Reflections on the OANO Standards of Excellence - Part II

The Ohio Association of Nonprofit Organizations hosts a class called the Standards for Excellence Series that helps organizations prepare for and achieve the Standards for Excellence Accreditation. As a member of OANO’s Council of Consultants, I decided to audit the class to make sure I knew all about these important Standards.  The indomitable Allison Black Cornelius of Blackfish Consulting taught our class.  As I shared last time, Allison, who hails from Alabama, is folksy and direct, but boy does she know her stuff! Here are three more gems from thesecond part of the class that focused on boards and governance issues among many other items.


Board phone conferences and email votes are risky.


I’ve had several clients that use phone conferences to host their meetings when the board has members across the state.  Presenting to a group by this method is very difficult but I learned that phone conferences and email votes are a risky way to operate that opens the board and the organization to legal problems.


Why? Because decisions made during phone conferences and emails don’t always hold up in court.  Allison recommends investing in the technology to get people face-to-face or restructure your board to allow for more in-person meetings.


Boards spend too much time on their fiduciary role.


Among the three main roles of the board (explained by Allison as fiduciary, strategic and generative), many boards focus exclusively on the question “how much” versus questions about the affect a decision will have (strategic) or what values the decision reflects (generative). 


In fact, Allison believes that “a pseudo-leader will go straight to fiduciary to break down the dream”.  Fiduciary issues are important but boards should focus on inquiry/board discussion of fiduciary issues versus just oversight.


Your board really does make your nonprofit job harder.


I’m sure we’ve all wondered about this issue. It seems like working for nonprofits is just plain harder than working for a for-profit.  Well Allison explained that nonprofit leadership is harder than corporate leadership. 


Why? Because nonprofit leadership is legislative leadership while corporate leadership is executive leadership.  Executive leaders can just fire someone that doesn’t agree with them.  Nonprofit leaders can’t do that as easily because of the board. 


I encourage you to take this class even if you aren’t planning on achieving the Standards of Excellence designation. It’s well worth your sacrifice and will give you so many new ideas that you’ll wonder why you didn’t take it sooner.  For more information, go to

Reflections on the OANO Standards for Excellence – Part I

Like similar organizations across the country, the Ohio Association of Nonprofit Organizations hosts a class called the Standards for Excellence Series that helps organizations prepare for and achieve the Standards for Excellence Accreditation. As a member of OANO’s Council of Consultants, I decided to audit the class to make sure I knew all about these important Standards.  The indomitable Allison Black Cornelius of Blackfish Consulting is teaching our class.  Allison, who hails from Alabama, is folksy and direct, but boy does she know her stuff!  She sprinkles her words of wisdom around the meaty content of the class. Here are some reflections on just 3 gems she shared with us the first day.


A toxic personality can cripple an organization.


Can I get an Amen?  When Allison talked about this issue, I wanted so shout, “Hallelujah”! We’ve all seen it: that employee who is getting in the way of progress, who creates drama, and causes others to leave.  It seems like nonprofits specialize in these people.  It reminds me of something I learned years ago: we are not in the business of employing people, we are in the business of fulfilling our missions.  If someone with a toxic personality is in the way, they need to go!


Technology is not a tool – it drives strategy.


Wow.  How many organizations have you worked for where this was true?  None? It seems like in the nonprofit business we think that technology is just something we have to update every 10 years, and even then we do it grudgingly.  Allison believes in it so much she recommends every organization have a Chief Technology Officer.  How does your organization view technology?  As a tool or a strategy?


Speak to your board in terms of lines of business, not programs.


This is probably my favorite “Allisonism” so far.  Board members don’t have a background in nonprofit program development so trying to tell them about individual programs using acronyms and other lingo related to funding streams is only going to cause confusion. Instead, show a continuum of services for your clients, and use pictures and real-world language to help board members understand what you do.  So important!



Of course there’s so much more to share and I’ll bring you more in my next blog.  For more information about the Standards for Excellence visit

Observations From the Other Side

Over the last few months I spearheaded a special grant award process for my service club, the Kiwanis Club of Columbus.  Wow, what an interesting perspective I’ve gained from sitting on this side of the fence!  It’s given me a lot of food for thought and I’d like to share some of it with you.


They Like Me, They Really Like Me!

This process taught me that reading the description of a grant is like reading a job description.  As we read, we think, “I can do that!” or “That’s me!”  Although I tried to be as careful as I could when I wrote the grant description, we still had a lot of organizations read into the description.  For example, we said “high impact programs for children” and they gave us staff costs for a program for 200 teens.  Did the grant description specifically prohibit this type of ask? No, but it’s not exactly what we meant either.


It’s All in the Eye of the Beholder

The other thing that surprised me was how subjective our committee had to be when we were reviewing the grants.  We had 83 applicants, totaling $3.2 million in requests yet only have $100,000 to give.  Just like Eugene Scanlon describes in his article “Never Board” in the Fall issue of AFP's Advancing Philanthropy, each of us brought our own biases and outside or inside information to bear on our decisions.  A lot of great organizations were cut simply because the decisions were being made by a committee of human beings.


Beat ‘em up, Beam ‘em up, Rah, Rah, Rah!

It really broke my heart to cut some organizations for the simple reason of too much competition.  I started to see what it was like for all those funders out there that must whittle down a large applicant pool to a few semi-finalists. We had two arts organizations that asked for almost identical funding; we chose the one that served more kids.  We had two organizations ask for a van for almost the same purposes; we chose the one that served more kids and that sent us a spiffy picture of what the van would look like with our logo on it.   


