The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

What the rating services should really tell us

The need for data and information about our sector has never been more pressing. The need for multiple layers of information distributed in a myriad of ways by a great number of platforms and processes is here. It’s now.

Use Social Partnerships To Make Your Nonprofit Stand Out

In a recent article for Nonprofit Quarterly, it was posed that nonprofits are just professional beggars and virtual panhandlers. The nature of nonprofit organizations dictates that senior management spend a significant time on fundraising to support the mission of the company. But smart executives know that the founding vision cannot be subordinate to the fundraising. Instead, the corporation has to build a socially conscious foundation that people want to fund. Business sector partnerships can do that if the fit is right and makes sense for both parties to earn revenue.

How to Get People Excited About Your Nonprofit’s Next Fundraising Campaign

Developing a successful fundraising campaign isn’t easy, even if it’s for a good cause. From golf tournaments to banquets and charity concerts, there are plenty of strategies out there to generate revenue, but if you don’t know how to appeal to your audience and get them excited about the cause, your fundraising efforts will fall flat.

A Framework to Communicate Philanthropy

Jeannine Corey

How to Build Trust with New Volunteers

First impressions matter, especially with new volunteers. In today's digital world, volunteers expect a convenient, intuitive process for expressing interest, reviewing volunteer opportunities, and getting trained to do the job.

Top Twelve Tips for Courting New Board Members

With nearly 2 million board seats opening up in the United States ever year, it’s not easy for nonprofit leaders to successfully compete for, and win over, fantastic new board members. Our job at BoardAssist is to do just that – identify and “lock in” those high impact agents of change for our nonprofit clients. If you are navigating this process on your own, here are some useful tips.

The World’s Largest Online Earth Day Celebration, Spring of Sustainability (SoS), Kicks off Today, April 22nd


Register for GuideStar's Next Impact Call

Please join me and GuideStar President and CEO Jacob Harold on Monday, May 12, 2014, 2-3pm ET, for GuideStar's next Impact Call. In this call, we’ll discuss in detail our first quarter results.

James Lum, GuideStar’s CFO

Loosely based on the quarterly earnings calls held by publicly owned companies, our Impact Calls are open to everyone and give you an opportunity to learn more about GuideStar. The call will include our financial and programmatic results, recent developments in our collection of nonprofit financial and impact data and products, and our lessons learned—all in a more timely fashion, and with the ability to question us about those very results.

Our first Impact Call, held on February 24, 2014, was an experiment, and we were incredibly pleased with the outcome. More than 480 people participated in the call, and we had incredible questions during and after the call from foundations, nonprofits, donors, researchers, etc. Our Impact Call was featured in the Washington Post, and there was a robust discussion about the concept of Impact Calls here on the GuideStar Blog. Overall, we felt we took a big step forward in our goal to evolve the definition of nonprofit transparency by providing our outcomes for 2013 quickly, interactively, comprehensively—and inclusively. This time around, we’re incorporating all of your great feedback and honing in even further on the content of our presentation. To that end, we hope you will join us once more as we provide our results in four key areas—financials, programs, new developments, and failures (because all great organizations have failures, and we should all learn from them!)—and give you a sneak peek into our plans for the future.

To register for the May 12 Impact Call, or for further information on GuideStar’s results and outcomes, visit our impact page:

To access the recording of our first Impact Call and all future calls, including the live presentation and PowerPoint slides, visit our webinar archives:

Questions? Thoughts? Please email me at or leave a comment below. We hope to “see” you there!

Black, White, or Gray: How are Your Fundraising Ethics?

Have you ever been in a situation that didn’t feel quite right? Or, where you weren’t sure what to do?

We all have, and it’s probably because some ethical dilemma was taking place.

Sometimes there’s a clear-cut answer when it comes to ethics — such as when ethics and the law intersect. For example, you shouldn’t steal — stealing is both unethical and illegal.

