Tag Archive: board

Starting a Nonprofit Is Like Choosing a Halloween Costume

One of the awesome pumpkins carved during NEW's 5th Annual Family Pumpkin Carving night at the NEW Center


Every year, in late October, I torment myself. It’s two days before the big Halloween party and I’ve put off my costume until now. Sure, my wife and I talked about it. We even came up with a few ideas. We had plans as far back as September.  We just didn’t do anything about them. Over the last eight years, I think my wife and I were happy with one or two of our costumes. I’m guessing this is pretty universal. People love ideas, but don’t always take action on them.

The same can easily be said about starting a nonprofit. I’d be willing to bet that almost everyone has a great idea to make the world a better place.  We’ve each got a thought in our head that could help to inspire, educate or benefit humanity. We simply don’t all take action on them. In the spirit of the season, I’ve put together a few helpful ideas for both of these conundrums: “What should I be for Halloween?” And, “How can I change the world?”

1. Make Sure You’re Comfortable – First of all, no one wants to be dressed as a “sexy watermelon” when it’s 30 degrees and raining. Choose layers that allow you to go from the cold outdoors of trick or treating to the warm inside of a party. Plus, most adults now understand that putting “sexy” in front of something doesn’t automatically qualify it as a costume.
The same should be said about starting a nonprofit. Be comfortable in your mission. Make sure it’s something you’re really passionate about and be comfortable with the idea of success. Also, make sure to “layer” the ideas you have to raise funds and take action on your mission. Having a few different ways of completing your mission allows you to keep moving forward whether the economy is hot or cold.

2. Don’t Force Yourself to Explain It Constantly – My cousin showed up to this year’s party dressed as Frieda Kahlo. I’m a fan of Latin American feminist heroes and that unibrow certainly gives a big clue as to who it is. But, my cousin spent most of the party explaining that she wasn’t dressed as a Ukrainian hipster.
When a nonprofit calls itself a food bank or a cancer research foundation, you know exactly what you’re dealing with. Wear your mission on your sleeve and make sure it’s easy to explain to everyone you meet. In other words, keep it simple. People will respond better to a group they understand.

3. Don’t Get in Over Your Head – Someday soon, my son will want me to make him a fully functional Transformer costume. I’m crafty, but I’m not a special effects artist. I’ll do my best to put something together that he thinks is still “cool” but doesn’t cost me a quarter of a million dollars in CGI graphics. The trick is to ask what part of the costume he thinks is the best and work from there.
In the same way, we don’t necessarily want to claim our nonprofit mission to be “End World Hunger” or “World Peace”. While these can be part of the greater goal (like a Transformer), there is probably one aspect of the ultimate goal that you could focus on most effectively. Let’s try to facilitate world peace by educating on the topic of tolerance locally, hopefully expanding over time.

4. If You’re Going to Do Something Popular, Be Creative – Every Halloween party is likely to have a handful of mafia gangsters, pirates, and superheroes. The least you can do is modify your popular costume to make it a bit more unique. Are you a policeman or a 1970s TV detective? Are you a ghost or the ghost of Albert Einstein?
There are many nonprofits that try to help the poor and cure diseases. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for a few more. Just understand that if you’re going to do something similar to what another group already does, you need to set your creative bar higher. How do you help people or raise money that is markedly different from the rest of the pack? Do you ask for money to keep the homeless warm or do you have an army of expert quilters that repurpose old clothing into warm blankets?

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask the Experts – If you don’t know how to sew, ask a friend who does. No one will think less of you or your Marie Antoinette costume just because had help making it.
Groups like NEW (shameless plug) are a great source for information on how to start your own nonprofit. They’ve got access to all the information you’ll need and the experience necessary to make sure you’re set up for success. With an expert craftsperson by your side, no costume or mission statement is impossible.

6. You Can’t Always Do it on Your Own – Face it, you’re going to look pretty silly showing up to a party alone dressed as Colonel Mustard. Why not make a few calls and show up with Ms. Peacock and Professor Plum as well? You’ll see that your costume is better explained and multidimensional.

If you’re going to start a nonprofit, it would serve you well to have a coalition before you start filling out paperwork and hosting spaghetti dinners. Having an initial board of directors in place before incorporating will ensure a focused and properly thought out mission. It’s always a good idea to get a second or third set of eyes before finally getting down to business.
Most importantly, make sure not to keep putting it off. You’ll end up with a head full of ideas covered by a sheet. Good luck and have a Happy Halloween!

