A giant step toward nonprofit best practices
By María Ortiz-Briones
“To improve is to change,” said Winston Churchill, and “to be perfect is to change often.”
So it is with the California Speech Language Hearing Association. At a time of accelerating world change, the association has taken giant steps toward embracing evidence-based nonprofit best practices in order to empower a sustainable and impactful future.
From finance and governance, to advocacy and brand strategy, to diversity and inclusion, the association has worked in earnest to strengthen every part of its operation in service to the field.
“The first step was to take a hard look at governance,” says CSHA Board Chair Raquel Narain, CCC-SLP, BCBA. “Just like our profession is evidence-based, so is the nonprofit profession. And to be honest, CSHA hadn’t kept up with best practices,” she adds. “That has meant updating our governance documents and bringing in thought leaders from the nonprofit sector to educate the board about governance.”
In a piece entitled, “The Formula for Effective Governance Boils Down to Six Essential Ingredients,” BoardSource says that because “effective governance takes time, flexibility, intention and attention … few organizations apply it consistently or thoroughly,” but adds, “…it makes all the difference in the world to the nonprofit organization and to the community it serves.” Founded in 1988, the mission of BoardSource is “to inspire and support excellence in nonprofit governance and board and staff leadership.”
The CSHA board understood that responsibility and in 2018 created a Governance Documents Task Force to guide the drafting of new bylaws and board governing policies. The board also engaged Linda Jacobs, CEO of the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership (CVNL) in the Bay Area. Jacobs has worked with the board on governance practices, in-person and virtually, a number of times.
In January 2019, the CSHA board adopted the new bylaws and board governing policies to take effect July 1, 2020, assuming the bylaws were approved by voting members. In spring 2019, CSHA’s voting members approved the bylaws by a vote of 351-17.
There were many layers to the updates, all working toward creating an open organization that welcomed a diverse group of professionals to membership and leadership, says Narain, who prior to becoming board chair served as the chair of the Board Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Narain explains that the board knew in order to attract new members, to create opportunities for those who weren’t already engaged with CSHA, that clearly established term limits for board and committee seats had to be a part of the solution.
“There wasn’t a way for people to get involved in our association,” she says. “For far too long, there was this culture within CSHA where individuals have held on to seats at the table for years, creating a barrier for others to get involved. As a result, CSHA became homogeneous, perpetuating the idea of being cliquey and elitist.”
NONPROFIT BEST PRACTICES
Former CSHA Board Chair Beryl Fogel, MA, CCC-SLP, who served as chair during much of the governance change work, says, “The CSHA board has moved from being an operational board to a strategic board,” ensuring board members’ time is focused on the macro issues of where the organization should go, not on operational details.
The board’s job now, she says, is clear: “Engage and listen to a greater diversity of our professional colleagues, chart and stay on strategy, and focus only on the best interests of CSHA when we make decisions at that table.”
That means, Fogel says, not being influenced by the priorities of one’s employer or other organizations. “As a member of any corporation board, for profit or nonprofit, you have one legal loyalty,” she says, “and that’s to the organization of the board you’re making decisions for. In our case, CSHA.”
Like most leaders at the helm during times of change, Fogel says she’s had her share of both supporters and detractors. And while she says she values all input, the need for change was undeniable. “CSHA had come a long way over the years,” she says, “but we had to make organizational and cultural changes to create a long-term future.”
“Today we have a professional staff,” she says. “Though, unfortunately because of COVID and everything that is going on, our staff is smaller. But the staff now does the majority of the operational work of the organization, as it should be,” she adds, saying that volunteers continue to drive priorities, policies and strategies as members of committees and the board of directors.
“We have changed the way that people who sit at the board table work. We’ve supported board members to change the way they think so it aligns with best practices for nonprofits,” Fogel says. “We understand and follow the rules for nonprofits.”
“Of course, in order to do that and in order to be relevant and responsive to the needs of the community,” Fogel says, “we have to make sure we are looking at the needs of the greater community of California professionals and that is a great, huge community. At the same time, we have to focus our limited resources on the most important needs that can actually be achieved or at least moved forward.”
BRAND STRATEGY TASK FORCE
Beyond committee service, several task forces have been engaged in the last two years. Every effort has been made by CSHA to include students and the voices of varied members and nonmembers. This effort at inclusion in these conversations and work was and is key when addressing critical strategic work before the board using input from the field.
This includes the Brand Strategy Task Force Workshop held in October 2018. A broad swath of the CSHA community was involved in that process, from veteran members, to those new to leadership in the association, to students, nonmembers and consumers.