Creativity Counts

Finally, our club was looking for two things that a lot of funders don’t care about: marketing and volunteer opportunities.  We want to get the most for our money and that means the most community exposure.  The organizations that gave the pat answer of: “mentioned in our newsletter, listed in our annual report, etc.” didn’t make the cut.  The ones that said, “you can’t volunteer for this program” were cut, too.  Those that stood out did so because they were really creative with their marketing and volunteer ideas and this caught our attention.


Bottom line? Remember when you're applying for grants, you’re dealing with humans.  Ask as many questions as they will let you; don’t read into the application but complete the application with the strongest, most creative and most competitive answers you possibly can.  Then take the feedback if it’s offered.  We offered feedback to all the organizations that didn’t make it to the second round and only about half took us up on it.  We can do better, people!

Fundraising Friends, Episode 4: Leaky Buckets

Many small non-profit organizations are eager to make lofty goals before having the fundamentals in place. Susan speaks with Dr. Lisa Courtice, Executive Vice President of the Columbus Foundation about the importance of realistic goals, effective leadership, and meeting an actual need within the community.

Recruit, Train, Retain, Part II

Develop a Pool of Strong Candidates

You can increase the likelihood of fundraiser success in your organization by ensuring that you create a strong pool of candidates from which to choose. Ideally this pools should include candidates with a CFRE, a nonprofit management degree, or multiple years of fundraising experience.  But if you can't find that person or can't afford that person, then do the next best thing: find a teachable person with the right combination of skills and attributes.


The Association of Fundraising Professionals lists the following essential attributes for fundraisers:




                 Ethics and integrity

                 Ability to listen well

                 Ability to tell a story

                 Strong values and a desire to make a difference

                 Dedication to and belief in the cause


Many organizations hire people for fundraising jobs who come from other professions. Common "crossovers" include marketing and public relations professionals, bankers or trust officers, social workers, and salespeople, among others.  While many of the skill sets required to be successful in these professions are shared by professional fundraising, expecting a “cross-over” candidate to understand the nonprofit world or be well-versed in fundraising is a mistake made by many nonprofits. These candidates will need more training and support than you might otherwise expect.


Here are some other characteristics or skill sets I believe you must look for in addition to those listed above, and that should help you weed out poor candidates.


Writing - Fundraising professionals must be good writers in order to be successful, especially in smaller shops. We write solicitation and thank you letters, grants, marketing materials, Case for Support and much more.  Be sure your prospect is a good writer (one tell-tale sign is the quality of their cover letter).  Ask for a writing sample to be sure.


Optimism - Ask your prospect about a time when things were really bad and what they did to rise above the situation. After all, fundraisers receive criticism and rejection regularly and sometimes things go very badly in our organizations and we must soldier forth with our heads held high.  If your prospect can't tell a story about overcoming obstacles with optimism and perseverance, then move on.


Willingness to learn and to try new things -Many people could become good fundraisers with some additional training so a person who is eager to learn and is humble enough to admit they don't have all the answers, is a good candidate. In addition, a candidate who is willing to seek out new ideas, assess their validity, and make a valiant attempt to implement those ideas, is a person who will succeed as a fundraiser for your organization. Bottom line: if you can't find a person with fundraising experience or training, make sure you find someone who is willing to learn and to try new things.


Looking and acting the part - If you go to a networking event for fundraising professionals, you'll find a group of people with positive demeanors, stellar manners, and impeccable dress.  Why? Because they have learned that to be successful in fundraising, one must look and act the part.  You have to be comfortable rubbing elbows with the very wealthy or at least look like you are.  A candidate who does not appear to have these attributes can still be successful (I've known many fantastic fundraisers who were neither charming nor stylish) but it sure helps make a positive first impression with a new donor.


To summarize: seek a pool of candidates that have the right level of education, experience, key skill sets and most of all, willingness to learn the craft of fundraising.

Starting Off Right: Recruiting, Training and Retaining Fundraising Staff Part I

A 2013 study conducted by Compass Point Non-profit Services found that one in four Executive Directors were so unhappy with their Development Director that the last person to hold the job was fired; and more than half say they can’t find qualified people to fill the role. The interesting part of the study is that Development Directors felt the same way. A jaw-dropping fifty percent planned to leave their job in the next year and forty percent wanted to leave fundraising entirely.  In fact, according to Penelope Burk, the average length of stay for development directors is down to 16 months.  Surveys show that the primary reasons they leave is for better paying jobs with more advancement.


So what can be done to address these problems?  How can you avoid fundraiser turnover in your organization?


Start Strong with Clearly Defined Goals and Honesty

I have found that nonprofit boards, CEOs and fundraising staff frequently have  very different ideas about what the goals of fundraising should be. Long-term success in fundraising is reliant on strong relationships, which take time to cultivate; but board members and CEOs want immediate results that impact their budget shortfalls right away. To meet the demand, fundraisers wind up taking shortcuts to raise big dollars, which leads to burn-out. If the goals were set differently in the first place, development staff would stay longer.  So it follows that retaining the best possible fundraising candidates actually starts before the candidate is even hired.  Begin by developing clear expectations about the type of work the person will be doing and the outcomes they are expected to achieve then make sure this appears in the job announcement. 


Be honest about goals from the start but keep up the honesty when sharing about your nonprofit. During the interview, share honest information about what is happening at the nonprofit.  Give prospective employees the opportunity to consider the challenges of the job and commit to them before being hired, and it will help improve retention long-term.