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Montana Nonprofit Association Blog

Musings, stories, and resources for the nonprofit sector in Montana.

Saving Squirrels

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TinaB_2016 by Tina Bateman-Schlepp, MNA Communications Manager

Saving Squirrels 

It changed my entire life. We hear this phrase in books and movies, but in the non-fiction world, life altering experiences don’t often find us.

When I tell you that AmeriCorps changed my life — I don’t mean the way that avocado toast or heated seats changed my life — I’m talking about Act III, cue the inspirational ballad, every day is going to be different, kind of life changing. It was the type of experience, that even now, is hard to put into words because nothing can exactly capture the gravity of my feelings and appreciation.

At the age of 26, I decided to leave my job, family, and home in New York to serve in AmeriCorps with the Montana Conservation Corps. I committed to 900 hours of digging trail, working with others, finding myself and giving back to the community. Or, as a colleague put it ‘so, you’re going to save the squirrels, huh?’

Only a few weeks later, I woke up in a tent, in the remote wilderness of Montana, bear spray clutched to my chest thinking, ’what have I done?’

I grew to love my tent, even after it took an enthusiastic dive into Swiftcurrent Creek. The two seasons, totaling 2,600 hours, I spent with the Montana Conservation Corps were some of the best and hardest days of my life. Time has raced on since my last cheesy trail dinner, but the remarkable thing, the thing I want you to know, is that those hours of service changed my life deeply and concretely.

AmeriCorps gave me the gift of service. I left the program with new belief in the resilience of people and the power of community.

Today, I’ve traded the trail for a desk but I think fondly of hikes and dirt, I appreciate the place I live and the people in my life, and consider the ways that I can contribute to my community and the causes I love, including the squirrels.

sunsetEvery person has a right to life’s basic needs and AmeriCorps helps to reach that goal, not only in Montana but across the U.S. This incredible program provides jobs, job training, student debt relief, and continued civic engagement all while being affordable to organizations and communities who need it.

Right now, there are more than 250 AmeriCorps volunteers convened in Helena for the ServeMontana Symposium. The event coincides with AmeriCorps week and includes a citywide food drive, breakout sessions and a disaster simulation. Volunteers spend 4 days together in Montana’s capitol before spreading out across the state to benefit our schools, community development, environmental stewardship, and countless other causes.

The next time you see someone in a grey AmeriCorps T-shirt, thank them for their service and ask them about their experience. I think you will find they are excited to share their stories and laughs, and tell you about how AmeriCorps changed their life.

There is a question in congress of whether to continue funding AmeriCorps. Please show your support for this vital program by sharing your story and contacting your legislators.


Document Retention: More than just the papers piling up on your desk

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by Emily Flemming, MNA Director of Operations

 Document Retention: More than just the papers piling up on your desk

You probably know that there are legal statutes and requirements identifying important documents and how long an organization has to keep them. You probably also have filing cabinets and boxes in storage where accumulated documents are collected. 

But does your policy address the documents stored electronically? The volume of electronically stored information is increasing by an average of 23% per year, and these documents are also subject to record retention requirements. 

These electronic records are important for the same reason paper records are important—legal requirements, sure, but also for efficiency and business continuity. If your default retention system is to store documents online, you may want to revisit your policy and ensure that you’re not going to struggle to locate essential items on your shared drives or individual computers. It’s also recommended to pay particular attention to what parts of your business are conducted via email, and to determine if those records need to be saved in a central location that would be accessible by all parties who would need the information (not just in the sender’s inbox). This also provides a good opportunity to verify that nothing is said over email that could harm the organization as well—we’ve certainly seen emails get pulled in to court proceedings!

Nonprofits, like other businesses, need to keep records of services provided, employees, financial affairs, corporate operations, and previous claims and lawsuits. Nonprofits in particular also need to retain and make available their IRS Form 1023 (permanently) and the organization’s Form 990 or 900 EZ (for a seven year minimum). 

The Better Business Bureau has made a records retention schedule available here. Don’t forget that destroying documents after the appropriate amount of time is also part of a good record retention policy—maybe it’s time to clean out some cabinets!

Additional Resources: 

Top 5 Email Retention Best Practices 

A Beginner's Guide to Record Retention 

If you are an MNA member with a specific question about nonprofit leadership and management, contact MNA for research and assistance as part of your membership benefits.


If there’s an issue or concern impacting your organization, email us at for help!

Desktop as a Service

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by Anderson ZurMuehlen Technology Services
Imagine you are at the airport, your bags are checked, and you hear the announcement to board the plane over the loudspeakers. You reach down to grab your briefcase and it’s not there. You jump up, look around frantically, - it’s nowhere in sight. The reality and magnitude of the situation starts to sink in. All your work papers you downloaded at the office were on your laptop and there were documents saved on your laptop in various stages of completion. Then it really hits you - there was donor information on your laptop! Sadly, more than 12,000 laptops are lost or stolen each week in airports in the U.S. How can you protect yourself and your organization?

Desktop as a Service (DaaS), from Anderson ZurMuehlen changes this situation from an emergency to a mere inconvenience. When you subscribe to our all-inclusive DaaS solution, all you need to do is access any device that is connected to the internet. All of your applications and documents are safely available and your donor’s sensitive data is still protected. In our DaaS environment, all of the workstations, servers, applications, and storage that you need reside in our secure data centers, not on desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. DaaS is supported by our team of experienced engineers allowing you and your staff to focus on what they do best with top notch support and training at their fingertips. 

DaaS provides portability, scalability, and security regarding your IT needs for a monthly per user charge so that you can focus on the mission of your organization.

If your organization has a fully functioning and robust IT department and you prefer to keep your solutions “in-house”, Anderson ZurMuehlen has a full service Cyber Security division that can align your organization with Cyber Security best practices. We perform penetration testing, vulnerability scanning, network architecture review, disaster recover/business continuity planning, IT policy and procedure review or development, IT security employee training programs, and remediation to align your organization’s security level with the appropriate standards. 

Anderson ZurMuehlen has been serving the Montana nonprofit industry for nearly 60 years providing traditional accounting, audit, tax and payroll services and is now thrilled to be offering technology services and consulting that is changing the way Montana nonprofits work. As a Montana firm with offices in Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Havre, Helena and Missoula, we know Montana nonprofit organizations, and we’re ready to share our expertise with you so you can focus on what you do best. 

We invite you to respond to a brief survey of how technology is currently being used in Montana Nonprofits. The results of the survey will be provided to the MNA membership base. Click here to complete the survey and be entered for a chance to win a Samsung Galaxy Tablet!
In addition, click here to sign up to join us for a technology webinar on March 29th to learn how technology can elevate your organization.

March 7: Director's Corner

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LIZ_WEBby Liz Moore 

Director's Corner
The past few months have brought great change and growth to MNA. As we brought on new staff members last fall, we were in a perfect position to evaluate what MNA has accomplished over the past fifteen years, and question what’s next. Our staff meetings and retreats have been rich with generative questions and discussion about member needs, the evolving nonprofit sector, MNA’s relevance and value, and engaging with the next generation, from whom Montana’s future nonprofit leadership will emerge. A topic that has consistently made its way to the forefront is the broad and overwhelming matter of technology. 

Years ago, “online” was the next big thing. For nonprofits, there was a tremendous impetus to engage constituents online, and we all did our best to figure out what that meant and put at least something in place: Facebook, Twitter, etc. And we did this while continuing all our traditional efforts: direct mail, phone fundraising, print ads, and more. To a large extent, these varied efforts still have a place in our workflows. 

Like many of you, I have adapted over time, learned new skills and done my best to understand as many new technology tools as possible. Technology brings a promise of doing more with less, but it has been as challenging for me to learn the world of technology as it would be to learn a new language. I get grumpy. 

Fast forward to today, an era defined by a constant supply of information about new developments in technology and the monumental amount of new software and devices that are available, with new ideas appearing daily. As an association leader I have found developments in technology to be interesting and useful, but with every new advancement that pops up in my inbox, I experience some level of anxiety. If we don’t use this will we fall behind, or are we already behind? If we start using this, what else will have to change? Will I be able to actually learn this? How do I know what I don’t know? As a person who is passionate about the future of the nonprofit sector, this has been challenging. I don’t want technology to be my ceiling, MNA’s ceiling, or a ceiling for the larger nonprofit community in the state. 
Fortunately – there is good news. I lead an amazing staff team – your MNA team – and they are excited about technology and its transformative potential for Montana’s nonprofits. Their can-do attitudes, comfort levels with new technologies, and spirit of adventure are propelling me and MNA toward our technological future. As your association, we are amping up our focus on the opportunities technology brings and ways to address challenges. Our team shares a collective desire and mission to offer resources that increase nonprofit efficiency and effectiveness, including technological resources. 

As we position MNA for the future we are keenly aware that we are simultaneously supporting current nonprofit leaders, some of whom share my trepidation with technology, while engaging with new leaders – the next generation – many of whom live in the deep end of the tech pool. It’s an exciting time for us. I’m smiling as I end this little piece of writing, thinking that absolutely anything could happen. All I need to do is walk to the edge of the pool, plug my nose, squeeze my eyes shut . . . and jump!

Spotlight on MNA Affiliate Member S.G.Long & Company

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Spotlight on MNA Affiliate Member S.G.Long & CompanyM Stark
Michael Stark, Investment Advisor 

 SG Long & Company was founded over 30 years ago by two entrepreneurs that decided to leave large corporate America to build a full service financial service brokerage that served the community and treated clients like family. While our company has grown over the past few decades, the values that inspired the concept of S.G. Long remain the driving forces behind day to day operations. Client relationships, top-tier investment management, and community awareness are the pillars of our firm. Based in Missoula, Montana, SG Long & Company is locally owned and operated and strives to make a positive impact in local and statewide communities.

SG Long and Company is a full service broker/dealer financial firm providing a complete suite of financial solutions for both individuals and institutions. These services include, but are not limited to, retirement, estate and business planning, life disability and long term care insurance, and advising of of 401(k), 403(b), TSA’s, pensions and profit sharing plans. A team of 18 full-time employees work diligently to meet each client’s needs.

SG Long’s affiliate company, SGL Investment Advisors, is a boutique investment firm that manages six custom portfolios, varying by risk tolerance. A research team of experienced professional money managers, located in-house, constructs strategies that focus on limiting downside risk and capturing competitive market upside. Their clients depend on them for their knowledge and expertise in providing appropriate, individually structured investment advice. After clarifying a client’s specific needs and goals, each portfolio is tailored to meet the client’s investing objectives and risk tolerance. This type of research and expertise is rare in the money management industry as layers of employees in large corporate firms make access to portfolio managers and analysts difficult if not impossible.

SGLong TeamSGL Investment Advisors has extensive experience working with non-profit endowments throughout Montana. The needs of each organization are unique and diverse, and a personalized approach is required. We are familiar with the nuances inherent in the management of endowment funds, but also with providing counsel on Investment Policy Statement development, spending policy design, and organizational best processes regarding endowed funds.

For SG Long and Company, giving back to the community is critical to their mission and takes many forms; this could mean volunteering their time, monetary donations, product donations, fund-raising efforts or serving on local non-profit boards. The group also makes an effort to support local events and organizations by encouraging all of their employees to attend, participate and connect with the community in ways that are meaningful to each individual. Some of the community events and causes SG Long and Company supports include the University of Montana John Ruffatto Business Plan Competition, Missoula Economic Partnership, Loyola Sacred Heart Foundation, Missoula Symphony in the Park, Montana Foodbank Network, Youth Homes, Partnership for Children, Greater Ravalli Foundation, Montana Meth Project, World Affairs Council, Missoula Community Chorus, Greek Orthodox Church, W.O.R.D., Providence St. Patrick Hospital Foundation, Missoula Children Theater, Habitat for Humanity, and Missoula Art Museum.