Written by  Robb Drzewicki


The Job of the Board
The board of a nonprofit organization has a very important job, from setting the organization’s policies and strategic direction, to raising funds, to maintaining oversight of its operations. Such important functions need to be done by people who are committed to the organization’s vision and welfare. Nonprofit board members are generally committed to their communities, passionate about the organization’s mission, and very busy. It is up to them to do the high-level strategic work for the organization and leave the day-to-day work to the staff. The board is responsible for oversight and accountability of the organization, its executive director and its policies.

The Board’s Accountability
In addition to keeping the organization on track, the board needs to look in the mirror and keep itself on track. Every three to five years, or when a turning point comes to the organization, it is a good idea for the board to do a self-assessment. Turning points could be a change in leadership, beginning a strategic plan, collaborating with another organization, downsizing the organization, or starting a major fundraising campaign. You get the idea. Take a look at board performance on a regular basis to help improve efficiency and impact.

What to Look At
There are five important areas of board work to consider when evaluating  the board.

  • Board Operations

o   Do you have term limits? Do you have formal board orientation? How do you determine board composition?

  • Strategic Planning

o   Is there a plan? Does the board refer to it?

  • Resource Development

o   Do board members go on “asks”? Do you have 100% board participation in giving to the organization?

  • Oversight

o   Do you have a conflict of interest policy? Do board members know how to read financial statements?

  • Ambassadorship

o   Do board members get out into the community on behalf of the organization?

Board Self-Assessment Tool
NEW offers Board360™, a self-assessment tool that evaluates board performance in those five areas of board governance. With pricing based on budget size, it is affordable and full of impact.  Each board member responds to  survey questions that are reported out as an action plan with low, medium and high-priority action items.   Do your organization a favor and order Board360™ today!


Dallas Moore is Manager of Program Support at NEW. She has worked for the BoardConnect program for several years, being instrumental in the launch of Board360 and other online tools available from NEW.

Apropos to this week’s National Volunteer Week 2011, and our most recent Spring Into Service event, this week’s blog will cover the topic of volunteer engagement and its contribution to the success of your organization. 

A volunteer is defined as a person who voluntarily expresses a willingness to undertake a service.  In the nonprofit world, recruiting, retaining and managing volunteers is a challenge but volunteers are a great resource that.  If implemented correctly, your volunteer engagement program can create success and will also build a network of supporters promoting the work that your organization does. 

Who Are They, These Kind, Giving, Community-Member-Volunteers?

Community members that voluntarily give assistance to your organization will represent a variety of characteristics (age, orientation to your organization, professional career/specialty), but they will be similar in that they all made the decision to take time to help your organization succeed in the work that you do.  Here are a few different examples of types of volunteers you might hear from or see at your volunteer events:

1)    The Community Volunteer: this volunteer is someone (or a group of someones) who come to support your organization at larger, volunteer-based community events—theater production, meal event, race, building renovation projects such as painting or organizing offices, classrooms or libraries, etc.  They might have found you through community bulletin boards or through an online search Like United Way’s Volunteer Solutions site.  These volunteers can be one-time volunteers or you might see them often.  Both are a consistent contributor to the success of your events in the short term, and to the success of your organization in the long term.

2)    The Long Term Volunteer: this volunteer is someone who has the desire to commit his or her help to your organization for an extended amount of time.  Often this volunteer will be assigned a project like database management, file organization, and other organization-specific projects.  These projects are created by the organization and the volunteer together making sure to have shared goals and expectations.

3)    Your Board! Your board members in particular are the ambassadors of your organization’s mission and vision and serve the purpose of propelling you and your organization towards all the success and recognition that it deserves.  It is important to note that the type of volunteering that board members do for your organization will depend on the age and maturity of your organization, your organization’s internal processes, staff size and mutual expectations between the board and your Executive Director.

Of course, all of your volunteers are ambassadors to your organization and this is extremely important to note as we move into the next section.

A Guide to Working With Volunteers

Above all and any guidelines to utilize when considering incorporating volunteers into your organization’s next fundraiser/5K/dinner event/community speaker/forum/roundtable etc, know this above all else: volunteers are not free help.  There is a structure that must be built around your volunteer engagement program(s) to ensure that both your organization and your volunteers are content with the work being done and the relationships being established.

1)    Empower Your Volunteers: HandsOn Network has tons of resources for developing volunteer programs for your organization that ensures consistency in the interaction between organization staff and volunteer community.  Enabling volunteers to do the volunteer work without too much micro-management is best.  An event that is staffed by volunteers needs to be properly planned to the point where volunteers can feel empowered to do what is asked of them independently (of course, there will always be questions and there must be staff available for this purpose).  Additionally, it is always a good idea to identify volunteers that are consistently helpful, independent, focused and committed to the work that is being done through your nonprofit.  These volunteers can be encouraged to take on a leadership role for future events, and might even have insight on how to run volunteer programs for your organization. 