However, sometimes unethical issues are legal. One example of something that is legal, but unethical for a development director to accept a personal gift from a donor. For example, let’s say you have a major donor who gives you an expensive gold watch for Christmas or leaves you a personal bequest in their will. What do you do?

Why Are Fundraising Ethics so Important?

The reason that ethics is so important in the nonprofit sector is that fundraising is all about trust.

Would you give to an organization or individual you didn’t consider ethical?

How do you think donors react when they learn that an organization has engaged in unethical behavior?

When facing an ethical situation, ask yourself if it passes the stink test. If it looks like a skunk and smells like a skunk, it’s probably a skunk.

You have intuition for a reason — trust your gut.

When Good Intentions Go Bad

Yesterday, I received a call from a development director — let’s call her “Mary” — because she was concerned about a situation at her organization.

Mary’s board members agreed to co-host/sponsor a fundraising event with a for-profit company (yellow flag) without consulting her (red flag). Unfortunately, the board members didn’t ask the right questions, because they were so blinded by the promises of an “easy” fundraising event. Sadly, the event didn’t raise any money (high expenses, low revenue), and the for-profit company received all the benefit (high visibility). Not only that, but the company was the one collecting the checks.

Major ethical dilemma here. Oops!

In order to prevent this type of ethical dilemma or deal with any situation that may arise, here are some rules of thumb to follow before you find yourself face-to-face with an ethical quandary.

Rules of Thumb for Ethical Fundraising

1. Check the AFP Code of Ethics

Start at the source — the AFP Code of Ethics. Have your staff and board members read and discuss the code to ensure they understand what is considered ethical and what isn’t.

If you are a member of AFP, you can take their Ethics Assessment Inventory, which is great food for thought and lets you know how you are doing.

2. Front Page Test

If you don’t want whatever you’re doing to be on the front page of your local paper or the sordid topic of some blogger, it’s probably not ethical. Ask yourself: Is there a possibility that your organization could end up on the front page of the paper for this action? Would you be proud or would donors run?

3. How Would Your Parents Feel?

Similar to the front page test, would your parents be proud or disappointed if you took the action you’re considering?

4. Trust Your Gut (and Your Nose)

Finally, once again, if it’s black and white and stinks, it’s probably a skunk. In other words, if it looks like a skunk, and smells like a skunk, it’s probably a skunk. And, if there’s a fundraising event or major gift that comes your way that seems too good to be true, it probably is.

That’s how Mary’s board got themselves into hot water. They didn’t pay attention to the many red flags waiving in front of their noses.

Shades of Gray

The difficulty with ethical situations is that they are not always black and white — in fact, they are often gray.

The most important thing to do when faced with an ethical dilemma is to be open and honest about it with your executive director and board. Discuss the situation and come to an agreement about what to do. Do not keep it a secret — it’s probably a red flag if you don’t want to tell anyone.

Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma at your organization? What did you do? Tell me about it in the comments.

The preceding is a cross-post by Amy Eisenstein, CFRE, author, speaker, trainer, and owner of Tri Point Fundraising, a full-service consulting firm. You can read the original post here. You can also view her presentations and listen recording of her November 2013 webinar for GuideStar here. Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE is a best-selling author, speaker, trainer and consultant, as well as the owner of Tri Point Fundraising, a full-service consulting firm for nonprofit organizations and foundations. Her published books include: Amazon Best-Seller Major Gift Fundraising for Small Shops: How to Leverage Your Annual Fund in Only Five Hours per Week, Raising More with Less: An Essential Fundraising Guide for Nonprofit Professionals and Board Members, and 50 A$ks in 50 Weeks: A Guide to Better Fundraising for Your Small Development Shop. She currently serves as the president of the board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals – New Jersey Chapter. Amy received her Master’s Degree in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management from the Wagner Graduate School at New York University and her Bachelor’s Degree from Douglass College at Rutgers University. Amy became a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) in 2004 and became an ACFRE in 2013. Please visit her website for her free eBooks at


Mixed Reports on Nonprofit Fundraising and Welfare

Online giving increased 14 percent in 2013, but demand for nonprofits' services also grew, often exceeding organizations' ability to meet it. These are key takeaways from the recently published 2014 M+R Benchmarks Study and Nonprofit Finance Fund's 2014 State of the Sector Survey.

