What Makes an Organization’s Management Practices Excellent?

By Diana Davenport, Chair, Selection Committee, Nonprofit Excellence Awards

Great management practices are easy to spot.  Over the past eight years, The New York Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Awards Selection Committee has been identifying excellent practices among hundreds of nonprofits.  The 26 that have won the awards are the best examples, and this year’s winners – Graham WindhamLeake & Watts, and Row New York – did not disappoint.  Let’s take a look at what makes their practices so successful and in many cases, replicable.

While there are eight key performance areas of nonprofit management identified as crucial by nonprofit professionals nationwide, I’ll focus on three: overall management focus on results; governance structure that moves the organization forward; and,inclusive, diverse and responsive organizational practices.

Overall management focus on results

The importance of this management practice cannot be stressed strongly enough. Starting with a well-defined mission statement which guides organizational decision-making and practice, well-run organizations ensure that program and organizational results are regularly tracked, evaluated and reported. They also make use of a detailed strategic plan to identify major opportunities and challenges facing the organization, which helps to focus planning and action on results. Impact is sustained over time and, when and where appropriate, scaled up.

  • For Graham Windham, this focus began when the Board’s Program Performance Committee created a re-visioning process in 2011 where the Board and senior management team reviewed the mission to determine the elements that drive its strategic decisions.  Are the programs serving the target population? Are they making a life-altering difference? Programs deemed off-mission were phased out. They defined their outcomes, set almost 50 goals and 123 targets to assess performance.  Then the Board challenged the staff to accelerate the pace of change.
  • Five years ago, Leake & Watts was in a bad place. Over 80% of its programs were in Corrective Action; it was facing almost insurmountable financial deficits, and was shrinking in both size and scope. Today the organization is a success story. In the past, Leake & Watts measured outputs (those required by external audits), now they measure outcomes. All of the programs have been removed from Corrective Action and routinely garner praise from their government partners. Services have almost doubled.  its turnaround practices have been shared with other agencies.
  • Row New York tracks its data in real time using Salesforce. They were doing a great job getting their students to graduate from high school and begin college. But, in reviewing their results, they soon realized that these same students were not staying in college. This caused the organization to change its programming to focus more on college readiness and retention, using more frequent one-on-one meetings over their time with each student and creating more training to correct the outcomes.

Governance structure that moves the organization forward

All three award winners have a strong CEO at the helm; and that CEO has a very strong partnership with his/her Board. It is very clear that the board members of all three organizations are very engaged and understand the organization at a granular level. Not only do they bring their individual expertise to the Board, but they also support the organization financially and they are absolutely committed to the success of the organization.

  • At Row New York, Board members have written job descriptions including detailed expectations about participation in events and with constituents, expertise to be harnessed, and fund raising. They set annual goals and review them with the Executive Director. Minutes include action items for Board and staff with templates including outcomes and who is responsible. Over the past year, Row New York worked closely with Arbor Brothers Foundation to deepen the board’s involvement. This work built on work with Youth I.N.C. in 2011 creating new committees, improving onboarding and setting expectations. All Board members are trained on the organization’s finances by two of the Board’s financial experts.
  • At Leake & Watts, there are written job descriptions and fundraising expectations.  Each board member is assigned two committees, one quantitative and one qualitative. This is designed to get them immediately engaged and more knowledgeable. New committees are created on an ad hoc basis to address specific needs. Staff is closely integrated with the board on the committees. Each board meeting includes a guest speaker from one of the featured programs, and last year, the board participated in a full day tour of 11 program sites to better connect the board to the programs. They are working with the Nonprofit Finance Fund to train board members with no financial background on the finances of the organization.
  • Graham Windham has a very strong board with an impressive committee structure designed to get each board member deeply involved. Many started out as volunteers. Board members are provided orientation with top leadership and are given a manual including a description of responsibilities, an overview of programs and approach and the budget. Each board member serves as an ambassador for Graham Windham and many participate in campaigns to shape policy at the local level.

Inclusive, diverse and responsive organizational practices

While almost all of the applicants we considered this year struggle with Board diversity, the same is not true at the staff level.

  • At Graham Windham, with close to 600 staff members, the staff reflects the community served. Well over half of the top 50 managers are ethnically diverse. The organization is intentional in hiring from within the community served and from the client population and makes an effort to include Line staff in improving the organization. A committee was created to address diversity at senior levels and to formulate practices for internal advancement. In-house training modules include cultural competency. Graham Windham uses their three advisory councils to stay on top of the community’s emerging issues and needs by listening to key stakeholders. They partner with the communities to improve neighborhoods and both staff and the youth served take part in community service.
  • With a deep commitment to cultural sensitivity, Leake & Watts created a language committee charged with auditing and developing better terminology to describe the constituents (persons supported) and the work being done. Committed to diversity at all levels, 50% of senior management and 87% of the staff are reflective of the community served. Many of the staff are bilingual and speak Spanish, French, Creole, Chinese, several African languages as well as sign language. Leake & Watts has an “agency-wide” initiative on Undoing Racism designed to ensure that all employees and persons served are treated fairly and equally. Staff attends community board and neighborhood organization meetings on a regular basis. Strong relationships with elected officials and partnerships with hundreds of community service organizations help keep them abreast of the ever-changing needs of the community.
  • Row New York emphasizes fostering cultural competence organization- wide.  Job applicant interviews include multiple rounds incorporating supervisor, management team, peer staff members and student-athletes. All staff members receive an introduction to the internal culture presented by senior management with training modules including “LGBTQIA: how you can be an ally,” “Celebrating and Supporting Differences,” and others. Row New York makes an effort to hire program alums and all final candidates for coach, tutor or program director must do a demo lesson with student-athletes to demonstrate their proficiency and cultural competence.  They celebrate diversity in the hiring and onboarding processes, providing extensive training and a reading list for all new staff.

You can see from these examples that each organization’s leadership put in a lot of time and effort to establish strong management practices that enable them to focus on serving their communities well. Congratulations to these three excellent organizations and we look forward to their continued success as shining examples in New York’s nonprofit community .

To learn more about excellent management practices among nonprofits, please join us for the Pathways to Excellence workshops that are part of The New York Community Trust Nonprofit Excellence Awards program.  You can learn more here: http://npexcellence.fcny.org/npea/workshops/.


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