I recently met with the organizer of a fledgling non-profit, that will help “new Americans” find best place in our society, offering mutual support, and drawing wisely upon existing resources.

Then, after some reflection, I wrote the following summary of our discussion (slightly edited here for publication).  I share it here not for the specifics regarding this new organization, but as a possible model of the kind of thinking needed to give birth to a vital and well purposed group.

Vision — A world in which the phrase “new Americans” is not even necessary, as all are treated with such dignity and respect, and receive assistance fulfilling their potential, in an open society that values differences as well as strength, that supports varied cultural forms, and that is open to growth and change.  [I’ve just listed my thoughts here, probably not in the most refined, and final, wording]

Mission — New Americans helping each other take their full place in the economic and cultural life of this society, sharing their strengths, receiving help and support, and maintaining their dignity and sense of self worth.  In particular, supporting new Americans who have experienced torture and other trauma, as well as abuses from the systems in place that should have offered support and welcome.

Support committee — An informal group offering you (the presumed director) counsel and support, but that has no decision-making power or formal organizational role.  This group could be a group that can be a sounding bound for you, a source of advise, a place to test out ideas without making them visible to the whole community.

Executive Board — The formal group holding the “vessel” that is your organization.  This is a point of organizational grounding, financial accountability, legal integrity.  But it’s not the place where program originates.  Largely consisting of new Americans, it may also draw upon others who can offer expertise in law, finance, non-profit grants, publicity, development, and other such areas.  With good fiscal sponsorship, this group may not be needed right away to handle the organizations’ grant income, etc.  Still, the structure of self-government is important, and experiencing this mechanism of self-determination right away can be an important experience and inspiration.

Community Board — A representative group, that ideally has members from all the ethnic groups being served.  This is the group that identifies and then evaluates program, insuring that it really meets the needs of the communities it is supposed to serve.  You will need to find clarity about how this group should function, how decisions are to be made, etc.

We spent time discussing the names of these last three groups.  I still support my original comments, but believe you could call them anything — as long as you define clear and appropriate roles for each group.

These words are clearly not definitive.  And that’s precisely why I’m sharing them here.  If I’m incorrectly reporting what was shared and generally agreed upon, or if in retrospect some of these ideas are questionable, this is a great time to correct and move forward.

As I work with non-profit boards, these are some of the questions I usually raise.  But you can use these on your own.  I’d welcome feedback about which are most important, which need to be changed, and what should have been included but was not.

Mission / Vision:  Does the organization have a clear mission statement, and a vision of what it seeks to achieve? At what point in time might the mission be accomplished? When has the board last revisited mission and vision? Are staff, board, and executive aligned on mission and vision?  Are mission and vision statements referenced when program ideas, and internal policies are being considered?  Does the board notice when stated mission and actual function are different, and can it take constructive action?

Stakeholders:  Who are the stakeholders, or potential stakeholders? How does the board connect with or represent the stakeholders? If some stakeholders are not in some way represented on the board, how does the organization maintain ties with them? To what groups does the organization feel itself accountable?

Board membership:  How are Board members chosen? Does the board include people with experience to evaluate and clarify the organization’s need for legal services, accounting, publicity, marketing, program development, fundraising human resources, etc.? Is the board primarily a policy-making body, or does it seek is it a “working board” (providing some of these services)? Are there term limits for board members? How does the board identify and cultivate new members with the right skills, experience connections, and commitment?  Is there a training protocol for new board members, and a regular check in with continuing board members as they get re-appointed?

Board  meetings:  Are board meetings well attended lively events, that engage the board and that result in useful dialog and decisions?  Do board members come away excited and involved? Is there a clear agenda, with board questions presented in enough detail and accompanied with enough background material?  Are meetings run in a manner that encourage candid sharing, creative problem solving, and the generation of consensus whenever possible?  Is the board able to listen carefully to minority views, to see how these might provide helpful insights and guidance?  Are minutes taken carefully, and then reviewed by the board? Read the rest of this entry »