As S.G. Long and Company continues to grow, they remain committed to serving the Missoula Community and beyond with sound financial advice and trusted relationships. Through a process based on in-house, open collaborative communication and a team-oriented focus we maintain loyal dedication to our clients. We at S.G. Long & Company have the expertise, investment products and experience necessary to help you achieve your financial goals. 

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Spotlight on MNA Affiliate Member A2Z Staffing

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Spotlight on MNA Affiliate Member A2Z Staffing   Anna_caption 

During the 13 years of service in the Helena area, A2Z Staffing Solutions has established itself as the only non-franchise employment resource firm in the community, and has been voted by the community as The Best Employment Resource Firm for the past two years! A2Z offers risk free workforce solutions to employers and job seekers on a full-time and part-time basis. Filling permanent, temporary, and temporary to permanent positions, as well as providing bookkeeping and accounting services for nonprofits and business clients throughout Montana. It is also recognized as the only  Women Owned Small Business (WOSB) and Woman Business Enterprise (WBE) firm in Montana as certified by the Women Business Enterprise National Council and Small Business Administration. 

The company has grown substantially and now includes a Nonprofit Division, Labor Division, Medical & Healthcare Division, as well as continuing to serve  government agency clients through the Government Staffing Division; and is a leader within the Staffing Industry. “We help people bring their best work into the world every day,” said Anna Kazmierowski, the company's sole owner, and CEO & President.  Riley Caption 

“We are always looking for innovative solutions, and offer resources to serve our community,” said Kazmierowski. “We observed that nonprofit organizations have been underserved for far too long as an industry throughout the state.” Kazmierowski explained that, as a small business there is only so much A2Z can do to support nonprofits monetarily (having donated over $100,000 to various nonprofits over the last several years). Yet, as a company committed to supporting the community, A2Z looked for innovative ways it could help the nonprofit community.  As a result, the Non-Profit Outreach Division was established.

A2Z Staffing Solutions serves as a valuable partner for many nonprofit clients by acting as an extension of their Human Resources Department. The company does this by providing excellent candidates at the lowest possible rate, as well as assisting nonprofits with their bookkeeping and accounting needs. A2Z Staffing Solutions can provide expertise in payroll administration to include: Davis-Bacon certified payroll  and W-2 filings,  accounts payables and receivables, preparation and filing of quarterly and annual reports, bank statement reconciliations, etc.  Thus, allowing nonprofits to easily save $5,000 - $10,000/year, which is money that can then be reinvested into the organization to support programs and reduce employee turnover. 

Recognitions aside, A2Z Staffing Solutions and its staff work diligently each day to match individuals with positions they can not only be successful in, but also enjoy.  "When employers connect with the right employees, it’s a win-win for everyone involved and makes our community thrive," said Kazmierowski. "You can count on our knowledgeable, professional, and friendly staff to assist you with every employment detail, from A2Z!" 


Back to the Fundamentals: The Common Good

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by Liz Moore
Back to the Fundamentals: The Common Good   

Last week I had a conversation with our board chair about the number of changes taking place at the federal level. She said to me, “Yes, a lot is changing. But I’m also interested in what hasn’t changed.” Her remark got me thinking not only about current policy specifics, but also about longstanding fundamentals that have remained constant over time for nonprofits. This led me to the concept of the common good. It’s not a phrase we use every day, but it is profoundly relevant, especially for those of us working in the nonprofit sector. I’ve heard the common good described in many ways, including this concise explanation: 

“The common good is a way of defining in a single concept the good of the community together with the good of each of its members.”   

Although this description takes more than one reading, I appreciate how it so closely weaves the good of the community with the good of each of its members, and vice versa. Neither stands alone, and the good of one is necessary to the good of the other.  

But here’s the tricky question. When there are differences of opinion – as there always are – who gets to decide what exactly is the common good? Right now, with conflicts and dispute at the federal level and in our communities, this is a valid question.  

In seeking answers, I’ve found myself turning to some of our nation’s founding documents. Last week I read the Constitution to my husband as we drove home from Bozeman. (Yes, he was as thrilled as you might imagine.) This week, it was the Declaration of Independence. 

In reading these documents, it’s clear to me a single person or group doesn’t get to mandate exactly what is the common good – not even our Founding Fathers. Instead, they offer us a roadmap dotted with phrases like general welfare, equality and the unalienable rights of all – including life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. These are the mile-markers of our democracy, and it is in the context of these values that the nonprofit structure emerged. Nonprofits are critical to our country’s ability to achieve what is set out in these founding documents. Nonprofit endeavors are how we, the people, reach for these ideals. 1.5 million nonprofits across the nation, including more than 7000 in Montana, represent our highest and best wishes for ourselves and our great national community – our common good.  

In order to fulfill our role, then, nonprofits accept a dual mandate. First, we turn outward: vocally and visibly fighting against threats and barriers to societal wellbeing, and advancing the general welfare through the delivery of services, advocacy and civic engagement. That has not changed. Second, we look inward: remaining nonpartisan, avoiding an agenda that serves the few at the expense of the many, maintaining the highest ethical standards, being trustworthy, and staying focused on mission. That too has not changed.  

We have our work cut out for us. These mandates are not new, but recommitting to them can be a theoretical exercise, or it can be pragmatic, powerful and effective, distancing us from the distracting noise and chatter we’re experiencing on so many levels, and bringing us back to our center – the day to day work of advancing the common good, which is the distinctive and unchanging role nonprofits occupy in our democracy.  

Post-Election Issues, Opportunities, and MNA’s Call to Action

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NPDay Banner  


LIZ_WEBPost-Election Issues, Opportunities, and MNA’s Call to Action

Regardless of our leanings, it’s fair to say most of us were surprised by the election results two weeks ago.  Responses have run the gamut from fear and disbelief to relief and optimism. And by now, many of us have transitioned to a “wait and see” mode.  Based on what I’m hearing and reading, I suggest “wait and get ready” might be a more appropriate stance for nonprofit leaders. Three ways we can prepare now for change – even though we’re not sure what to expect are to:  1) learn what we can about the big issues nonprofits will be facing; 2) imagine the opportunities that might emerge; and 3) champion our values.  

In today’s policy update, we offer an analysis done by the National Council of Nonprofits,  an overview of opportunities presented by Heather Iliff, President and CEO of Maryland Nonprofits, and MNA’s call to action. This is a longer-than-usual update, but I suggest it’s worth bookmarking and taking time to see what’s there for you. We are in new territory – and we need to be as prepared as possible for leadership.  



The National Council of Nonprofits provides us with an excellentanalysis of the election in which they look at key federal and state-level issues impacting charitable nonprofits in light of the election. A handful of federal issues rise to the top based on their review of promises made during the campaign and existing policy positions: 


  •  Supreme Court: Scholars are predicting President-elect Trump’s nominees, if confirmed by the Senate, are likely to create a Court more receptive to challenges to abortion rights, class-action lawsuits, environmental regulations, property use, and other issues.
  • Executive Orders and Regulatory Reform: The Trump Transition office has announced that the incoming administration plans to pursue regulatory reform. Likely Executive Orders facing harsh scrutiny relate to the status of immigrants, protections for gender identity, and numerous mandates on government contractors.
  •  Spending Priorities: Early statements from the Trump Transition office suggest increases in defense spending, which could be paid for through more severe cuts to programs serving human needs. This could reduce financial support for work in communities while amplifying the presumption that nonprofits and foundations will somehow, yet again, “pick up the slack.”
  •  Tax Reform: The Trump tax plan, which the transition team summarizes as “lower, simpler, fairer, and pro-growth,” calls for capping itemized deductions at $100,000 for individuals and $200,000 for couples.  One analysis of this plan reduces charitable giving as much as $26.1 billion per year.
  •  Nonprofit Electioneering Ban: Candidate Trump and his 2016 Party Platform called for repeal of the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” the federal tax law ban on 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits and private foundations engaging in partisan election-related activities. The National Council of Nonprofits and many organizations have long recognized that 501(c)(3) nonprofits gain more power, independence and public trust through a nonpartisan identity.
  •  Health Care Reform: The incoming administration promises to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). One potential proposal this summer would change the Medicaid health care program for low-income and disabled individuals by providing states with a choice of either per capita allotments or block grants.


The National Council of Nonprofits includes in their analysis a very well done review of state-level pressures that ask nonprofits to do more with less by imposing new fees, cutting tax benefits, reducing state spending, or de-incentivizing charitable giving.



Heather Iliff of Maryland Nonprofits described five opportunities nonprofits might find in a Trump administration. Her geography is vastly different from Montana’s, but the principles hold up:  


  •  Reform of Government:   Many voters, not only those who voted for Trump, were trying to send a signal that the whole system needs an overhaul.  Though change may be painful, if nonprofits are active and engaged with the Trump Administration, we could help shape a rebuild that includes greater community empowerment, innovation, and insight. 
  •  Big Infrastructure:  One of the few policy items that the President-elect mentioned in his victory speech was the need to invest in infrastructure. While we can expect to see a decline in support for anti-climate change initiatives, other investments such as green initiatives, broadband, the electricity grid, and transportation could be transformational if communities are engaged rather than sidelined in the planning process. 
  •  Inner Cities and Rural Areas:  President-Elect Trump has promoted the idea of rebuilding inner cities, which have faced systemic disinvestment for decades.  Strong engagement by the nonprofit community can help shape rebuilding to ensure local citizens are empowered and strengthened, not displaced.  Rural nonprofit organizations – many of whom voted overwhelmingly for Trump – must engage in shaping strategies for investments that meet the unique needs of rural America.
  •  Deregulation:  Nonprofits, especially in the health & behavioral health, human services, child welfare and disabilities fields, are faced with nearly crushing regulations that govern how services are delivered, rather than focusing on outcomes.  If nonprofits are involved in the deregulation process, we could put people first, focus on efficient and effective practices, and reward organizations for succeeding.
  •  Favored Causes and the Private Sector:  Certain causes which tend to be favored by Republicans create opportunity for organizations working in those areas: pregnancy aid centers, veteran’s organizations, and programs focused on self-reliance may have new opportunities.  Mrs. Trump’s focus on anti-bullying or other causes may gain donor and public funding attention. It is crucial for nonprofit leaders to remind policy makers that we are a critical part of the private sector. 



Without question the 2016 election results escalated tension, fear, and division in communities and relationships across the country and in Montana. As champions of civil society, Montana’s nonprofits must move quickly and decisively to address violations of civil rights and human dignity. Where we see injustice or threats to human rights, we must be bold. Here are some suggestions: 


  • Invite different perspectives, diverse opinions, and deeper dialogue on controversial or difficult issues. Nonprofit leaders are in a unique position to promote safe, respectful community engagement. Let’s not wait for opportunities – let us deliberately create them.  One step we are taking at MNA is to include more focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as we revise the Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence in Montana. Our goal is for organizations to imbed DEI into their management and leadership practices across the board.
  • Use every avenue to increase awareness of how community members can respond to real or threatened injustice. From a “Not in our Town” campaign such as we saw in the community of Billings, to publishing information about Montana’s human rights organizations on our websites, let’s proactively send the message that communities offer sanctuary where hate and injustice will not be tolerated.
  • Especially in the public policy realm, reach across differences to promote civil dialogue. I recently read a well-written op-ed piece by Dorothy Bradley and Bob Brown, former legislators who sat on different sides of the aisle but spoke to the power of communicating directly and respectfully with each other.
  • Understand more about how social media is playing a larger role in shaping and influencing public opinion. Social media has blurred the lines between opinion and actual news in far-reaching ways. It has also allowed us to express vitriol in ways we couldn’t imagine doing face to face.  Let’s change that.


