Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

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Defining the right people for your organization is more than simply meeting a list of criteria or qualifications. The right people are those who can use the values and culture of the organization to move it in the direction articulated in its plan.

The right people aren’t all the same. In fact, the board and staff are likely to make better decisions if a diversity of perspectives exists. Recruiting and retaining the right people ensures that each person believes in and is connected to the purpose and values of the organization, is aligned with them, and has a passion for the mission. That is the glue that holds them together.

Since nonprofits require a board, and if sustainable, a staff, then all individuals must agree on what should be done and who does what – while at the same time remaining in balance and getting along. When a nonprofit doesn’t have the right people at the right time, working together, all will spend too much time on conflicts, leaving less time to focus on mission. Therefore, to have balance you have to start with the right people.

Most board members volunteer because of their commitment to mission. However, a few volunteer exclusively to raise funds, and none volunteer to deal with controversy. Like board members, most nonprofit professionals work in the sector because of their passion for mission-based work. But if they have conflict with co-workers, fewer resources than they need, or if they don’t have a good working relationship with the board, then they will be less effective.

Maintaining a balanced and healthy relationship between the board and staff is essential. This balance is best understood through the knowledge that the relationship between the board and executive director or chief executive officer is a partnership, not a hierarchy.

Share with us how you balance your board/staff relationships. What are your greatest challenges and how have you overcome them?


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

From time-to-time Alaska funders gather to talk with the nonprofit community about potential funding opportunities.

The next Funders Forum will take place on Tuesday, October 1, at Juneau Arts and Humanities, 350 Whittier -- next to Centennial Hall -- from 10:30 to 11:30 am.

This forum is a great opportunity to join a number of Alaska's most significant funders who will present important information on how to access funding for capital projects and capacity building.  Participating funders include Rasmuson Foundation, The Alaska Mental Health Trust, The Denali Commission, MatSu Health Foundation, Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, HUD, USDA and the State of Alaska.  

There will be time for you to learn what is most important to each funding source and time will be available to ask questions specific to your project.

The session will be facilitated by Foraker President and CEO Dennis McMillian.

Click here to register.

While a nonprofit’s focus can become hazy through a lack of clear direction, organizations can also lose focus because of success. This happens when an organization is approached by other nonprofits, government entities, or funders to take on a project simply because it is a successful organization – whether or not the project is within the organization’s focus.

For example, a food bank known for its outstanding work might be asked to take on a struggling farmers market. The board of the food bank might discuss this option and be tempted by potential revenue and the opportunity to meet a community need. Still, this move could pull from the original focus of the food bank. The board then needs to decide if taking on the farmers market would threaten the food bank’s clear direction, its unrestricted funds, or its people – all essential to sustainability.

This is not to say that focus should restrict activities. In fact, once an organization is clear on its focus, more opportunities to achieve success through strategic partnerships materialize. Equally, focus does not require a nonprofit to adhere to the same activities year after year. Good planning requires that nonprofits look internally and externally at the ways to accomplish their purpose and values. As long as an organization is clear about its purpose, it can be flexible in every other way.

Has your organization ever been put in a position where you’ve been asked to take on a project that would take away from your primary focus?


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

The National Council of Nonprofits has alerted us to a conference call to be conducted by the White House on Friday regarding the process for helping uninsured individuals enroll for health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act. We encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity for factual information on ACA and how it could affect your organization and constituents.

The call will occur on Friday, September 20, at 10:30 am Alaska time.

According to the White House, “this call will showcase some of the best practices for partnerships that will help to prepare uninsured Americans to enroll in health insurance through the marketplaces starting on October 1, 2013. Faith-based and other community groups are playing key roles in this work, and we look forward to discussing additional ways in which we might collaborate.”

You will need to register for the call. You can do that by clicking here. Once you register, a confirmation page will display dial-in numbers and a PIN. You will also receive an email confirmation with this information.

As a reminder, the Council has prepared various materials about the latest ACA developments to help keep you informed. You may find links to those on the Foraker website health insurance page.

Please call the Foraker office if you have questions at 907-743-1200.

It's come to our attention that rumors are being circulated about penalties for employers who don't notify their workers of health exchanges available under the ACA. We want to share the information below that came to us from the Alaska Chamber.

According to Jerry Geisel of, employers will not be fined by federal regulators if they fail to distribute to employees health care reform law model notices about the availability of public health insurance exchanges. 

Using a question-and-answer format, the U.S. Department of Labor said that while employers should provide such notices to employees by Oct. 1, "there is no fine or penalty under the law for failing to provide the notice."