The Questions I'm Most Often Asked About Donor Communications

I speak to thousands of fundraisers every year, at conferences around the world. And the question I hear most often is a plea for help: "How do I convince my boss?"

Fundraisers might well be the most second-guessed professionals in the world.

Establishing CEO Compensation

The following discussion is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to serve as legal advice. For advice on nonprofit executive compensation, consult your attorney.

Question: We are a new nonprofit trying to determine the appropriate compensation for our executive director. What standards should we go by right now, and what should we look to for standards as the organization grows and becomes older?

Nonprofit organizations that are recognized as exempt from federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are required to act in a manner that does not result in "private inurement." (Many other types of tax-exempt organizations are also subject to this private inurement prohibition.) In the compensation context, this prohibition requires that amounts paid to an officer or other person in a position to exert substantial influence over the organization be reasonable and not above fair market value. In addition to the private inurement prohibition, individual officers and other insiders may be subject to personal financial penalties if they engage in transactions that result in excessive benefits to them. Finally, those organization managers who approve excessive benefit transactions may be subject to individual financial penalties as well.

Having said that, if a person is new to the nonprofit and is negotiating an initial contract to be executive director, there is a strong argument that the prohibition on private inurement and the penalties on excessive benefits would not apply because the person was not an "insider" at the time he/she negotiated the deal.

However, most nonprofit managers and boards would prefer not to unduly risk revocation of tax-exempt status and/or individual excise tax penalties and, even for newly hired executive directors, will want to take precautions that compensation is reasonable. As such, in both instances addressed in the question above (new nonprofit organization and existing nonprofit), the usual process that an organization will undertake to manage against the risks are:

1. Obtain valid comparability data (such as through to see what similarly situated nonprofit organizations pay executive directors with similar backgrounds.

2. Have a disinterested body (e.g., a compensation committee where no member has a relationship with the candidate that would present a conflict of interest) approve the proposed compensation arrangement.

3. Document contemporaneously the decision of that disinterested body and the fact that the body relied on the valid comparability data in making its decision.

Taking those above three steps should give an organization a presumption that the compensation amount paid to its executive director is reasonable and should not be challenged by the IRS. This presumption may be rebutted by the IRS if, for example, the IRS determines that the comparability data was not accurate or proper to use under the circumstances. Note that there are more detailed regulatory requirements to the three-step process described above which need to be followed. Note, too, that states (notably, New York for New York-incorporated nonprofits) have become more active in regulating executive compensation.

For more information, please see:

George E. Constantine, Esq., Venable LLP
© 2014, Venable LLP

George E. Constantine is a partner at Venable LLP in Washington, D.C. He co-chairs Venable's Regulatory Practice Group.



Upgrading Your ERP System? Not So Fast. Consider Reimplementation

Many nonprofits are quick to upgrade software because it is perceived as being simple and straightforward – and sometimes that is true. However, that does not mean that it is in the best interest of the organization.

Terrible Board Members Are Created, Not Born

So much has been written and presented within the nonprofit world about how to work around and/or replace terrible board members. However, nobody seems to want to confess as to where they came from.

Charitable Design: 4 Ways to Decorate a Nonprofit Office

The best nonprofit organizations encompass hope, determination and endless aspirations. Equally inspiring workplace surroundings can enhance the success of your organization. Welcome employees and benefactors to an environment that sparks innovation and creativity. Do away with fluorescent lights, bare walls and uninspired cubicles. You can have a sleek and efficient office without a pretentious aura that steers away future contributors. The challenge is creating a workplace that's professional, creative and productive without appearing rapacious. Let your energy and intentions show through work place design. Focus on embracing the company culture for a winning look that speaks volumes of your hard-work and ethics.