On a personal note, I hope uncertainty and change will propel me to become more compassionate, kind and grateful. I’m acutely aware of my inability to control so much of what happens in the world around me. But I can control my responses. And that’s the over-riding message of today’s policy alert. Regardless of where any one of us stands on the 2016 election, we have choices to make to ensure a better future for all our people. For nonprofit leaders – this is our role and now is our time.  


5 Grant Management Best Practices

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 TammyBy Tammy Tilzey   

Grant management is often overlooked and underappreciated. But if you’ve ever had to work in an organization where no thought or resources were given to tracking and managing the grant fundraising efforts, you quickly realize that it is a necessary discipline to keep things running smoothly and efficiently. Using effective grant management in your organization is like putting oil into your car – it keeps everything running smoothly!    

Also - if you are looking to improve results from your grantseeking efforts, it may surprise you that the answer is not always in finding more funders or filling out more applications. The answer may be to "sharpen your saw" and improve your grant management process. Think of it this way – how much time could you and your organization spend on higher-return activities if you could eliminate time-consuming administrative tasks like these:    

  •  Following up with and reminding team members of their grant related assignments and when they are due    
  •  Remembering the proposal deadlines, and when your grant reports are due   
  •  Searching through previous grant applications for elements you want to reuse in another grant proposal, or gathering all the necessary supporting documents   
  •  Preparing summary reports for your management team on grant funding status    


Below are 5 suggestions that will help you improve your grant process and help you focus your precious time on other, more impactful activities.    

  1. Create a grant tracking list / calendar that is easy to keep up to date, and available to the entire team.     
  2. Organize your funders, record important communications, and track your grant history.     
  3. Coordinate your grant team's responsibilities to stay on schedule and know what is coming up next.     
  4. Assemble a library of common answers and supporting documents.     
  5. Track your progress and produce regular status updates.   


1.Create a Grant Tracking List / Calendar     

A grant calendar can help you and your organization keep on track. It should remind you of your funder’s proposal deadlines and help you submit your grant reports on time.   

There are many ways to track your grants. Your grant calendar may consist of a white board or wall calendar, a shared Outlook or Google calendar, a task management system, spreadsheets, or ideally – a grant management solution, like GrantHub, that ties all these pieces into one cohesive system. Whatever you use, you should strive to meet the following criteria:    


  • Everyone has visibility to upcoming deadlines.   
  • Task owners receive reminders when items are coming due.   
  • Everyone on the grant team can see their upcoming deadlines and easily access grant documents.   
  • You have a process to continually add new opportunities to your calendar.   
  • Recurring funding opportunities are always reflected in your future plan.   
  • The system seamlessly facilitates the communication of your grant plan, progress, and results.   


At the start of your grant efforts, you may be just fine using a manual process and applications you already have on hand. But if you start receiving more grants, you may soon find that you are spending more time maintaining your solution and having less time available to focus on building relationships with funders and engaging in other fundraising activities. Be sure you reassess your grant management needs and tools at regular intervals so it can grow with you.   


2. Organize Your Funders and Grant History     

Tracking key information about the funders you work with is a good practice. Often this information resides at best in someone’s email folders or, at worst, in their head. This puts your organization’s fundraising capabilities at risk. It is vitally important that you document key contact information, past results, and funding priorities, and make it accessible to those who need the information. In our research of funders and grantseekers – we found that these items were most important to track:   

Funder name, website link & other key contact info, link to their 990’s, EIN, areas they fund, typical funding range, funder type, their social media links, notes of past conversations, and a list of your past grant history with them.    


Having quick access to details on your past, present, and future grant requests is a key part of grant management. The ability to track and access dates related to funding requests can make the difference between having a sustainable grant practice and one in which you are constantly running behind, apologizing for missing dates, and losing out on funding opportunities. Our research found that it was helpful to track:   

Grant name, status, funder, funder program, contact at the funder, who wrote the grant, proposal / LOI deadlines, requested amount, targeted program/restrictions, application method/details, date submitted, decision date, amount awarded, grant term, notes about the grant and easy access to all the grant documents associated with this grant.     


3.Coordinate Your Grant Team Responsibilities while Staying on Schedule     

Your grant management solution can keep you on track, highlight tasks that are falling behind schedule, and remind team members of upcoming items that are coming due. Being able to quickly see what is coming up in the next two weeks or quickly see a high level view by month is critical to keeping the process running smoothly.   


Grant management solutions can be utilized to track important deadlines and send email reminders of deadlines when they are approaching. This can be a great time saver for the person who is organizing all the elements of a grant proposal and responsible for the final submission. Spending less time reminding people and more time on finding new funders, writing more powerful proposals, and nurturing relationships with funders is a good tradeoff. If you don’t have a grant management solution – then make sure you have an organized approach to tracking all the requirements for a successful proposal and who is responsible. Spending time upfront to identify everything that is needed and who is responsible helps you weed out funders that you are not a great fit with – which saves you lots of time if you catch that early in your process.    


4. Assemble a Library of Boilerplates and Supporting Documents.     

Spend time making sure you and your organization is ‘grant-ready’. There are several grant ready resources available. Find one that you like and use it to make sure you have all your ducks in a row. It is estimated that you can complete up to 80 percent of the effort to create a funding proposal before you even know which funder you will be applying to. Having this work done upfront helps you complete more applications in less time. And the time saved can then be spent in higher value activities that will set your proposal apart from others.   


An answer library is a place where you can collect important documents, templates, boilerplates and answers to common questions. If it is online, everyone on your grant team can easily locate, access, and use the best and most current information for their grant work. What's in it for you? You don’t have to hunt to find past applications, copy and paste, and risk sending something outdated to the wrong funder! And – if everyone has access to the repository themselves, you can control the content, but don’t have to be the bottleneck on distributing it to those who also need these items.    


Now when you sit down to write, you will have all the ingredients easily accessible. Or, if you have an intern or other supporting help, they can utilize these resources to compile a first draft for you. An answer library can really help streamline the development and writing of your proposals.   


5. Internally report on your progress at key intervals.      

You should also be prepared to pull together summary reports that can effectively communicate to your organization and Board the current status and progress of your grantseeking efforts. Depending on the type of grant management solution you use, this can take a few clicks—or potentially hours of time manipulating spreadsheets every time you need to report.    


Once you start reporting on particular metrics, you can tune your grant tracking process to be more timely and consistent in tracking the information needed to create those reports. A question that is often asked – what types of grant status reports and metrics should I start with? In our research on what metrics grantseekers would most often wish to report on, we found that reporting on grants by status (planned, in-progress, pending, awarded, denied, etc.) was the most common report. Other metrics and reports such as Grant Win Percentage, Upcoming Grant Deadlines by Month, or Top Funders by Program reports were also desired.    


An excellent link to another blog post that discusses the different types of metrics and reports that can help you build a sustainable grant practice is found here:    


Conclusion: Why worry about grant management?   

A grant management solution helps you stay organized and prepared to answer questions like these:   

  • What do we need to do to increase the success rate of our grant efforts?   
  • If we had more money, what investment (in people, tools, training, skills, consultants, etc.) would we want to make?   
  • What is involved in successful grantseeking, and why does it take time to do well?   
  • What would it take to get our organization ready to apply to more funders?   

convertableWhen you are prepared, organized, and have the data you need, you can be depended upon to provide your organization with solid advice. Your system can also help you become recognized as a knowledgeable grant professional, increasing the power of your recommendations. An effective grant management process also helps show the results of your efforts and investments, and support your need to make data-driven decisions. If you want to get the best return on your grantseeking efforts, you will want to use tools and processes that help save time and increase the amount of funding you receive.   




Tammy Tilzey, Director of GrantHub  

Three Steps Toward Greater Capacity

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 by Liz MooreLmoore 

Three Steps Toward Greater Capacity

 Almost 400 of you received the 2016 Northwest Nonprofit Capacity Report at the MNA Conference. Over the next four months we will highlight some of the most interesting information about Montana nonprofits’ strengths and challenges in the areas of public policy, collaboration, evaluation, and capacity. We start with nonprofit capacity building.

For the four years we’ve done this survey, insufficient capacity has consistently topped the list of issues nonprofits face. This year, in order to learn more, we asked survey takers to identify their top capacity building needs. Six primary themes emerged from these open-ended responses. In the infographic below, you can see how Montana nonprofits ranked their capacity and their most significant needs.



One of the most interesting findings in the survey was the gap between respondents’ self- assessment of their financial capacity (ranging from 5.4) and their self-assessment of their effectiveness in accomplishing their mission (8.4). It doesn’t make sense to us that we rate capacity as one of the lowest scores on the entire survey and mission achievement as one of the highest scores. This seems like a discrepancy. The statistically significant spread between these two rankings prompted more questions. While we don’t really have answers, we do have some observations. 

First, maybe we are simply reluctant to rank ourselves low on effectiveness because what nonprofit in their right mind would do that? Or maybe we’re disinclined to say we have sufficient capacity . . . because what nonprofit in their right mind would say that? We’re accustomed to simultaneously saying we are achieving our mission yet don’t have enough resources to achieve our mission. Maybe we need to figure this out.   

Second, sometimes we think money is the answer to our capacity needs. For sure, our data shows that organizations who rate themselves higher in capacity don’t have the smallest budgets. But budget size isn’t everything. The organizations who rate themselves highest on capacity have three characteristics worth noting: 1) they have more than three months of reserves; 2) they have a written budget; 3) they have a written strategic plan. There’s no guarantee that having these three things will get you the capacity you need; however, having financial reserves, written budgets and strategic plans are in your own control. By focusing on these three things, you can presumably get closer to having sufficient capacity. It’s not magic, but it’s a step forward.

Third, the need for personnel is so significant in Montana. 40% of nonprofits who took the survey said the need was “urgent”. So many nonprofits are struggling with employee recruitment and retention. The Department of Labor overtime regulations that increase exempt salaries is two-edged. On the one hand – how do we afford it? On the other, might it help with employment recruitment and retention? MNA’s workforce training and cost-saving products support the nonprofit workplace, but we know we aren’t solving the problem.  As we move into our strategic planning process, MNA will be examining how we might further address this need for a nonprofit workforce. If you have thoughts on this, please comment below or email us.

Today’s e-news includes several resources designed to help you reach more sufficient capacity. To the 138 organizations who took the 2016 Northwest Nonprofit Capacity survey – thank you! We are so appreciative. The full report can be found online here. If you weren’t at the 2016 MNA Conference and you want a hard copy, please let us know and we’ll send one your way. 

Frontline Processing: Helping Nonprofits Process for a Purpose

(Products and Services) Permanent link

 Bethany SchulerMy name is Bethany Schuler. I am a recent graduate from Montana State University and the Marketing Director at Frontline Processing. Frontline Processing is a payment processor and merchant service provider based out of Bozeman, Montana. This summer I have had the honor of working with Frontline’s ambitious and exuberant staff including Chris Kittler, CEO and owner.  If I had to describe Frontline in just a few words I would describe the company as committed, hardworking, and knowledgeable.

You might be wondering how Frontline Processing relates to Montana Nonprofit Association. I am writing today to tell you just that. Frontline Processing is MNA’s preferred electronic payment and merchant service provider. MNA and Frontline have enjoyed a partnership for two years which originated from Frontline’s commitment and determination to create a revenue generation program, Processing for a Purpose, which benefits both Montana Nonprofits and the Montana business community. 

I’d like to share the powerful story of how Processing for a Purpose came to be. In February of 2011, Chris Kittler’s son joined the track team at Sweet Grass High School and returned home later that evening with dilapidated track gear for the upcoming season. To help find a solution to this issue Chris called the gentleman who ran the Sweet Grass Booster Club and the coach of the Sweet Grass track team. They explained that the reason behind the worn-out gear was a lack of funding.

