Presume Good Will – redux

Presume Good Will – redux

It’s hard to write a blog post in December without somehow bringing in the winter festivals.  They are hard to ignore. Whether we observe a festival or not, we get caught up in end-of-year fundraising appeals; endless staff, neighborhood, organization and family parties; last minute shopping, travel and cooking.

Yet with all this busyness, it is also a time when, regardless of your faith, it is a little easier to see the good will in others.

So today I refer to an earlier essay on Presuming Good Will. Originally written in 2010, the message still resonates.

No one is on a board of trustees because she wants to see the agency die. No one is on a board of directors because he wants to run it into the ground.
There may be strong disagreements, but it’s important to assume the disagreement is based on good intentions, and presume good will on the
part of the ‘other.’

Let’s use this time of year to really see the good will in our colleagues, friends and family. Let’s recognize that we can all agree that we want what’s best for our organization, even if we may not agree on what that best is.

Then let’s bring this perspective with us into the new year, and remember the good will we share as we build towards our respective visions for our communities.

If you are celebrating a holiday this season, I hope that it is warm and meaningful. If not, may you find the time to enjoy the lights and festivities that others provide.

Happy New Year!


Learn more on building a team out of your board members, and bringing together board and staff at or reach me at

The Five Missing Qualities Every Board Member MUST Have

We all know that getting the right board members around the table is crucial. That’s probably why there are thousands of articles and blog posts that talk about recruiting new board members.

Some focus on the “attribute grid” or “board matrix,” or “skills grid.”  That’s the grid that helps you identify the skills and attributes you want on your board, relative to the skills and attributes you already have on your board, and where the gaps are.  Standards for Excellence™   has one for its members, as does KPMG  and many others.

Then there are articles that tell you to throw the infamous grid out the window, like Blue Avocado, in their article ‘Ditch Your Board Composition Matrix’. These make the very valid point that just having a lawyer on your board doesn’t mean a darn thing, if she’s a divorce lawyer and you need someone with real estate law knowledge. Or if he’s a tax accountant, and you need someone who can oversee the nonprofit accounting process.

True confession: In the past, I have been a proponent of attribute grids, while leaning more towards the Blue Avocado model – what are we trying to accomplish? Who do we have, who do we know, who’s in our corner who can help us accomplish this? As a matter of fact, I still think that way.  But there’s a glaring omission.

The thing is, skills don’t make a board, people do. And people have basic qualities that can make a board exceptional – or dysfunctional.  Board members who don’t respect the Executive or each other are toxic. Board members who don’t care about the cause won’t do anything to further it. Board members who live in the past – ‘tried it once, didn’t work’ – don’t consider how the world has changed.

So no matter what other skills a board member has, she must have these:

A passion for the cause
Respect for others
Thoughtful ability to consider issues, and to articulate those thoughts
• A sense of responsibility for making things happen
• The vision to think beyond today

Passion for the cause is first and foremost. Why waste a seat on the board with someone who doesn’t care enough to really work for your success?

Respect is probably next. I’ve experienced too many boards where board members belittle the executive or a staff member in front of the board or their peers. And I’ve experienced other boards where discussions devolve into a shouting match between two members who don’t even try to listen to each other. Time is too short and your cause is too worthy, to waste a seat on a disrespectful board member, no matter how much money they might give.

Thoughtfulness – the ability to really consider the issue at hand and weigh its ramifications for the organization – is a rare gem. The best board members ask questions that cause you to think through your own responses as well. If a board member can’t stop to think about why he is in favor or against an initiative, then you’re allowing his personal past experiences to automatically have a vote, regardless of where those experiences have led.

Passion, respect and thoughtfulness are great, but responsibility is where the rubber meets the road. When it comes time to act, you need board members who take responsibility for ensuring that promises are fulfilled.  Whether it’s connecting the executive with the governor, reviewing the audit, or making calls to supporters, promises don’t cut it. Board members must take responsibility. As sung by Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady,  “Don’t talk of love, show me!

Finally, board members must be able to envision the future and think beyond today. So many decisions affect both today and tomorrow; considering only today’s issue jeopardizes your future. Faced with an excess of income (it does happen!), do you put the funds aside for tomorrow or spend it today? Do you invest in building infrastructure or in professional development so tomorrow you can serve more clients? Faced with a significant deficit, do you cut back programs or invest in development staff? Envisioning the future ramifications of today’s decisions is imperative for your future.Word cloud

Very-Basic-Checked-checkbox-icon Passion




checkboxForward thinking

This is the final checklist when weighing the value of a new board member.  Without these five qualities, you can have the best real estate lawyer, the best CPA, the best HR administrator, each at odds with each other, unable to make a decision and unwilling to connect you to those who can help you change the community.

So go ahead, consider what you want to accomplish, and seek people who are able to make it happen. But before putting them on the board, use this checklist. Ask yourself, do you want to work with this person?

Have some thoughts to share on this subject?  Get in touch with me at

How Good is Your Executive Director?

Does the quality of the Executive Director make a difference?

You bet it does.  Or, at least in the corporate world, a great CEO seems to have an outsized impact on the strength of the corporation.

Walter Frick, reviewing work by professors Quigley and Hambrick at Penn State and University of Georgia, makes the case that in corporate America, when business is more dynamic and less predictable, the CEO has a disproportionate effect on the success of the corporation. They looked at data spanning more than 60 years – the equivalent of 18,000 firm-years, that is, the combined years that the firms had been in existence – and found that the effect of the CEO almost doubled from 1950-2009.

