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Board responsibilities Featured

6:04am EDT May 30, 2003
My mother always warned me, "Be careful what you wish for. You just may get it."

No words could have been truer about my involvement with nonprofit boards. If you've followed my exploits so far, you may remember that opportunities to make a quick impact and get involved rather than simply be another name on an organization's letterhead were the driving factors in my decision about which nonprofits to join.

The last entry discussed my involvement on the marketing and development committee at Friendly Inn Settlement, and how we redesigned the organization's marketing materials, updated its presentation for its annual United Way funds allocation request and worked on the grand opening event for our multimillion-dollar building.

My work at Center for Employment Training turned out to be more time-intensive -- and more important -- than I could have imagined. Beyond involvement on the annual fund committee, I now find myself chairman of the newly formed strategic planning committee.

I joined the CET board last summer shortly after it determined it was time to develop a strategic plan to carry CET into the future. My initial thoughts when asked to chair the committee were, "Sure, I've written a couple business plans, read dozens of them and even judged several business plan competitions. How difficult could it be to lead the team of people responsible for penning a new strategic plan for a nonprofit?"

Chalk that attitude up to naivete and overwhelming optimism. I couldn't have underestimated the task any more than I did.

Developing a strategic plan for any organization is much more complicated than creating an idea for a business from scratch and writing the initial roadmap to get it off the ground. When you're working with an operating organization, the existing factors determine much of what can -- and can't -- be accomplished or even attempted.

For example, you can't just decide to change your entire product or service offerings to meet new market demand because you like the idea of going after a more lucrative market. You can't simply alter your financing structure to suit a new set of fiscal needs. And you can't just wipe clean the personnel slate and customer base and start over.

Rather, you must assess factors such as stakeholders, organizational strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities, then determine how to work with each to maximize your organization's ability to thrive in its market space.

But strategic planning is just one board committee that shoulders the responsibilities of the nonprofit. Others, such as the finance, personnel and technology committees, undertake much of the planning and advisory work, as well as help to ensure the nonprofit maintains its competitive edge.

Here are some of those committees' responsibilities.

Finance

Responsible for oversight of the budget of a nonprofit, the finance committee also weighs big ticket investments and cash flow issues. It is probably the most important committee and its recommendations carry significant weight with the full board.

Personnel

This committee makes the bulk of the hiring, firing and promotion decisions, oversees searches for a new executive director and puts its stamp of approval on key position additions such as a development director or CFO. It is also responsible for ensuring that employee policies and procedures meet local, state and federal regulations.

Technology

Responsible for assessing and making recommendations to purchase and/or implement new computers, systems and networks. In this age of database-driven fund-raising, if your technology committee isn't comprised of people who understand how to use technology as a tool for growth, you're probably hurting your organization because they may be afraid to try new things.

As for CET's ongoing strategic planning process, which began in earnest in January, my committee has set a December deadline for completion of the plan and we are deep into the assessment phase. Without a doubt, this chairmanship task is putting everything I've ever learned about business to the test, but I'm confident the committee -- made up of some of the finest business minds in Northeast Ohio -- will turn out a top-notch plan that will ensure our organization's long-term success.

Editor's note: Executive Editor Dustin Klein is chronicling his experiences of involvement with Northeast Ohio nonprofit organizations. Smart Business will publish excerpts from his diary on an ongoing basis.