Serving as a Nonprofit Board Director, the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly… A lessons learned conversation…

Community Building, Stepping Up Initiative, Lincoln County Oregon 2017…


ATTENTION! This is a reader engaging lessons learned activity! Think about what this suggests from a dear friend(s) and colleague(s), “running a nonprofit ain’t no picnic at the beach!” Neighbors for Kids, Depoe Bay, Oregon. I served as board director and officer from 2010 to 2016. What a ride! My first nonprofit board service experience was Village Art in the Park, Leavenworth, Wa from 1991 to 1996, including serving as chair for three years. Anyone serving on a nonprofit board, staff, committee, including stakeholders and partners, or interested in making a difference for your community, this is a worthy read!

Please begin this activity by reading the brief article in the link below.

I will take the highlights of certain “truths” and discuss my own professional experiences. Part of the learning exercise as we engage in this topic is writing your own story… Please consider sharing your story. Steve Sparks

Big Picture Realities

Serving is far more work than you anticipated… Until you experience this you will never know how much board members, staff and volunteers slave to build the best of the best nonprofit business model for a social services cause they love.

Far more responsibility than you may have understood or imagined, but highly rewarding. Count on a relatively few board members who are actually appropriately passionate, compassionate and empathetic toward the cause. Social services non-profits, as an example, are often providing 24/7 essential community based services to the most vulnerable citizens in our community. The executive director’s passion and leadership is the difference between success and failure. But without a proactive, highly engaged board and larger community commitment to the cause, your non-profit will struggle to compete for funding… It’s like a 3 legged stool…

No doubt it is far more frustrating than you considered. Serving on a board is thankless, believe me. The charity cause has to be part of your DNA. Don’t commit to board service if this makes you nervous about a time and energy commitment, please don’t do it! Serve on a committee first. Try it, you might like it… This experience could be the most rewarding thing you have done in a lifetime of giving back to your community. Serving on boards and making a difference in my community has been a source of healing for me from a very challenging life history.

1) Board service may well be the hardest but most rewarding job in your life. It has been for me…

Board service is a very serious commitment. Board officers and directors have fiduciary and governance duties and must follow best practices as any other business enterprise. Vetting good board members is the key to building a solid team of community building leaders who really care about the charity. There is a huge amount of “sweat equity” by board members, including investing in the non-profit’s future sustainability through in-kind services and money. In the for profit business world it is called, “participation.” The most important ingredients to success are trust, respect, and confidence in each other as friends and colleagues. Don’t hold back, communicate your passion and ideas. Board development and capacity building training must be an on-going priority with measured outcomes.

2) Your voice is as valuable at your first meeting as it is at your last.

Each and every board member has equal power to make a difference. It is in your commitment and participatory engagement that builds exponential capacity to make things happen in your community. When the full board is working together as a cohesive, strategy driven team with the executive director, staff and larger community, anything is possible!

3) You deserve a very good orientation.

The best advice I ever heard from a legacy donor about board service; “The good news, is you will not go to jail for being stupid.”

The most critical orientation for a new board member is learning the laws and executive management best practices connected with 501cX charity nonprofits. This is IMPORTANT! Buddy up with a board member with experience, meet once a week for coffee/chat. Build relationships and trust. Work together to champion a new fund raising idea. Pursue opportunities for building capacity with new community collaborations and partnerships. Learn how you can help and get engaged as a board member volunteer. I have found that my empathy and compassion for the most vulnerable citizens we serve, increased ten fold. This kind of proactive engagement results in more passion, more energy, more personal satisfaction with the social cause and in succeeding as a star agency in your community. Leading in the community as a nonprofit pays off big time with extra sweat equity on the part of board members. Hire a business development director. These highly skilled community building professionals pay for themselves 10 times over the long run by building a strong donor list, with estate planning and legacy giving strategies.

Here’s a template for a great board orientation.

4) The board is NOT an appendage to the organization.

Maximizing opportunities as a board in your social services space requires highly passionate and compassionate board members. This work is all about empathy and trust. The staff of a nonprofit wouldn’t be there if they were not all in on the mission and probably have a life history connected to the cause. Don’t get in their way! Be a collaborator on the inside as well as community building on the the outside. Don’t wait for the phone to ring, listen, learn, get involved, and take ownership. The board’s job is to build capacity for the charity cause with a long term goal of achieving sustainability. Board members are the very best citizens in communities all over America. A well run nonprofit charity will recruit and retain volunteers far more effectively. When you love your community, they will love you back! We are the stewards of community owned nonprofits. It has always been an honor and priviledge to serve my community in this capacity.

5) You do NOT need to know rich people to be successful.

It’s worth knowing that the smaller donor ($100) living within your community represents a significant potential for incremental and sustainable funding. We can’t live off a “grant to grant pay period” for staff and operations. Building a diversified funding strategy and portfolio is key to sustainability. Board members are the ‘sales arm’ of a charity! It is your passion about the cause that attracts new donors and funding opportunities. For nonprofits fortunate enough, larger donations are more competitive with “bricks and morter” on the balance sheet. Identify and apply for earned income opportunities through larger community partnerships, especially upstream health care and social services connected with Medicaid population for the most vulnerable citizens in your community. The social services landscape is changing dramatically and taking on more of the services related to the “social determinants of health care.” Start a new ‘innovation’ committee on your board to look at earned income opportunites and/or partnerships that open the door to building capacity. The future is in public/private/philanthropic partnerships that leverage and scale social services to be more responsive and cost effective to the community.

