Non-profit leadership (boards and staff)



In the fifteen years from 1997 and 2012, the percentage of American homes with at least one computer with Internet access has increased from 18% to 75%.  With this proliferation of access to information has come an increase in demand for data to accompany almost all claims and requests at least in business situations.  This is not an inherently bad phenomenon, but with statistics and other data in the wrong hands, it can be a bit like to handling dynamite.

We live in a data driven time.  All of the stakeholders want to “see the data.”  My mind travels back to my time in manufacturing.  If I had a machine that produced 100 widgets an hour, that would be the baseline.  Then, if someone showed me a machine that would produce 200 widgets an hour, that would get my attention.  The raw materials don’t change, and the same operator is in place.  The only variable is the machine. Depending on its cost, I would have to consider buying that machine.  Cause and effect have been established.

It becomes much more complicated when analyzing data as it applies to the human condition in the nonprofit world.  Not everyone who is charged with decision making based on data understands the difference between correlation and causality.  In fact, I would proffer that most people on both ends of this work in the human services arena are amateurs when it comes to carrying out this responsibility.  The human service professionals are social workers, case managers, and other good people who just want to help those in need.  The evaluators and decision makers, boards and foundations, are often well-intended volunteers trying to make a difference in their spare time.

Foundations and others who hold grant money to give to the most effective programs also want to see data.  Outcome measurements they call them.  I support measuring results as best we can.  However, in measuring outcomes related to humans, we must be careful not to confuse correlation with proven cause and effect.

Let’s say a school system is graduating in four years 70% of the students that enter ninth grade.  It sets a goal to increase that rate to 85% in five years.  The planned solution is to pay teachers on a volunteer basis for two extra hours a day to tutor students who want that service.  Foundation X thinks that is a logical plan, and it grants a half-million dollars to implement the program for five years and promises to consider renewal of the grant if the schools reach their goal.

In five years, the graduation rate is still 70%.  Obviously, the idea failed.  Or did it?  Within those five years the following events occurred:

  • Cuts in government funding to that school system forced the schools to lay off 20% of their teachers. That caused the average class room size to increase from 30 to 37.
  • There was a major downsizing by the town’s largest employer causing many of the parents to lose their jobs. Many of the high school age students had to take minimum wage jobs after school to help out, or worse yet, had to drop out of school to become the bread winner. Or maybe the parent’s loss of a job just put more stress in the home to the point that the student couldn’t concentrate on her studies.
  • A reduction of funding for law enforcement in the city was reduced, and enforcement and punishment for domestic violence offenders and deadbeat dads were no longer priorities.

Each of these events was a factor that caused some number of students to drop out of school.  We don’t know what the tipping point was for each of those students, but it is possible that, without the tutoring program, the graduation rate would have dropped to 60% or lower.

The same logic can be applied in reverse to the measurement of programs that appear to be successful.  And yet, those with the money stand together and applaud and pour more money into the apparent successes, and they stand together and denounce the apparent failures.  All the while they often disregard those collateral circumstances that cause the appearance not to be reality.

Non-profit organizations learn what turns funders on and how to present information accordingly.  I’m not saying they cheat, but they do learn how to play the game.  Those who learn to play the game the best, usually get the money.



While writing my recently published book, Machete Moments, I felt a need to take a break from the serious topics I was addressing. The result of that need is the following R rated excerpt.


I’m reminded of an exercise some friends and I went through recently at our after-tennis beer drinking session.  The core of this group has played tennis together about three times a week for forty years.  And for forty years on Wednesday evenings, we have gone out for a couple of beers afterwards.  (Actually, it used to be more than a couple, but age and punishments for getting caught have changed our lifestyles.  That woman who founded MADD should get more credit than she does for driving a significant change for the better throughout our entire society.)  We discuss many topics, some deep and some absurd.  Sometimes our conversations are spontaneous; sometimes one of the guys puts forth an agenda topic by email before the gathering.  More and more, we travel down memory lane, but I think that is caused by a combination of not creating many new memories and our faltering short-term memories.

On the evening I’m talking about, I suggested an agenda item that had been on my mind for some time.  I wanted the group to define and differentiate among derogatory terms we apply to those we don’t like or respect.  As the discussion evolved, four terms bubbled to the top—prick, dick, jerk, and asshole.  It was important to define those terms so that, at least among ourselves, we could be clear about our opinion of someone.  Here are the results of that study.

You paid for the book, so you have permission to use them as your own.  We have deliberately not copyrighted our findings, choosing instead to place them in the public domain.  If we get the word out among a large enough segment of the population, we can all relate to one another’s feelings.  Maybe we can even have them translated into multiple languages or make a candid-camera type video showing real-life examples of each.  Here you go.

