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Nonprofit Institute Addresses Key Challenges

Thirty-one South Carolina residents participated in commencement exercises recently for the seventh class of the Non-Profit Leadership Institute at Francis Marion University in Florence, SC.  The institute is a seven-month training program for leaders of non-profits covering topics that include leadership, program development and delivery, board and volunteer development; and effective resource development and management.

Funded initially with multi-year grants from the Drs. Bruce and Lee Foundation, the institute now receives major support from FMU, along with a grant from the PSARAS Foundation.  I had the privilege of participating in a session three years ago, and reconnected last week with one of the institute’s leaders, Jay Dowd, who is also Vice President for Development and Executive Director for the FMU Foundation.  Given the diversity of organizations represented by the graduating class, I asked him what key issues these nonprofits leaders are most focused on right now.  Dowd noted three interesting “hot topics’:

1. Board Development. Nonprofits are challenged to find quality leadership volunteers who have the time and energy to be productive for their organization.  The traditional community leaders that most organizations hope to recruit are over-committed, and the proliferation of nonprofits makes it even tougher to get the “A-level” board members that everyone covets.  What are the good organizations doing about this?  Avoiding information overload for new board members, avoiding painful meetings full of staff reports, and leading with mission-specific task forces that assure meaningful involvement.

2. Conflict of Interest. Nonprofit leaders report an increasing focus on governance issues as they face additional media scrutiny as well as more donors carefully reviewing their 990’s.   What are the good organizations doing about this?  Making sure board members clearly understand and annually review their bylaws and other financial/governance documents.  Proactively reviewing Guidestar and other publicly available information sources about their organization – not waiting for a donor to ask why something is missing!

3. Creative Collaborations. Like most of the nonprofit world, South Carolina’s leaders are looking for opportunities to collaborate with organizations of similar mission and constituency.  Funding realities make this a necessary exercise even if the board and staff leadership is not necessarily enthusiastic about giving up some degree of independence.  Dowd noted that some of the successful collaborations he has seen so far involve nonprofits finding governmental agencies who are also in fiscal distress, the best example coming from a school system collaborating with area nonprofits to provide after-school and enrichment programming that had traditionally been done in-house.

Dowd offered some final words of wisdom for nonprofit leaders. “Those nonprofits who do not at least look for collaborative opportunities are likely to find a painful existence for the foreseeable future, as well as find that key funders will also “punish” them for not at least looking for collaborative opportunities.”

What key issue is your nonprofit organization dealing with?  Visit Patton McDowell & Associates or contact us at to see how we might help.