Delaware nonprofits benefit from strategic approach

By Christi Milligan

If you thought passion was enough to sit on the board of one of Delaware’s 650 nonprofits, think again. Eagerness might get you a seat, but real devotion shows itself in commitment, fresh perspective, and an
eye toward the future.

“Interest used to be enough,” said Chris Grundner, president and CEO of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA). “A lot of people join boards because they’re passionate about the cause. That’s a great start, a necessary foundation. But you have to bring a lot more to the table than that.”

The strain of the recession has altered the nature of board governance, but for many Delaware nonprofits, it’s also provided them an opportunity to rethink strategy and create much-needed guidelines designed to strengthen their organization—and the boards that offer oversight.

Grundner said that one goal is changing the mindset of the “beggars can’t be choosers” attitude.

“We’re trying to coach our nonprofits. We’re holding them accountable, and they’re doing a better job recruiting,” he said.

As the leader of the nonprofit sector, DANA’s mission is to strengthen, enhance and advance nonprofits and  the sector in Delaware through advocacy, training, capacity building and research, according to its website.

To that end, Grundner’s team is advancing the “Standards for Excellence” program, a nationwide initiative that promotes self-regulation of ethical and accountable practices. DANA is one of three Delaware nonprofits to earn accreditation by the program.

The standards of that code are the pinpoints of DANA’s training and curriculum, which includes standards for board governance. It was also the topic for Grundner’s TEDxWilmington speech in September, “Modern Nonprofit Board Governance—Passion is Not Enough.”

While passion for the mission is essential, it’s just a starting point, said Grundner. Effective nonprofit board governance includes standards and best practices that include job descriptions, term limits, and evaluations for members.  Also critical to the health of the board is diversity—board members who aren’t afraid of a culture of creative conflict.

“Board meetings are not necessarily supposed to be smooth,” said Grundner.  “There can be constructive conflict, challenging the status quo in a healthy way.”

The challenge for many is fear, conceded Grundner. With some board members as fixtures for many years, ruffling feathers by instituting evaluations and a playbook that applies to every member can be daunting. “We’re trying to hold the standard a little bit higher,” he said.

At OperaDelaware, Standards for Excellence training did shed light on things that General Director Brendan Cooke said were obvious but profound at the same time.

Grundner DANA
Chris Grundner president and CEO of DANA said they offer workshops throughout the state.

According to Cooke, board members were asked to copy the organizational mission statement, then reveal one thing about the statement that spoke to them and one thing they could do the very next day to advance the mission.

“Some couldn’t answer the question without talking about what they did 30 years ago,” said Cooke, who said there are 12 members on the voting board and 12 on the advisory board.

Such a response is indicative of a larger problem, and one systemic to many nonprofit boards. But on the flip side, identifying the problems has been the genesis for concrete strategy to fix things.

For Cooke and OperaDelaware, which just ended the fiscal year in black:

“We’ve taken this company that, for 70 years, cost more to run than ticket sales would support, and we found a way to make it relevant for today’s audiences,” said Cooke.  “We’re much more nimble now.”

Janet Berry has been the executive director at the Delaware Association for the Blind for two years. New on the scene, Berry said she sometimes felt alone and wondered how she could effectively take the helm of the 65-year-old organization and reinvigorate the existing 13-member board.

While some members of the board were chosen because of their interest in the organization, Berry said they’ve been able to leverage and build on their skills.

She contracted with DANA immediately and started training. The result is a board positioned to move forward with a strategic plan geared to a rebranding initiative in 2015, said Berry. Those strategies will align the organization’s work with the needs of Delaware’s visually impaired population, expected to double over the next few years.

“Our foundation is on a rock right now,” said Berry. “We’ve hired and maintain a qualified staff, and we’re able to go to funders and say that we have executive and fiscal oversight and operational and performance measures.”

Berry was scheduled for her own annual review before the board near press time. “We could step-by-step align ourselves to meet people’s needs and be fiscally responsible and gain fiduciary transparency to gain funds to fund that plan,” she said.

The Rehoboth Beach Film Society is a nonprofit arts organization that grew out of an interest by locals to regularly show independent films. Since its launch 17 years ago, the nonprofit has experienced its share of success—and growing pains.

“Typically, the first board is comprised of people passionate about your focus,” said Sue Early, who’s been the executive director since its inception.

That hands-on approach found board members taking on roles that ultimately went to paid staffers as the organization grew.

The transition to governance and funding wasn’t always easy. “It can be very difficult in that point of an organization’s development when people don’t want to let go.”

Today the 11-member board is stronger than ever, said Early, thanks to committees that meet regularly and clear objectives that define the workload and the mission. The board also adopted bi-laws and term limits.

The Rehoboth Beach Film Society is the third to receive the Standards for Excellence accreditation—the first arts organization and the first nonprofit in Sussex County.

Currently, Grundner said that 18 nonprofit organizations are pursuing the same accreditation, but hundreds more have interacted with Standards  for Excellence in some way, either through training, consulting, or informational packets.

DANA also conducts workshops in all three Delaware counties. “While there are some organizations in crisis, the vast majority who are coming to us are saying, ‘I’m good, but how do I be great?’” Grundner said.

“It’s more of an evolutionary change, rather than a revolutionary change. I feel very good that we made an intentional decision in 2012, and it’s starting to have a ripple effect.”

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