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Can Nonprofit Boards Strategically Reinvent Themselves?

Not many nonprofit boards look to strategic renewal/reinventing as viable options. Dedicated to a specific mission, boards may merge with related organizations as their prospects decline or simply declare victory. March Of Dimes has been a classic case of redefining its mission when The Salk Vaccine limited widespread polio epidemics. Today, the nonprofit’s programs serve people with disabilities: children, adults, seniors, military personnel and veterans.

Basic Motivation Problems

Board Turnover & Leadership – According to the 2015 BoardSource report, Leading with Intent, “ Board leadership is not a lifetime commitment, with boards chairs and other officers being subject to term limits.” In the study, sixty-nine percent of board chairs only had terms of one or two years, not a great deal of time to lead strategic changes.

Numbers of clients are declining and/or the opportunities for growth are limited — Those offering psychological counseling services have faced declining client populations for a number of years, as new medications have become more useful. Some have combined with other nonprofits offering a wide range of human services while others have closed. A few of the nonprofits might have survived if they had anticipated the potential impact and had developed viable services, for example, offering counseling services to private or public school systems.

Need But No Market – In the human services arenas, there are always fundamental needs on which to base a mission. Working within a structure where the clients for the nonprofit’s service are not the funders, these needs are often unmet. Example: Early childhood education is a well-known need, but securing sufficient funding remains a significant barrier to delivering the services.

1. Select growth applications that connect with people emotionally. – The Easter Seals renewal focused on people with physical disabilities and special needs, a natural outgrowth of working with polio victims. The nonprofit organization was well aware of the emotional reactions and public appeals that resonated with the mission focused staff and volunteers.

Anticipated success can also be a motivator for staff and volunteers. The ALS Ice Bucket campaign in 2014 is an example of drawing attention to a challenge through a gimmick with a substantial emotional appeal. It provided significant additional funding that enabled the organization to rethink its research prowess. Whether or not the appeal can continue to be utilized in coming years remains to be seen. At the least, it is added evidence to the power of emotional appeals to generate the potential for strategic renewal.

2. Treat strategy as a dialogue as opposed to a ritualistic, documented-based planning process. – Strategic renewal in the nonprofit environment often occurs under crisis conditions. Consequently, starting with a ritualistic strength and weakness analysis is not the way to begin strategic planning at these times – complete decline is probably at hand. The issue has to be what resources can be salvaged from the current mission to enhance the new one.

If the strategic process is one that is reviewed every three to five years, every nonprofit organization should be honest about answering this generic question or similar ones: Who would miss our organization if we ceased to exist? Broad considerations of the responses and subsequent investigation can lead to open discussions to consider future opportunities for strategic renewal. As noted before, there are many new missions to address unmet human needs.

3. Use experiments to explore future possibilities. – Nonprofit organizations often shy away from using financial and human resource assets for experimentation. A field ethic that prevents a nonprofit from experimenting is an unrelenting focus on directing resources to current client services. Where strategic renewal is required or seen as an opportunity, outside funding needs to be developed, except when the organization has unusual reserves available for experimentation.

4. Engage (external and internal) leadership (communities) in the work of renewal. – “Successful strategic renewals … need to be broadly based so they can engage managers (and staffs) … in the organization. Creating (internal and external) leadership communities around the renewal project allows (board) leaders to learn about the future by doing and win over potential resisters.” The support of the chief operating officer is critical. If he/s is not behind the renewal, the board will have to make a forced change or wait until a planned succession takes place.

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.
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