Chris thought about how his company could help the Sweet Grass Booster Club earn the funds that they desperately needed. Chris proposed that by partnering with Frontline, the booster club could refer merchants and earn a percentage of the revenue that Frontline typically invested into sales and marketing.  After working out details of the program, Chris met with the booster club and discovered six out of the twelve board members were businesses owners in Big Timber. All six of the business owners signed up for, what is now, Processing for a Purpose.   

Later that spring, Chris put an ad in the Big Timber newspaper announcing the program and signed up 30 merchants to participate in the program. As a result, the booster club’s monthly income substantially increased and the athletic programs, as well as other school programs, were able to get the funding they desperately needed to support the growing minds at Sweet Grass High.

Today, the program has flourished into Processing for a Purpose, where Frontline envisions raising money for nonprofits across Montana and far beyond. With a combination of Frontline’s dedication to the community and their unique financial perspective, they are excited to offer this opportunity to members of the MNA.

To learn more about Processing for a Purpose please we invite you to attend the Generating New Revenue for your Cause workshop at the 2016 MNA Conference on Tuesday, September 27 from 2:30 – 4:30 p.m. at the Radisson Colonial Hotel in Helena. This special session was designed for conference-goers who are interested in diversifying and increasing their revenue, while learning the latest trends in digital fundraising. There is no cost or obligation – just a desire to learn how Processing for a Purpose can take your partnership with business to another level. Together, we can grow our purpose!


Civil Dialogue: A Nonprofit Leadership Mandate

(Policy) Permanent link

 Liz-Moore-Executive-Directorby Liz Moore

This summer I’ve found myself asking what a state nonprofit association’s response should be to the political and social climate we’re living in. What is MNA’s role? What is the role of the nonprofit sector at large? Is there a universal message which transcends our individual missions and goals, moving our communities and conversations forward? I believe there is, and it relates to civil dialogue.

Nonprofit leaders are uniquely positioned to promote and model a type of civic engagement which intentionally invites a variety of perspectives and opinions to the conversation. However, to do this in a way that builds rather than destroys, we must deal with the concept of tension. Tension is going to arise when we bring disparate opinions to any issue of significance.

Here is a real-time, nonprofit leadership example.

The recent U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) regulations on overtime are intended to carry forward a social justice initiative. As it currently stands, employees in countless industries who make more than just $23,660 per year are classified as exempt, which means they are routinely working beyond forty hours per week with no additional compensation. We might like to think it doesn’t happen in Montana, but it does. Check out the wage structure in fast food shops. So we start with a social justice issue in which something isn’t working and needs to change.

Then we have a solution that doubles the exempt employee threshold to $47,476. In other words, an exempt employee must be paid at least this amount or be paid overtime for any hours over forty. This new national standard will be applied across the board, whether you live in a low-wage state like Montana, or a higher wage state like California or New York. You can see the tension arising. The national standard is creating very real difficulty for Montana’s nonprofit employers. Leaders have moral support for the new regulations but operational anxiety about how to implement them.

In today’s eNews, we’re once again offering information and resources about the new DOL regulations. We don’t have a panacea or magic solution. However, we see the effectiveness of being informed and offering thoughtful, well-rounded responses, absent a cure-all.

A fundamental aspiration of the charitable nonprofit community is the pursuit of the common good. In our pursuit, we are called upon as nonprofit leaders to strive for a future in which an opportunity for the good life is available to all. At the same time, we are asked to understand and promote an economic climate that can support such a promise. We do not have the luxury of ignoring the great tension that can emerge between these two concepts. To occupy our place as leaders in the civil sector, we must practice and model behaviors that are harder, more complicated, and more time-consuming. We must stop seeking the panacea and learn to handle and appropriately address tension. If you – like me – are asking “what can I do?”, this is one possible avenue forward. Be well.

Home on the Range: Nonprofits in Rural Montana

(Org. Development, Networking, Conference) Permanent link
by Liz Moore Liz-Outside

Next week MNA will be in Sidney, Montana hosting Nonprofit Kaleidoscope 2016, a conference for nonprofit leaders in eastern Montana and western North Dakota. As we prepare to spend several days in one of my favorite parts of the state, I find myself thinking about conversations we have had at MNA about serving rural and remote areas in Montana. One of the questions that comes up is whether it is fundamentally different to be a rural nonprofit as compared to a nonprofit located in one of a larger community. I think the answer is “yes and no”.

On the one hand, the fundamentals of nonprofit leadership and management remain the same regardless of where the nonprofit lives or the resources available to the organization. The principles of good governance, strategic planning, human resource management, and financial oversight hold true regardless of where a nonprofit is located, the resources available, the age and size of the organization, etc. In this way, all nonprofits are alike.

On the other hand, the “ecosystem” in which the nonprofit resides makes a tremendous difference to the organization, and any in-depth consideration of organizational development must consider this. The types of resources nonprofits need are the same across the board. Ability to access resources differs greatly depending on where the nonprofit resides. Here are several components of what we might think of as a nonprofit ecosystem, and how they play out based on rural vs. less rural location:

Workforce: Based on conversations with nonprofit leaders across the state, we understand a qualified workforce may be the greatest challenge faced by Montana’s nonprofit organizations. In a rural community, that challenge is multiplied. One rural leader said it this way, “When we have an executive leave, the nonprofit might actually end up shutting the doors for a year or two because there is simply no one to take his/her place.” This extends into volunteerism as well, including recruiting board members. There is a phenomenon in small towns affectionately called STP: Same Ten People. Meaning, the same small group of leaders are on multiple boards.

The Economy. I’m particularly mindful of the impact of the local economy as we travel to Sidney, where economic changes have been so dramatic in the past few years. The local economy impacts everything from individual and corporate charitable giving, to volunteerism and the demand for services in the community. While economics impacts rural and non-rural communities indiscriminately, organizations in larger communities often have more options available to help them manage change. Examples include using interns instead of hiring or legal resources to assist with mergers. In small communities, economic variations – good or bad – are experienced intimately and immediately, and securing resources to address them can be difficult to impossible. In a slightly different take on economics, I recall a conversation in Sidney during the boom when nonprofit leaders reported they couldn’t get Americorps candidates to choose their community. And even if they could, housing was almost impossible.

Philanthropy: Most of us are familiar with the Philanthropic Divide, a concept Big Sky Institute named when discussing the philanthropic disparity rural communities face. We believe there is also a philanthropic subdivide: the most rural communities have the greatest amount of difficulty attracting foundation funding. We understand the reasons for this, and it makes us especially grateful for Montana foundations that specifically focus on rural programs. Individual and corporate philanthropy can also be challenging. Thank you to the local community foundations who are addressing this in rural communities.

Administrative Infrastructure: This is a big category that could start with the question, “Do you have internet access?” Most of us can’t imagine operating without internet, and yet according to Broadband Now , Montana is the 50th least connected state. Many rural communities don’t have a print shop or ready access to phone, copier, and other IT resources. Securing a good bookkeeper is hard in many communities – even more so in Montana’s rural towns.

Clearly Montana’s nonprofits have a great deal in common – regardless of location. However, it’s also true that our state’s more rural nonprofits face challenges that are magnified because of where they live. As we travel to Sidney next week, we go with an appreciation for the unique ecosystem of eastern Montana and for rural nonprofits who work every day to make their respective communities “Home on the Range.” We look forward to seeing you there!

Reaching Deeper

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 Krys Holmes, Myrna Loy Center Executive Director 

 This is a portrait of some of my best friends. What we see of them is only part of the story, but what lies below the waterline is who they really are. My best friendships go deep because the part of me that lies below the waterline—the heart and soul of me—resonates with my friend on a deep level.

I feel this way about the Myrna Loy Center, and I’ll bet you feel the same about your nonprofit. We devote ourselves to what engages us deeply, beyond what we can see or describe or explain.

The iceberg is a great metaphor for a friendship or an organization. I adopted this metaphor at last year’s MNA conference from Steve Patty. He led two half-day workshops on how to identify and engage with the part of your nonprofit that lies below the waterline. This is the part that is hardest to name, measure, and change, but where the substance of your organization is centered. The visible part above the waterline represents what you do. The shape and character of the entire iceberg determines how you are in the world—how you move and relate and create change and resonate in your community.

And a lot of our impact comes out of this deeper, less visible center.

So how do you measure and communicate your impact, when much of it lies below the waterline? How do we evaluate, communicate, and change what’s going on way down there in the heart of our organizations? How do you collect data that shows the true value of your work?  And how do we tell the story of that impact so it reflects accurate data and engages people deep in their hearts?

If you’re asking those questions about your own nonprofit, Steve Patty is your man. His upcoming sessions in Helena, Great Falls, and Kalispell on Getting to What Matters will be a gift to Montana’s nonprofit community—as his shorter workshops were last fall.

Patty asks, What are you curious about? If you could know one thing that would help you push your organization forward, what would it be? He quotes David Cooperrider’s statement: “Every organization grows in the direction of its most persistent inquiries.” We move in the direction of our gaze. Like my dog (no deep iceberg, that one) we go where curiosity takes us.

Patty’s workshop helps leaders like us articulate a path for the query, formulate what questions to ask, and how to ask them. In short, he teaches how to snorkel below the waterline and move our organizations forward from the heart.

Let’s dive. Let’s lead from the heart. 

Nonprofits in Focus

(Org. Development, Conference) Permanent link

Liz-Moore-Executive-Directorby Liz Moore, Executive Director

In 2013, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote, “Focused leaders can command the full range of their own attention. . . Learn to master your attention, and you will be in command of where you, and your organization, focus.” Such a simple statement yet such an extraordinary challenge.

Never before has our ability for deep, sustained focus and attention been under such assault. Technology, information and choices are coming toward us at lightning speed, much faster than our ability to process. Our natural inclinations are to try to pay attention to everything. It used to be our survival was dependent upon it. Today, our survival may be dependent on paying attention to less.

The 2016 MNA Conference, Nonprofits in Focus, addresses the topic of focus as one of the most pressing issues facing nonprofit staff members, boards and other volunteers. From maintaining strategic focus to analyzing data, strengthening collective activity, or merely managing the inbox and calendar, nonprofit leaders must strengthen their ability to focus on what matters. Here is the good news: focus is a skill that can be developed and exercised. None of us can control the pace of information, possibilities and choices coming our way. But we can gain control of our own attention and harness the power of focus to propel us forward in achieving our respective missions.

Imagine what would happen if a colleague greeted you with, “How are you?”. Instead of saying, “Busy. Overwhelmed. Stressed.”, you reply, “Focused. Paying attention to what matters. Achieving great things.” Attend the 2016 MNA Conference, Nonprofits in Focus, and join 400 or more of your colleagues to up your impact by paying more attention to what matters and giving less attention to all the rest.

Turning Statistics into Story

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 Liz-Moore-Executive-Directorby Liz Moore

Today’s eNews includes several standout resources that use data to deepen our understanding of various aspects of the nonprofit sector. In MNA’s 2014 Montana Nonprofit Sector in Brief report, 125 Montana nonprofit leaders gave themselves a tepid score on use of community and program data in the planning process. They also highlighted a need for access to good quality data, especially in the more rural communities.


Anyone who has recently filled out a grant report for state or federal funding is likely to agree with us that plenty of data is being collected! Nonetheless – compiling, analyzing, drawing conclusions, reporting on, and making good use of data is quite challenging. Many of us have asked questions such as:

  • What data do we really need and how do we find it?
  • How do we turn statistics into a story that really says what we do?
  • How do we focus our attention on the data that really matters?

At MNA we are exploring and accumulating resources that are data rich and have relevance to Montana’s nonprofits. We’ll be sharing those with you in a variety of ways in the coming months. If you haven’t saved the date for Steve Patty’s training in Helena, Great Falls or Kalispell (June 6-8, respectively) – this might be a good time to do just that. Steve was a 2015 Conference favorite with his focus on evaluation, understanding what matters, and creating an organizational culture aimed at maximizing impact. Steve made believers of us: data does not have to be dry or geeky. It can be revolutionary.

