board meetings. Keep board members who are willing to inconvenience themselves for your organization.

For more, read my short book Firing Lousy Board Members – And Helping the Others Succeed. Carry the book around at board meetings. Make sure board members see the cover. Hmmm… Maybe that will launch an improvement revolution!

October 12, 2015

Setting your charitable contributions goal

From my archives… But I’m still flummoxed about how organizations do this…

How does your NGO set its charitable contributions goal? This is what organizations tell me:

First we add up all the expenses to carry out our mission. Then we figure out how much revenue we think is pretty reliable.” (That might be ticket sales if you’re an arts organization. Or maybe government contracts for services delivered. Or a for-sure grant from some foundation.)

“And then,” says the organization, “we figure out the gap and that’s our fundraising goal.”
Yup, the primary criteria for setting charitable contributions goal is how much the organization wants / needs to do its work.
Of course, most organizations also look at how much they’ve raised in the past. Let’s see: “Last year we raised 10% more than the previous year. So how about raising 15% more this year. Or, it’s a bad economy, so let’s just aim for raising 10% more again this year.”
Not good. Not the best way to determine your charitable contributions goal. In fact, I think the least important criteria for setting your charitable contributions goal is “how much you need.”
Instead, set your charitable contributions goal by examining both internal and external criteria. For example, internal criteria include:
  • donor-centered relationship building program
  • balanced mix of solicitation strategies and sources of gifts
  • board member participation to identify the predisposed, nurture relationships, and solicit gifts
  • number of qualified prospects in the pipeline
  • analysis of key donors to determine the likelihood of how much each one might increase his / her gift

And I have even more on my list!

Make sure you consider the external issues, for example, the economy.
And make sure that your board understands this is how an effective organization develops its budget and its charitable contributions goal.
August 17, 2015

More notes from my board room

Continuing the board member performance expectations from Cohort 24… Ah those days at SMU.

Make sure to review the first 7 of these performance expectations in my August 3 blog.

8. Fill one table at the annual gala and assume that you’re off the hook for at least a quarter of the year.

9. Refuse to volunteer for any extra positions.

10. Assume that the executive committee has made the important decisions, and thus your attention is not really necessary.

11. Have a lot of opinions about what is wrong, but no solutions.

12. If you’re presenting, leave the moment you’ve finished.

13. Decides what font should be in the gala invitation. Bonus points if you make the volunteer who designed the invitation cry.

14. Talk to our donors about funding your other interests – especially if you can steal a major  donor for our competitors.

15. Recruit new board members based on your political goals.

16. Hire your alcoholic roommate to do fundraising for the organization. Let him keep 15% of what he makes for you.

17. Do not offer any assistance to new board members. They’re after you. Fight them. Violently. Especially any innovative or new ideas. Assume they are undermining your power.

August 3, 2015

Notes from my dorm room

Ah tristesse. (That’s French for “ah, sadness.”)

I’ve said farewell to Cohort 24 and Cohort 25 at SMU. I’ve been teaching in this Masters Program in Philanthropy and Development since 2000, beginning with Cohort 9.

This summer was the 25th anniversary. Thank you, Tim Burchill, for founding this program. You would be so proud of this program. (Tim died suddenly in February 2007. He was a great colleague and friend.)

“Notes from my dorm room” appears in my blog periodically. Live from campus. Reflections after classes.

Cohort 24 and I talked about governance. The glory. The mess. The dysfunctionality. The mediocrity. And here are some remarks – from the cohort – about performance expectations for the individual board member:

  1. Have a great deal of money. But intend to invest next to none of it in this organization. And certainly don’t be willing to work on fund development or generating new leads.
  2. Rarely attend meetings. But, if forced to show up, text other board members at the table about the CEO during staff reports. Make sure that the CEO sees you texting.
  3. Make sure to attend every board meeting bitch session over a bottle of wine.
  4. Never read email. Especially the agenda. (No thought went into the agenda anyway.)
  5. Vote on bylaw amendments without having read the changes.
  6. Badmouth the organization, both in and out of board meetings.
  7. Badmouth staff too. Plus other board members. And especially the CEO.

[To be continued…]

Get non-profit resources in your inbox