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Applying Fundamentals of a Nonprofit’s DNA To Enhance Planning

No two nonprofit organizations are identical. Each may reflect similar missions, visions, and values but—because of basic differences in their DNAs * —are clearly impacted by distinct characteristics that may have developed over a long time period.

Bob Harris, CAE, suggests a nonprofit’s DNA consists of five elements. ** Following are my thoughts on how they can be applied, if a nonprofit board wants to develop an understanding of the “real world” applications of the Harris DNA elements. This needs to take place prior to the planning efforts.

Board Structure: Nonprofit boards must effectively operate with a series of board committees. The number of committees varies widely. I have observed some with as few as three committees and others with as many as 15 committees. The latter group rationalizes the number by suggesting board member involvement leads to better understandings of missions, vision, and values. More desirable board candidates live time-compressed work and lifestyles and can’t become involved with committees that meet without defined charters or try to micromanage management decisions.

Three to about six committees seems to be optimal for a mature board in the 21st century. A startup board will require more committees to allow board members to assume operational roles. One warning! If this large committee DNA format is allowed to carry over into maturity, it can lead to a dominating board that will be difficult to change.

Strategy: “A Board must act strategically—not tactically” ** In terms of its DNA, strategy must be the “lifeblood” that helps relate all major decisions to the nonprofit’s mission.

Start-up nonprofits often focus on tactical discussions at Board meetings. Founders and board members must address tactical issues because board members have two responsibilities. They must govern and act as part or full-time staff.  But as the organization matures it becomes essential to fashion all agendas on policy/strategy issues. The responsibility for action resides with the Board Chair and CEO. The Board Chair, however, has a special obligation to proactively discourage lengthy discussions of tactical issues, frequently characterized as “weed discussions.” It should be emphasized that these are operational and management responsibilities, not Board agenda items. 

Sustainability: This factor involves several critical keystones. First is the sustainability of income sources. If, for example, the nonprofit is heavily dependent on governmental funding, to what extent is the nonprofit able to secure private and foundation sources should governmental support abruptly decline? Managers and audit committee members need to be continually alert to seeking new funding sources.

A second keystone involves succession planning. The Board has direct responsibility for CEO succession and must overview staff succession. The latter involves knowing who among staff personnel are promotable, or, with training, be able to fill managerial positions. In my opinion, most nonprofits boards don’t provide significant overview attention to staff promotions.

Relatively short board terms or tenures for most board members (4-6 years) allow the board to introduce new thinking. However, they do not motivate board members to come to grips with issues related to long-term sustainability. Board members are traditionally active for one planning cycle, assuming strategic planning takes place every three to five years. From a sustainability perceptive, this restricts discussions of DNA changes that may impact stakeholders in the seven to ten-year time frames.

Relevance: Two keystones are also important here. First clients and funders must be able to perceive that the nonprofit is fulfilling its mission with integrity and a focus on stakeholder satisfaction.

The second involves maintaining a strongly committed board. To achieve this goal, the Board Chair and CEO must take actions to make certain that each board member perceives that her/h contributions are meaningful.   These perceptions can only be determined from candid conversations with each board member. It’s the responsibility of both the Board Chair and CEO to annually assess that each board member is involved with meaningful activities.

Unlike humans, the DNA of nonprofit organizations can change with careful interpersonal adjustments. For example, assumed it is desirable to have emergency client services available 24/7 instead of the normal 40-hour working week. Then management and staff should work together to modify the DNA (fair scheduling hours, etc.,) to accommodate the change.

Performance: The approaches to assessing the value of nonprofits have recently changed. Focus has changed from assessing program outcomes to assessing program impacts. ***

Program objectives can be achieved, but they can have little impact on clients lives. For example, marriage counseling can be helpful in eliminating symptoms of problems to meet client satisfaction, but the results may lack impact because they don’t address the problems’ root causes. Data analysts are being employed by some nonprofits to model impact information that is being requested by foundations and donors. The task, however, can take a long time to implement.

Suggestion: Most well-run nonprofits review their missions, visions, and values every three to five years. A review of their DNA factors, prior to the planning cycle can enhance the process.


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Dr. Eugene Fram
Dr. Eugene Framhttps://non-profit-management-dr-fram.com/
Eugene H. Fram, Ed.D., is an expert in nonprofit governance, a business consultant and an award-winning emeritus professor of the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). He is also the author of six books and more than 125 published articles and has been widely quoted by national media on topics ranging from business to high-performance nonprofits. His blog platforms on nonprofit governance have in excess of 3500 followers. He is a past recipient of RIT's highest award for outstanding teaching and one of a very select group awarded the Presidential Medallion, given to those making exceptionally significant contributions to the university. In 2012, a former student anonymously contributed $3 million to endow an RIT Chair in Critical Thinking in his name, an honor Dr. Fram describes as "a professor's dream come true!" Over his distinguished career, he has served on 12 nonprofit boards overseeing diverse community, national and professional organizations, and also has served on five for-profit boards. His particular passion is helping nonprofit boards perform at high levels as more is expected of these boards today than most people realize. He is the author of Going For Impact – The Nonprofit Director's Essential Guidebook: What to Know, Do and Not Do, and POLICY vs. PAPER CLIPS - How Using the Corporate Model Makes a Nonprofit Board More Efficient & Effective.

DAILY INSPIRATION. DELIVERED.