6) Your passion for the organization must be greater than your fear of asking

“Passion is the #1 ingredient for successful board service. It’s also the ingredient to inviting people to know and do more for the organization.” Board members become the face to the community, community outreach champions. Without the high energy, sense of urgency, and hypervigilence of great board members we have all known and love, the community would be unable to sustain vital and essential community based social services. I have always been so grateful for the friends and colleagues who served with me over many decades, and treasure the fond memories and community successes.

7) If you miss two board meetings in a row, call your board chair.

If you are unable to attend regular board meetings and start to fall away, have a chat with your board chair. Maybe it is time to move on or get a new assignment that touches your heart. Missing all the action of community events, regular and committee meetings, makes it hard for the rest of the team. I remember the worst of it on rare occassions when myriad personal and professional circumstances of board members made it very challenging for those of us left behind to pick up the pieces, requiring volunteer neighbors, along with back up temporary board director appointments. It’s usually a big mess and no fun for your remaining friends and colleagues. I call it the “Humpty Dumpty” transition back to good governance and fiduciary stability. They will hate you for this, believe me! Your staff typically knows how to ride this wave…and keep the ship afloat. All heros in my mind…

8) You have power over staff – use it wisely and never abuse it.

“Do not get me started on abuse of power. The number of stories I hear about bullying and abusive board members just gobsmacks me. So two things… if you are joining a board because it feels powerful, go be powerful somewhere else. And secondly and more importantly, please call it out if you see it.” I can’t say this any better!

9) You need to give a gift that Is one of the top 3 charitable gifts you make.

My experience with board members gifts is very personal. Don’t push board members on this topic. Each person will make a commitment of their own choosing on their own time. Gifts are both cash and in-kind. Board members who bring professional experience and skill sets to the board, are worth much appreciation and acknowledgement. Think of the cost of professional services if board members offered experience and certain skills in fund raising and community building. Put it all together, building a diversified board with complementary skill sets and life experience is ideal and doable, no pipe dream.

10) PLEASE share rewarding stories of board service to folks by joining the conversation.

Please share your story! I can be reached at or leave a comment.

Steve Sparks, Author, Blogger, Community Builder, Mental Health Advocate

Lincoln County Oregon Builds a Collaborative Community…Transforming Health Care to a Patient Centered Model…

Lincoln County Commissioner, Claire Hall, a close friend and colleague, asked me to come in for a visit in May of 2016 after she attended a National Association of Counties (NACo) conference in Washington D.C. At that moment the Stepping Up Initiative was hatched in Claire’s office, and the rest is history. Commissioner Hall hired me as project consultant, and recruited newly installed Lincoln County Sheriff Curtis Landers to join the project leadership team. It is within this leadership structure and steadfast commitment that we began paving the way for the amazing transformation we have experienced as a community in the last three (3) years, including a ready and willing community of partners and stakeholders. As a community we had reached a critical point in 2016 when we had to change or be left behind as a rural County of close to 50,000 citizens. We were running out of time…

Lincoln County Commissioners, Kaety Jacobson, Claire Hall, and Doug Hunt

On October 5, 2016 Lincoln County Oregon Board of Commissioners (BOC) passed a resolution to make Stepping Up Initiative a top priority for leading Lincoln County into a 21st Century transformative health care delivery system; especially for the most vulnerable citizens, including our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins, who are so often left behind in the streets as homeless, and all too often suffer from mental illness, and addiction. We then set out to navigate the County through an exciting and challenging period of change and breaking down barriers. As a community we were too siloed stuck in place for far too long. We had limited collaborations and partnerships which denied the community of diversified funding opportunities. Lincoln County Sheriff, Curtis Landers stepped up immediately to help lead with a smart on crime approach of diverting vulnerable individuals from the County Jail and hospital emergency services to community based treatment and recovery upstream services…a continuum of care.

Lincoln County Sheriff Curtis Landers

The culmination of this awesome community building effort was represented in full force last Friday, September 13th. With a full moon and the stars aligned we met for the 3rd year as a leadership team of partners and stakeholders to review progress and continue to close the gaps and solidify Stepping Up Initiative as the new community based culture of collaboration. Hosted by Oregon Center on Behavioral Health & Justice Integration, the workshop goals are focused on this broader theme…

“Mental health and criminal justice systems often collide, creating significant barriers to treatment and support services. Sequential Intercept Mapping & Taking Action for Change helps develop and implement plans for community change through cross-system collaboration. This workshop enhances practices and facilitates organizational change utilizing innovative and dynamic tools to map systems, identify gaps in service, and clarify community resources.”