Purposeful Furnishings

Furnishings don't have to be drab to show responsible spending. Your office space can still be chic with creative touches that tell a story. Focus on utilizing pieces that reflect your cause. Dallas-based non-profit Dwell With Dignity combined elements of design and philanthropy to launch its new studio. Born from the belief that surroundings can change a person's outlook on life, the organization's mission is to create soothing homes for families struggling with homelessness and poverty. For its new studio launch, local designers created a vignette using donated warehouse products. The result? A beautiful office space created from low-cost recycled furnishings to use as inspiration for the cause.

Mirror, Mirror

There's no need for large executive offices. Whether your non-profit is established or just getting started, ensure your office space fits your immediate needs. High overhead is not only a constraint on your budget, but looks questionable in the eyes of future donors. Instead, make the best use of your space with small touches that make a big difference. Tall mirrors at the end of a narrow hallway expand space while accent mirrors add interest to walls and create a spacious feel. Mirrors also promote positive energy with proper placement. Considered the "aspirin of Feng Shui," adding mirrors to a workplace can create a calming presence and help reduce stress.

Display Gratitude

When it comes to donors and investors, a little gratitude goes a long way. Incorporating contributors in your office design provides a daily reminder of those who support you. Whats' more, prospects will love seeing how the company supports and appreciates current benefactors. Take notes from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta). Its new Los Angeles office features a two story high wall painted in black with the names of each donor written in white. The wall stands as a centerpiece of the building, commemorating everyone who made the new building possible.

Stand Out

Donors want to represent the best. To be the best, you'll need a first-rate, winning team. Recruit an all-star lineup by promoting a culture that's both donor-worthy and employee-appealing. Unique touches, like a tree house conference room featured at the Epic Systems Corporate Office, stand out and pique interest. Harnessing creativity promotes a team culture that's second to none. Even simple and cost-effective design, like a chalkboard or whiteboard painted wall, encourage team collaboration that potential investors are sure to be impressed with.

Prohibited Discrimination in Hiring: Disparate Treatment and Disparate Impact

Editor’s Note: For more answers to common nonprofit tax and legal questions, don’t miss our upcoming event on April 17th at 1PM with Jeffrey Tenenbaum, Partner and Chair of Nonprofits Practice Group of Venable, LLP, represented below. Find out more and register here.”

Strategic Financial Management Webinar Series Begins April 15th

In today’s changing environment, it can be difficult for nonprofit leaders to access the tools and expertise they need to make sound, strategic financial decisions—the type of decisions that lead a nonprofit to long-term sustainability. To bridge that gap, Nonprofit Finance Fund has gathered some of its most accessible insights into a six-episode course on strategic financial management in the nonprofit sector. To develop the series, NFF drew on insights developed through thirty years of on-the-ground engagement with nonprofit organizations and its research and experimentation with the up and coming financing ideas that will define the sector’s next generation.

This series, which begins on April 15th, offers practical tools to help decision-makers navigate their financial management, and demonstrates an array of real-life examples and strategies to help inform data-driven decision making for nonprofit professionals. The sessions can be taken as a full financial management curriculum, or can be chosen a la carte for organizations seeking to address specific business challenges. You can find complete descriptions of each 60-minute webinar, as well as an FAQ, here.

Guidestar is happy to offer its readers a special discount on the series: use the promotion code “SAVE 10” to receive 10% off any full-price webinar! Be sure to select “Guidestar” when indicating how you were referred. These webinars are $75 each, and offered at a discount for the series package. Register here through Eventbrite!

The complete list of offerings is below—click on the videos for some exclusive sneak-peeks!

Spring 2014 Webinar Series: Unpacking the Nonprofit Manager’s Toolbox

April 15: Budgeting as a Communication Tool

This webinar provides nonprofit leaders with a review of key budget terms and concepts and demystifies the budgeting process by focusing on the essential nonprofit budget, which clearly depicts the organization’s true financial story. Although this 60-minute webinar is beginner level, the emphasis is not on how to create a line item budget. Rather, the focus is on creating a budget that appropriately communicates the organization’s economic realities. NFF concludes the webinar by pointing participants toward more advanced budgeting concepts, such as addressing key balance sheet needs.