While the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is clear that penalties cannot be imposed, "Internet-based rumors have circulated recently that employers could face penalties of up to $100 per day for failing to distribute the notice," Lockton Cos. L.L.C.'s health reform advisory practice said in a bulletin.

Remember that ACA covers both nonprofits and businesses. We have more information on how ACA affects nonprofits on the health insurance page of our website. Be sure to call us if you have questions.

Strategic thinking is important for all nonprofit leaders. It’s how they know what success looks like. Many put more emphasis on developing a strategic plan than on having ongoing strategic discussions. Looking ahead and adapting to the emerging environment is a critical behavior for sustainability. But in addition to ongoing discussion and reflection about the future, you also need a written strategic plan at least every five years.

The strategic plan we develop typically fits on one page. Brevity makes a plan more useful, memorable, and therefore more relevant to the actual operations of the organization. We believe it is critical that everyone is on the same page. The shorter the plan, the less likely the organization will stray from its core ideology.

Our strategic plan includes three sections: core purpose and values, an envisioned future (long-term goals), and three to five strategic directions (one to five year priorities). A one-page plan can easily remain at the forefront for all board and staff decisions. By avoiding detail, the plan encourages big picture thinking.

Boards should work at this strategic level. But it is important that boards not only develop the strategic direction, but each year identify and set priorities based on that direction. So, strategic planning and establishing annual priorities is the board’s responsibility. All other planning is the staff’s job. Staff should further define the big picture vision of the board through more detailed plans such as development, technology, marketing, human resources, facility operations and business planning. In most cases these staff-developed plans will require board comment and approval.

Share with us your process in getting your board engaged in big picture, strategic thinking.


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

I think of my grandfather when I say, “I remember when….”

Well… I remember, I think it was in 1996, when Diane Kaplan dreamed one of her big dreams and promoted that vision to Ed Rasmuson.   [Read More... ]

An organization’s core purpose is described simply and succinctly, in just a few words. If you are a soup kitchen, your core purpose may be to feed the hungry. Core purpose does not try to differentiate your organization from others. In fact, many nonprofits have the same core purpose, but differ in their core values and activities.

Core values clarify purpose and make each organization unique. Using the soup kitchen example, the core values could be compassion, respect, and dignity. An organization’s core values usually revolve around what drove the founder to create the nonprofit in the first place. They go beyond organizational aspirations. A value is considered “core” when it remains true through the years and motivates the entire organization.

To use a bowling reference, if one envisions the core purpose as the pins at the end of the alley, the ultimate goal is to get a strike by knocking down all the pins. A gutter ball is not desirable. What would happen if bumpers were placed in the gutters so that every ball could be guaranteed to hit the target? Who would not want such an effective tool to avoid gutter balls and ensure higher scores?

Core values act as bumpers, guiding the bowling ball as it makes its way to the pins for a strike, or at least a spare. Succinct, clearly stated core purpose and core values, provide solid information to nonprofit leaders when determining direction. Every staff and board leader should be able to articulate the answer to “Who are we?” for their organization.

Share with us your organization’s core purpose and values.


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

Oct. 1, 2013, is the deadline for applications to Rasmuson Foundation’s Sabbatical Program. Now entering its tenth year, the program offers an opportunity for nonprofit and tribal executives to take sabbaticals of two to six months.

Research shows that when nonprofit leaders engage in well-planned sabbaticals, the results can transcend the individual to reach the organization itself. An extended leave can lead to new perspectives for the leader, the board and staff, and often energizes organizational innovation. Learn more here and watch a short video highlighting some past sabbatical recipients.

Focus is maintained through good strategic planning and ongoing evaluation. Good planning and evaluation start with a written plan developed through a thoughtful planning process that involves the entire board and key staff. This written plan then becomes a tool to ensure that the organization knows why it was founded and where it is going. A written plan moves the organization in a unified direction and is firmly rooted in focus.

Research supports the notion that strategic planning is one of the most important jobs for an organization’s board of directors. A strategic plan not only helps board members articulate a clear understanding of their organization’s purpose and values, it describes where the organization is headed. We have found that helping nonprofit boards develop a strategic plan has become the service they most value. Strategic planning maps the way forward.

The planning model Foraker developed was adapted from the work of James Collins and Jerry I. Porras. In their book Built to Last and subsequent article in the Harvard Business Review, “Building Your Company’s Vision,” they describe how important it is for successful organizations to understand their core purpose and values.

Please share with our readers your experiences in developing your organization’s strategic plan and how your core purpose and values drove the process. Did focusing on those values and purpose provide a blueprint for the rest of the plan? Give us some examples of how you use your strategic plan to keep your board members focused on leading the organization forward.


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

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