  • A prick is one who is deliberately mean-sprited toward some individual (s) or group(s). It requires some amount of intelligence and skill to be a prick. We all agreed we can respect him for his ability even though we don’t want to associate with him. We can even laugh at his comments and actions as long as his prickishness is not directed at us. A prick is often successful, by his own standards, at one or more facets of his life.
  • A dick is a watered down version of a prick. In fact, one of the guys vehemently contended that dick is a sub category of prick and does not deserve its own category. At that point, someone ordered another round, and the conversation reverted to reminiscences of matches played in our lost youth. We never actually reached consensus on the dick the issue.
  • A jerk is usually unintentional in his flaws but seems to do and say the wrong thing much of the time. He is usually not mean-spirited. For the most part, he just doesn’t get it.
  • An asshole is, well, an asshole. He has few redeeming virtues and is always capable of saying or doing the wrong thing in a mean-spirited manner. He is generally not as intelligent as a prick.


Finally, in a demonstration of our commitment to equality, we decided that all of the terms can apply to either gender.


            Early in my management career, I thought it was advisable to list the values by which I was going to be guided throughout my professional and personal life.  I have amended the list a little over the years, but it is still pretty much as I originally wrote it.  There are ten tenets.

  1. THE GOLDEN RULE.  I am in no way a religious person.  However, I believe this is the most valuable guideline for anyone.  If everyone lived to the letter of this rule, the only laws we would need would be housekeeping items such as “Drive on the right side of the street.”  There would be no murder or theft or lying or screwing each other’s spouses.
  2.  LOYALTY.  I am fiercely loyal to those people I care about and/or to whom I have made a commitment.  I will never knowingly betray them in any way and will support their every endeavor to the best of our ability.
  3. TRUST.  My take on this is possibly a bit counter-intuitive.  When I meet a new person, my default position is to trust her.  I believe most people are wary until the new acquaintance earns their trust.  Do I ever get burned by taking this position?  You bet! On those occasions where my trust has proven to have been misplaced as shown by a deliberate act of betrayal, the guilty party is scratched from my trusted list, and it is very difficult for her ever to return.  However, most of the time, the relationship develops faster and becomes stronger than it would have by waiting for trust to be earned.
  4. AVOID TOO MUCH POLICING.  Too much time, money, and energy are spent in protecting things that are not worth protecting.  We stand on nickels while hundred dollar bills blow out the window.  “Let’s put a $10,000 security system in the vending machine area so that no one can break in and steal a candy bar.”  Bullshit!  Employ some common sense for decisions that pertain to policing.
  5. BUILD MUTUAL RESPECT IN RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHERS.  While I believe trust can be given, I think respect develops over time based on shared experiences and observed actions.  It starts with being considerate of the feelings and needs of others and grows through a combination of continued consideration, honesty, intelligent decisions, hard work, and a variety of other factors.
  6. A BIAS TO SAY YES.  When an employee or an acquaintance asks me for something over which I have control, and I don’t have a specific reason to say no, I say yes.  Why wouldn’t I?  I see many authority figures put people through the wringer just because they can.  Apparently, they like to show their superiority of position.  An employee might ask me, “Can I have tomorrow off?”  If saying yes doesn’t put me or my colleagues in an untenable situation, the answer is yes.  She might want to tell me why as a courtesy, but I really don’t have to know.  The only important facts are that she wants off and that granting the request will not cause undue hardship to me or others.
  7. INTELLECTUAL HONESTY.  Everyone should have honesty as part of his philosophy, but this is an extension of basic honesty.  Intellectual honesty is the answering of a question that the other person did not ask.  However, it  is a vital extension of the question he did ask.  A customer calls to say, “I will be flying my small private single engine plane to your town today, and I want to know how the weather is?”  I reply, “Oh, it’s beautiful—sunny, 75, no wind.”  That’s honest as far as it goes, but there should be more.  What I didn’t say was, “You’d better plan to get here before 4 o’clock because severe thunderstorms with high winds are in the forecast for late afternoon.”  That is intellectually honest.  Yes and no answers are fine for the witness stand, but when you know what a person is looking for, it is intellectually dishonest not to give it to him just because he didn’t ask all the right questions.
  9. KNOW YOUR PRIORITIES.  Many years ago, I identified my priorities: family, job, friends, and community.  Everything else falls in line behind those.  I only pay attention to the others when there is no demand from the top four.  My parents grew up in the depression era.  Standards were extremely different back then.  They used to tell me that clothes make the man.  How shallow I think that is.  As important as that was to them, it could never have been a priority of mine.  I think it has been a reaction to that belief that I have not made it a priority to be fashionable in my choice of clothing.  I have extended that to an opinion that is not necessary to gather material things.  I do wish I had my baseball cards back that my mother got rid of when I went to college in 1958.  I had a Mickey Mantle rookie card among them.
  10. QUESTION AUTHORITY.  We are all fallible.  Just because someone outranks you, is no reason to assume she is always right.  Whether it comes from an individual or a company or a government, we should not accept an idea that, after a reasonable amount of investigation, we believe is wrong.  I’m not recommending that you become a scofflaw, but if your disagreement with a law or a rule or a decision is serious enough, you should give it your best effort to get it changed.  Actually, I don’t consider civil disobedience out of the question, but you had better understand the possible consequences before you act.  Following simple logic, the other side of this coin is that we should listen and give consideration to those who question us when we are the authority.