April 22: Monitoring Cash Flow

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Planning in today’s uncertain environment requires that nonprofit leaders know where their organization stands financially. In this 60-minute webinar, NFF offers nonprofit managers the guidance they need to lead during challenging times, offering tips on managing cash flow through use of reports that will identify months of low cash. The session also identifies the ways in which cash flow management can be essential to accessing credit.

April 29: Assessing Program Profitability

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Every program impacts your organization's bottom line. Making informed decisions about critical organizational issues like hiring or fundraising requires a clear understanding or each program's profit or loss. Is it inherently profitable? Does it require subsidy? How does it fit together financially with other programs? NFF’s unique Program Profitability Model provides a clear-sighted way for nonprofit managers to answer these questions. Through real-life examples, this 60-minute webinar will explain how participants can use a program economic assessment to make adjustments and improve financial health with minimal impact on programs.

May 6: Scenario Planning

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At NFF, scenario planning balances exploration and dialogue with a tools-driven approach. As such, this 60-minute webinar introduces participants to several ways of planning through periods of uncertainty and focuses on the financial implications of future scenarios (with respect to the income statement as well as the balance sheet) during single year or over a multiple year period.

May 13: Managing to a Dashboard

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Increasingly popular among nonprofit boards, a dashboard is a reporting tool for communicating with an organization’s key stakeholders and leadership about mission-related goals, capacity-related goals, resource needs, and desired outcomes/outcome measurement. In this 60-minute webinar, NFF will discuss how to engage your organization in thoughtful and relevant conversations about its financial situation, needs, challenges and opportunities before it reaches a crisis point. Participants will explore two types of organizational dashboards that help to measure progress against goals and manage uncertainty.

May 20: Strategic Alliances, Collaborations and Mergers: This content is brand-new!

In a post-recession environment, nonprofits are increasingly looking to collaborate and some are even considering mergers. Through this 60-minute webinar, NFF will lead an informative discussion about how nonprofits can recognize the conditions that contribute to successful collaborations and when a merger would be warranted. Participants will gain an understanding of how partnerships, alliances and mergers can be positive, strategic decisions—and an incredibly powerful tool for two organizations with compatible missions and services.

The preceding is a guest post by Rebekah Caton, Analyst, Strategic Advice for Nonprofit Finance Fund. Rebekah joined NFF in March 2013 as Coordinator for the Eastern Region, where she is responsible for coordinating advisory service activities as well as office management. From 2010-2012, Ms. Caton worked as a TEFL instructor with Peace Corps Madagascar and as Program Coordinator for the Alpine Initiatives Village Sustainability Project. She was the Web and Audio Editor for PennSound, an audio poetry archive based out of the University of Pennsylvania, from 2008-2010, and again immediately prior to NFF. She has a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

Nonprofits: Get Ready for Charity Navigator 3.0

One year ago, Charity Navigator announced its plans to incorporate a third dimension into its rating system as part of CN 3.0. In 2016 Results Reporting will accompany Charity Navigator’s two other dimensions: Financial Health and Accountability and Transparency.

What to Do When Pressured to Get & Use Big Data?

Big Data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it,” reports Marketoonist Tom Fishburne.

Remember when your leadership and board members were scared stiff about social media, especially fundraising-wise? And when, in many organizations, that was followed by intense pressure to get on social media pronto to achieve perhaps-impossible goals, WITHOUT additional resources?

Based on what I hear from many of you, we’re in the same boat with big data right now.

Data does have huge potential for enabling the kind of right-things, right-now fundraising and marketing needed to motivate the actions you need from supporters. Affordable and widely-available technologies—with database, fundraising, email, marketing automation and other functions—now produce tons of data. But the data alone won’t get you anywhere.