If you have particular data sources you’d like to share with other MNA members, let us know. We’ll get the word out. We at MNA tend to look for data sources about the nonprofit sector as a whole, so your information about resources specific to areas such as the arts, health, early childhood, etc., will be very useful for us and others. Please share!


Dues Increase and the Value of Membership

(Membership) Permanent link

 Liz-Moore-Executive-DirectorGreetings MNA members

Thank you for being one of more than 600 MNA members. You are the heart of this organization and the catalyst for all we have accomplished since our inception in 2001.

As we embark on our 15th year as your association, we announce a membership dues increase, the first since 2008. The new dues will go into effect July 1, 2016.

Associations use two different approaches to dues increases: incremental annual increases, AKA “creep”, or the occasional “leap”, such as this increase, which was approved by the MNA board in 2014. In 2008, the first MNA dues increase averaged 25%; the 2016 increase will average 10.5%. Building on an excellent foundation laid in our earliest years, the past eight years have been remarkable for our association::

  • Our nonprofit membership base has grown from 481 to 593, a 23% increase.
  • In 2008, MNA offered 9 workshop/webinars and the Annual Conference; in 2015 more than 1200 nonprofit leaders participated in one of MNA’s 35 educational offerings, including an Annual Conference with our highest attendance ever.
  • In 2015 members saved more than $1.3 million through MNA’s cost-saving and group buying programs including affordable health insurance, a low-cost unemployment insurance option, a revenue-generating credit card processing program, custom graphic design & print services, the #1 nonprofit job board in the state, background checks, and more.
  • All MNA members are – by affiliation – members of the National Council of Nonprofits which adds tremendous volume and value to our policy voice at the state and national levels. In 2016, MNA will pay $8/per member to the Council of Nonprofits, a 60% increase since 2013.

In 2016 we celebrate our 15th year. As your association, we are proud to have kept dues flat over the past eight years, during which we weathered a recession and saw a 13.5% increase in the consumer price index. We recognize every dollar you bring in is hard-earned, and our solid commitment is to continue bringing value to you – our members – as we’ve done for a decade and a half. Looking back, we can say with certainty Montana’s nonprofit community is stronger, more cohesive, and more effective than ever before because of this amazing network we call the Montana Nonprofit Association, of which you are the center.

Since MNA’s inception fifteen years ago, much has changed. One constant has remained: together we are Many Missions, One Voice. Thank you for your continued membership. It is our joy to be your partner.


New Dues Table 
  Annual Operating Budget   Current Dues   Dues after July 1, 2016 
Less than $25,000 $35 $40
$25,000-$124,999 $75 $85
$125,000-$249,999  $125 $135
$250,000-$499,999 $175 $200
$500,000-$999,999 $225 $250
$1,000,000-$1,999,999 $300 $325
$2,000,000-$2,999,999 $350 $375
$3,000,000-$3,999,999 $475 $525
$4,000,000-$3,999,999 $525 $575
$5,000,000 and higher $600 $650


Asking the Right Questions

(Org. Development) Permanent link

 Liz-Mooreby Liz Moore

Last week my colleague Julia Gustafson and I spent time in Dillon and Missoula presenting on the topic of board governance and leadership. During the workshop, we referenced a book entitled Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor. According to the authors, the most effective boards must function in three modes: fiduciary, strategic and generative.

Fiduciary stewardship and strategic leadership, the two modes most familiar to us, are primarily concerned with finding the right answers, e.g., “Are the financials healthy?”, “What is our approach given XYZ events?”, and “Are we headed in the right direction?” Generative leadership, on the other hand, is more concerned with coming up with the right questions than it is the right answers. This mode of governance is less straightforward, and involves intentionally framing up questions that push us to notice and make sense of the larger universe in which we operate. From there, the answers will come, and the depth and quality of those answers will be a direct result of the provocative, catalytic discussion that emerges when the right questions are asked.

Chait’s book includes many examples of catalytic, “what do you make of this” questions, including:

“What is the most important lesson we learned (in the last year)?”
“Why did we fail to fulfill particular strategic priorities?”
“How would we respond if . . . “
“If we could successfully take over another organization, which one and why?”

Generative leadership is certainly more involved than asking the right questions, but the point of Chait’s book is that nonprofit leaders intentionally create structures and a culture that promote generative thought.

I recently experienced two board-level conversations that brought the power of asking “the right question” home to me. Governance-as-LEadership

Example one. After last Wednesday's MNA quarterly board meeting, one of our board members contacted the board chair with concerns which had surfaced for him during the meeting. Our board chair forwarded some of the conversation to me and one of our committee chairs, knowing her note might generate some discomfort. The member's questions were spot on and will change my work strategies over the next several months.

Example two. MNA's health insurance program is run by a separate nonprofit organization called the MNA Group Benefits Trust (GBT). This week we had a GBT Board meeting in which I participated as a GBT trustee. Several hours after we adjourned, one of the other GBT board members called me with questions that came up for him during the meeting. We had a lengthy conversation in which we explored several key questions related to the work of the GBT. In the end, his questions laid the groundwork for a higher level board discussion that will take place at our next meeting.

In both cases, the questions posed by the board members were related to complicated issues central to the functioning of the respective organizations. Their questions were bold, sense-making questions, catapulting off the board discussions that had taken place just hours earlier to take the discussion to another level. Their questions helped me make important shifts in my own thinking - shifts that will benefit and strengthen our work with Montana’s nonprofits. Here's what is important: neither board member came forward with answers; rather, through conversation they shaped and brought forward the right questions.

As I reflect on these two conversations, my wish is that a year from now these type of questions are taking shape within the board room setting for both organizations. Granted, sometimes we don’t know what our questions are in the moment, or we need time to reflect before coming back to sensitive topics. Equally true is a reluctance to make waves or make others uncomfortable in the moment. Questioning the status quo, or asking the catalytic or provocative question at the right time may be one of the most important skills a board member brings to his or her role as a nonprofit leader. When we engage board members and other nonprofit leaders at the generative level, the organization gains the benefit of their best and highest thinking – which is the hallmark of extraordinary nonprofit board leadership.

The Road Ahead for Nonprofits in 2016

(Policy, Networking) Permanent link

 by Liz Moore, Executive Director 

One of MNA’s primary responsibilities is to scan the environment on behalf of Montana’s charitable nonprofits, understanding trends within the sector and recognizing threats and opportunities that impact the sector. In no particular order, here are six areas we’re thinking about as we look down the road in 2016: 

  1. Tax Treatment. We are watching several types of activity in this general category. Across the nation charitable nonprofits are facing threats to property tax exemption, particularly nonprofit hospitals. In December, a bill was put forward in New Jersey that would create a mandatory payment framework for tax-exempt hospitals. Earlier in the year, Maine Governor Paul LePage put forward a proposal that would allow municipalities to collect property tax on nonprofits of a certain size. As government funding shrinks at all levels, the press for revenue from nonprofits will increase. In Montana, the Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee (RTIC) is including the public benefit of nonprofits in their interim studies. Again. Is this a precursor to a discussion on taxing Montana’s nonprofits? We don’t know.

    One of the more insidious aspects of taxing only a certain type of nonprofit is the polarization it generates across the sector and in the public policy environment. First hospitals, then colleges, and then what? Religious organizations? Organizations that take a particular stand on an issue? This is a slippery slope not only in terms of which organizations are “in” or “out” for tax exempt purposes, but also because it opens up the possibility that charitable deductions and credits could be arbitrarily given or withheld based on a particular subcategory of charitable nonprofit.

    We are also seeing an increase nationally in the number of “fee in lieu of taxes” or “payment in lieu of taxes” being assessed against nonprofits in different municipalities. This is understandable given city budgets, but if and until the IRS redefines “charitable nonprofits”, the statute is clear. Charitable nonprofits are tax exempt.
  2. Increased Scrutiny. Several factors are pushing this. First, the amount of information available at the click of a mouse is staggering, making nonprofits ever more transparent. As information sources such as GuideStar become more mainstream, we should expect (and encourage) more people to be increasingly literate about nonprofit endeavors. Second, issues like extraordinarily high CEO salaries for certain nonprofits have an overflow effect, prompting general curiosity about compensation and spending for all nonprofits.

    Third, the influence of Citizen’s United is dramatic as we all try to understand and shed light on dark money through increased transparency. Fourth, one of the unintended consequences of the 1023EZ, a much abbreviated application process for tax exempt status, is the ease with which organizations are being approved even when not eligible. A recent study showed 37% of those that received tax exempt status through the 1023EZ should not have. By granting tax exempt status more readily, the burdens of scrutiny and enforcement is increased at the community level, making the nonprofit reputation more vulnerable and accountability more important.
  3. Proliferation of Nonprofits. According to the National Center on Charitable Statistics (NCCS), from 2003-2013 the number of Montana charitable nonprofits increased 17.6%. This far outpaced other types of tax exempt entities, including granting foundations, which actually decreased during the same timeframe. In the last two years alone, registered nonprofits in Montana have increased 12.7%. Modest growth is to be expected over time in both for profit and nonprofit businesses. However, we would argue a 12.7% increase in two years is beyond modest, and see several factors playing into this: 1) In 2012, nonprofits decreased in number due to IRS revocation. 2013-15 was a recovery period during which many organizations were reinstated; 2) the 1023EZ application allows applications to be processed more rapidly. Getting through the IRS backlog might account for some increase. In addition, an easier application process might be promoting growth; 3) the entrepreneurial spirit of millennials and post-millennials who are engaged in startups of all kinds, including nonprofit, might be a factor; and, 4) Montana is a great place to live and ranks top of the nation in startups in some areas. Could increases in nonprofits reflect the general movement of relocating to work in Montana?

    At MNA, we advise a thoughtful, eyes-wide-open approach to those considering nonprofit startup. We encourage those interested to explore many alternatives to pursuing their cause, including partnerships, fiscal sponsorships, etc. Conversely, we are also beginning to ponder how MNA can encourage the established nonprofit community to become more open to overtures from those interested in startup.
  4. Funding. What’s next after the Ice Bucket Challenge? We don’t know – but it's coming. More traditional, face to face philanthropy is not going away, but neither is the growth in online giving. Alternative forms of capital are also slowly moving toward mainstream. Mission Related Investing is gaining recognition and traction in Montana, thanks in no small part to the Montana Mission Investing Group (click here for more info). Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds are funding models that direct government resources toward proven, results-oriented practices. And the lines between for-profit and nonprofit philanthropy continue to blur. The 2015 Montana Legislature passed the Benefit Corporation Act, which permits for-profit companies to operate with a double bottom line: profit and social good. Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative activity – unrelated to tax status. And there is philanthrocapitalism – a word many of us hadn’t heard until Mark Zuckerburg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged most of their wealth to improving the world. While we can all be grateful for such generosity, there is a growing discomfort with the level of influence the very wealthy have on shaping the societal agenda through philanthrocapitalism.

    As options for fund development multiply in front of our eyes, we encourage an approach that includes a steady focus along with informed, intentional choices about both innovative and more established practices is vital.

