Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

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Collaboration requires that each organization engage with thought and intent, understanding the risks and increasing trust as it moves toward more formal partnerships and beyond. Leaders who engage in collaboration understand that the true objective is not to serve a community by combining two or more organizations. Instead, it is to truly redefine the conversation in an effort to achieve greater good. The form of partnership then simply is determined by the legal construct that best serves the good.

Another way to view the options for partnerships is found in the 1997 study Beyond Collaboration: Strategic Restructuring of Nonprofit Organizations by David La Piana in cooperation with the James Irvine Foundation and the National Center for Nonprofit Boards. It outlines four options that nonprofits could consider when thinking about engaging in new structures.

  • Joint ventures – when multiple organizations formally cooperate to provide a new or enhanced service.
  • Back-office consolidations – when multiple organizations combine internal support services like finance or human resources.
  • Fiscal sponsorships – when an organization with a broad mission serves as the fiscal agent for a new initiative or organization.
  • Mergers – when two or more organization are combined into a single entity.

The most successful partnerships are those in which board and staff members at the participating organizations respect and communicate with each other, identify roles and responsibilities, possess a common vision, and solve problems together.

How do you think the core values of an organization set the tone for partnerships?


Dennis McMillian, is President of The Foraker Group, a capacity building organization based in Alaska, and the author of Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey.

The myth of the self-made person suggests that one who is competent can succeed alone. The fact is, we depend on each other to survive. Try to identify someone who became a success on his or her own. It’s not easy to do. Alaska Native people, for example, have survived in often unforgiving environments for more than ten thousand years. Their resiliency, in large part, can be attributed to their ability to depend on each other.

With this awareness we know that working together, collaborating, having partners is not the nice thing to do – it is what must be done to survive. For an organization to become sustainable, it must form partnerships with other organizations and individuals.

The nonprofit sector engages people who work together to improve their community. This sector is as important, if not more so, as any other in our society, because it is mission driven. The nonprofit sector builds community. Nonprofits serve those in need, support families and youth, inspire through the arts, educate, conserve natural resources, and unite in efforts to create thriving economies. In order for the sector to work, organizations must embrace their interdependence at all levels. That is key to success.

Funders are increasingly urging strategic partnerships as a way to stretch resources and increase efficiency. Nonprofits should form partnerships before a funder asks them to. Often, decisions to collaborate are made in crisis. Organizations that take the lead in forming partnerships have better opportunities to thrive. They also have time to gain the support of its board, staff, and stakeholders. While it is possible to form good partnerships when a funder drives the process, the challenge can be intensified.

What steps do you think a board and staff can take to build strategic partnerships?


Dennis McMillian, is President of The Foraker Group, a capacity building organization based in Alaska, and the author of Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey.  

Collaborations in their most elementary form can be as simple as connecting and sharing with colleagues. Deeper partnerships develop when nonprofits share resources or enter into joint ventures. Examples are as varied as the nonprofit sector and can include sharing equipment and meeting facilities, or assisting in another’s project.

These joint ventures have substance and rely primarily on aligned purpose, values, and outcomes. The Tides Center has become a leader in helping nonprofits look at ways to share resources.

As collaborations become more complex, they also become more formal. When organizations work together under legal agreements, or decide to create a new organization to coordinate their efforts, partnerships can have an even more substantial and lasting impact.

The key ingredient to partnerships at any level is to have staff and board leadership willing to ask this question: How can we be better together than working alone? At the end of the day, a nonprofit cannot fully achieve its mission by itself.

Give us an example of a successful partnership that you have with another organization.


Dennis McMillian is President of The Foraker Group, a capacity building organization based in Alaska, and the author of Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey.

Here is a list of tools that can help you determine whether or not you are taking care of the people – both board and staff – in your organization.

  • A board development standing committee that meets regularly and focuses on strategic recruitment and retention based on the core purpose, core values and goals of the organization.
  • A board recruitment matrix that is specific to your organization and rooted in core values and strategic goals and that’s driving the organization into the future. This matrix should include more than just skills and demographics.
  • An articulated values-based process for hiring, firing, and evaluating every staff member.
  • Written job descriptions for board members, board officers, and existing committees that are used for both recruitment and retention. These documents are likely to be expanded definitions of job descriptions that exist in the organization’s bylaws.
  • Written job descriptions for staff that contain an opening section that includes a clear connection to the organization’s core purpose and values.

Do you have other tools that you use to assess the people who represent your organization?


Dennis McMillian is President of The Foraker Group, a capacity building organization based in Alaska, and the author of Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey.  