I hold myself to these principles.  When I slip, it is never deliberate, and I correct the error as soon as possible.  I also require others in management or supervisory positions in my jurisdiction to abide by them.  It is a condition of ongoing employment, and disregard of them cannot be balanced by any amount of positive characteristics.


Some new thinking about their respective roles from my book, Machete Moments. I had left the manufacturing world and complete changed careers to become president of the United Way of Bartholomew County (IN). This is a reflection of my conclusions over 17 years on that job before my retirement in 2012.

There are a couple of impressions widely held by those who manage in the for-profit world.  I absolutely bought into them during my business career.  (1) Non-profit organizations should be managed in the same manner as for-profits.  (2) Those who work in the non-profit sector are somehow a little less than those in business or a profession.

Less in what ways?  Maybe less ambitious; you might be a little on the lazy side if you are not held to the tough standards of the business and professional sectors.  Maybe less tough; they don’t have what it takes to handle the pressure of making a profit.  Maybe less intelligent; if they were smart, why would they settle for a lower paying job than they could earn in business?

I had an epiphany not too long after my transition.  As far as management practices, many should be replicated going from business to charity.  But there are many areas in which standard for-profit management actions don’t make sense in a non-profit organization and can even be counter-productive.

For openers, there is no demand for profit.  Financial stability is still a requirement, but an agency’s budget should be set on using its income to provide services within its mission.  It’s considered smart management to build a rainy day reserve, but if that reserve grows to an amount that is greater than six months of operating expenses, you might want to stop to consider whether you are feeding too much to the reserve and not enough to services.

In businesses that have departments, divisions, or multiple locations, top management can set policies and procedures, and in most cases those are carried out throughout the company.  In human services, there might be several agencies in the same community dealing with different aspects of the same problem—homelessness, poverty, addiction, neighborhood centers, and the others.  We can debate whether that should be the case, but it is what it is.  None of them is the boss of any other one.

At United Way, I was often called upon by a board member or donor to tell one of the agencies that we funded what to do.  As president of United Way, I had no authority to do that.  Actually, any collaboration is strictly voluntary, and each organization has its own board and its own CEO who often protect their turf like a pit bull hanging onto your pants leg.  The only hammer is money, and boards are reluctant to cut funding lest that action become a community issue.

Then there’s the presence of volunteers.  If a human service agency is not using every volunteer it can get its hands on, it is wasting money.  An agency should consider finding a volunteer to do mailings, filing, and other such routine duties.  There are also a number of higher level jobs that can be handled by volunteers.  Depending on the organization and the skill of volunteers who embrace your cause, they might handle bookkeeping, case work that doesn’t require a specialized degree, fund raising, and marketing, to mention a few.

Finally, in business you know who your customers and your potential customers are.  You know who your suppliers are.  And you know the difference between the two.  In the non-profit world, your donors and volunteers are both suppliers and customers.  You don’t need to convince your suppliers to sell to your manufacturing company or your store, but in a non-profit agency, you need to sell your potential donors and volunteers on the idea of giving to your organization.  That means they are customers in that respect, but they also supply the money and volunteer time necessary for you to operate.

When you go to the supermarket, you select and pay for your items and take your groceries home.  As a donor to a charity, you pay for the groceries, but someone else takes them to her home.  That is a very different dynamic and one that needs to recognized in managing a non-profit organization.

These are huge differences.  Every person who agrees to serve on a non-profit board should have an orientation that makes him aware of these differences.  Then we could avoid the question so often asked of agency CEO’s, “Why don’t you run your agency the same way I run my business?”  Once that question surfaces, the CEO is forever on the defensive trying to justify her strange methods.  Even worse is the scenario where board members think the question but don’t ask.  Then there can be a continuing suspicion about the quality of the management of the organization without the CEO’s awareness.

In reference to the perception of inferiority in the human service world, I wasn’t right about that either.  The truth is that most of those who choose this direction do it deliberately.  They are driven by different motives than the size of their paycheck and their desire to be or to impress a big-shot.  After seventeen years, it is my opinion that those employed in both sectors are just about equal in intelligence, drive, and toughness.  Just as in the business world, there are highs and lows in each of those qualities, but neither group is noticeably better than the other.  They just have different motivations and priorities.