Take these three steps to get data working for fundraising and marketing impact:

1) Catalog the useful data you already have:

  • Assess what constituent information—preferences, habits, relationships and interactions—is accessible now, and where each component lives across all departments and databases in your organization
  • Select ten to 15 data points max that have the greatest potential to fix gaps or weaknesses in your current marketing such as motivating first-time donors to give a second gift.

2) Set up systems, roles, and responsibilities to harvest, share, and analyze these data points

  • Implement a robust database tool that enables you to connect all data on a single supporter or participant (now fragmented in multiple departments and records) in a single, in-depth profile. That the key to the rich insights (a true 360-degree perspective) necessary for truly integrated marketing and fundraising that reflects your supporters’ interactions with your organization over time, and is delivered consistently—across channels and campaigns—for a more relevant, resonant experience.
  • Log, share, and analyze what you learn about your people across your organization—instead of limiting analysis to actions within a single program, campaign or channel—in a way that’s easy to access for all.

The more coordinated and robust your insight is into each person you’re hoping to engage, the greater the probability you’ll motivate him or her to take the next action (or realize that he/she’s not a likely prospect).

3) Make the changes—in content, format, and/or channel—as indicated

Then rinse and repeat to provide the kind of relevant and connected experience most likely to motivate supporters to take the action you need.


Nancy Schwartz

The preceding is a guest post by Nancy Schwartz, Speaker-Author-Strategist of Nancy helps nonprofits like yours succeed through effective marketing. For more nonprofit marketing guidance like this, subscribe to her e-update at

If a shout doesn’t work, try a whisper -- effectively deepening board engagement

“My board is not engaged enough in fund raising” is a prime complaint of executive directors and development officers. It even outranks “our donor database is a mess” and “we are expected to raise more money every year”! Everyone in the non profit world would like to have the perfect board. That fictitious board everyone covets is populated by corporate heavyweights and trust-fund-endowed socialites, who write big checks and enlist their friends as donors.

3 Smart Strategies to Boost Your Online Fundraising

Gone are the days when non-profits wonder if they really can raise money online. Case studies, news reports and personal experiences have shown that organizations can raise significant amounts of money through websites, e-mail, crowdfunding campaigns and other online strategies.

The dark side of nonprofit monthly giving

"The wider adoption of monthly giving (also known as regular or sustained giving) in the U.S. could itself transform philanthropy.” Dr. Adrian Sargeant

Is It Time for a Murder Board?

You know it's coming. Something unusually bad has happened—maybe an embezzlement, or a CEO who's had an affair with a staff member, or a board chair who's gone crazy—and people in the media, on the city council, or in the state legislature, smelling blood in the water, are now developing long teeth.

Or maybe it's as simple as a new reporter in town, hungry to make a name at your nonprofit's expense.

Whatever it is, you know that you're about to face an unusually hostile media interview or political hearing. A determined, smart reporter or politician with a career incentive will write an investigative piece or hold a hearing that will win him or her new status and money. If that means hard times for your nonprofit's reputation, that's just collateral damage.

Do you just stand there waiting for the bus to hit you, or is there something you can do?

There is. It's what presidential debate teams, CEOs with oil spills, and appointees with Senate confirmations do. It's called a murder board, and you don't need to be a pro to do it pretty well for yourself, with the help of your staff.

Hopefully you've already got a media crisis plan in place; that's the first step. You need one because things might still go south even with good preparation.

But you've got something going for you in this situation that's not common in media crises: you can see the hurricane coming on the horizon—moving fast, but not here yet. And that could make the difference. A murder board takes a bit of time, some practice, and especially a certain type of imagination and intuition.

So what is it, how do you set one up, and why does it work when done well? (And it does work, which is why people in high-stakes situations hire media and political experts to create them.)

In short, a murder board is a small group of people who take the role of the meanest, smartest questioners you could face in this situation. They ask you the most unfair and difficult questions in the most sneering way possible, with the intention of getting you to lose it as quickly and completely as possible and thus be embarrassed, defeated, and publicly humiliated.

