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Nonprofit Management

There’s a Hole in the Budget, Dear Board Chair, Dear Board Chair…

An anthem to the problems many struggling nonprofits face.

Recently I was rushing to an event at my son’s school.  I was coming from a meeting with a nonprofit executive who was having major troubles in an organization facing serious issues.  I made it just in time.  The children began singing some of the classics.  One of the songs was “There’s A Hole in the Bucket”.  Probably because the previous meeting with the struggling nonprofit was still fresh in my head, I began to study the words of this song and it struck me.  This song is not just about a hole in a bucket and the challenges of obtaining water, it was an anthem to what is often the problems we see with organizations that are having challenges.  Before the song has ended, I began piecing in new words to the song.  As the school year is ending, it is also the end of many nonprofit’s fiscal year.  I am sure this is a song that many nonprofit executives can associate with.  I am looking at “London Bridge Is Falling Down” next.  Hope you enjoy:


There’s a hole in the budget, dear Board Chair, dear Board Chair,
There’s a hole in the budget, dear Board Chair, a hole.
Then fix it, dear E.D., dear E.D., dear E.D.,
Then fix it, dear E.D., dear E.D., fix it.

With what shall I fix it, dear Board Chair, dear Board Chair?
With what shall I fix it, dear Board Chair, with what?
Development, dear E.D., dear E.D., dear E.D.,
Development effort, dear E.D., the development effort.

We cut back this office, dear Board Chair, dear Board Chair,
We cut back this office, dear Board Chair, no staff,
Then write up some grants, dear E.D., dear E.D.,
Then write up some grants, dear E.D., more grants.

Foundations have cut back, dear Board Chair, dear Board Chair?
Foundations have cut back, dear Board Chair, their tapped?
Then ask our big givers, dear E.D., dear E.D.,
Then ask our big givers, dear E.D., ask them.

Big spenders are spread thin, dear Board Chair, dear Board Chair,
Big spenders are spread thin, dear Board Chair, spread thin.
Then send out an appeal, dear E.D., dear E.D.,
Then send out an appeal, dear E.D., an appeal.

Our mailing list is in chaos, dear Board Chair, dear Board Chair,
Our mailing list is in chaos, dear Board Chair, in chaos.
Then cut back on programs, dear E.D., dear E.D.,
Then cut back on programs, dear E.D., cut back.

We’re in a firm contract, dear Board Chair, dear Board Chair?
We’re in a firm contract, dear Board Chair, we’ll have to re-pay?
Then hold a fundraiser, dear E.D., dear E.D.,
Then hold a fundraiser, dear E.D., with auction.

With what shall I pay for it, dear Board Chair, dear Board Chair?
With what shall I pay for it, dear Board Chair, with what?
Look at the budget dear E.D., dear E.D.,
Look at the budget dear E.D., the budget.

There’s a hole in the budget, dear Board Chair, dear Board Chair,
There’s a hole in the budget, dear Board Chair, a hole…

Read more stories by John Brothers.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Alexandra Peters

    ON May 30, 2010 02:12 PM

    Okay, this is very entertaining. But are you suggesting that it is the board’s responsibility to find the answers to all of these things? Then why bother hiring an ED or a Director of Development? At what point does the ED take any responsibiity here? The Ed doesn’t seem to have any solutions at all, and the “dear board chair” is hardly affectionate - it’s about as sarcastic as you can get.

    There is a implication that the board chair, who keeps making suggestions that begin with “then…” has no idea how to resolve any of the issues, although the board chair does raise all of the most obvious fixes. Obviously an organization in this sort of trouble needs more than just “fixes”, but the inherent falsity in way the ED and the Board Chair refer to each other as “dear” underlies a lot of anger and blaming. I wish this ditty led to some sort of resolution, at least in having the chair and the Ed understand and appreciate each other. But it left me feeling uncomfortable - this organization is going nowhere.

  • BY John Brothers

    ON May 31, 2010 07:49 AM

    The above is supposed to invoke some discussion and is meant to be a bit silly but to your points I will answer.  In my experience, organizations that are having challenges do get into blaming.  I would say the above could paint the picture that the Board Chair is hands off and taking on just an advisory role.  I would say that you are right, the ED is not necessarily taking on the leadership role very well, but also often times in organizational distress, the ED often lets the problems compound and just goes through the above cycle.  I think I did not want to resolve because unfortunately these things do not often resolve themselves, just go in circles….Thanks for reading and have a great holiday weekend.

  • BY Jeff Imparato

    ON June 4, 2010 08:09 AM

    Quite entertaining and accurate representation of many Board/ED relationships. Fortunately, at my Library, or ED is a great leader who, with his wonderful staff, seek Board members who are committed to our goals. There are challenges of having some follow up on their committments of donor contact, but overall, a positive experience for all.

    Great job, John.

    Jeff

  • BY Don Crocker

    ON June 8, 2010 06:52 PM

    I agree with the entertainment value and also the fact that, indeed, boards often think that management alone is responsible for solving financial problems and do get into “the blame game” when the results are not positive.  In today’s environment there needs to be a real partnerhsip between board and management in reflecting, researching, strategizing, and implementing for long-term sustainability.

    There are far too many boards that leave sustainability issues to management staff without understanding both the power and the responsibility a volunteer nonprofit board has in raising money, determining budget priorities, and planning for sustainability.  Also, far too many think that the hiring of a development person or building a bigger development department can be the cure without their participation.  Often these hires result only in weak or inexperienced development staff as no skilled development person would take a job with a blaming and “hands-off” board.

    Too many recent nonprofit collapses have ended with board members quoted in the paper saying “our downfall can be attributed to weak management - it wasn’t our fault.”  And whose responsibility is it to ensure that the nonprofit has strong management?

    So let’s get clear here - it is a partnership and both management and board need to be focused and responsible.  And indeed there is a strong need for partnership, not blame.

    I disagree that the board chair raises the “obvious fixes” because throwing the problem back at the ED and naming “fix options” doesn’t got to the heart of the matter and doesn’t demonstrate the kind of board leadership we would hope for in our sector.

    Of course, there are many strong and effective nonprofit organizations that have strong board partnerships with shared roles and responsibilities dedicated to organizational resilience and sustainability.  There are also some board chairs and EDs who may have been asleep at the wheel who are now waking up to partnership in light of our dismal economy and resulting financial stressors.

    John, your “ditty” should make us uncomfortable and be a reminder of the need to dismiss blame and the tactic of handing off a “hot potato” in favor of strong shared leadership and close working partnerships dedicated to the communities and clients we serve.

  • Sherry Thomas's avatar

    BY Sherry Thomas

    ON June 9, 2010 01:37 PM

    I loved the ditty because it does exemplify a number of board/staff relationships I’ve observed in my careet.  Right now, I have a board in a tailspin because of very serious problems on their watch (for a decade before bringing in a new ED).

    When a board abdicates its governance, strategic planning and fundraising roles, it is very hard to keep the organization as a whole stable and healthy.  A bit like a three-legged stool missing one leg.  Too many board’s are worried about power without understanding the unintended consequences of their inaction.

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