Building and Sustaining Effective Coalitions

June 28, 2024

Filed under: Advocacy,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:47 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about effective coalitions, , since I’ve been hired to launch a couple in the last year and facilitated meetings of a third.  Actually, I’ve been thinking about this topic for 25 years as coalitions have been at the forefront of my professional career, both when I was working as a nonprofit Executive Director and as a consultant.

I was looking back at a PowerPoint I created several years ago about effective coalitions and realized I’d never taken the time to update it and present it in written form.

So here for your reading please is some of my top advice when it comes to how to build and sustain an effective coalition.  Since much of my career has involved nonprofits for whom advocacy on public policy is a major component, this article is heavily weighted towards coalitions in the advocacy context.

In the article, I’ll discuss best practices for launching a coalition, some thoughts on different types of coalitions, and best practices for sustaining a coalition.

But first, an obvious first question: what is a coalition?  My simplest use of the term for purposes of this article: any effort involving more than two organizations choosing to work together for some shared purpose beyond just a one-time event/project.  By this token, I’m using the word coalition for a catch-all term that could encompass structures that may go by a different name, such as network, alliance, partnership, etc.

Best practices for launching a coalition

Step 1: Determine and start with the core.  This is everyone who has to be involved, not necessarily everyone who’ll ultimately be invited.  Who are the organizations who you’d consider essential?

Step 2: Take the core’s temperature.  This is best done in a series of one-on-one conversations.  In my experience, you’re more likely to get candor one-on-one.  If there aren’t at least a few people enthusiastic, it’s okay to pull the plug at this stage.

Step 3: Meet to answer 5 key questions.  This could happen at a single meeting, but I find it often takes two meetings, and I’ve been involved in at least one coalition where it took four.

Question 1: What’s the purpose of the coalition?   Is it around a specific policy outcome with a defined period of time to pass it or a topic area where the coalition would want to make progress over time?  Or is it about building capacity of the coalition’s members, irrespective of any policy goal?

Question2: What type of coalition makes sense given the purpose?  I’ll discuss this question further below. 

It’s a really good idea to put the answers to Questions 1 and 2 into writing.

Question 3: Given the purpose and type of coalition, what system of decision-making makes sense? 

Question 4: What is/are the initial priority or priorities for coordinated work?  If there’s no shared initial action to take in the next year, it’s probably premature to launch.

Question 5: Where will the resources come for the collective work?  Are you counting on additional outside resources to flow into the coalition?  Will coalition participants pool funds in some way and then hire/contract with someone to coordinate/lead?  Or will coalition members directly expend resources to do the work?

More on types of coalitions

There are many types of coalitions, but I find they usually fit into one of five categories.

Networks are when organizations that come together with the primary purpose of sharing information to allow for ad hoc coordination where interests overlap, so as to decrease duplication of effort and identify opportunities for greater impact. 

Associations are when organizations come together to advance the long-term interest of their members, with a primary focus on building up the capacity of the members, via shared resources and shared capacity building.

Coordinated projects are when organizations come together to advance a very specific project.  Obviously, if it’s a really simple, short-term project, you wouldn’t need a coalition. So presumably these would be complex, longer-term projects. It could be advocacy focused (e.g. pass a bill) or it could be generating more public attention to an issue (e.g. such as issuing a shared report).  

Campaign coalitions are a special type of Coordinated Project that usually involves advocacy around a fixed deadline, such as an election or the end of a Legislative Session. 

Strategic Alliances are when organizations come together around an issue or related set of issues where they hope to make progress over an extended period of time. Example: reduce air pollution in Oregon. A strategic alliance may spawn campaign coalitions or coordinated projects that involve other participants who aren’t part of the overall alliance.  

Extensions of a lead organization are when organizations come together under the leadership of a single, well-funded organization using a coalition structure to advance an outcome, and the other organizations are just fine playing a more supportive role. 

How do you decide which is appropriate?

Focus on the why behind the coalition.  Discuss and pick the most appropriate, but don’t feel you have to stay constrained by the options above.  You can create your own model.  Just be sure that the participants are in alignment about what you’re doing and why.

Why do some coalition launches fail?

In my experience, the number one reason is lack of individual leadership.  That’s partly why taking the temperature of the core is essential up-front.  I was once hired to help launch a coalition and we skipped the one-on-ones up-front and went straight to holding two initial meetings.  Everyone agreed upon the purpose, the type of coalition, governance, and an initial policy priority.  But then it fell apart. 

Why? Because nobody was prepared to lead.  The group instigating the initial meeting (and who paid me) assumed someone else would step up.  Nobody would agree to chair the coalition, plan for the meetings, or make it a major focus. 

Some individual with at least one of the groups needs to “own” a sense of responsibility and have sufficient time to invest to lead.

Sustaining coalitions

I see five keys: communications, power, planning, behavior, and personal relationships.

Communications: Failure to communicate internally can lead to schisms, with insiders and outsiders.  There needs to be enough meetings and materials shared between meetings, but not so many to bog things down.

Power: Not all coalition partners are equal, especially if the members of the coalition include some of very different organizational size/capacity.  In my experience, it’s best to be open in acknowledging such imbalances when setting up the governance.  There’s no one right answer to how to address power imbalances, but in my experience it’s best to openly discuss them than pretend they don’t exist.

Planning systems:  Like with individual organizations, failure to plan is planning to fail.  It’s really important to have agreement on the major strategies being pursued.  Not all members of the coalition will have the same strategic orientation, so it’s best to openly discuss this and hopefully reach alignment.

Any coalition planning should also establish an intention regarding whether to add/grow the coalition.  Coalition growth is not valuable for its own sake.  Be clear on why you’re going to invite others if that’s the intent.

Whatever planning should engage the participants who’re going to be counted on to implement it.  That means setting aside the time to do this planning. I’ve seen coalitions go seriously awry because they launched too precipitously into action and discovered too late that the coalition members were fundamentally at odd as to their overall strategy.

Behavior: The two most common things that can go wrong here are lack of transparency – where some coalition partners are keeping things to themselves, and confidentiality – where some coalition partners intentionally or inadvertently share information externally that was meant to be internal.   Another challenge can be around taking and sharing credit.  Having an open conversation about this can be helpful.

Of course, while you can come up with codes of conduct, norms around communications, or other techniques to address behavior, personal behavior also matters.  I saw one coalition really struggle because the person assigned to participate from one of the leading participants was just plain rude in how he treated people (he was not self-aware and I’m convinced he didn’t realize his tone and manner was consistently rude). It made people not want to work as part of the coalition anymore.

Relationships matter: The flip side to the example of a rude person shutting down a coalition is that coalitions function better when the participants get to know and like each other as individuals. Finding some opportunities for coalition participants to interact beyond the confines of coalition meetings can be really valuable for the long-term health of a coalition.

Do you have advice of your own to offer when it comes to launching or sustaining a coalition? Please share it with a comment!

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Nonprofit dashboards 101

May 30, 2024

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

The phrase “Nonprofit Dashboard” is not one I recall hearing in my first decade in the nonprofit sector (1994-2004).  Then, a few years into the new millennium, I started to hear the phrase occasionally.  By the early 2010s, I started to hear the phrase frequently.  

Dashboards have emerged as a tool for nonprofits because most organizations have far more data about their own performance than their counterparts two decades ago (or longer).  In addition, tools for graphically displaying data have become commonplace, embedded within programs we already use like Excel. 

But Dashboards aren’t something that are right for every nonprofit and doing them right requires serious thinking.

So what is a Nonprofit Dashboard

The term Dashboard is used because the tool is analogous to a car dashboard – a quick, comprehensive view of the overall status of the car.  In the organizational context, a Dashboard is usually a 1-3 page document, produced on a regular schedule, which uses a combination of tables, charts, and graphs to visually represent key metrics by which an organization is evaluating itself.  

While Dashboards can be focused solely on a specific program or other activity (e.g. fundraising), more often organizations develop Dashboards that are comprehensive with regards to their organization.

Why create a Dashboard? 

Do staff really need one more report on their to-do list?

Dashboards can serve many purposes, but the three most common benefits Dashboard proponents cite are: 

  • It generates strategic thinking about how the organization measures success.
  • It can help to identify on a timely basis where an organization is being successful and where things may be going off course.
  • It can provide a useful tool by which to focus the attention of the board on the most important things.

For really small organizations just struggling to hire their first few staff, a Dashboard is probably overkill.  But at some point Dashboards become worth the investment.

What should a Dashboard measure?  

There are many terms bandied about, but the one I like is Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).  “Key” because you have to pick and choose since there are many metrics that matter to an organization and the challenge is to pick out a reasonable subset of them that are most important.  “Performance Indicators” because you’re measuring something that’s an indicator of success.

How do you choose your KPIs? 

If at all possible, the search for KPIs should begin with an organizational strategic plan, which should already identify goals and measurements of success.  The challenge is to then pick which measurements are the most important to pay attention to in the next few years. 

If you don’t already have these, start with your programs and ask: Which are most important?  Some are more likely to be icing on the cake and others get at your core.  Focus on the core. 

For each program, what metrics are you already tracking (or can you reasonably track in the future) to evaluate your performance over time?   For some organizations these are straightforward.  A school may be tracking enrollment and learning (via test scores or grades).  A homeless shelter may track people served and homeless placed into permanent housing. 

For other organizations, particularly those engaged in advocacy, the search for meaningful program measurements can be more complex.  But every time I’ve engaged with an organization on this topic, we’ve come up with some outputs that are good indicators of progress, even if they don’t represent the ultimate outcomes being sought.

Leaving programs aside, nearly every Dashbaord I’ve seen also include multiple KPIs that focus on finances – mostly on the revenue side of the equation.  Here the challenge is to think through your revenue generating strategies and identify what matters most.  Overall revenue is obvious. Unrestricted funding is another good one. Or you may find it important to focus on fundraising metrics by major type of revenue (e.g. individuals, corporations, foundations, etc.).

With regard to fundraising from individuals, some metrics that may be important are: the number of individual donors (or members), retention rate for individual donors (how many who gave in the prior year, have given in this year), average gift levels, the percentage of donors who have upgraded in the last year, number of donors who’ve made a second gift, etc. 

Over several years, the list of which metrics you focus on may evolve – but at any given time you should look at your fundraising strategies and see what matters most. 

Sometimes no one metric seems right so you have to invent something that rolls up several data points into a new one.  For example, when I was Executive Director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, we developed a long-term communications plan where progress could be measured in dozens of different ways, no two or three of which seemed most important. 

Yet, in the end, we knew that what we really wanted out of our communications was for our constituents to take action.  So we created a new metric which we called “Total Actions” taken in response to our communications.  Each quarter we added up all sorts of actions people took in response to our online communications, such as clicking on links, forwarding emails, donations, downloading documents, social media shares, etc.  As long as Total Actions was on a solid upward trajectory, we knew we were making progress.

Of course, having good fundraising and/or communications data for your Dashboard presumes you’re using a valid Constituent Relations Management (CRM) database to track donations, online communications, and other data necessary to produce the metrics.  If you’re still on Excel or hate your current database, getting past that hurdle should come before you create a Dashboard.

Likewise, the discussion about program metrics presumes that you have a means of tracking the outputs and outcomes from your programs and you put that data somewhere – whether in your fundraising CRM or in some separate data set. If you’re not pulling together data to evaluate individual programs, it will be hard to create a Dashboard.

The last question is: how do you display the data?

I’ve found that Excel is plenty powerful to take data and generate good charts and graphs for a good Dashboard.  Or sometimes, just putting the data into a Table and color coding rows as Green, Yellow, and Red based on whether you’re doing great, okay, or not well is sufficient.

If your own Excel skills are too limited, you probably can find a skilled volunteer who in just a few hours time can take data in a spreadsheet and display it in a useful manner in a way you can easily replicate every 3-6 months without ongoing assistance.