HandsOn Network has a publication for developing volunteer leaders that can be used as an aid in this process of empowering your volunteers. 

2)    Thank Your Volunteers: This is an integral piece of volunteer program coordination at all levels of volunteer management.  Always keep a record of volunteers who worked at your event or who gave their time to your organization in any way.  Thank yous can be as simple as a card or even an e-mail, and can be as extravagant as a gift bag (gift certificates, t-shirts, mugs, etc.) dependent on the event, your budget, and your volunteer population.

Follow these guidelines, and your volunteer community will increase and recruiting and retaining volunteers will become a more simple and directed process that will lead to a broader community understanding of your organization’s mission, vision and purpose.


Ilana Schuman-Stoler is an employee at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work at our Ann Arbor office as a Program Assistant.  Feel free to contact Ilana regarding any of the advice, tools or service mentioned in this post by email at ilana@new.org or via phone at 734-998-0160 ext. 221

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Last week we read about lifelong donors and the importance of cultivating such a donor base.  This week, we continue the conversation with resident resource specialist, Ann Gladwin about relationships and the secret to building them:

The Story

I had a nice chat with Marshall Howard the other day.  His book “Let’s Have Lunch Together” has been instrumental in my take on fundraising–though Mr. Howard still had to set me straight about the story.   The story is me, not the mission of the organization. That’s hard for most of us to grasp; we want to extol the virtues of our nonprofit’s impact on the community:  Look at the great strides we’re making… the number of people served!  According to Mr. Howard, this ‘story’ might rate a 6 out of 10–what about the remaining 4? 

I started to understand that it’s my relationship to the person I’m asking for support that is crucial.  Do they connect with the mission?  Perhaps, but it’s the fact that I asked them that is important.  And they are responding to me; I can ask a stranger for a donation to my cause, but I’m not likely to get results no matter for what I’m asking.  Ask someone I know for support?  Much more likely. 

Wow – that’s powerful!

Real Life Example

Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to Newark, New Jersey public schools serves as a real life example for this theory.   

Mr. Zuckerberg, 26, who grew up in Westchester County and now lives in California, has no particular connection to Newark. But in July, he and Mr. Booker met at a conference and began a continuing conversation about the mayor’s plans for the city, according to people familiar with their relationship.

From The New York Times

There’s that key word again, relationship.  I would treat it as a synonym for success.  

Get Connected

Another proponent of relationship building is Terry Axelrod, founder of Benevon (and guest writer on our blog last week).  She will present a Get Connected workshop for NEW in Detroit on Wednesday, April 27 (9am-10:30am).  This “Relationship Building for Fundraising” is yours to attend for free.  Sign up today!

Also visit Marshall Howard.com to find a multitude of free resources, including his blog. Get a fresh look at a tried and true method for bringing people into your organization.   


Ann Gladwin is Resource Specialist for Nonprofit Enterprise at Work at our Ann Arbor office.  Feel free to contact Ann regarding any of the advice, tools or service mentioned in this post by email at agladwin@new.org or via phone at 734-998-0160 ext. 218.

You can contact Ann with questions on any aspect of nonprofit management.  Call for an appointment to use the Foundation Directory Online at either the Ann Arbor or Detroit office of NEW.

About NEW
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True Contribution

What we are looking for are happy lifelong donors. Lifelong donors are people who regard your organization’s work as vital and exciting. They are people for whom a gift to your organization is not just a donation, it’s a real contribution.

In the old fundraising reality, we would be scolding ourselves for not having asked for a check at the Point of Entry®. That was the “strong-arm the Rolodex” model of asking, where the underlying, unspoken assumption was: “Someone around here knows you, therefore we have a right to ask you for money.” Back then, we had short-term goals to meet. Cultivating lifelong donors was not a priority. Each successive wave of board members would solicit their friends. The old reality also presumed a bottomless pit of potential donors. Even if only a small percentage said yes, we could move on to others the next year. Our existence as nonprofit organizations was hand-to-mouth, year-to-year. Building something for the future was only a dream.

In the new reality, giving is an ongoing process of ever-deepening engagement, involvement, and permission from donors to ask them for more. There is a give-and-take which requires a depth of listening skills that was not essential before. There is a respect and honoring of each donor as an individual who is genuinely interested in contributing. There is an interest in building a long-term relationship.

To put it simply, you want to treat each donor as if they have the potential to become a major donor. Regardless of the size of their contribution, treat them with the same respect and dignity you would want to receive.