Over the years, I have developed a series of questions that are critical to engaging the board and staff in meaningful dialog. Here’s my list:

What promotes or inhibits board effectiveness in the organization?

How does the time the CEO spends on the board relationship foster the desired outcome?

  • What is the board/staff process to use core values in all levels of staff hiring and board recruitment?
  • What is the process to ensure that the board annually evaluates the CEO?
  • How do the board, officers, and committee chair job descriptions focus on accountability, trust and communication?
  • What are some ways the organization can ensure that all hiring and board recruitment is focused on core values in the selection process?
  • What are some ways the board development committee can focus on strategic board recruitment and improvement? What support do they need?

How often do you and your staff engage in dialog with the board? Do you have other questions that you typically ponder with your board?


Dennis McMillian is president of The Foraker Group, a capacity building organization based in Alaska, and the author of Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey.

Making the relationship between board, executive, and staff work is a joint responsibility. Board and CEO both must seek a relationship that honors the organization’s values, purpose, and culture. There are several key questions that should be regularly addressed between the board and the CEO.

First, is the board consistent in how much it delegates to the CEO? Does the board provide clear directions, expectations, and feedback?

Next, have the board and the CEO adequately looked at succession and developed a plan of action to follow if the CEO were to leave unexpectedly? A succession plan is critical since no organization can be sustained without a CEO and no board should try to manage staff other than the CEO. At meetings, does the board or the staff do most of the talking? Or is there a balance between the two?

Ultimately, clear expectations, transparent communication and decision-making, shared power and mutual respect for intent, and competence are indications of board/staff balance.


Dennis McMillian is president of The Foraker Group, a capacity building organization based in Alaska, and the author of Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey.  

Each year the Association of Fundraising Professionals Alaska Chapter honors individuals and organizations that have given themselves as well as nurtured philanthropy in others. Those receiving recognition today -- the 2013 Philanthropy Day -- include:

  • Outstanding Corporation in Philanthropy – Era Alaska
  • Outstanding Small Business in Philanthropy – Snow City Café 
  • Outstanding Philanthropist – Eric McCallum and Robin Smith
  • Outstanding Volunteer in Philanthropy – E. Jean Kaufman
  • Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy
    • Sarah Mixsell
    • Brooke McPheters (posthumous award)
  • Outstanding Professional in Philanthropy – Joanne Phillips-Nutter
  • Eugene R. Wilson Award – Joseph E. Usibelli and Peggy Shumaker

Please congratulate this year's award recipients and thank them for all they do for the sector in Alaska.

The Foraker Group has been busy over the past months working with organizations in crisis. Most had been strong nonprofits – all were providing services important to a large number of constituents. Now, they needed help. Unfortunately, they are not alone.Three years ago the last Foraker nonprofit economic study identified trends the sector could expect in the near future. From the data we found that probably too many nonprofits existed in Alaska. As a result, we predicted “the crash of the herd.” And because of shifting government funding priorities, we predicted a “funding crisis” was on the horizon. What's the status now? Read Dennis's latest newsletter to learn more.

The Alaska Community Foundation will hold a free training for nonprofit lobbyists, along with a legislative strategy conversation, on Tuesday, Nov. 19, from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. The event will be held at the ACF Philanthropy Hub, 3201 C Street, Suite 110.

Joan Mize from the Alaska Public Office Commission will conduct the lobbying portion of the training. Denali Daniels will moderate the conversation.

This session is required for representational lobbyists, lobbyists, and employers of lobbyists. If you are uncertain whether you are subject to the requirement, please contact Mize at 907-465-4864.

Pre-registration is required. Click here for more information and to sign up for the sessions.

While board and staff balance is critical to sustainability, assessing this relationship is difficult. However, resources do exist. First, and most important, is the existence of a committee dedicated to increasing the board’s capacity. Such a committee – usually called the board development committee or governance committee – typically generates a job description for board members. The committee’s responsibility is to ensure that the right people are identified and recruited to be on the board.

The board development committee should orient new board members to the organization, recommend periodic training on effective nonprofit governance, and ensure that all members are engaged at appropriate levels. The committee should also spearhead an annual board assessment to determine if the board is, in fact, committed to ongoing improvement.

The ultimate value of a board development committee is to get the right people in the room and encourage and facilitate the balance between board and staff. Assessing this committee’s processes and its effectiveness may help to determine if that balance is real and sustainable.

What tools do you use to measure your board and staff balance?


Dennis McMillian is President of The Foraker Group, a capacity building organization based in Alaska, and the author of Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey.

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