From that workshop, the association developed a new brand position, with a clear understanding of what sets the association apart from other organizations. That included a greater awareness of CSHA’s legitimate strengths, niche and opportunities for growth. That resulted in the board adopting new vision and mission statements in early 2019. Later, the Brand Property Task Force guided the development of a new logo and related physical brand properties, including colors.
As in all organizations, nonprofit or for-profit, this clarity of brand position informs key strategic decisions about priorities, programs and messaging through a variety of print and digital communications platforms.
From that work, the association embarked on a total reconstruction of its website and integration of a new association management system (AMS).
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
At its September 2019 meeting, the CSHA board engaged in a two-part working session with diversity and inclusion experts who work with a variety of organizations around the world. This work has inspired an ongoing conversation about how the association can improve its efforts.
As the association discussed its policies and direction, Narain says the board knew that diversity and inclusion had to be a cornerstone of the organization in order for it to thrive and reach its full potential.
“Diversity and inclusion can’t be just an add-on to our work. When we talk about becoming more diverse and inclusive, it doesn’t mean just having a few token individuals from minority groups in leadership roles. It means making a conscious effort to create safe spaces to foster engagement in all facets within CSHA,” she says, emphasizing that this will require a behavioral and cultural change within the association.
Narain says, “In order for CSHA to truly become inclusive, we have to take ownership of our own unconscious biases. We can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist.” She adds: “We can no longer avoid having the tough discussions about why we make the decisions we do as an organization, who is benefiting from the organization’s work and who is being hurt by the decisions that are being made.”
It is important, says Amalia Hernández, Ed.D., CCC-SLP, chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, “to look at our membership and be critical of who are and are not members, and who is feeling excluded,” adding that some CSHA members felt they didn’t have a voice in CSHA. “How do we bring them into the organization? How do we make their voices heard?”
Hernández, a bilingual speech-language pathologist who has been a member of CSHA since graduate school, is excited about CSHA’s Convos series this fall. These conversations are a “welcome change” and an important step in including diverse voices in the field.
“Being mindful of creating inclusive spaces and who we’re asking to come into the organization has been a big shift,” says Hernández, who has wanted to be part of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee for a very long time.
“I actually applied to be on the diversity committee for a number of years before I was selected,” Hernández says, adding that it is an honor to be part of the committee now, especially at this time.
In the fall of 2019, members of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee were able to engage with the board at their meeting when they were looking at diversity and inclusion, and launching the work on the new strategic plan.
“To be at the forefront of all these changes now is humbling and very special to me,” says Hernández, who graduated from California State University, Northridge, in 2011.
The board established a Strategic Planning Task Force and launched its 2019-20 strategic planning work at its September 2019 meeting. The board heard from a strategic planning consultant and plans were made to engage the task force in the creation of the qualitative and quantitative data collection.
A survey that included both members and nonmembers was completed and the task force made phone calls to gather additional information. That data was analyzed by the consultant and presented to the board at its January 2019 meeting. There was to have been additional opportunity for qualitative data collection at the canceled CSHA 2020 conference.
At its June 20, 2020, virtual meeting, recognizing the need to truncate the strategic planning process underway and establish critical priorities, the board adopted two Priority Impacts (also know as strategic outcomes) for the association in the foreseeable future: Fiscal Sustainability and Diversity, Inclusion and Culture. These two priorities reflect the board’s focus on listening to feedback from the field, analyzing all available data and, in essence, engaging in what Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg calls “ruthless prioritization.”
According to Sandberg, “Sometimes people think of prioritization as only doing things that will have a positive impact on your business. But ruthless prioritization means only focusing on the very best ideas. It means figuring out the 10 things on your list and, if you can’t do all 10, doing the top two really well. Ruthlessly prioritizing can get hard because you’re always trying to do more, but it’s one of the best and most important ways to stay focused.”
STRENGTHENING ADVOCACY EFFORTS
The CSHA board in 2019 adopted its first-ever Advocacy Platform that identifies its policy and legislative priorities. An import-ant and standard document of associations like CSHA, the document had been crafted by the Advocacy Platform Task Force and presented to the board. The platform is available on the advocacy page on the CSHA website.
With a new consultant, Laura Preston, CSHA’s efforts to inform statewide policy and fiscal issues have increased in their presence, connectivity and impact.
“CSHA is really good at advocating,” Hernández says, adding that CSHA is at the forefront in advocating for the profession and consumers.
Plans for increased functionality for phase two of the new website include a robust advocacy network for members to opt into and engage more actively and efficiently in advocacy. Inevitably delayed by the current fiscal crisis, this work remains on the long list of ways the organization seeks to continue to increase member value and impact.
Fogel says CSHA members and leaders have to keep in mind that finances are where the rubber hits the road in keeping the doors open. Even before the current financial crisis, Fogel says, “There were times when things had to be cut.”