    One other note on funding: both government and foundations are evolving in their expectations regarding administrative costs. Several years ago Stanford Social Innovation Review rocked the sector with an article, The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle, which addressed the system between nonprofits and funders that encouraged nonprofits to be opaque about the real costs of doing business. Maybe change was already in the air, but with that article, evolution began in earnest. The National Council of Nonprofits has led much of the conversation at the government level – working with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on grants and contracts to develop changes in the amount and types of administrative costs nonprofits can recover. This is a continuing and important conversation at the local, state and national levels.
  5. Collective Action. Collaboration has always been a good idea, but as resources are stretched, nonprofits are evolving to work more deeply together. We are noticing an increase in intentional, longer term collective activity toward meaningful social change. Coalitions are pooling human and financial resources, partnering across sectors and industries, and narrowing the agenda in a highly structured manner to get the job done. Examples include: Graduation Matters, Medicaid Expansion, and the Early Childhood Coalition. Most nonprofits are collaborative, but acknowledge the time and trust it takes to see significant results. Funders have helped lead Montana’s collective impact efforts, and are often participants at the table alongside other coalition members. As the bar moves higher for demonstrable impact – which is happening – it stands to reason we would come together to achieve consequential impact. On MNA’s 2014 State of the Sector survey, 125 Montana nonprofits ranked themselves relatively low in collaborative activity. We hope this shifts as nonprofits commit more deeply to collective action.

  6. The Networked Sector. Over the last several years, Montana communities have seen a significant increase in the number of local nonprofit networks. By that we mean groups of nonprofit leaders coming together in their local community in some type of structured way for ongoing education and peer exchange/support. Four years ago, we would have been hard-pressed to name six regularly attended, self-managing local nonprofit networks that reach across sub-sectors and job titles. Today we could readily list a dozen existing or emerging nonprofit networks, from Hamilton to Glendive, Red Lodge to Ronan, and points in between. Similar to collective action, it takes time, trust and resources for a network to gain traction. Digital technology helps - bringing more resources to local communities than ever before. And we recognize Local Community Foundations and United Way agencies are moving more fully into their role as conveners in order to work with the community to thoughtfully put financial resources where they are most needed.

We’ve focused on areas that impact the nonprofit sector as a whole, knowing each subsector faces its own trends, challenges and opportunities. Obviously the election and the overall economy will impact each of the areas above to a greater or less degree, and we’ll be curious to see their influence as the year progresses.

In the meanwhile, we’d like to be more informed about what you’re seeing in the year ahead and invite you to take a minute to fill us in on larger challenges and opportunities you are facing. We thank you for your partnership in strengthening Montana through nonprofit endeavors, and wish you the very best in 2016.

The gift of December's shortened days

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Liz-Moore by Liz Moore

In his book, The Endless Practice: Becoming Who You Were Born to Be, writer Mark Nepo asks us to reflect on the persistent daily movement between our exterior “surface” world, and the deeper more interior world. He describes this as a migration that is both natural and necessary, somewhat like plankton moving from dark up to light and back down again. As humans we inhabit an ecosystem, if you will, that includes both the dark, quiet depths, and the noisier, brighter outside world. For most of us, the next five weeks starkly embody the contradiction of moving into the darkest, stillest time of year, while simultaneously engaging in the outgoingness of parties, gift-giving, stringing of lights, ringing of bells, and all that attends this season.

We send this month’s edition of MTc3 – with its focus on well-being – not as an antidote or a set of ideas on how to “endure” the holidays, but rather as a wish. A wish for days slowed to a pace that allows room for the dark and the light, both of which are as real and necessary to us as air. Many of us in nonprofit work are accustomed to giving from our very souls. What a gift December’s shortened days offer, reminding us that dark, quiet rest is nature’s way, and is essential to our wellness.

In that spirit, I offer you – as a nonprofit leader – these brief thoughts on traversing the inner and outer worlds during this season:

Reflect. Don’t let the unmet needs of your organization trick you into thinking you haven’t made progress. Take stock of what you’ve achieved. In the nonprofit world, it’s so easy to think we haven’t accomplished much because there’s still so much left to do. Bah. You’ve done AMAZING things. And what is completed is enough for right now. Take that in.

Unplug. Confession: I am the worst at this. Nonetheless, how can we order our own thoughts, enjoy the pause before day begins, or be present to the people we love when our thoughts are already/still at work. My goal: don’t check anything electronic before breakfast except the coffee pot.

Unplug some more: Facebook can be quite corrosive, especially when invectives fly. It’s not helpful to us as leaders to constantly dodge negativity and hatred. If someone posts something that flies in the face of civil discourse, like something hateful or a sweeping generalization about a group of people (even when its positive toward your own political tribe) – unplug by deleting or hiding the post.

Notice what is “right now”: I’ve heard that being present to the moment is the most reliable way to alleviate anxiety. For many of us, worry feels like control – yet it changes nothing. When I surrender my worry in favor of what I actually hear, smell, taste, see, or can touch – I am lighter.

Grieve as needed. Allowing ourselves to experience pain is essential to healthy living. Some of us work in settings that expose us to violence, trauma and loss on a regular basis. Sometimes we need to stop and feel just how bad it feels. That’s part and parcel of the darkness we navigate and is an important component of maintaining a healthy work life.

Indulge curiosity. When we ask questions, we are most like children – who are still open to the surprise of discovery. Questions also keep us in the moment – malleable and undefended. When we are too busy, curiosity seems like a luxury we can’t afford. Not true. Indulge. My favorite people are perennially curious.

Be still. When we meditate, write, ponder, or graciously say no to “one more thing” – we open a path that allows us to move more easily and effortlessly toward the next place – be that inward or outward focused. Technology makes this very difficult, as does the constant press of extremely meaningful work. However, we will only be as effective as our ability to think. And in order to think – we must sometimes be still.

This time of year holds so much for all of us: joy, expectation, gratitude, pain, loss, anxiety, and hope. In whatever ways we increase our comfort with what Nebo calls the “persistent drift” between the deeper, quieter world and the lighter, brighter outer world, we become more whole. This list is not exhaustive, and focuses primarily on the interior world. There are many restorative behaviors that are more outward directed, such as time with friends, enjoying beauty and creativity, counting blessings and more. Please add your thoughts if you’re inclined. Thank you for all you do, and above all – be well.

The Power of Networks

(Org. Development, Networking) Permanent link

Liz-Mooreby Liz Moore, Executive Director

Last Saturday afternoon I was sitting in the Helena Civic Center auditorium, one of 95 symphony chorale members in the final rehearsal before Saturday night’s Brahms/Star Wars performance. The chorale had a break in the action and I was able to sit back and simply take in the orchestra as they worked on that amazing, iconic Star Wars sound. As the music filled the hall, I found myself thinking, “This is why I’m at MNA. This is what nonprofits do.” And it’s true. Every day, in communities across Montana, nonprofits are additive, creating beauty, promoting justice, developing opportunity, and so much more. And we at MNA get to be part of the story.

Sitting alone with my thoughts, I experienced a sense of quiet pride as I listened to the orchestra. At the same time, like many of you, I am acutely aware that the line between my day to day work and what ultimately plays out in the community is mostly indirect. In fact, there is not so much a line as there is an ever evolving connection. As MNA’s executive director, I can say with some authority that no “one thing” MNA has done over the last fourteen years has made the singular difference in a specific nonprofit’s failing or succeeding. However, since our inception, we have been a partnering presence to thousands of leaders in ways that have dramatically bettered the landscape for nonprofits in Montana. One of the least tangible yet most fundamentally important of those has been our work supporting networks.

When I came to MNA in 2011, our strategic plan focused on five areas of programming intended to strengthen Montana’s nonprofits; one of those was networks. However, it wasn’t until July, 2013, when we were all sitting in the MNA main office in a planning session that the light really went on for us about the difference between supporting networking and supporting networks.

Montana is home to several local nonprofit networks that bring leaders from all sorts of nonprofits together – regardless of their size or mission focus - for education and peer support. Examples include the Bozeman Nonprofit Café, Red Lodge Nonprofit Café, the Nonprofit Development Partnership (NpDP) in the Flathead, the Missoula Nonprofit Network and the Missoula Executive Round Table. The Glendive Nonprofit Café is emerging in eastern Montana, and the Prayer Lodge in Busby is working toward an emerging network for Native nonprofits. Ronan, Great Falls, Anaconda, Helena, Butte, and Hamilton all have nonprofit networks on their radar. In a networked age, local networks have become a significant and growing component of the nonprofit infrastructure in Montana, directly contributing to organizational resilience in their communities.

I initially learned about resilience through the Search Institute’s Forty Developmental Assets several years back when I was working with Head Start. The premise of the Developmental Assets is that a child’s resilience in the face of adversity increases with the number of internal and external assets in the child’s life. One of the most poignant assets I recall has to do with the number of supportive adults in a child’s life. The greater the child’s connections in the community, the more resilient that child will be. Similarly for nonprofits, the more positive connections in the community, the stronger the organization will be – and certainly more able to weather storms. Local nonprofit networks are an efficient and effective way to build connections and increase resilience.

As Montana’s largest nonprofit infrastructure organization, MNA is a member of Montana’s nonprofit network ecosystem. Our work is being shaped and influenced by local networks at the same time that we are providing support in network development. In a 2012 interview, leadership guru Jim Collins said this, “It seems to me that this era is marked by something having to do with connectivity and networks and the ability to operate and lead within them. The Internet is all about networks and connectivity across networks. So one possibility is that there is a shift to a new fundamental building of society, namely, the network. We may be moving to a world of networks well led, as opposed to organizations well managed. You can't really manage a network, but you can help lead within a network. In any case, networks are very alive and real and are becoming building blocks.”

The lines between us are more connective and lively today than they have ever been. In that regard, during my Saturday afternoon symphony musings, I was warmed with the recognition that MNA is one node, if you will, in a vibrant network that culminated with the music of Star Wars. As we enter November and a time when our part of the earth becomes quieter, I encourage you to take pause and consider the connections between us, and the possibilities that are opening up as we become an increasingly networked world. Today I’ve written specifically about nonprofit networks, recognizing there are a host of other kinds of networks we are part of. I will leave those for future reflections. For now, I hope your mission is made more joyful, creative, and attainable as you share the journey with your fellow nonprofit travelers. And may the force be with you!

Get very excited! You are in for a treat!!

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When we chose Thaler Pekar as our keynote speaker for the 2015 Conference, we were delighted to learn she had been the keynote the previous year for our colleagues in Alaska, The Foraker Group. We heard incredible reviews from our friends in Anchorage whose work we deeply respect. My good friend Dennis McMillian, former CEO and Founder of Foraker, will be joining us for the conference, participating in the State of the Sector address and also presenting two highly relevant breakout sessions. On top of that, he agreed to write today's column on his experience with Thaler. Buckle up and read on!

 Attention Montana's Nonprofit Leaders 
You Are In For A Treat!! 

Dennis-McMillianImagine, five hundred nonprofit leaders packed into a hotel conference room during a keynote address. The speaker takes the podium and provides a few significant points on her subject. She has everyone's attention. Except for her voice, the room is quiet.

Now see the room erupt in personal conversations. Five hundred people talking to each other, sharing their stories, laughing–crying–learning. Collectively they create a buzz, but everyone is engaged and energized. The process is repeated for three full hours. No one leaves the room. Time flies by. The audience would have stayed three more hours.

Now imagine, after the conference, a survey is sent to the participants. Over eighty percent of those in attendance respond to the survey. This keynote speaker had over 99% positive to very positive responses on her session; in fact, most were very positive responses.

That was my first experience with Thaler Pekar.

Having spent a career working for nonprofits, I look forward to conferences. I appreciate what I learn from the presentations, but honestly I really look forward to meeting with peers, I often gain more benefit from those informal contacts than from the formal program. Having seen many post conference evaluations, that sentiment is common.

Your keynote speaker at the 2015 Montana Nonprofit Association Conference, Thaler Pekar, will open your mind, like she did mine, to the value of a true expert's insights and skill to help us learn. Having attended well over one hundred conferences, therefore having heard many more keynote or plenary speakers than many, I can confirm that Thaler's presentation on the morning of October 1st will engage, entertain, and inform you beyond all expectations. I promise that you will leave the conference with enhanced communication skills. You will be a better story teller. You will be energized.

