How to Organize a Non-Profit Association

"It seems that non-profit board members, at least subconsciously, consider it as important to be good hosts and hostesses, as it is to be good fiduciaries."

April 30, 2017
by: Jon W. Lindberg, MBA, CAE, CEO, Yale-GELP

Early in my career, I attended one of my very first non-profit board meetings with world-class executives, who belonged in the 1%, or perhaps even higher. I can still remember being thrilled, just to be among this elite group of super-stars. Not long into the meeting, however, I was stunned to watch a heated and lengthy debate unfold over whether donuts or bagels should be served at the coffee break of our upcoming annual meeting. The discussion of such an inconsequential issue seemed incredulous, especially since the organization was in dire financial straits. I was astounded! I just could not believe it! I kept waiting for someone to lean over and tell me that this was some sort of parody.

Unfortunately, it was not. It seemed as if these top executives had checked their business sensibilities at the door, along with their hats and coats. What was going on? Over time, I was able to make sense of this incomprehensible exercise. After experiencing numerous board meetings, I came to understand that this was a psychological phenomenon driven by a lack of clear focus. This phenomenon was both common and fundamentally good-hearted; it seems that board members, at least subconsciously, consider it as important to be good hosts and hostesses, as it is to be  good fiduciaries. So, like any proficient “ cat-herder,” I began to build skills to rein in those who digress naturally and consistently, even to the extreme of arguing the merits and demerits of donuts versus bagels. An indispensable tool, employed frequently by the adept “cat-herder,” is a well-designed Agenda. Moreover, it is the structure of the Agenda, carefully crafted, that can be a powerful instrument to harness the intellectual potential seated around the Board table.

As I reflected and experimented with types of structures, the following mission-critical elements for a non-profit organization evolved over time:

1. Mission

2. Membership

3. Media

4. Management

5. Marketing

6. Meetings

Suffice it to say, it has been an inefficient and circuitous route to what we are now calling the 6M MODEL that now drives effective and efficient board meetings. At present, we build every Agenda around these six mission critical elements. This goal has only been accomplished with notable help from the current board. Also, with the instrumental help of the board, we extended the paradigm to permeate our entire organization. For example, our financial reports, including our audit, are structured around these six crucial elements. Indeed, all of the essential functions of the board follow the  6M MODEL. We meticulously budget and plan the revenue, the expenses, the profit and/or contribution, all with an eye to the mission of the organization. In addition, the strategic plan is also structured around the 6M MODEL which results in a very efficient, yet robust strategic plan. We also use the 6M MODEL paradigmatically for each of our twenty  specialty groups. “Vision Cast” plans are generated for each of these groups, each of which are also built around the 6M MODEL. In our association, the utility of this model is palpable: even my annual performance review is built around the 6M MODEL with quantifiable performance metrics that drive my bonus! The impact of the 6M MODEL has truly been pervasive throughout our entire association. The board, volunteer leaders and staff now are laser focused on each of these six mission-critical elements. Not surprising, the results have been spectacular. Today, we are one of the fastest growing healthcare associations in the world! And, just in case you are curious, at our meetings, we offer both donuts and bagels!