  • Further the delivery of appropriate services to people with mental illness and/or substance use disorders involved in the criminal justice system
  • Assist in identifying gaps in service
  • Optimize use of local resources

Topics and Activities

This program is customized to the very specific needs and desired outcomes of our community.

  • Cross-Systems Mapping
  • Identifying Resources and Gaps in Service
  • Setting Community Priorities
  • Developing an Action Plan to Implement Change

As a long time citizen of Lincoln County and Depoe Bay, Oregon, I’m so very honored and proud to have been part of this unprecedented community building effort in our coastal community. Lincoln County now leads in the State of Oregon and across the nation as a transformative rural community. We can be proud as a community of the excellent leadership and commitment from Lincoln County Board of Commissioners and Sheriff for their steadfast leadership commitment…and innovative spirit. We succeeded in becoming an empowered community of partners and stakeholders…and there is no turning back the clock. We are more than ready for the next generation of Stepping Up Initiative…2.0.

Steve Sparks, Project Consultant, Stepping Up Initiative, Lincoln County Oregon and Resident Cheer Leader

Steve Sparks, Author, Blogger, Mental Health Advocate

Lincoln County Oregon Stepping Up Initiative is Profoundly Transformational!

Lincoln County Oregon Commissioner Bill Hall, Sheriff Curtis Landers, and Steve Sparks, Stepping Up Initiative Project Consultant


Lincoln County Oregon Media Release…click image for larger view…

Moving Forward and Stepping Up – By Bill Hall, Curtis Landers and Steve Sparks


(9.15.17 – Lincoln County, OR)


The three of us teamed up a year ago to launch an effort that’s beginning to transform Lincoln County in profound ways. Stepping Up is a national effort to transform the way we deal with people with mental illness and addiction issues in the justice system, but its’ impacts are even more far-reaching.

In early 2015, the American Psychiatric Association, Council of State Governments and National Association of Counties came together to launch Stepping Up.  Jails and prisons have become the default holding facilities in our country for people with mental illness and addictions issues. It’s estimated that nationally, more than two million people are behind bars primarily because of behavioral health challenges.

Why is this a problem? Just a few of the reasons:

These institutions aren’t equipped to deal with this population. They don’t get better behind bars; their condition deteriorates.

This group tends to get stuck in the system, with longer stays often for relatively minor offenses, making it more difficult to keep people in custody who truly need to be there.

It drains public resources, in both the correctional and health care systems, as these people cycle through the system again and again.

Is this a problem in Lincoln County? Yes. Our jail holds 161 people. At any given time, about 30 percent of these folks have a diagnosed mental illness, and about a third of this group are severely and persistently mentally ill. This 30% does not include those with addictions issues.

Their numbers are growing, yet our total number of jail beds are finite, which makes it harder to avoid releasing people before their sentences are completed.  Our goal is not to increase the number of jail beds, but to reduce the need for the jail beds we have.

Our county has recognized this issue for a long time. We’ve had a mental health subcommittee under our Local Public Safety Coordinating Council for more than a decade. We have a Mental Health Court, a jail counselor (something many counties larger than us don’t have), and have received a grant to establish mobile mental health crisis services. All of these are positive steps, but we need a lot more.

In October of 2016, the Lincoln County Commissioners adopted the Stepping Up resolution, which formally made us part of this national effort. As of this writing, 389 counties have adopted the resolution nationally, which represents more than a third of the total population in the United States. Sixteen of Oregon’s 36 counties are on board.

Giving people in the justice system better tools to deal with mental illness is one of our priorities. All members of the Sheriff’s Office and Community Corrections have completed Mental Health First Aid training, a one-day course designed to give everyone tools to recognize and assist in a mental health crisis. The Sheriff’s Office is also accelerating Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for patrol and corrections deputies. CIT is a week-long course designed to give officers tools to de-escalate a crisis.

At the end of August, more than three dozen people involved in criminal justice and public safety, along with a number of community partners in treatment, social services, the faith community and peers, came together for a day and a half-long Sequential Intercept Mapping Exercise (SIM). Lincoln County was among 54 counties that applied to receive this workshop at no charge this year:  this is a testament to our level of community commitment and readiness.

At the SIM workshop, participants assessed our current system at six key points where people with behavioral health issues can encounter the justice system, identified our most critical gaps, and developed action plans to address the first four issues on that list.

The four priorities that emerged: establishing stronger pre-arrest diversions; setting up pre-trial services to provide support to people released pending trial and to hold them accountable; a more formalized re-entry system; and the integration of peer services at every stage of the process.

We’ve made amazing progress in just a year’s time, yet our work has just begun. We are, however, quite confident of achieving our goals. Why? The tremendous level of buy-in among partners and stakeholders is encourages us greatly. And, it’s been amazing, and sad, to hear from people who are aware of this work and tell us how much it is needed.

We have heard too many stories of families, careers and lives shattered by mental illness and addiction. Sometimes it’s a co-worker, sometimes it’s a neighbor, sometimes it’s a family member. Families and communities everywhere have suffered far too long.  It’s up to us as citizens to step up and finally end the cycle of damage and begin to heal.