Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

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Why are nonprofit CEOs resigning in record numbers? In their research for Leadership Lost: A Study on Executive Director Tenure and Experience, Timothy Wolfred and Jan Masaoka concluded that board dysfunction or lack of board support are either the “first or second reason” why CEOs are leaving organizations. They contend that four key issues may be at the root of this conflict between boards and their CEOs.

  • The organization’s mission
  • The organization’s values
  • Agreement on how success should be measured
  • Agreement on who should do what – the board or the staff

Agreement on these points goes a long way toward developing a harmonious and productive relationship. A sustainable organization will have a competent CEO, along with a skilled board that actively complements, challenges, and supports the CEO. The board should not micromanage, but it also should not accept verbal assurances from the CEO without backup. It must have adequate meetings, for both the full board and its committees, to ensure that everyone’s responsibilities are fulfilled.

Besides having a capable leader in the CEO position, balance with the board can only be maintained with a competent board chair. Many chairs move into their role because no one else wants the position. That’s hardly a strong endorsement for an organization’s volunteer leader. Board chairs need many of the same qualities as the CEO – vision, commitment, innovative thinking, and problem-solving ability. Most important, the chair needs to be focused on the success of the organization in the same way as the CEO.


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.

We've been pleased with the number of people who find Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit's Journey helpful for their organizations. Recently, Patty Ginsburg shared her thoughts on the book on the Rasmuson blog. You can read her review here.

If you want to order a copy, you will find it on We welcome any comments you want to share with us.

Posted in Pick Click Give.    

Pick.Click.Give. is shooting a video in Anchorage next week featuring real Alaskans. By real, we mean we are not using actors. The only qualifications are that you must love Alaska and be available to talk briefly about that in Anchorage (location TBD) on 10/25, 10/26, or 10/27.

If you're willing to be part of this project, please email a picture (one from your phone will do) and the dates you are available to:

Thanks so much for considering this request. Please feel free to forward this casting call to any Alaskans you think may be interested and available.

If you have questions, contact Heather Beaty, Pick.Click.Give. Program Manager, 907-249-6616.

What makes a strong nonprofit leader? Good leaders possess many characteristics. A willingness and ability to share power is essential. Too often boards mistake strong, charismatic leaders for competent CEOs. While a CEO may be knowledgeable about the organization, proficient in financial management, a good manager, and a good community leader, that person must also be able to work as a partner with the board and successfully share power to truly be a successful nonprofit leader.

Often, boards will acquiesce to a dominate CEO and assume all is well because this strong leaders says so. This is a major mistake, as the United Way of America learned in the early 1990s.

Bill Aramony, the organization’s former CEO had at one time been a significant nonprofit leader. He built coalitions. He solved problems. He had a vision that helped the sector become more professional. At United Way he attracted a very strong and influential board. Yet the board was not disciplined in managing its relationship with its CEO and when Aramony had an ethical lapse, the situation jeopardized funding for many thousands of worthy organizations around the country.

Even though the board members and the CEO were proven leaders, all failed in their responsibilities to the organization and the sector. The impact of an inadequate partnership between board and staff was profound and it took many years for the United Way of America to regain the trust that had been sorely damaged by this unfortunate incident.

Do you have any examples of a strong CEO and board that have failed in their responsibilities to a nonprofit? Or on the other hand, an organization that has a strong CEO and board that has been successful? 


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.

While most nonprofits are founded by volunteers and can be maintained by volunteers for years, I’ve concluded that eventually, if a nonprofit is to survive the transition away from its founder, the board must hire staff to maintain momentum. The first staff to be hired is typically the CEO, and it is the only staff person the board hires.

At The Foraker Group we have witnessed many situations where organizations that have been in business for decades fall apart. One of the common characteristics is the departure of the founder with no professional staff to continue momentum. The founder’s zeal may have masked the nonprofit’s capacity.

When determining if an organization’s staff consists of the right people, this question must be asked: Is the organization being supported because of its mission or its leader? If it’s just the leader, what’s going to happen when that person is gone? What work is being done behind the scenes to continue beyond the leader’s charismatic personality? When a nonprofit has a mission that meets a critical community need, then its leaders must ensure that it lasts past their tenure.

Even the most enthusiastic group of volunteers is challenged to keep an organization healthy over time. Boards have natural attrition, and board members can suffer burnout trying to take care of all the details necessary to run an organization. Staffing is not the secret to avoiding board burnout, but a good staff allows the board to focus on governance, which is their work, without getting mired in daily operations.

Without staff, continuity and consistency are lost. A staff maintains the institutional knowledge and structure of the organization. An organization without a staff most likely has no permanent office. Important documents may drift from one board member to another – getting lost along the way.

When an organization hires professional staff, the challenge then comes in developing and maintaining a balanced partnership between what the staff and board do. There must be clear boundaries. Although this isn’t easy and can take time and practice to accomplish, it is well worth the effort.


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.

We just learned that Rasmuson Foundation was one of 10 foundations across the country to win a 2013 HUD Secretary's Award for Public-Philanthropic Partnerships for its support of the Pre-Development Program.

Pre-D is underwritten by Rasmuson, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Denali Commission, Mat-Su Health Foundation, and the state of Alaska. It is managed by Foraker. The program is based on the principle that capital projects are more likely to succeed if they are well planned and affordable to operate.

Read the announcement from Rasmuson here. Learn more about Pre-D here.

It’s a pretty good bet that most nonprofit organizations have a board of directors. These volunteers serve as guardians of organizational and community assets. Unfortunately, after analyzing data from 4,000 nonprofit boards across the country in 1996, Barbara Taylor, Richard Chait, and Thomas Holland found that “effective governance by a board of trustees is a relatively rare and unnatural act. Only the most uncommon of nonprofit boards function as it should by harnessing the collective efforts of accomplished individuals to advance the institution’s mission and long-term welfare.”

Still Taylor, Chait, and Holland assert that boards are necessary to guide nonprofit performance. “A board’s contribution is meant to be strategic, the joint product of talented people brought together to apply their knowledge and experience to the major challenges facing the institution.”

Several years later, the BoardSource Nonprofit Governance Index 2010 found that neither the CEOs nor directors felt that their organization’s boards were performing at their highest level – CEOs issued a C+ grade for their boards, while board members gave themselves a B grade. The areas where they diverged most in their assessments were fundraising and community outreach.

Mary Stewart Hall, founder of the Master in Nonprofit Leadership Program at Seattle University, said that one of the “most important practices that can enhance board performance is working as a partner with the CEO.” Hall’s research is clear – the role of a nonprofit CEO has evolved. One outward sign of this shift is that even the title has changed in many organizations from executive director to president, clearly stating the new role of the CEO as a partner.

Modern nonprofit organizations absolutely need a competent and confident staff leader. That said, if the board were not equally competent, complementary, and confident, the leadership of the organization would not function in a true partnership.


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.

Many of you know Simone Joyaux from the trainings she's given in Alaska for AFP. We're pleased she was interested in reading Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit's Journey. And we certainly appreciate her kind comments. Check out her blog, click here.

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.

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