EXCEPT—that they also have given you their questions in advance, along with the best possible responses in short bullet points. So actually all you have to do is practice, remain cool, dodge the incoming rounds, and fire back your killer responses, taking the high ground of being steady, calm, and courteous while they are mean, baiting, and asking one question after another of the "How often do you beat your wife?" variety.

Specifically, here's what you do:

  1. Find the right people. Ideally you want about three or four people who understand both the media and your organization's weak points. (You have to assume that a competent reporter will quickly find your soft spots. And if your tough questioner is a member of your association or a donor to your social welfare organization, you're not off the hook; those people are even more likely to know your organizational weaknesses.) Don't pick the sweetest-natured people on your staff for this duty. They don't have to BE mean, but they need to have the capacity to PLAY mean, and even to enjoy the temporary duty, the way fine actors who are personally nice people like to play bad guys now and then. If you have an experienced media relations person on staff, you want him or her as part of the questioning team.
  2. Encourage them to generate the nastiest possible questions for this situation. This is the most important part of the process and the one where it might be most cost-effective to buy some time from a consultant who's done many murder boards before and has seen what works and what doesn't. Ideally this person has had so much direct experience with the media that he or she really can guess fairly accurately what questions WILL arise, what worst-case questions MIGHT arise, and what answers will best work in influencing the questioner and, more important, the questioner's readers or followers. This question generation is best done by each member of the group independently. You really don't want group-think here but independent judgment, from different perspectives.
  3. Have them generate answers to their questions. The answers must be very brief, usually in bullet form, with not more than two or three bullets and in priority order of importance. You may have three great bullets, but if the reporter cuts you off after the first, you need that first one to carry the day by itself.
  4. Vet and refine the answers. At the very least, you've got to be comfortable with the answers drafted by your questioners, and you may want additional staff to review your revisions. Is each answer short enough? Memorable enough? The best way to respond?
  5. Practice, practice, practice. You want each question and its answer bullets on a single page, and then you want to practice with those sheets like flash cards, covering up the answer while trying to respond, then comparing how you did with the actual bullet points. Do that over and over until you've got it down so well that you can say the right things even when distracted—which is exactly what the murder board is going to try to make you feel.
  6. Then face your first murder board session. If they are doing their job, you'll fail, and pretty fast. That's because their job is to make the experience as painful as possible so that you freeze up—preferably so much more painful than the real thing that the real thing will seem a breeze by comparison. They can get as mean as they want, they can vary the wording and order of the questions, they can ask follow-on questions you haven't anticipated—they get to rant and rave, but you have to be consistently unflappable, courteous, gracious, and reasonable.
  7. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off. Take a deep breath, listen to their critiques, take another break, and practice some more.
  8. Hold a second session. And then hold as many as you need until you've got it cold and can handle unexpected variations.

So—why does this work? I think it's because the most important thing going on here is not so much the particulars of your answers but MAINTENANCE OF ATTITUDE. All of this practice and pressure in advance is simply to allow you to avoid freezing up by constantly staying on top of the situation. Think of a champion surfer riding a constantly changing wave, or a great skier adapting to a changing hill at 70 miles an hour—all these preparations are simply ways of making it easier for you to maintain an attitude of being calm while being hyper-alert as you do difficult things automatically. But whether or not that is why it works, it does work, which is why the pros use this again and again.

So—if you're facing a killer media or political situation, try a murder board. Mess up in front of your friends, so the real thing will seem easy by comparison.

Jason Hall, Public Trust Strategies
© 2014, Public Trust Strategies

Jason Hall is principal of Public Trust Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in helping organizations of all sizes build, enhance, or restore deserved reputations and influence with key audiences, and leveraging that increased reputation and influence to secure increased and sustained funding and enduring public trust. He is also a professor at George Mason University, teaching master's courses in media and government relations and in ethics for public administrators. He is the former director of government and media relations for the American Association of Museums (1991-2007).

