The Case of the Graybeard’s Replacement

This is the second Sam Sector III case. If you check on a regular basis you can follow the escapades of Sam “the greatest and only nonprofit detective in the world” as he answers the questions facing today’s nonprofit leaders. Each installment will take only a couple of minutes to read, will provide you with some information, and will end in a bit of a cliff-hanger so that you will return in about 7-10 days to find out what happened. This of course is fun for me, and a different way to get information out to all of you who have an interest. Please let me know if you like it, hate it, or wish that Sam would find a real job that pays.


← Read the third installment

As the man closed the distance between them, he reached into his green trench coat pocket and struggled to pull something out. Sam stiffened, prepared to dodge in any direction, and made eye contact, memorizing the man’s features. Just then the man’s hand emerged with a folded sheet of paper. “Dis is for you, from da staff,” he grumbled, jostling Sam with his right arm as he passed, and headed purposefully for a large grey van double parked with its motor running. Sam tried to get the license number as it roared away, but it was covered with mud. After his nerves settled, Sam unfolded the paper and read its contents:

The Board Chair, Greg, and the E.D., Les, have conflict all the time. It’s a power struggle between the two. Both are worried about funding, but they each have a different perspective on how to solve the problem. The Board is made up of for-profit business people who do not understand the way nonprofits work and the different way that they are funded. We believe that they think non-profits are failed for-profits!! We know we have problems, but their meddling just makes things worse. Get the Board off our backs!! If you don’t do this we are sure that we will go under. Les is a good guy and can turn things around if the Board will let him. We depend on YOU!!!”

The Staff

Sam refolded the paper and stuffed it in the same pocket with the board contact information and the pickled tomatoes. He was doing the interviews just in the nick of time. He would have to get Stella going on setting up the interviews. Sam eased into his Ford Falcon and babied the 15-year-old complaining clutch back to Minneapolis. This was no time to be without the car, and incurring another major car expense would mean that Stella would have to go without her paycheck, yet again.

Sam settled into his office as Stella transferred one of the board interviews to Sam’s rotary phone. Sam talked into the big black receiver and pictured Greg at the other end. “So, what is working well right now, Greg?” Sam started with a softball question.

“Well, we have had a pretty good reputation with funders over the years, the staff serves a lot of people in need, and our facilities are good, in important locations.”

“Great!” Sam encouraged. “Now, what do you think could be improved?”

“Lots, Sam.” Greg warmed to the task. “We, the board, need to figure out how to monitor what the staff is doing on a regular basis. We have to institute good business principles and practices. Les can’t seem to give us a clear picture of what is happening in terms of fundraising, and we never seem to know how much money we have to spend. At the last meeting we had a good balance in the bank, but Les says that we don’t have enough funding to cover some of the programs. For us on the board it seems simple enough — if there is money there you can use it to cover expenses. But he keeps telling us that we can’t do that. We don’t get it! So I went directly to the young woman who is doing the bookkeeping and told her that I want a report sent to me every week on our bank balance and a listing of all checks that have been sent out. That seemed to upset her, but I told her that as the board chair, I supervise everyone in this organization. I’m the main guy.”

Sam normally did not mix data collection and education, but he thought that this might be a teachable moment for Greg. “Actually, Greg, no members of the board, including you, have power as individuals over the organization. The only time that you have power is when you meet as a board and make decisions as a group. You need to speak with one voice to the staff, giving clear direction to them. You can imagine how chaotic it might be if each member of the board decided to give the staff different directions, based on their own perspective.”

“Yeah, maybe that goes for the other board members, but what about me, I’m different ‘cause I’m the chair, right?” Greg had a question in his voice.

“Well, actually your job is to manage the board, Greg, through calling meetings, setting the agenda, managing the meetings, coordinating committee work, among other things. The ED’s job is to manage all the assets of the organization: money, facilities, equipment, volunteers, and staff. To be successful, you each need to work well together, but, and let me be very clear, you do not supervise Les, the whole board supervises the ED. Les supervises the staff, so if you start making requests of individual staff, you are trying to reprioritize their work. You can imagine how this will cause havoc in the organization.”

Although Greg went on to identify other issues that he had, Sam believed that he was seriously mulling over Sam’s comments.

Sam then went on to make two other phone calls to board members. The Treasurer raised problems that she had with the finances. In response Sam described a three-step process for the Treasurer to use:

“What you need to do is create a routine system which will give everyone on the board confidence in the finances of the organization. First, you could identify the areas that are causing you the most concern, and develop a policy or policies that clarify the expectations of the board and the roles and responsibilities of both the staff and the board. If you want some samples for how you might do this, check the Policy Governance Model© developed by John Carver. Next, you will want to identify routine and regular reports that you would like the whole board to receive according to an agreed-upon schedule. This will ensure that everyone is aware of what is happening financially. Finally, establish a way of monitoring the financial activities on a regular basis using experts on the board as well as outside experts like the auditor. Only discuss finances at a board meeting when there are problems identified through the reports and monitoring process. This will enable you to spend less board meeting time reviewing the finances and more time doing what you joined the board to do – make a difference in the world.”

Sam took a deep breath. He hadn’t talked that much in several weeks. The Treasurer still had some concerns, but she was willing to try Sam’s ideas, and did appreciate the benefits of spending less time at board meetings focused on financial discussions.

Sam’s final call was with one of the new members of the board. He had only been to a few meetings. His concern was that the Executive Committee was really running the whole show, and he was feeling on the outside. Sam was about to wax eloquent, but he realized that he would be preaching to the choir, so he decided to save his speech for the full board.

As Sam stretched his legs around Stella’s desk, she pecked at her keyboard with some irritation. “Awright, Sam, either go back to your cubbyhole or hit the streets, but don’t pace around my space. You’re drivin’ me crazy!” Sam could take a hint, so he uncrushed his grey fedora, set it at the right jaunty angle, and with a rap of his knuckles on her desk, he loped down the five flights to Hennepin Avenue. A light mist was falling as Sam headed into Jimmy’s Cypriot Taverna. This was perfect weather for a nice plate of grilled octopus and some ouzo.

Sam caught Jimmy’s eye as he was sweating over the charcoal grill preparing some of his signature souvla. “Kalimera, Jimmy, throw an octopus on the grill and pour me some of your best imported ouzo.”

“Right away, Sammy.” And with a nod of his head Jimmy directed Sam’s attention to a tall, cool blonde sitting with her legs crossed at the small corner table for two. Sam took his drink from Jimmy and sauntered slowly over to the table. “Hiya, Jessica, long time no see.” She re-crossed her legs in the other direction, straightened her shoulders, and leaned towards Sam as she took another sip from her glass of house red. “I hear that you might need me, Sam.” Sam smiled his crooked smile.

Read the fifth installment →

If you have ideas that can help Sam as he works on his current case, or if you have "cases" that you would like to see Sam take on, please email me.