What does this mean for the nonprofit world?  Look carefully at this quote from Frick:

“an increase in business dynamism has amplified the impact of CEOs over time, but that effect is at its highest in companies where industry and economic constraints still limit the firm’s options.”

Picture of KamehamehaWhile I wouldn’t make one-to-one comparisons between for-profit and nonprofit organizations, you can’t deny that by its very nature, the nonprofit world is continually under economic constraints, with limited options, facing increased competition for support, higher needs, and declining resources. How well you manage these constraints is a function of the Executive Director and the Executive-Board partnership.

One of the most important functions of a Board of Directors is to hire, evaluate and, if necessary, replace the Executive Director.  The quality of the partnership between the Executive and the board has an enormous effect on whether the board’s vision is achieved, or whether the board and Executive spend most of their time on minutiae.

Hiring well, and putting in place a sound evaluation system based on relevant criteria, can make a huge difference in the future of your organization. And, if there is any similarity to the for-profit world, it is even more important in uncertain times.

Consider it an investment in the future of your agency.

For more hallmarks of transformational boards, or to find out more about achieving nonprofit Standards for Excellence™, get in touch. Let’s have a conversation.

Susan Detwiler

Meeting an Expectation of Delight

How’s your Board experience?

Should you delight your board?  Should you not? Is this even a question you ever contemplated?

“Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers”*  andThe Secret to Delighting Customers”*

were both published by Harvard Business Review:  the first in 2010; the second in 2013. Very different titles, but very similar premises.  A satisfied customer is one whose whole experience is satisfactory. Not just a single episode of customer service; or a single phone call experience. It is the gestalt of the experience with the company that either keeps a customer loyal, or sends her away.

The same is true for Board experience. Have you seamlessly delivered what you promised your Directors or Trustees when they first joined the board?

Did you set out Board expectations before they accepted a Board position? Are you holding them to it?

Did you promise to keep them regularly informed? Are you delivering?

Did they expect to have meaningful, generative discussions about the future of your organizations? Are you creating an atmosphere so that can happen?

Were they passionate about your cause when they joined? Are you feeding that passion?

Did you tell them you needed their wisdom and insight to plan for the future? Are you actually using that talent?

In the course of two, four, six years of board service, there are bound to be times when a trustee’s experience on a board will be less than satisfactory.  There are going to be times when finances are tight, or a capital campaign stalls, or an Executive Director leaves, or there are obnoxious people taking up board space (no, never!). But overall, have you made their Board experience worth their time and talent?

The nonprofit world focuses on the competition for dollars. But the competition for good Directors and Trustees is also fierce. Good board members ask hard questions before they join your board, and will hold you to the answers. But they’re worth their weight in gold, because with an engaged, passionate, knowledgeable board, you can aspire to higher heights.

But they’ll only stay if their Board experience keeps them coming back for more.


*Read “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers” 

**Read “The Secret to Delighting Customers”

If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway

If it ain’t broke, find a better way.

Usually, I hear if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  At nonprofits, it’s usually used to defend the status quo – we’ve never had term limits, our mission is still as important as ever, the materials in our literacy classes have always worked, we always read our committee reports out loud, Jimmy’s always handled our books, the 5K is our biggest fundraiser!scuplture of man sewing

The problem is, if we only fixed what’s broken, we’d never have the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the iPod, the space shuttle. Heck, if we only fixed what’s broken, we might never have invented the sewing machine! Each of these improvements weren’t fixing something that was broken, they happened because someone said there had to be a better way.

It’s the same thing with delivering our missions. Our programs have been working just fine, thank you very much. Why should we change? The answer isn’t change for the sake of change. The answer is change to do it better. To have a greater impact. To use our resources more wisely.

That’s why strong, effective nonprofits regularly evaluate their programs and measure their effectiveness. It’s not to fulfill funder requirements, although that is a nice benefit. It’s to see if we can learn from them, and find ways of having a greater impact.  Many nonprofits operate in the same mission space, because there is such a great need. It’s not competition if you can learn from each other, and discover the best practices for making a difference.

We evaluate our personnel all the time (or at least we know we should). Shouldn’t we be evaluating our programs?

Instead of saying, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, shouldn’t we be asking, it ain’t broke, but can we do it better?

One of the 55 standards of The Standards for Excellence: A Code of Ethics and Accountability for nonprofits calls for regular evaluation of programs. If you would like more information about the Standards, or ways to evaluate your programs, let me know. Let’s talk.

Are You Collecting Tokens

One of the Standards for Excellence states that

Board membership should reflect the diversity of the communities served by the organization.”

But what does diverse mean?  In the early days of affirmative action, there was a water cooler joke that to get hired you needed to be able to check off certain boxes – black, Hispanic, female, with an Asian surname. The more boxes you could check off, the more likely your resume would be read.coins

Wow, is that dated! Not to mention extremely offensive! That’s not diversity, that’s tokenism.

Instead, look at what a Board Source white paper Does Board Size Really Matter says about diversity versus inclusivity.

Increasing diversity in itself cannot be the ultimate goal. The goal must start by understanding the power of difference — searching for the perfect mixture of attributes, using what individuals have to offer, negotiating for the best solution. Being inclusive of diverse opinions and approaches is the solid foundation when building diversity.

Of course, every organization is different, so mandating a list of skills, attributes and perspectives isn’t possible. Instead, what do you need from your board in the way of passion, viewpoints, talent, skills, and contacts?

Only after you’ve figured this out, should you go out and engage prospective board members of all kinds. Board members who are collectively inclusive of a diverse constituency will be your best defense against stodgy ‘been there, done that’ mentality.

But merely checking off boxes doesn’t do it.

If you’d like more information about Standards for Excellence, let me know. Click here for more info!