The theme of this year's conference is The Power of Story. I encourage you to review Thaler's bio on the MNA website, she is indeed impressive. My comments about Thaler Pekar are personal, since we have become friends and I so admire her and the impact she has on everyone she meets. My sincere belief is that she is one of today's most gifted trainers–period.

She is especially talented in helping us tell our story– or COMMUNICATE in a way that will best influence whatever audience we address. Since effective communication is critical for our work with clients and constituents, and is required of good managers, and since communication with your community as an advocate for your mission is critical, her presentation should check most of the boxes of what one should expect to learn at a conference; all from one person.

I will be in Billings with you to participate in a couple of sessions, and you can bet that I will be standing in the back of the room, watching Thaler do her magic with you.

Get excited!!!! Get very excited!!! You are definitely in for a treat.

Dennis McMillian Former CEO of The Foraker Group, Alaska's nonprofit association.


The Power of Board and Staff Learning Together

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New for the 2015 MNA Conference is a special registration rate for board members of nonprofits. Board members who are not otherwise employed by a nonprofit are invited to attend the main conference (Thursday and Friday) for a discounted rate of $150. 

MNA Board Chair Russ Cargo, CEO of Helena Industries, and Vice Chair Mary Peterson, Executive Director of Eagle Mount Bozeman sat down with Liz Moore, MNA Executive Director to discuss the return on investment for board members attending this year’s conference.

Liz Moore: We’re offering a special board rate this year that nets a 25-60% discount for board member registration. Why should an organization consider sending board members?  

Mary-PetersonMary Peterson: Here’s the thing I know, if there are 7,000 nonprofits there are at least 21,000 people in the state who are board members . . . working their hearts out for good causes. Probably closer to 70,000. Then we know that at least 40,000 are working with no staff; it’s just the boardmaking it work.  


Russ Cargo: And no one can be expected to do a job unless they know what their responsibilities are and what the objectives of the job are. I always believe that professional development for board members is just as important as it is for any other kind of job, paid or not.

Liz: How would you approach a board member about attending?  

Russ: We often come onto boards because of an interest in the mission, and I don’t know that people who are not employed in the nonprofit sector have an appreciation for the body of knowledge and depth of understanding that exists. Seeing the scope of the nonprofit sector, in addition to access to knowledge, makes a much bigger impression.

Mary: And, executives understand that their work doesn’t happen in isolation, but for the board member . . . it’s harder to get a sense of the larger context. There is a whole network supporting your work. It lets board members appreciate you more.

Liz: We know it’s difficult for board members to find time for professional development. 

Mary: This is a question of if you only have one day, what day do you do? Find the day that speaks to your most urgent need. I look at the Thursday lineup and see there is so much there for boards.

Russ: The time really has to do with the commitment to the organization. If you are serious about being a board member – I think it’s important for you to recognize that is going to take time. It should be part of orientation and recruitment process. Having a resource like the MNA conference would be easily justified because of the value. Someone that is serious is willing to devote a day or two a year.

Liz: In your involvement with boards over the years, what training needs have you seen?  

Mary: It’s always advocacy and fundraising they (board members) mark themselves down on. This is a way to increase the board’s comfort level with their responsibilities.

Russ: Understanding the financing of nonprofits . . . and beyond reading financial statements to thinking about the asset allocations. Are we using our assets to the greatest advantage? What are the strategies behind either spending or not spending money? So few boards have received the training they need to provide this kind of leadership.

Liz: As a CEO, what would you see as most valuable for a board member?  

Russ: It’s difficult for an executive to move the organization as aggressively as they might want to without the support and buy in of the board. I always go back to that friend of mine who grew up in Choteau. He used to say “two heads are better than one even if one is a cabbage head.” When you have a group together discussing almost anything the outcome is so much richer when there are multiple voices.

Mary: Three things –

  1. Board members are concerned about liability, good practice, whether the organization is staffed or not. They need to assure themselves that their organization is operating in the legal and ethical bounds. Just to reduce your fear and stress level.
  2. Every board I’ve been involved with – the board feels like “I wish we were better at advocating for this cause.” This whole conference is on story – how to tell the story. If you had just one board member go back and train the others, fire them up, you will be ahead of 90% of other nonprofits in the state.
  3. Board members are the movers and shakers in our communities. You ought to just go meet the other movers and shakers.

Liz: Anything else?  

Mary: When both staff and board are able to attend, the returns are huge. You are on the same page. Your organization has a big move to make, and you have a huge advantage if you’re both on the same page. You’re learning together, and in between you’re talking together. This is the gift of time that will propel your organization forward.

Russ: For an executive, that old saw that its’s lonely at the top is true. Though there are some that might rather be left alone (laughs) having a team operating creatively and generatively is so much healthier.

A Sampling of Concurrent Sessions Recommended for Boards

A3 Building the Leadership Bench: Succession Planning for Boards and Staff – one of the country’s pre-eminent nonprofit leaders will engage board members in the topic of planning for leadership succession.

A5 Mile-High Ethics: Elevating Standards in Philanthropy – board members will gain an understanding of their role in maintaining an ethical framework and culture.

B6 Collective Action Under the Big Sky – this will give board members experience interacting with foundations and government on topics Montanans care about.

C6 Stand for your Mission: Mastering Board Advocacy – this session is ideal for the Executive Director and board member to attend together; it gives board members tools to speak up on behalf of the mission.

C6 Fundraising Compliance: 4 (or More) Things to Master – this will show board members the information they need to help the organization maintain legal compliance in fundraising.

D1 The Central Asia Institute Story: A Case Study on Responsibility, Accountability, and Transparency – learn what every board member should know about their legal responsibilities in upholding the organization’s accountability and transparency.

D2 Building Blocks for a Better Board – this is an ideal session for the first time board member, and a good pick for board and staff to attend together.


To learn or not to learn . . .

(Org. Development, Conference) Permanent link

Liz Mooreby Liz Moore, Executive Director

The mass of information we process daily via e-mail and other digital technologies can be both a gift and a problem. Having what amounts to an entire university curriculum at our fingertips is enticing, especially for avid learners. However, it’s not realistic for us to read everything that comes our way – no matter how interesting. We are fatigued not just by the information, but by the choices we are constantly making: to read or not to read, to save for later (will I remember to get back to it?), to discard, to flag, etc.

I don’t have the answers, but in the spirit of summer, I’m giving myself permission to indulge myself in learning – or not. Here’s what that means for me:

I won’t feel guilty about deleting articles, whitepapers, and invitations to webinars. And I don’t mean I’m getting rid of just the dull items, but interesting ones as well. I am choosing to lighten the information load, and guilt free delete is working for me.

I am choosing to immerse myself in one topic for several months, knowing other equally useful and compelling topics will still be here. Right now I’m interested in nonprofit mergers and acquisitions; this is an area I know little about and I’m motivated to learn. I have several books that will take me much further than anything I can find online, and I’m going to let myself learn. Having a focus on one area makes it easier to let go of the myriad other possibilities I could be pursuing. I need that focus, and the gratification that comes from jumping into the deep end on a single topic.

Taking time off from technology is a new skill for me, and I’m not very good at it. Purchasing books online feels economical. However, for me there is something vastly restorative about walking through a bookstore and judging books by their cover. I recently bought Painted Horses by Missoula author Malcolm Brooks. I have the actual book, not the online version. I bought it in an airport, even though I had my iPad with me and could have downloaded any number of books. The book has heft, and I enjoyed turning the pages.

And speaking of paper – just because an article is online doesn’t mean I can’t download it and read it when I have time, rather than when I happen to see it. I love paper. I love paper calendars, books, magazines, articles. I try to be conscientious about how much I print, but there are worse things than printing an article and reading it out on the back patio instead of from my desk or laptop.

These summer indulgences are helpful to me. I am a voracious reader, and letting go of potentially interesting or useful information is not easy. But the law of diminishing returns has made it necessary for me to set some limits. If you have tools or advice for the rest of us on how you are managing your learning in an information age, please post a comment.

This month’s e-news has several resources and articles related to learning. And then a couple of summer strolls I hope you don’t miss: the Community Spotlight and the #allplaynowork link at the bottom. Enjoy summer.


Getting the story of our impact right

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 Steve-Pattyby Steve Patty

A story can be powerful. And a story about our impact as nonprofit leaders can be powerfully convincing. It can move people to engage and contribute and invest in ways we have never dreamed. It can mobilize people to join the cause with verve and abandon.

There’s something about a story that draws people close to the impact of our work. They can see it and hear what it sounds like. They can touch it vicariously and trace the contours of its human effect. Through story, others can walk alongside us and, for a moment, become lost in our cause.

But how do we know that we are telling the right story and, for that matter, telling the story rightly? How do we know it is not simple a story we like to tell ourselves – a pleasant but unfounded narrative about the greatness of our work?

For that, we need evaluation.

Getting-to-what-matters The problem with evaluation is that it usually doesn’t tell our story very well. Conventional evaluation is about metrics and measures too simplistic and superficial to capture the true essence of the story. The data we use rarely gets us to the best parts of the story – the deep and durable shifts of thinking, the awakening of new possibilities, the tender but persistent adjustments in a life’s trajectory, the subtle but significant commitments made in the depths of the heart that end up changing everything.  

This is what we tell stories about. But this is not usually what the data from our evaluations can deliver.

We need evaluation to tell a true story. But we also need evaluation to get us data on what matters most in our story of impact. This will require a different kind of evaluation. It will make us rethink the way we design and develop evaluation.

Join me at the 2015 MNA Conference and discover how to get data at the heart of your impact story.


(Org. Development, Conference) Permanent link

Liz-MooreWe’ve all smiled at the phrase, “There are no wrong questions.” But is it true? Are there no wrong questions?

According to management guru Peter Drucker, “The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.” I think both statements are true: there are no wrong questions, and then again, there are wrong questions.

The process of evaluating impact begins with questions. But which ones should we be asking? Today’s e-news includes several resources intended to aid in evaluation, but none of them can take the place of having the “right question”, which is the start of good evaluation. There is an elegance that emerges when the right question is being asked. For example, for MNA, the right big question might be “Are nonprofits doing more good because of MNA?” or, “Is life better in Montana because of MNA?”

In his book “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy”, Richard Rumelt makes the point that good strategy starts with an unflinching focus on defining the greatest challenge facing an organization. He posits that strategic plans don’t get executed or bring the desired results largely because the hard work of identifying the most significant challenge has not been done in the first place.

In the same way, evaluation mechanisms can leave us deflated, overwhelmed and rudderless unless we are resolute in our quest to define and refine the right big question, the question whose answer truly informs our impact. Of course, once we ask the question, we need a certain amount of courage because answers to big questions might take us down roads unknown. But isn’t that the point?

Good evaluation requires us to fully occupy the space between what we know and what we don’t. Children do this naturally; but somewhere along the way we adults have tamped down some of our curiosity. Not because we don’t wonder about things, but because we’ve become less comfortable with not already knowing the answers to the biggest questions.

Evaluation is challenging, but it doesn’t have to be unbearably complicated. Any one of us – with or without a survey tool or spreadsheet, can take time to think about our big question. Once we’ve got that in our sights, a very generative and exciting process can fall into place, one that simultaneously tells our story and informs our story, giving us the information we need in order to learn, grow and deepen our impact.


The Power of Story

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 Liz-Mooreby Liz Moore

Every year in May or June I become infatuated with the annual conference theme. I find myself turning it over in my mind in the months, weeks, and days before the conference. Impact. Innovation. Passion. What do these words really mean to me? This year I’m thinking about Story. What do I know about story and storytelling? What do I want to know? What is the importance of story to me, to our organization, to the nonprofit community?

