A Different Kind of Bottom Line: Boards Can Make or Break Nonprofits’ Success
Nonprofits contribute a jaw-dropping $900 billion to the U,S. economy each year, according to the Washington-based think tank Urban Institute. In New Hampshire alone, 16.7 percent of those in the workforce are employed by nonprofits, which generate $11.8 billion in annual revenues, according to data from a 2016 report by the Independent Sector.
While most of this activity takes place in health care and education, a substantial portion of the financial output comes from smaller charitable organizations. The Upper Valley is home to dozens of such mission-driven agencies, providing food and shelter, supporting residents in difficult times, fostering the arts, and organizing activities and programs that would never make it in the for-profit world.
What makes these organizations tick?
Often behind the scenes, and without compensation, the Upper Valley’s charitable organizations are guided by boards of directors. Working closely with the executive directors that report to them, boards spend countless hours raising funds, making policy and hammering out strategies.
Area executive directors agree chemistry between a board and an executive director is key to what a board does, and the ability to maintain that intimate and delicate balance is what determines an organization’s performance and, ultimately, its value to the community.
“We’re all in this boat together,” said Trip Anderson, executive director of AVA Gallery in Lebanon. “My job is to keep us going forward, and the board has its hand on the rudder, making sure we sail in the right direction.”
Of the 14 to16 board members at AVA, at least four are working artists.
“Five years ago,” Anderson said, “we were focused on leadership transition and our new building. All the key elements were in place when I was appointed, so I stepped onto a blank canvas. It was nice. It was terrifying.”
Establishing a productive relationship with a board of directors isn’t always easy, according to several local executive directors, and it takes extraordinary levels of trust. When a board and an executive director disagree on strategy or tactics, it can have serious repercussions for those who depend on charitable organizations for housing, food, advocacy or cultural enrichment. On the other hand, a successful executive director-board relationship secures the long-term health of the agency, while its day-to-day operations go forward with fewer hitches.
The bottom line for a nonprofit is how well it adheres to its mission. “There are boundary-stretching moments,” Anderson explained, “when my relationship with the board needs to be open enough that we can work our way through problems.”
“It’s a special and key relationship,” said Peggy O’Neil, executive director of WISE, an agency that works to prevent gender-based violence across a service area of some 872 square miles in New Hampshire and Vermont. There currently are 13 members of the WISE board of directors, including two fellows from Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “We work under difficult and stressful circumstances. I need absolute openness with the board because so many people rely on us when they’re in crisis.”
According to the WISE website, the organization was founded in 1971 as a career resource center for women, WISE has worked with more than 10,000 victims of gender-based violence in the past decade. “Not everyone’s always on the same page,” O’Neil said, “so we work between meetings to hammer things out. It takes tremendous commitment, but there’s no choice. Advocacy needs a powerful, collective voice.”
Nonprofits in the Upper Valley employ a variety of business models to carry out their missions. Some rely almost entirely on philanthropy while others have revenue streams that provide a foundation. But even those with a product to sell do so at levels that would never be viable in the corporate world. They need donations to support programs and help them attain higher goals.
Regardless of their structures, all boards need to understand the community and adapt to changing conditions.
“Our board’s done everything,” said Ben Van Vliet, executive director of the Upper Valley Music Center. “When we didn’t have a budget for a director, the center’s eight-person board managed the organization.”
A nonprofit board’s ability to roll up its sleeves, then step back and take a more strategic approach is a challenging proposition. “We’re transitioning from a start-up to something else,” Van Vliet said, “and we need our board to help us navigate that process.”
That can, and frequently does, involve nerves of steel.
“When 8 S. Park St., (the music center’s) new home, became available,” he recalled, “it took an act of courage on the part of our board to say, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
Grants, state and federal funding also are an important revenue stream for area nonprofits. The Grafton County Senior Citizens Council pays for its programs partly with government funds, but also relies on private donations to supplement the services it provides to seniors in Lebanon, Littleton, Plymouth, Bristol and beyond. Board participation in fundraising, noted Executive Director Roberta Berner, is crucial to the organization’s ability to secure grants. This year, the council received a New Hampshire Charitable Organization Unrestricted Operating Grant. Berner cites the fact that every member of the board contributed to the council financially — each according to his or her means — as a factor in the success of its proposal. Members of the Senior Citizens Council represent the geographic diversity of the agency and its numerous advisory boards.
“Everyone gets involved in their communities,” Berner said. “One of our council members delivers meals in memory of his late wife.”
Berner and her colleague Sara Kobylenski, executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, both will retire this year. Even when plenty of talent is available, the retirement of an executive director presents a daunting task to a board. In today’s tight labor market, it can be an existential challenge.
“My board and I reached an understanding that I’d give them plenty of warning and we agreed I’d step aside when the right person was found,” Kobylenski said. One of the most prominent nonprofits in the Upper Valley, Upper Valley Haven provides emergency shelter to thousands of families and individuals.
“The board is my boss,” Kobylenski added. “There are no stockholders, no owners, no profit, no loss. Only accountability to the communities we serve.”
Laurel Stavis is chairwoman of the Listen Inc. board of directors.