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Extending the Planning Horizon to Inform Board Room Decisions

Even in the heady days of the 1990's, trustees at a leading liberal arts college were worried that their desire to invest in new programs would only lead to future deficits. They remembered how challenging it had been historically to eliminate a structural deficit and didn't want to repeat that experience.

Working with the vice president of finance, we helped develop a five-year budget model so the board could determine whether future revenue growth would cover the increased expenses for proposed additional faculty and new classroom facilities. Based on this forecasting tool, the trustees proceeded to approve the recommendations, comfortable that the college would remain financially healthy.

The five-year budget model proved to be even more important with the recent stock market decline. The board and staff grasped the multi-year impact of the endowment's fall in value and moved early to make needed expense reductions. As their perspective shifted from the current year to the medium term, trustees discovered that they had more options available and were making better decisions for the college's long-term health.

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Instilling a Marketing Culture to Raise Visibility Without Raising Costs

The board chair of a national early childhood school readiness program was complaining to two new trustees that funders and other possible partners overlooked the agency in spite of its successful and cost-effective program, substantiated by 35 years of research.

The trustees recognized that the agency needed to raise its visibility and position itself as an early childhood literacy expert. But they knew it had limited resources --- financial, human, in-house marketing skills and experience. The trustees talked to the executive director and decided to establish a new board marketing committee comprised of experienced trustees and staff. Together we designed the organization's first marketing strategy and action plan. We identified key constituencies, relevant messages and prioritized targets. We produced a media and promotional kit in modules that could be adapted for different purposes or constituencies and published an annual report. We also introduced a marketing training course for local sites at its annual conference so that the staff could use the materials effectively in reaching their local constituents and ensure that the organization's message was consistent from region to region.

To increase awareness of the organization, we redesigned an existing newsletter, increased its frequency of publication, broadened and sharpened its editorial focus and then linked it with an ongoing fundraising strategy. As a result, the newsletter's readership grew 60% within 18 months and donations solicited through each new issue underwrote its printing and production costs from inception.

Today, both the executive director and the board understand the importance of a consistent message and actively seek opportunities to convey it in every organization communication. Press coverage has increased locally because local staff now understands how to work with local media with the tools we developed and the importance of collecting and using local program statistics to strengthen their stories.

"We knew we were an organization with a great story. We learned how to leverage resources like our board members with marketing experience so we could strengthen our marketing material and public relations efforts in a very cost-effective way. The board realized how valuable these efforts were...building the program's visibility."

Executive Director, Early Childhood School Readiness Program

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Laying a Foundation to Build Leadership Capacity

A national early childhood school-readiness organization needed to transform what had been a founder's board into a more professional group that could support a lasting institution. It was actively recruiting new trustees and wanted to reshape the board committee configuration, then recruit additional directors to strengthen the board.

We worked together to develop a new board governance plan and committee structure. We drafted general committee guidelines and defined each type of committee (standing, ad hoc and even advisory). We suggested suitable standing and ad hoc committees as well as each committee's mission, roles and responsibilities, appropriate composition, meeting frequency and communication protocol. We also redefined the 'job description' for all directors. Based on clearer roles and using the committee structure as a guide, the organization could identify the types of new board members needed, recruit them and integrate new directors more effectively. The process will help unite the executive director and board around a shared mission and understanding of how they could best work together to achieve their goals.

"Barbara was able to take a board that had been accustomed to functioning as an advisory committee and provide the construct it needed to begin its evolution into a governing board. Board members now have a proper understanding of their role and there is a committee structure designed to increase productivity and utilize expertise."

Executive Director, The Parent-Child Home Program

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Small Intervention, Big Impact: Improving Board Fiscal Literacy

The executive director of a well-known social service agency wanted us to lead a discussion at the board's day-long retreat to educate board members about the organization's financial reports. You'll have an hour, she said. The board doesn't understand the statements, doesn't read them, and I can't get them to grasp how we're doing. See what you can do.

After reviewing the agency's monthly reports, we returned to the director, confessing that we didn't understand the statements, either. We suggested this might be the perfect opportunity to revamp and introduce some new reports. Together we agreed on their purpose and the key information that should be conveyed.

We presented the initial draft reports at the retreat. After a long silence, a board member tentatively raised her hand to ask what a certain item meant. With that the ice broke, more questions followed, first to understand the individual programs, then to discuss the larger, more strategic implications raised by the report. The proverbial light bulb went off: Now I understand why our fund-raising is so important -- none of our programs are self-sustaining on government money alone, one board member said. And look at how much available capacity we have, said another. We either need to reduce our space or bring in new programs to fill it and cover more of our costs.

Within sixty minutes the board's comprehension about the agency's financial health had increased geometrically, and the level of discussion reached a height never before seen in a board setting. Even more significant, the board asked for additional financial information and education. Now the executive director and the board were partners actively engaged in planning and building the agency's financial strength.

"In just one hour the board grasped the key financial issues we face and became active partners in deciding how to move forward."

Executive Director, Inwood House

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Coaching throughout the Transition to Ensure Success

Nonprofit boards often turn to us for assistance when recruiting a new executive. With our affiliate, Leadership Recruiters, we help boards ensure a successful leadership transition by "book-ending" the traditional search process. We start by helping the board articulate the skills and competencies the new leader needs to enable the nonprofit to achieve its goals. Then once hired, we coach the new executive and the board over several months to ensure a successful transition.

When a board asks for help in a search, we urge the search committee to step back and consider where it wants the organization to be in five years and what impact it wants to have. These answers dictate what kind of leader is needed to achieve its goals, and the skills and competencies required. We focus not only on a candidate's experience and functional expertise, but also on how the individual works with others to carry out a task. The search committee can rank potential candidates, using the "what" and the "how" identified as criteria. Clear decision-making criteria become invaluable when we work with clients who have both internal and external candidates and need help in making their selection.

With several clients, we coached the new executive to help him/her succeed in their new role, usually over the first six months. We met together with the board chair and new executive to clarify expectations, to help set near-term goals for building relationships with the staff, funders, and key stakeholders, and to begin moving the organization forward. We discussed how they wanted to communicate with each other and established a regular schedule for doing so. Over the coming months, we talked frequently and regularly with the new leader, acting as a sounding board and providing advice on issues as they arose. Quarterly, we met again with the board chair and executive to review progress and provided an opportunity to surface and address concerns.

Our clients have found the pre-search preparation and post-search coaching to be invaluable. Boards have greater confidence that the new leader is indeed the person they need and breathe a sigh of relief in knowing they have an effective executive who will be with the organization for years to come. The new leader is also delighted in having the board's support and help in making a successful, smooth transition to his/her new home.

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Five-Year Budgeting: A Tool to Inform Management and Board Decision-Making

Even in the heady days of the 1990's, trustees at a leading liberal arts college were worried that their desire to invest in new programs would only lead to future deficits.

They remembered how challenging it had been historically to eliminate a structural deficit and didn't want to repeat that experience.

Working with the vice president of finance, we helped develop a five-year budget model so the board could determine whether future revenue growth would cover the increased expenses for proposed additional faculty and new classroom facilities. Based on this forecasting tool, the trustees proceeded to approve the recommendations, comfortable that the college would remain financially healthy.

The five-year budget model proved to be even more important with the recent stock market decline. The board and staff grasped the multi-year impact of the endowment's fall in value and moved early to make needed expense reductions. As their perspective shifted from the current year to the medium term, trustees discovered that they had more options available and were making better decisions for the college's long-term health.

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