I’m intrigued with the phrase “narrative intelligence”, a concept related to story and story-telling. Our opening keynote for the 2015 conference, Thelar Pekar, uses this phrase – as do others whose life’s work centers on story. After some brief exploration, here is what I understand about narrative intelligence so far: Story telling is not so much an action as it is an interaction. Note the following phrases, which help make the point:

       Yellowstone National Park       ●         Evening on Broadway    ●    NASA    ●    Berlin Wall   ●    Nine eleven

In each case, the storylines evoked by the words go far beyond the phrase itself – or the thing we’re talking about – and involve the experiences, memories and emotions of both teller and listener. Understanding this dynamic relationship between narrator and audience is a core aspect of narrative intelligence.

I spend a good bit of my day talking about nonprofits. I have all kinds of statistics at my disposal, but there are times I need more, I want to convey the story of Montana’s nonprofits. At those times I often reach for the Gallup Poll that says Montanans are least likely to move to another state if given the opportunity. As I begin to describe the link between quality of life in Montana and the contribution of Montana’s nonprofits to clean streams, walking trails, artistic endeavors, healthy lifestyles, children excited about the future, historic sites and cathedrals – I can see listeners nodding and joining me in the story. At that instant, the story ceases to be about me and becomes about “us”. That’s the power of story.

I believe this year’s conference has the potential to be transformative. I hope you – like I – will become curious about the concept of story, and what it has to offer you and your organization. The word story is simple. It’s just five letters . . . and even a three-year-old knows what it is. And yet that single word contains the whole of our experiences, traditions, beliefs, hopes, and understandings. Indeed, as American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, "The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms."

The Power of Story, October 1-2, 2015, Crowne Plaza, Billings

Small but Tough

(Org. Development, Networking) Permanent link

Liz-Mooreby Liz Moore

This week MNA is heading to eastern Montana for the first-ever Nonprofit Kaleidoscope, a one-day convening designed to bring resources, education, and nonprofit networking to the many nonprofits serving this eastern most area of the state. From Wolf Point to Broadus (and slightly beyond), hundreds of nonprofits truly are the fabric of the community, a role that has become even more critical with oil exploration and development in the Bakken. We hope that wherever you are in Montana - you’ll take a moment and get to know some of your colleagues in Custer County – Cowboy country, home of the Range Riders Museum and the annual Bucking Horse Sale.

After spending some time in eastern Montana over the past two years, we know that nonprofits “over there” have much in common with nonprofits in other parts of the state; the fundamentals of nonprofit leadership and management apply regardless of geography. Having said that, we also recognize there are vast differences between nonprofits situated in our home community of Helena, and those in towns like Forsyth, Ekalaka, Miles City, and Sidney. As we put the agenda together for the Kaleidoscope conference, we intentionally focused on the unique qualities of rural nonprofits, particularly in the area of resources. Human and financial resources are just harder to come by in smaller communities.

Several years ago, Big Sky Institute coined the phrase “philanthropic divide”, in describing the very real resource deficit experienced by nonprofits operating in rural states. We would take that a step further and suggest Montana has a philanthropic subdivide. In the most rural parts of the state, even less resources are available to meet the challenges of remote geography and extremely sparse population than are present in other parts of the state. Consider the following:

  • Nonprofits that are so necessary in small communities struggle more than the rest of us to obtain foundation funding for several reasons, two of which are lack of scale and real or perceived lack of capacity. Attracting in-state funding is a challenge, and out of state foundation funding is just about beyond reach. 
  • Businesses are generous in small communities, but nonprofits are very aware that they are all “hitting up” the same donors. The Red Lodge Area Community Foundation has handled this in a very unique way, and their executive director, Tracy Timmons, will be speaking about this at Kaleidoscope. 
  • The volunteer base in small communities is fatigued; board members are often on several boards which can make deep engagement with any one organization difficult. While we know this holds true in communities of all sizes, it’s just tough in a community that is a hub of sorts, but only has a few thousand people (e.g., Miles City or Glendive). The demands on all volunteers – including board members – are immense. 
  • In most small communities, recruiting new staff to a nonprofit probably means that someone who already lives in the community will fill the position. This can be a plus, but it can also be very limiting. Finding the right skillset can be near impossible. This is further complicated by the fact that in Montana, the average wage in a rural nonprofit is almost 19% lower than nonprofit wages in larger communities (Montana Department of Labor, 2014).

In spite of these significant challenges, rural nonprofits can and do thrive. A Bridgespan Group report written in 2011 used the phrase “Small but Tough”, talking about rural nonprofits. Practicality, innovation, cooperation, a strong sense of community, and a “can-do” mentality are resiliency factors for the nonprofits serving our most rural communities. But resilience will only take any of us so far. Today we want to make the point that there is no substitute for funding. Fortunately, there is hope.

We at MNA applaud the work of local community foundations that are growing philanthropy in rural Montana. Access to more financial resources – especially long term resources – is paramount. We also appreciate the foundations that continue to open their checkbooks to fund smaller projects. We know this might fly in the face of funding for impact, but when it comes to rural Montana, we appreciate and encourage the flexibility that many Montana foundations exercise.

Finally, as the legislature debates the merits of infrastructure funding in eastern Montana, why are we not including funding for nonprofits in the conversation? I spoke with a legislator early on in the session and talked about this issue. He completely agreed that there needs to be support for eastern Montana's nonprofits, “But,” he said, “What they really need is leadership. We need passionate leaders. The resources are there.” Maybe it’s true. What I’ve seen is the opposite. I’ve met the leaders, seen their passion at work. I think they need money. We’re going to work on that before the 2017 session.

Obviously funding isn't the only answer. There is skill building, developing organizational capacity, board training and engagement, connecting with peers, and simply raising awareness of the scope and breadth of the nonprofit community in rural Montana. That’s all part of why we’re headed 360 miles east next week. It’s also why we’ve included in today’s e-news information we think will be of interest to small, under-resourced nonprofits. And, we will continue to fill our role of amplifying the voice of the nonprofit sector by speaking out and pushing for solutions to Montana’s “philanthropic subdivide.” The group that first imagined MNA fifteen years ago was resolute in their desire to serve nonprofits of every size and mission from all corners of the state and in between. Much has changed since then, but MNA’s commitment to all nonprofits, regardless of size or location, is baked into our organizational DNA, and holds as true today as it did all those years ago.

Brand with a Capital “T”

(Policy) Permanent link

Liz-Moore-Executive-Director by Liz Moore

Most often, when we read about “brand identity” we’re thinking about the unique characteristics of our specific nonprofit organization or product. We are highlighting what differentiates us from others, our value proposition, and our story. We use every means possible to effectively convey to others what we want them to think about when they hear our name, see our logo, or read our tagline. For the past several weeks, I've had several opportunities to step back and consider the brand identity of the nonprofit sector itself, above and beyond the brand of an individual organization. The legislative session tends to provoke that kind of thought, particularly when issues come up regarding transparency, which is an integral part of the nonprofit brand identity. As an advocate for the larger nonprofit community, MNA is often in the position of simultaneously championing transparency while arguing against legislation that – in the name of transparency – adds up to more regulation and reporting.

The most recent example I offer is HB 389, sponsored by Representative Jeff Essmann, that would require Montana’s tax exempt organizations to reapply for property tax exemption every six years, pay a fee to do so, and then have the information be made publicly available.

MNA opposed this bill. Why? The bottom line is that after talking with Rep. Essmann, it remained unclear what problem is arising with enough regularity or size to merit this legislative solution – which by the way will cost $125,000 plus ongoing costs. That’s $125,000 that will be taken out of mission oriented activity in communities and paid to government. The bill was also unclear in its intended purpose and, for the MNA Public Policy Council, raised more questions than it answered.

Although we opposed the bill, we also want to say this: there is a component of the bill that sits at the uncomfortable nexus of transparency and regulatory burden, and on that point MNA should be taking a stand for transparency. The state of Montana does not know which properties are tax exempt. They do not have accurate records going many years back when counties handled the applications for exemption locally. There is merit in cleaning that up. That’s the transparency part. Would that require statute? Presumably not if the department had the funding to staff the effort to clean up their records. We’ve seen plenty of examples of nonprofits not paying for reapplication in other states. We vote no on a fee, regardless of the size of the organization. And finally, what about the requirement that there be a public listing of tax exempt properties? We don’t understand that at all. It seems like an add-on that hints at an agenda that goes beyond transparency.

So what does all of this have to do with brand identity? Even though we believe there is or will be more to HB 389 than meets the eye, we also believe transparency (with a capital T) is at the center of the nonprofit brand identity. So we will carefully review the new bill draft, and continue to oppose the parts of the bill that are confusing, or that may be part of an unknown agenda. At the same time, we will offer to be part of a solution that creates more transparency. That’s our brand identity. And we need to stand for it. We ask that you take time to read the bill and let your legislators know three things: 1) we support the sponsor’s intent to clean up the records on tax exempt properties; we think having good records is a reasonable expectation. We’re not certain this requires statute. 2) If the bill goes forward, it should not be at the expense of communities that will see $125,000 less in mission oriented activity. 3) What’s with the publicly available list? That requirement simply seems off the mark and rather mysterious.

Bottom line: we’re for cleaning up the records and we’re against charging nonprofits to do it and we’re unclear on whether it requires statute to get the job done. And we don’t understand the list. Is it a registry?

“Without love, none of this could’ve have happened.”

(Policy, Networking) Permanent link

liz-blogby Liz Moore

Yesterday I listened to a TED talk given by one of my favorite authors, Isabel Allende. She spoke with passion . . . about passion. Passion is not a word I use often. I tend to dismiss the word as cliche, having quite a bit of heat and not enough substance. But Ms. Allende’s talk prompted me to consider the role of passion in this nonprofit work we undertake; our causes vary, but our passion about the cause draws us together as a community. 
Daily I have the opportunity to notice how one nonprofit or another is making life better for Montanans. This week I became slightly infatuated with the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing and Media Arts. Last week it was; they just won the MacArthur Award – one of nine in the world. Next week it will be Big Brothers Big Sisters as I enjoy the annual “Montana Youth of the Year” celebration. And in between I will make a donation to an organization that made sure my grandson got a new book just after he started first grade in a new school. I find the work of almost any nonprofit interesting. But what really grabs my attention is when I get a glimpse of the passion behind the work in the conversation with nonprofit leaders who are alight with a sense of mission. My own passion is fueled by the notion that nonprofits are agents of community - creating the quality of life we want for ourselves and future generations of Montanans. There is a richness of democracy within the nonprofit structure that just pulls me in. I believe in it. Yes – I’m passionate. At the same time, I know passion is not enough. It will propel me on the journey, but it won’t replace the highway I need in order to get from here to there. One of the reasons MNA exists is to offer tools and a roadmap so that organizations – full of passion and a sense of mission – can navigate successfully toward their vision.

2015-NPDay-buttonOn January 22nd we had 100 nonprofit leaders in the Rotunda for Montana Nonprofit Day at the Capitol, and many of us we were all wearing a little pin, designed by Gail Tronstad. We offered the pin to policymakers, not because nonprofit work is about unicorns, hearts and rainbows. But because we are all touched by nonprofits in one way or another. I have yet to talk with someone whose life isn’t bettered in some way because of their connection with a nonprofit organization. We want our lawmakers to remember that tie to a particular nonprofit as they make decisions that impact the sector in the next several months. You can be sure we also offered solid data about the sector, but we led with what is personal and connective.

I’m fortunate to be in this position where “nonprofit” is not an abstract concept, nor is it the name of a particular organization. For me, “nonprofit” evokes a map of Montana that is alive with the light of nonprofit leaders living out their mission with passion in communities large and small throughout the state. One of the blogs I enjoy is; it always includes thought provoking artwork. Last week’s piece said “Without love, none of this could’ve have happened.”

This week, Valentines, I’m going to go ahead and give way in my vocabulary for the word passion. I know there are many other components on the road to accomplishment, but without passion, none of it will happen. Happy Valentine’s Day.