5 Scary Things We Learned About Nonprofit Management While Eavesdropping

1. A LOT of nonprofits use spreadsheets to manage their grants.

16919491415_bed6ff326e_m.jpgThis system works perfectly if you don’t plan on growing very much. While it’s true that some grants are simple to manage in that they only require proof that you didn’t take the cash to go on an island vacation, other funding agencies have more stringent reporting requirements.

Sharing the spreadsheet in a document sharing tool like Google Docs is a step in the right direction in certain cases (ex. a role changes within an organization resulting in a new liaison who needs access to the information), but even that can backfire. Since no two grants are alike, there’s no standard way to set up the spreadsheet, and certain pieces of key information can get overlooked. In addition, this method requires someone to take the time to read through the data on a regular basis and then manage and delegate tasks. Things can get seriously thrown out of balance if that person forgets or becomes too busy to keep track of the spreadsheet.

2. Nonprofit organizations are swamped.

It’s no secret that the sluggish economy is having an impact on nonprofit organizations. For example, several recent reports show that charitable giving is down. As a result of the slow economic recovery, many nonprofits are reluctant to fill vacant positions within the organization.  In addition, funding cuts mean that many institutions have had to reduce staff numbers. And of course fewer people mean a diminished resource pool to help manage the workload. As organizations struggle to do more with less, it becomes a luxury to spend valuable time researching the very tools and processes that can help.

3. Building a board meeting packet is frustrating, time-consuming, and the very opposite of fun.

One organization told us that they assemble and ship hard copies of the monthly meeting packet to each of their board and committee members. Each packet costs an average of $8.00, not counting the time spent putting it together. Many other organizations rely on email to send documents back and forth to board and committee members. But that process gets cumbersome when dealing with multiple documents with multiple revisions to multiple committees for multiple meetings.

In a perfect world, a board meeting runs a bit like the way top secret presidential briefings are handled in Hollywood movies. He’s handed a magical folder of the perfect information right as he strides into some really intense meeting. What you never see is the poor administrator who managed and sorted through 23 versions of the documents that made their way into the final packet.  Streamlining the process is a manageable goal that can save time and sanity.

4. Managing the transition of a board liaison is a nightmare.

Close your eyes for a minute (actually don’t because then you have to stop reading, but pretend you do) now imagine your key board liaison leaves.  Are you in a cold sweat?  If you are, you’re not alone.  Many organizations have an informal or individually created process that lacks the structure to manage their most important asset, their board.  This is a little like putting your family’s savings in a coffee can and burying it in the backyard in a place only you know.  It can work fine as long as you are there and remember how to get to the can, but if you are not around a lot of work has to be done to access your assets.  Similarly, when the key board liaison leaves, multiple pieces of information need to be tracked down and accessed. These resources can include communication records, RSVP lists, meeting schedules, rosters, general board documents, official meeting minutes, member profiles, conflict of interest statements and more.   Because this information is critical to maximizing the effectiveness of your board, the goal becomes to ensure that staffing transitions don’t disrupt the work of the board, or burden the organization with expensive, time-consuming resource scavenger hunts and training sessions.

5. Sometimes money gets left on the table due to avoidable reasons.

Many institutions are not earning the full value of every dollar allocated to their programs. In a study released in August 2008, U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that in 2006 about $1 billion in undisbursed funding remained in expired grant accounts in the largest civilian payment system for grants–the Payment Management System administered by the Department of Health and Human Services for 12 federal entities.

A lot of these missed opportunities are the result of institutions not having a process in place to manage reporting requirements. Increased complexity is another factor to consider. For example when institutions grow from managing one federal grant to managing multiple federal grants, it’s easy to overlook subtle differences in rules and other nuances. By creating a process and implementing a system, seemingly little things like missing a grant extension deadline or not allocating the right expense item can be avoided.  Getting a handle on the little things can help to ensure institutions don’t leave money on the table.

Image Source: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy