Strategic Planning and the board-ED relationship

November 25, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 10:53 am

I recently wrote an article for Blue Avocado on the board-Executive Director relationship.

When I talk to nonprofit leaders about strategic planning, they often voice some of the obvious benefits of aligning teams around organizational identity (mission, vision) and organizational priorities (goals).  In contrast, they rarely voice a benefit I think is undervalued: the opportunity strategic planning presents for a board and executive director to strengthen their relationship. 

Strategic planning can be a relationship-building tool from the perspective of three A’s: Aspirations, Alignment, and Accountability.

Read the full article on Blue Avocado  

ED & Board Chair
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Overcoming fear

September 23, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 10:28 am

For many of those responsible for securing major gifts for their organization, it’s one thing to know in theory what should take place when meeting with a donor.  It’s another thing to overcome their “fear” or “discomfort” that gets in the way of asking.  This is true both in-person and virtually.

In my experience there are five primary fears – three that are openly acknowledged and two that are more under the surface.

Commonly stated fears:

1.            Fear of harming relationships

2.            Fear of receiving reciprocal asks

3.            Fear of looking foolish/don’t know what to say.

Common unstated fears:

4.            Fear of rejection

5.            Money as a taboo topic

Each are worthy of discussion.

Fear 1:  Damaging relationships

For some fundraisers, relationships are like a cup of water and asking for a donation is like withdrawing water from the cup.  In reality, meetings done properly should add “water” to the relationship, even if they say no. 

This is because:

  • They will learn your story and you will learn theirs.
  • You will have shared with them something you care about, making the relationship more authentic.
  • They will most likely respect you for having the courage to make the “ask” (since most people who haven’t done it much fear fundraising).
  • They will often feel flattered that you felt they were the type of person who’d make a major gift.

Of course, if meetings are mishandled – heavy handed, language around guilt used, no effort made to listen to them, etc. – these benefits might not accrue.   If the only time you ever speak to someone is when you ask, relationships could fray.

The good news: avoiding those downsides is entirely in the control of a well-trained major donor fundraiser.

Fear 2:  Reciprocal Asks

Some of those I train, particularly board members, worry that if they ask friends for a donation, the friends will turn around and make a reciprocal request.

This is a relatively small risk.  The universe of those who fundraise is vastly smaller than the universe who give, so the odds start out low that those you’re asking have some other organization for which they will be raising funds.

Beyond this small risk, two other factors mitigate against it.  First, you’re not obligated to say yes if the cause they pitch to you isn’t a priority for you.  You do have an obligation to be authentic – to say no to a request that doesn’t match your values or priorities.  I’ve had to do this a few times over the years and I’ve never felt damage to a relationship because I was able to frame my “no” in a respectful manner.  

Indeed, in a few instances I very much appreciated the reciprocal ask as they introduced me to organizations doing great work.  To that extent, one could just as easily see reciprocal asks as an opportunity rather than something to fear.

Fear 3:  Looking Foolish

Nobody likes to do something where they feel inadequate and may appear foolish or incompetent.  Having talked with many board members, I’m convinced this fear is both overblown and straightforward to address when it comes to donor meetings.

For starters, there are many resources available to boards (and staff) to develop basic skills for fundraising.  When you combine training with some degree of ongoing support/coaching, pretty much everybody who would otherwise be an appropriate board member should be able to avoid looking foolish while fundraising.

Board members should also understand that those asked do not hold board members to the same standards they would staff.  The value of board members as fundraisers is from sharing passion, not expertise.  And for both board and staff, it’s always acceptable to tell a donor “I’ll get back to you” if they ask a question you’re not equipped to immediately answer.

In the end, adequate training and support should be able to get all board members (and staff) to the point they should be able to make an effective ask while coming across positively.

Fear 4:  Rejection

Major donor fundraisers will feel rejection.  Prospects will say “no.”  As much as half of the time.  Indeed, a useful maxim is that if nobody is saying “no” to you it means you’re not asking enough people for money.

Some techniques that have helped other fundraisers get past this fear:

  • Recalibrate in your mind what is meant by success.  Don’t judge yourself by school standards (90% = an A, 80% = a B, etc.).  Judge yourself by major donor fundraiser standards (anything better than 50% yes is pretty darn good).
  • Recognize that most “no’s” are really “yes” to something else.  You may be “selling” “racial justice,” while they’re prioritizing “climate change.”  Or they may be prioritizing personal/family needs at this point in their lives.  It will be an exceptionally rare circumstance where someone will say “no” to you while saying they’re going to invest in something you actively oppose.
  • Recognize that many of those who say “no” are really saying “not now.”  They may have already given away all they can during the period in time, but perhaps you’ve set them up for a big gift next year.
  • Recognize that other positive outcomes can come from meetings where those solicited say no, such as volunteering, new ideas, more knowledge of other things in your community, and/or leads/referrals to other prospects.    

Fear 5:  Social taboos around money

Lastly, some fear of fundraising actually stems from a more generalized social taboo around money that exists in American society.  It’s generally considered rude to ask people how much they make for a living.  Or to talk too much about money.  So asking for a donation is bringing money into the conversation in a way that makes us uneasy.

There is no magic formula for overcoming this taboo other than practice.  From talking to a lot of fundraisers over the years, those who make a series of asks almost always get past this taboo rather quickly if the asks are done properly.

Getting above the passion versus fear line

I’ve separately blogged about the passion versus fear line.

Imagine two intersecting lines.  One horizontal line is “fear of fundraising.”  Another line running from the lower left to upper right is “passion for the mission.”  When fear of fundraising exceeds passion for the mission, fundraising doesn’t take place.  When passion for the mission exceeds fear of fundraising, it does. 

The techniques discussed above are all aimed at lowering the “fear of fundraising” line.  A separate way of overcoming fear is to raise the “passion for the mission” line.  The more excited board members and staff are about what the organization can and needs to accomplish, the more likely they are to push through their fear and fundraise.  After all, people do things they’re afraid of all the time – if they want the outcome badly enough.

So take time with your boards in particular to keep them jazzed about the mission.  If your board meetings are dry affairs focused just on finances, that can be deadly to fundraising because a board member who’s bored with your organization is unlikely to step out of their comfort zone. 

Feedback for me

Have you encountered fundraising fears I didn’t mention. If so, I’d love to hear from you.

Or if you have additional techniques you’ve used to address fear, please do share them with everyone.

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The board and nonprofit branding

September 18, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Communications,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 10:49 am

A friend serving on the board of a local nonprofit recently asked me:

” I have a question about the process of rebranding for a nonprofit. Is it your experience that the board is involved in the design committee? And/or how about needing to vote on and approve the new brand before it’s rolled out?  Our board board is having a discussion about this so I want some expert insights.”

I think this will vary wildly based on the size of the organization and expertise of the board and staff.

It also depends on what is meant by the umbrella term “branding.”

Some think of it very narrowly (e.g. logo and organizational name).

Others think of it more broadly (e.g. logo/name/color pallette/fonts/style sheets).

I tend to think of it still more broadly as encompassing your desired identity (e.g. what you want your constituents and the public to think of when they hear your organizational name and see your materials). For example, a nonprofit I’ve advised recently did a branding exercise that concluded they wanted people to think of “science”, “legacy”, and “thriving” as the three words they most associate with the nonprofit.

In terms of board approval, I’d expect a board vote on a name change.

But everything else it really depends on the size of the organization’s staff and board, and the relative expertise of board and staff. More times than not, I think this probably means the board doesn’t vote — with some exceptions — in part because the board has so many other clear responsibilities that they struggle to find time to meet and vote on.

In terms of board involvement for developing a proposed new branding, I think it again depends on the circumstances.

If the branding is a broader question about organizational identity (e.g. what the brand is trying to convey and not just questions of how to convey it), then I’d certainly expect the board to be consulted for their input.  Whether that’s via a committee or interviews or online survey or focus group or some other method doesn’t really matter. 

If it’s more about how to convey the brand identity (e.g. what color scheme to use), I would not expect board involvement in that. The exception: really small organizations where (a) the board is in part playing a management role because staff doesn’t have the bandwidth to do all desired staff functions, and (b) one or more board members has relevant expertise.

But this is the important thing: if one or more board members are brought into the process because of their expertise on branding, I’d view them as participating as an expert volunteer, not in their board capacity.  When board members volunteer for something other than a board governance responsibility, they’re just another volunteer for that activity.

Has your organization been through branding? What role did your board play in these decisions? Please let me know in the comments!

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The passion versus fear equation

July 16, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 3:54 pm

When training boards (and sometimes staff) on fundraising, I often refer to the passion versus fear equation or line.

Often, I’m asked to help a board get past their fear of fundraising. There are tools to address their fear.

But there’s another side to the equation: passion.

Imagine two intersecting lines. One is fear of fundraising. The other running from the lower left to upper right is passion for the mission.

My maxim: when a board member’s passion for the mission exceeds their discomfort/fear about fundraising, they will raise money. Lowering their level of discomfort/fear is one way to make that happen. But the other is to increase their passion.

After all, people do things they’re scared of all the time if their desire is strong enough.

So how do you increase a board’s level of passion for the mission:

  • Make sure board meetings aren’t entirely dry affairs focused on finances.
  • Find opportunities to have the board members experience the positive benefits the organization is generating. That could be meeting people who’ve been served, experiencing a location saved, etc.
  • Make this collective: do an exercise where board members share their “personal story” of why they’re involved. They will feed on each other’s passion — not just their own.
  • Create a sense of teamwork and camaraderie: to the extent they are passionate for their fellow board members, that will also count.

None of this discounts the importance of training as a tool to help board members past their fear. But don’t forget the passion side of the equation.

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Pick up the frickin’ phone

June 8, 2020

Filed under: Board Development,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 11:41 am

I was recently talking with a fellow consultant about disengaged boards and, in particular, Executive Directors complaining about disengaged boards.

We quickly agreed on one point in particular: many Executive Directors share some of the blame for their disengaged boards because they don’t pick up the frickin’ phone.

They rely upon board meetings and/or emails to communicate with their board. In their over-reliance on board meetings and email, they never engage in meaningful one-on-one conversations with the board to get to know them, to share personal stories, and to make specific requests when appropriate.

So if you’re an Executive Director facing a disengaged board, your first task is simple: schedule a half hour phone call with every board member. You don’t need an excuse for this. Just do it. And if they don’t respond to an email requesting a phone call, just call!

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Does your nonprofit pass the marshmallow test?

November 18, 2019

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:59 pm

One of the most famous social-science studies was the marshmallow test.  Put a marshmallow in front of a preschool aged child and tell the child they can have a second marshmallow if they wait 15 minutes before eating the first one.  Leave the room and observe. 

The study, which tracked kids for years after the test, purports to show that those kids who, at an early age, had the self-control to double their payout (by waiting for the second marshmallow) do better in life (as measured by various objective means).

Serious doubts have since been raised about the reliability of the study and its purported conclusions when it comes to childhood development, taking into account differences in demographics.  But I want to draw upon it as an analogy to something I’ve seen time and again in the nonprofit world:  many Executive Directors struggle because they are eating their marshmallow too soon.

What do I mean by this?

My thesis:  smaller nonprofits who have the discipline to hold off on eating the marshmallow are more likely to thrive than those who partake right away of the marshmallow.

In the nonprofit world the marshmallow is your program.  Just as eating a marshmallow feels good to a child, it feels good to nonprofit employees to do the organization’s program.

You know what doesn’t feel good?  Doing less of the program work that directly advances the mission, especially when there are obvious community needs you can meet. 

There’s always a time trade-off.  Time you spend on program is time not available for organizational development (fundraising, board governance, administration, etc.).

If you do too much program as a small organization, you’re eating the marshmallow. What do I mean by “too much program?”

I know one nonprofit Executive Director who’s been running the same small nonprofit for the last decade who expresses frustration that other organizations have outgrown theirs.   But when I give advice about ways to raise more money, their answer is always: “I don’t have time because there’s so much of the work to get done.”

And it’s important work.  And they’re getting it done well.

But they’re eating the marshmallow too soon. 

Their theory: do great work and the money will follow.

Alas, it doesn’t work that way since good fundraising takes a real time commitment.

A small organization for whom growth is important should do the absolute minimum level of program work required in order to keep faith with donors.  And then focus every remaining second on fundraising and other essential organizational development activities.

That means leaving marshmallows on the table in the short run.  So that you can get to far more marshmallows — and make a bigger impact towards achieving your mission — in the longer run.

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Another technique for being strategic

August 9, 2017

Filed under: Board Development,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:20 pm

I recently blogged about the importance of being strategic as an organization and one technique for being so modeled after Paul Covey’s insight about effective people focusing on important tasks and not just urgent (e.g. time-sensitive) tasks.

Another technique I’ve found useful in being strategic is based on an insight from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors.

In it, he posits that great organizations find the sweet spot in a Venn diagram consisting of three circles:

  • What the organization can be the best at?
  • What the organization is passionate about?
  • What serves as the organization’s resource engine?

In explaining this, think about the three scenarios where two of these are true and the third is false.

If you’re passionate and can generate dollars, but not excellent, you’ll usually be outcompeted. Over time, even the dollars will fade because donors will figure out your work isn’t excellent.

If you’re excellent and can generate dollars, but not passionate about what you’re doing, your best intent will peter out over the long haul.

If you’re passionate and excellent, but there’s no path to generate resources, you won’t have funds to accomplish what you desire.

Of course, things get even bleaker if you’re only in one of the three circles.

One challenge in implementing this tool is groups are often not self-aware of their own limitations when it comes to excellence.  Finding a way to get candid feedback on this front from those in a position to evaluate the organization is really valuable.

Likewise, a challenge I’ve experienced on the passion front is the exercise is usually about what the most vocal person is passionate about, or the Executive Director/Board Chair.  I’ve had success using confidential interviews as part of strategic planning in a way that generates a more candid sense of where the overall team has its passion.

Lastly, figuring out an organization’s resource engine means taking a hard look at its revenue strategies (whether traditional fundraising or earned revenue) and whether those line up well with the programs being evaluated.

So how does this tool help you choose among various activities?  For each, you can generate ratings on the team’s level of passion for it, the team’s excellence at it, and the likelihood of the activity generating dollars.

You’re not looking for the sum of these ratings, but rather those activities that score well across all three.

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Personal stories in fundraising

January 9, 2017

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 10:22 am

Telling Personal Stories when doing Fundraising Meetings

Often, we spend so much time honing the stories we’re going to tell to donors about our organization, that we fail to also think about what personal story or stories should become part of donor cultivation and solicitation meetings.

We’re excited to tell the prospect about the organization’s work.  So we rush ahead of the important step of forming a genuine relationship with the prospective donor.

Most good fundraisers understand that relationship-building means doing a lot more listening than talking during donor meetings.   But even good fundraisers sometimes find it difficult to draw out prospects.

About 5 years into my own fundraising odyssey, I learned there’s an important first step that can really help – tell your own personal story.

Why tell your personal story during a fundraising meeting?  And what makes a good personal story that sets up a fundraising meeting?

Fundraising is about Relationships and Stories are Key to Relationship-Building

At its heart, good major donor fundraising is about relationships.  People are far more likely to make a major gift when the ask is by someone with whom they feel comfortable and where they feel you are a person and not just a “position” within an organization.

That means getting to know the donor.  And that’s only possible if they get to know you.  It can’t be one way.

Yet, if we start a donor meeting with just asking the prospect a series of questions, that can be off-putting.   Unless you’re exceptionally gifted, most prospects will keep their guard up when faced with a series of opening questions.

A trick I learned about 5 years into being a major donor fundraiser really changed the dynamic for me when it came to the quality of meetings.  Before I learned this trick, my meetings were successful, but I always felt something was missing.  Afterwards, it was like a switch had been turned on and I found donors far more revealing of themselves.

The trick was to start by telling my own personal story.   After some introductory chit chat and thanking them for something they’ve already done, say something like:

“Thanks again for taking time to meet with me to talk about THE ORGANIZATION.  Before we dive into it, I want to share with you why I’m so glad to be WORKING/VOLUNTEERING for THE ORGANZIATION.”

And then tell the story.

The role of this story is to demonstrate to the donor prospect:

  • That you’re a real person with values motivating your fundraising and not just a cog in the organizational machine.
  • To identify something you value that they probably value too.
  • To create a space in the conversation where it’s natural and appropriate for you to ask about the prospective donor’s own story, background, values, etc.

I’ve heard dozens of effective personal stories over the years.  My own story when fundraising for conservation causes has to do with growing up amidst suburban sprawl and losing easy access to nature.

A good personal story for a fundraising meeting:

  • Answers the question: what in your background motivates your involvement with the organization.
  • Speaks from the heart, and not just the brain.
  • Takes place in time prior to your involvement with the nonprofit.
  • Usually has the structure: “When I was . . . , I . . . ., and then . . . . , and that’s why . . . . .”

After telling the story, it’s much more natural to start asking questions of the prospect.

“So tell me your story  — how did you first become interested in X?”

X will vary wildly based on their career, volunteer interests, etc.

And then you’re off to the races.   Almost always, their answer to the opening question should allow for follow-up questions that can be used to get to know them and their interests.  And occasionally, it will be useful for you to tell another story about yourself to further the relationship.

And then you gradually transition into telling the organization’s stories (why it exists, why it’s successful, what’s urgent).  Now that you know them better, you can also tailor stories about the organization around their interests.

Of course, it may also be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway:  this technique isn’t just useful for fundraising.  I’ve used it doing board recruitment meetings and more general volunteer recruitment, for example.

If you have a personal story you’ve written up and want to run it by me to see if I feel it’s on the right track, feel free to email me.

 

 

 

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Tips for “Virtual” Meetings

May 11, 2016

Filed under: Board Development,Consulting,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 5:22 pm

In my consulting work, I’m involved in a lot of “virtual” meetings, often as the facilitator.  By virtual, I mean not in-person, so using the phone and/or internet.

I also participated in many virtual meetings over the years running a statewide conservation organization and being on the board of a national network of similar organizations.

I’ve learned some lessons over the years of some things to do and to avoid when planning for virtual meetings.

Before identifying those lessons, it’s important to underscore the two most important challenges posed by virtual meetings.

    1. It’s super easy for participants to be multi-tasking during the meeting.  That could be something else they’re working on or it could be scanning their facebook or twitter feeds.  How do you get their full attention.
    2. Unless it’s a small meeting with everyone on video, you lose out on most of the social cues that come in an in-person meeting, such as body language.

So if you have a virtual meeting to plan, how do you address these challenges?

First, plan ahead for video technology and don’t take it for granted.  There are many free options, such as Skype and Google for reasonable-sized video meetings.  (Editor’s note from 2020: since I wrote this in 2016, Zoom has become my go-to tech for virtual meetings).   If you’re trying a new technology, do a dry run with guinea pigs.  And make sure someone else other than the facilitator is prepared to deal with any technical glitches.  With that said, if people won’t have access to the internet or if video is just not feasible, you can still run solid virtual meetings by phone.

Second, have an increased energy level as facilitator.  It’s human nature to pay more attention when someone is energetic in their tone of voice.  Pump people up with your attitude.

Third,  take extra steps to make sure everyone is engaged.   There are lots of ways to do to do this.  Ideas include:

  • In setting the agenda, try to give as many people as possible an explicit task during the meeting so they’ll see the value of being fully involved.  Aside from leading on particular topics, other tasks include serving as scribe or timekeeper.
  • At the meeting opening, set the explicit groundrule that people won’t be multi-tasking during the meeting.  Included in that groundrule: they shouldn’t mute their phone unless they’ve been forced to participate somewhere with outside noise.
  • Use round robins to hear briefly from everyone on key topics.
  • If it seems like there’s not enough engagement, ask someone who hasn’t spoken in awhile what they think.
  • Explicitly ask people if they agree and ask them to say so out loud.

Fourth, as each agenda item wraps up, be explicit about what was decided and who has agreed to any follow-up task.   And then as the meeting closes, go through every person and ask them what follow-up tasks have fallen to them.

Lastly, get the meeting notes out ASAP.

Of course, all of the above presumes the meeting is otherwise well-organized.  If a meeting would be poorly designed in-person, no amount of attention to its virtual elements will overcome that.

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Have you sharpened your axe lately?

March 27, 2014

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:49 pm

A friend was recently describing to me a challenge he faced as a new board member of a relatively healthy organization, but one that seemed to have a frenetic culture.

He said the situation reminded him of an allegory a colleague once told him and I liked the story so much I’m repeating it here.  (If anyone knows the source of this allegory, please let me know).

Once upon a time, there was a woodsman who made his living cutting logs into firewood.  People kept coming to him requesting his work, so he got very busy.  He complained to his neighbor about how busy he was.

The next day, when he had a lot of wood to cut, the neighbor came by to observe his work and asked him why he didn’t stop to sharpen his axe. 

The woodsman replied: “Can’t you see I’m too busy to sharpen my axe?”

Of course, the moral of the story is that the woodsman would actually cut more wood in less time with a sharper axe.

This lesson applies to organizations and not just individuals.

I’ve known many nonprofit organizations with a culture of “getting it done” that are constantly overwhelmed with “stuff to do” so they never take the time to “sharpen their axe.”

In the organizational context, sharpening the axe can mean many things:

  • Professional development/training for staff and/or the board.
  • Strategic or other long-term or short-term planning
  • Team-building exercises/retreats

So organizational leaders out there as you plot the year ahead, don’t forget to build in multiple ways in which you’re sharpening the axe and not just swinging it.

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