One of the things realized in mid-2018 was that CSHA hadn’t increased its convention registration fees or membership dues in seven years. This was a compounded revenue loss to CSHA of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of those years, especially as costs to deliver association conventions and member services steadily increased.
CSHA’s pre-existing fiscal tightrope has only been exacerbated by the cancellation of CSHA’s 2020 convention and the economic uncertainties in the COVID era. CSHA’s convention has historically generated two-thirds of the association’s annual revenue, dollars that keep the organization going throughout the year.
The result is an association facing a precarious fiscal reality.
At its virtual June 2020 meeting, the board adopted a fiscal 2021 budget with a year-end projected loss of some $300,000. This projection was based on a broad array of unknown factors, given the pandemic. A second year of significant revenue loss (the 2021 convention issue) will have devastating impacts. In an effort to remain operational, the board discussed at its June meeting the need to engage in a significant fundraising campaign in order to sustain the organization over the next two years.
One of the things that has become clear, Narain says, and which the board has discussed, is the gap in expectations between what CSHA “should” do and what it has the resources to do. “CSHA is often compared to ASHA,” Narain says, “which is unrealistic, given our $1.5 million annual budget and ASHA’s $62 million annual budget.” This gap in understanding, she adds, is a challenge in terms of what the community expects CSHA to be able to accomplish.
CHANGES CAN BE HARD
While change is needed to move forward as an organization, change itself can be a challenge of its own.
“It’s been hard for some of our members to accept the changes that we’ve been making in the organization.” Fogel says. “It’s been hard for some to really grasp what best practices are for our organization,” Fogel says, adding that it has been five to six years since they started this journey of change in an organization that is over 50 years old.
“Those of us who have been on the board through this period of time,” Fogel says, “those of us who have been involved in this evolution, we have done a lot of reading and studying. Some of us have actually been to courses, have had discussions, and have listened to presentations to the board, all of which helped train us on how nonprofit boards are supposed to work.”
Fogel explains that it is important “for the board and all association members to understand the appropriate governance role of the board, as well as the role of a professional nonprofit staff in operationalizing the board’s priorities. But throughout the process, it is imperative that we all work together.
“An organization like ours can’t move forward without an experienced staff,” Fogel adds. “That’s an important point, which is understood by a knowledgeable board.”
MOVING FORWARD FROM HERE
“In order for us to continue to be a viable and sustainable organization, and for us to continue to be able to work and support our vision, we have to increase our membership. There’s just no way around it,” Narain says. Currently, CSHA’s membership is around 3,000, Narain explains, adding this is a very small number when one considers the number of professionals and students in the field in California. “This is especially critical when we are advocating for our profession. A larger membership gives us a louder voice. The louder our voice, the bigger the impact we can have when advocating for our profession and consumers.”
Adds Hernández, “I think moving forward, what is critically important is to be transparent; being able to say we haven’t done a really good job of listening to the people who had felt excluded, and let’s give them a space to share their experiences.”
National statistics show that approximately 92% of clinicians in the field identify as white, monolingual and female, Hernández says, adding that there is work to be done to create a diverse pipeline of students into the field, into CSHA as an organization, and advocate for them as they go from student to professional.
Narain says the association knows that it needs to bring in people of all different backgrounds and demographics and is working diligently to do just that. “Representation matters,” she says. “It’s important that individuals see themselves in all aspects of society, but especially in their professional association. This is why we have made a conscious effort to connect with those who have historically been underrepresented in CSHA. It’s imperative that individuals don’t walk away from our association due to lack of representation or lack of opportunities for involvement,” Narain says.
Narain says the two new strategic planning priorities are the challenging truths about the future of the association. “Having to cancel the convention was a huge financial hit,” Narain says, adding that it is still uncertain what the future holds in terms of revenue generation and CSHA’s survivability.
“We are trying to plan as best as we can, but keeping in mind that things are going to change. We are doing our best to make data-driven decisions.
“None of us ever thought we would have to lead an association during a pandemic, yet here we are, navigating unchartered waters,” Narain says, adding that the learning curve has been steep, to say the least.
“There’s no question that the last few years have been challenging, only to have been compounded by world events in the last several months, but that hasn’t deterred CSHA from its mission,” says Narain. “It’s more important than ever that we create a solid foundation to support CSHA’s growth and work toward fiscal stability so we can continue to be thought leaders in our field and empower future generations through our association.”
Maria Ortiz-Briones has been a journalist for more than a decade, working in the Central Valley. She has received numerous journalism fellowships, has won journalism awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications (NAHP), has been recognized by local organizations in the Valley, and has been a speaker and presenter at journalism conferences on the topic of covering the Latino community.