It is often helpful to begin by recalling that you too, are a donor. Your name is on the donor list of many organizations. Think for a moment of all the places you contributed money in the past year: your kids’ school or soccer team; your church, synagogue, or religious organization; your professional association; your alumni association; the community hospital.

Going back over your list, notice how much money you gave to each of them. Think about the medium by which you were solicited in each case: in person, by mail, by phone, online? Look at how many years you have been giving to each of these groups. Now think about how involved you feel with each organization you give to. How much contact do they have with you in the course of a year? Is there any correlation between how involved you feel and how much you give?

Next, look at your in-kind contributions. Make a similar list of the groups or individuals you have made a non-financial contribution to in the past year. Include any charitable organization where you have given your time, your expertise, volunteered on a board or a committee, planned an event, offered advice, or just listened to a friend in need. Think again of how many hours you spent doing this, the circumstances in which you were asked to make that contribution, and how connected or involved you felt with the organization or individual you gave to. For how many months or years have you been giving there?

Looking back over all the places you have given money or in-kind gifts, ask yourself what qualities were present when you felt good about your giving. You will notice that these same qualities are usually missing when you haven’t felt good about contributing.

In those cases where you felt good about your giving, you probably have felt it truly made a difference. You felt connected or involved with the cause. It related to a personal experience you had been through. You were giving back or repaying a favor or a debt of gratitude. You were memorializing a loved one.

The odds are, if it was truly a contribution rather than giving as a result of feeling manipulated or “strong-armed” by someone, you weren’t even looking for recognition when you did it. The giving itself was a source of personal pleasure. You felt connected in some way to the group or cause. You felt they were making good use of your contribution. You felt that whatever the size of your contribution, they needed it and appreciated it.

That is exactly the way you want your donors to feel when they give to your organization. They should feel so good about their gift they don’t have to tell anyone else they did it —they should feel as if your organization is their special project, their personal indulgence.

You want them to feel as though they have sprinkled “fairy dust” on the most worthy organization in the world. You want them to feel as though they are an insider to your organization, as though they are a true friend or even part of the family. If you have accomplished that, you will have allowed them to truly contribute. That’s the feeling you are after.

Everything you do to connect and reconnect with a potential donor after the Point of Entry, should be designed to deepen and enhance this sense of true contribution. That is what will develop loyal, committed lifelong donors who are giving for the right reasons.


Terry Axelrod is the Founder & CEO of BenevonBenevon has trained and coached more than 3,000 nonprofit organizations to customize and effectively implement the mission-based Benevon Model for nonprofit fundraising from individual donors.  Terry will speaking in Detroit on April 27, free and open to the public on behalf of NEW & The Arts League of Michigan. Terry can be contacted at info@benevon.com. Feel free to contact Dan Robin regarding the April 27 event at drobin@new.org or via phone at 313-887-7788 ext. 300

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By Diana Kern, Vice President of NEW

My favorite line in the nonprofit world is, “If you’ve seen one nonprofit board, you’ve seen one nonprofit board.”  Having served on many nonprofit boards and working with over 50 boards a year in southeast Michigan I see a lot of variations.  Depending on the mission, the board chair, the revenue situation, the strength of the board’s committees and many other assorted factors, I witness effective and productive boards, unengaged and completely detached boards, and all types in between.


Boards that stand out for me are ones that:

  • Have board chairs that create cultures of accountability (meeting attendance, committee work, returning emails, etc.)
  • Have passion for the mission
  • Partner with their top executive and think about ways to relieve pressure from that person
  • Make a meaningful, unrestricted annual donation
  • Are real ambassadors for the services, programs and mission of the nonprofit in their personal spheres of influence
  • Focus on their own productivity, succession and ability to affect mission accomplishment
  • Embrace training and education

What Area Executive Directors Say

In 2009 I engaged in an informal survey of executive directors in southeast Michigan.  I asked them, “Besides fundraising, what is the most important thing you need from your board members today.” Keeping in mind this was at the height of the recession and all of executive directors I spoke to wanted boards that would embrace fundraising, what I heard was really interesting.


They ranked their top three needs in the following order:

  • Passion for the mission
  • Be engaged (come to meetings, read your board packet before you come, provide vision)
  • Be an ambassador


In some cases I had executive directors tell me in confidence that they work around their boards because they provide no real value to mission.   I also had executive directors that are burned out from having to lead their boards through every step.   Sadly, I had many tell me that many of their board members do not even make a personal annual gift to the nonprofit.

