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Cynder Sinclair: Heed Your Nonprofit’s Liability Risk, Your Reputation and Current Research

Recently I had the honor of interviewing Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley.

She has been serving us by seeking justice for all since 1990. She has prosecuted well more than 1,000 cases, including murder, arson, robbery, burglary and all varieties of theft crimes. During her tenure she has become an authority on the prosecution of crimes involving sexual offenses, crimes against children and hate crimes. We are so fortunate to have her superior leadership in this important role.

Dudley has served as a board member for multiple nonprofit organizations since coming to Santa Barbara. She believes strongly in the importance of all segments of our community working together to address issues that impact all of us.

In this interview, Dudley focuses on the role of passion in a nonprofit, the importance of reputation, the power in telling your organization’s story, board member responsibilities, legal issues affecting nonprofits, the unique role of nonprofits in Santa Barbara County, and the importance of regular research and development.

Dudley demonstrates daily that she is one of our community’s key thought leaders. For interviews with additional community thought leaders, we invite you to visit our Nonprofit Kinect website by clicking here.

The Role of Passion

The executive director and board members of a nonprofit must be 100 percent committed to the goals and mission of the organization. They must also be deeply passionate about the work of the organization, as having passion affects the ability to raise funds. In order to have passion, you have to understand the organization on a deep level: what it does, how it serves the community, what makes the services unique, how it’s structured and how to measure its effectiveness.

The term “evidence based” is perhaps overused these days, but ultimately people want to know that the programs are making a difference. They also want to know about the human factor, but touching stories alone aren’t enough. Anyone knows that statistics can be manipulated in multiple ways, not from malice but because people see things differently.

Even so, statistics are important to track. A nonprofit must show that someone improved and became stronger and better able to contribute to the community as a result of the nonprofit’s work. So, the “X factor” — the place where statistics meet stories — must be clearly defined in the mind of the executive director and the board members.

The Importance of Reputation

The reputation of the nonprofit within the community is very important. Donors and supporters want to know that the organization is well run — that it practices good planning; maintains consistent finance oversight; engages in proactive development; and builds strong relationships with the staff and with the people they serve.

We have a number of good causes in this community, but if the organization isn’t well managed its good cause won’t save it from a tarnished reputation. A good reputation depends upon meeting extrinsic goals and keeping intrinsic relationships strong. I recommend that nonprofit leaders pay attention to their organization’s reputation and be proactive about developing it at all levels of the community.

People who write checks want to invest in a well-run organization. The best way to proactively develop reputation is to listen to the community. Go to the people. Ask them what they would like to see in your organization and how you can improve. People are complimented when you solicit their view and, if you really listen, they will feel invested in your organization. Sincerely soliciting input from others is critical in a small town.

Tell Your Story

Board members must continually tell the organization’s story. At every board meeting someone should tell a short story about how the nonprofit’s work made a difference. This will recharge the board and keep them coming back. Hearing stories makes a powerful impact and helps board members see the difference they are making.

Board members should also continually tell the organization’s story out in the community so everyone can hear their passion for the good work.

Board Member Responsibility

Board members also have important responsibilities. They need to show up regularly to board meetings, read agendas and information in advance, and be actively engaged in discussions. People will rise to the lowest expectations, so set high expectations for board members.

Joyce Dudley
District Attorney Joyce Dudley

Board meetings must start and end on time as a sign of respect for the board members’ time. The frequency of board meetings is also important. Too many meetings can make members feel overloaded, too few meetings lead to disconnection. Board members need to bond with the organization by consistently showing up for meetings.

If there are people who don’t have the time to serve on a “working” board, ask them to serve on an advisory board. People who serve on too many working boards do not have sufficient time to give to all of them, so consider asking them to serve on an advisory board. You don’t want to lose people who have an interest in your work, but you don’t want to have unrealistic expectations about their time. As Jim Collins would say, “Put the right people on the bus in the right seats.”

Legal Issues

Board members must be aware of their liability and the various risk factors facing the organization. Make sure the nonprofit has adequate insurance and a solid auditing process and meets all industry regulations. It’s advisable to have a couple of lawyers on the board because they have a certain way of thinking that proactively keeps people in check.

Board members must be knowledgeable about the bylaws. One idea is to hold an informal lunch once a year and bring in someone from the outside to go over the bylaws with the board. This is an enjoyable and painless way to ensure that all board members understand the bylaws that govern their organization.

The Unique Role of Nonprofits

Nonprofits play a unique role in all communities, but especially in Santa Barbara County. At the highest level, nonprofits speak to the best in all of us. When we evaluate what is important to us as a human race or as residents of Santa Barbara County, it gives us pause and actually defines us. If we turn our back on nonprofits, it delivers a sad statement about who we are as a people; if we embrace those nonprofits that are well-run and doing good work, it speaks volumes about our compassion and integrity.

Having so many nonprofits in Santa Barbara says a lot about us as a caring community, but we must remember that when we take on complex issues that affect a broad scope of our community, such as homelessness, people are going to have different viewpoints about how we should address the issue. We must allow room for everyone to sit at the table and try to incorporate a wide range of dialogue to determine the ultimate solution. There will be many different solutions and we may not agree, but ultimately it’s about bridge building, not trying to find one single approach. We must be open to multiple approaches simultaneously.

The Importance of Regular Research and Development

Nonprofit CEOs and senior staff members should spend time every week in research and development. Visit association and nonprofit websites and read about what others are doing. You will come away with some great ideas to incorporate in your own organization.

This is the only way to move forward. You must move forward or you will go stale and become irrelevant. Put a date on your Outlook calendar every week to surf the Internet for ideas. Visit sites like Google News, Nonprofit Kinect or the Nonprofit Resource Network. Even though you are extremely busy, this will keep you fresh and vital and you will continuously reignite your own passion about your work.

Biographical Information for District Attorney Joyce Dudley

Dudley began her legal career in the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office in 1990. She has prosecuted well more than 1,000 cases, including murder, arson, robbery, burglary and all varieties of theft crimes. During this time she became an authority on the prosecution of crimes involving sexual offenses, crimes against children and hate crimes.

Dudley was elected district attorney of Santa Barbara County in June 2010 and assumed office on June 22, 2010.

She is dedicated to fulfilling the primary function of the District Attorney's Office, which is to seek justice for all.

— Cynder Sinclair, Ph.D., is a local consultant to nonprofits and founder and CEO of Nonprofit Kinect. She can be contacted at 805.689.2137, or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

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