Most People Skim. Few Read Deep.

Excerpted from Making Money with Donor Newsletters

Watch your own behavior the next time you pick up the newspaper.

You browse first. If you find something of interest, then you start reading. And even then, you often read no more than a paragraph or two before jumping to another story, unless you're enjoying a leisurely morning.

Same goes for donors.

Just Getting On Board or Getting Up to Speed?

Let me share two totally different situations of two new executive directors (E.D.s) taking over leadership of two different nonprofits. In each case the organizations were functioning without glaring problems, although both were suffering somewhat from the normal uncertainty of a leadership change.

In the first instance, the board was cordial and welcoming but not involved in the process of the new executive director's coming on board. The board made it clear they were ready for business as usual and expected everything to continue as if there had been no changes. The new executive director was given the keys to what they considered their well-honed machine and was expected to merge into the fast lane as if no change had taken place. It was no great surprise that within six months organizational performance dropped off. It was not business as usual because there had been a major change; there was a new leader at the helm with a different perception, outlook, and skill set than his predecessor. Almost all stakeholders were still getting used to the new E.D. and holding back as a result.

Now let's look at the second situation. As the change in leadership was taking place, the executive director and board realized it was an excellent opportunity to step back and evaluate the organization's direction. The executive director went on a "listening tour" of board members, staff, donors, and various stakeholders. The E.D. was able to ask for candid feedback, since there was no need to defend past practices and no egos involved. As a result, the E.D. and board reevaluated some programs and approaches and made changes that reflected stakeholders' needs. Here there was an acknowledgement that there would be no business as usual. As a result, changes and new relationships developed, and in 18 months revenues doubled.

I was the E.D. in each of these cases and can attest to the value of the cooperative and transparent approach in the second example. Bringing a new executive director on board is always a challenge, but it can be made into a tremendously valuable opportunity for the organization. It takes a partnership between the new E.D. and the board to bring value to the change. Here are some key components that can lead to a successful transition:

  • Written description of what early priorities will be. The E.D. should develop the priorities with the board, then share the final version with it. The process should exemplify the transparent approach being taken and what expectations exist around early efforts and outcomes.
  • An acknowledgement and willingness on the board's part to use the change in leadership as an opportunity to step back and reevaluate the organization's programs and tactics. This may mean putting some current strategic initiatives on hold. The board should also keep an open mind to making some adjustments if warranted.
  • A possible listening tour, plus an analysis of the organization's programs, staff, financial situation, etc. These initial activities should be scheduled for the E.D.'s first 90 days so that the process doesn't get strung out too long.
  • An inclusive approach to listening to stakeholders. The first apparently defensive comment by the E.D. will shut down candor, when it's that unfiltered input that's necessary.
  • A start on developing relationships. Everyone likes being asked their thoughts and opinions—as long as you truly listen to the answers. Each meeting should be closed by thanking participants for their comments and asking if you can follow up with any further questions and to share the results of your collective outreach.
  • A focus on learning. None of these meetings should be about asking for money.

From personal experience, the most common rejoinder when listening to stakeholders was "no one took the time to listen to me in the past." Participants greatly appreciated being asked for their opinions and having the opportunity to shape the organization's future thinking. And, of course, successful executive directors build strong relationships, and these meetings are excellent opportunities to begin this process.

Therein lies the value of truly getting up to speed in a new position and not simply getting on board. It takes concerted effort by both the board and E.D. as well as the willingness to reevaluate current practices. But it can lead to tremendous organizational success!

Bill Hoffman, Bill Hoffman and Associates, LLC
© 2014, Bill Hoffman and Associates, LLC

Bill Hoffman has more than 30 years' expertise in various aspects of the nonprofit sector, having worked at all levels of nonprofit organizations, including serving as chief executive of a $6 million education foundation for 9 years. He and his firm have written and presented on topics ranging from board development to community and volunteer engagement, organizational development and performance, and best practices in national, regional, and state publications and symposia.

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