Board’s rank a C+

The BoardSource Nonprofit Governance Index 2010, a survey of approximately 1,750 nonprofits from across the country, reported that chief executives give their boards a C+ on overall performance.  I don’t know about you, but if I ever came home with a C+ I would have had to spend evenings and weekends hitting the books!  Where did board members get the most failing grades?   They got poor marks for commitment, engagement and attendance, being ambassadors in the community, engaging in their own self-assessments, recruiting their own peers (building succession for the board) and of course, fundraising.  Interestingly, this national study mirrored my informal responses from southeast Michigan.

[The full report can be downloaded here ]

If you think about it, many of us have professions that require continuing education classes annually so we can continue to be at the top of our games.  However, to be a nonprofit board member you can just move from one board to the next, year after year, with no training.  You might have no idea what it means to be a good board member, what the best practices are today for boards or what the IRS and others are suggesting supports quality governance and transparency yet you could be responsible for oversight of thousands or millions of donor dollars.


Board Members Ask Yourself a Question

As a board member myself, I try to focus on how I can add value.   How do I add value to the board and how do I add value to the executive director?  Showing up to a meeting once a month, signing a conflict of interest statement, and writing a $100 check every year is not the behavior of quality board member in my opinion.    I also focus on avoiding micromanaging but I embrace my role as gatekeeper of the mission with the oversight requirements necessary.


The BoardSource Index also reported that 70% of nonprofit boards now have term limits.  I am a firm believer in terms limits, but that is a story for an entire other blog on another day.   However, when I join a board and I know that I have six years maximum to provide service I ask my self this question. “When I leave this board in six years can I leave knowing I left the nonprofit and board in a better position than when I got there?”  If I can’t, I think long and hard about accepting the volunteer role.   Being a board member today involves some heavy lifting if you take the role seriously.



Diana Kern is the Vice President at Nonprofit Enterprise at Work.  Diana received the Randolph W. White Memorial Award for Community Service in 2003 for her dedication to ser ving the housing community and she is a certified trainer with the Institute of Real Estate Management.   Feel free to contact Diana regarding any of the advice, tools or services mentioned in this post by email at dkern@new.org or via phone at 734-998-0160 extension 230

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by Neel Hajra, President/CEO

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Thanks to Michael Galpert

A recent local survey showed that 40% of nonprofits in the area plan to downsize their staffs by the end of 2010. I’m sure this is reflective of national trends. Add in the fact that 40% of local organizations already downsized in 2009, and we’ve got a downsizing revolution on our hands! Weeeee, are we having fun yet?

There’s plenty of wisdom out there on downsizing staff, but why isn’t anyone talking about downsizing boards? (well, okay, a few are at least making passing mention).  Let’s debunk some of the reasons:

  • “Board Members Are Free”: No, they’re not. Boards take a lot of care and feeding (and if they don’t,  you have an engagement or “rubber stamp” problem). Unless you have a hands-on working board (i.e., one where trustees act as volunteer staff), a smaller board might help reduce the workload for a downsized staff.
  • “Boards Should Be Big”: No, they shouldn’t. Best practice advice varies, but many agree (including me) that a board larger than the teens usually takes you down the path of diminishing returns in terms of coordination, engagement, and responsiveness. In tough times, you want a board that’s as agile as your downsized staff.
  • “Feelings Will Be Hurt”: Yes, they will. Welcome to management. Are hurt feelings more important than good governance? Plus, maybe feelings won’t be hurt: a local nonprofit trustee recently commented on the tough economic times by saying “I didn’t sign up for this” – maybe some trustees would welcome an escape path!
  • “It’s a Way to Engage Important Community Members/Fundraisers”: Yes it is, but so are committees, task forces, advisory councils, and so on. It’s time we all stopped lumping together governance with other forms of volunteerism and advocacy – a great fundraiser or networker might be an ineffective board member.
  • “We Need These Trustees More Than Ever”: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Trustees may have been recruited for an expertise or function that’s not even relevant to your nonprofit any more. Just as you assess each staff person’s value to your organization’s mission, you should do the same with each trustee.

A quick and easy way to assess the need to shrink or grow your board is to do a Board Composition Analysis. These are often used for recruiting new board members, but can also be applied to a “right-sizing” (sorry, I couldn’t resist that cheesy term!). This analysis simply maps your board assets, and helps illuminate who really brings value to a board. For example:

Skills/Knowledge Trustee 1 Trustee 2 Trustee 3 Etc…
Accounting X X
Admin/Management X

(shameless plug: For $40 NEW offers a bundle of 120+ downloadable governance tools and documents, including a Composition Analysis template)

There’s no “one size fits all” approach when it comes to nonprofit boards, but let’s take off the blinders and include the board in the downsizing equation!

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