Category Archives: Nonprofit management

Board Strategic Readiness, a Checklist

shutterstock_426708937Board strategic readiness means a board knows and meets its responsibilities for strategic planning and ongoing strategic thinking.  Here’s how:  a checklist of 10 questions from my new book Strategic Planning Guidebook.

  1. How does the board regularly pay attention to the changing strategic landscape and engage in ongoing strategic thinking?
  2. What is, and how do you evaluate and improve, the board’s role in your organization’s periodic and ongoing strategic planning?
  3. How do you ensure that every board member is familiar with your strategic plan?
  4. How does your current strategic plan figure in or guide the board’s work?
  5. What is the board’s role in ensuring your organization’s financial sustainability, including fundraising and development that are needed to achieve strategic plan goals?
  6. How does the board regularly and formally evaluate its composition, structure, and practices—and continuously improve?
  7. What does each successive strategic plan suggest about board composition, for example, the kinds of expertise and stakeholder representation the board needs?
  8. How do you ensure diversity and inclusion that will contribute to strategic thinking?
  9. How are board committees organized to align with strategic plan goals?
  10. When and how does the board plan an annual calendar, and how do you ensure that strategic discussions happen throughout the year?

Naturally, board strategic readiness implies that you continue to learn and improve by asking the questions over and over.

Sometimes you’ll need some help. In my book, I talk about how to decide when to hire an outside consultant, and when you probably don’t need to.

Rutledge Strategic Planning Guidebook 2016 coverWhen you do need help with board building, think about bringing in a qualified team coach to help the board assess its readiness, have the rigorous discussions needed to make new decisions and plans, and adjust group norms and habits.  A team coach works with the board during its meetings, using strengths-focused questions and real-time, on-the-spot feedback. When I am coaching a board, I invite a different board member at each meeting to pay attention to specific aspects of the board’s process. This is one way to help boards learn to self-monitor and continuously learn.

For Sustainability, Develop People

shutterstock_282591626“Stark underinvestment in leadership development undermines nonprofit leaders” and weakens their organizations, a new report by Third Sector New England warns.


The over 1,000 leaders and board members surveyed strongly support the need for sustained professional development for staff.

  • Leaders “who do invest in professional development were significantly more likely to think their organizations have enough bench strength” for sustainability and leadership transitions.
  • But staff professional development is a budgeted line item in just over half the organizations surveyed in New England.
  • Although acknowledging the value of coaching, just over half of leaders have invested in coaching.

What can you do in your organization? Here are some approaches I use.

  • Create a culture based on learning, embedding learning in every work process. The Learning Compass, based on David Kolb’s Learning Cycle and the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory 4.0, provides an excellent basis because you can use the Compass in business process improvement, problem solving, decision making, innovation, planning, team development, and communication.
  • Create a performance management system based upon facilitating growth, not evaluating or “appraising.” Teach managers to approach supervision as coaches. Of course, all managers need a firm understanding of what a coaching approach is and is not, and they must be supported with skill development.
  • Build bench strength by targeting rising leaders for formal mentoring and coaching. Peer problem solving, using methods such as the tuning protocol (adapted for using in the business sector) or the GROW coaching model, teaches coaching skills and fosters creative solutions to day-to-day work challenges. These problem-solving processes are especially powerful when facilitated by a certified coach who helps the group deepen its awareness and be more intentional about skill-building.

The Third Sector (TSNE) report points out that with baby boomer Executive Directors retiring, nonprofits’ lack of succession planning is a serious problem.

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of the 877 internal leaders surveyed said they intend to leave the organization in one to five years.
  • Almost two thirds (64%) do not believe there is an internal leader who can succeed them.
  • The report calls for preparing for leaders’ departures by developing “deep sustainability,” including strong leadership systems. No organization should be dependent upon individual leaders.

Here are steps to strengthen your leadership system.

  • Imagine what would you be missing if the Executive Director or CEO were to leave next month? What if your top four or five leaders were to suddenly leave? This exercise will focus your attention on the need to identify the capabilities and skills that your organization must have in order to thrive. You and your board will likely also experience a sense of urgency about developing people and creating systems that are not individual-dependent.
  • Create a plan for developing leaders. It is all right if it is not a comprehensive plan. When change is complex, sometimes more incremental approaches are even preferable (Senge et al, 1999).

These examples may help you see what I mean.

  • Recognizing that she would leave before long, one CEO worked with her senior staff to consensually re-configure job responsibilities so that one team member became COO. Over the next year, that person grew in her ability to lead all aspects of the organization. In addition, all senior team members identified and trained direct reports to step into new responsibilities.
  • Another organization created distributed leadership by first training about 10% of staff, including some supervisors, some managers and two senior leaders, in Culture of Quality Improvement (CQI) methods. Once these folks became certified, they further “seeded” shared leadership by heading up CQI project teams with manager and non-manager members, some of whom became the next cohort to receive training in CQI.

The TSNE report decries “the paucity of resources to support the success of nonprofits” in the Northeast and throughout the country. It challenges the long-held belief that low overhead for nonprofits is good management. Starving leadership development is, in fact, shortsighted, inefficient, and ineffective. In order to serve others, you have to take care of yourself and your staff.