It’s worth investing some time/energy to get the Dashboard display right.  If you’ve done all the work to generate and select the data, you should absolutely make sure it’s presented to your board and senior staff in a format that aids comprehension.  

If you have an example of a Dashboard you’re willing to share with me, I’m always looking for more ideas for how to use them effectively.

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On the value of one-on-ones

April 30, 2024

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 10:37 am

I was recently talking to an Executive Director and it became clear they hardly ever met with anyone else one-on-one. They were doing so much writing, emailing, and group meetings that they were hardly ever talking to just one person.

When I pushed them on this, they responded that meeting with just one person is inefficient.

I believe that is short-sighted. Organizations thrive based on personal relationships and it’s very, very hard to forge such relationships other than in one-on-one (or one-on-two settings when you’re forging a relationship with a couple).

Something happens in a one-on-one conversation that doesn’t happen at events and certainly not via email/mail or even on the phone.

You can form a stronger personal relationship and you can ask people to take personal responsibility.

Let’s start talking about forming relationships.

It’s not rocket science to understand forming relationships is easier in person.  Legions of studies have demonstrated the role of body language and facial expressions in communications – neither of which works over the phone. 

And in one-on-one meetings, you can make the communication truly two-way – asking questions of a potential organizational supporter and not just talking to them.  This can help you understand what motivates them so you can calibrate any asks to match their needs. You can do this in an authentic and not a staged way.

Meeting with people one-on-one also allows you tap into personal responsibility and not just collective responsibility.

At an event, it’s about how all these people in the room can help.  One-on-one, it’s about how you can help. Yes, peer pressure can matter. And well run events tap into that collective power. But getting somebody to take real ownership and dig deep when giving almost almost always works better off outside of events.

Studies done in the 1970s and 1980s focused on personal versus collective responsibility in a different context.  Scientists had people fake epileptic seizures in public places to see who would help. Sometimes they did this when only one person was around. Other times they did this when several people were around. Which situation led to more help?

Interestingly (to me), the answer is you were more likely to get help during the seizure if just one person was around. This is contrary to what I would have thought.

But it rings true upon further reflection.  When something happens and other people are around, you tend to look around to see how they’re responding.  And in unusual situations, people are often slow to act. If everyone else is also just looking around, you may think: I guess it’s not my problem. 

But if there’s nobody to look at for social cues, you know it’s about you, and you alone.

When you’re invited to give and the invitation is clearly about you, that’s when people tend to step up and make larger donations. 

In these contexts, as you get to know people, you’re also in a better position to add in further opportunities for them to step up — will they champion the organization to their friends, will they volunteer, etc.

This helps explain why time and time again, organizations that invest their staff and board time in doing one-on-one donor meetings are quicker to transform themselves financially than those that bank on fundraising events. 

The same thing is true beyond fundraising. Time and again, I’ve seen organizations build far more effective coalitions and partnerships with allies by doing a series of one-on-one meetings rather than relying on group meetings with several organizations at once. One-on-one meetings are also the bread and butter for community organizing where you’re trying to build not just an episodic volunteer base, but one where the volunteers are willing to take on leadership.

So stop putting your time into the next great event and banking on social media revolutionizing your organization.  If you want to grow, and grow quickly — get out and meet with more people and invite them to take responsibility.  Of course, for many Executive Directors, that requires figuring out what you can jettison from your busy schedule, a topic I’ll discuss next month.

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Theories of change – a primer

December 20, 2023

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 9:27 am

Organizations that thrive tend to have clarity regarding their theory of change.

What is a theory of change?  In plain language, a theory of change explains how the activities of the organization lead to accomplishment of the long-term goals an organization is working towards and how accomplishing those goals advances the mission.   

Sometimes the theory is a series of logical statements (because we do A, therefore B happens; because B happens, and we do C, therefore D happens; until one of these statements leads to the “mission” being achieved).

Sometimes the theory can best be explained via a flow chart or graphical diagram that visually displays the way different activities come together in ways that a logic chain or written statements can’t easily communicate.

Other theories of change I’ve seen are simply a series of “Strategic Assumptions” written down that collectively embody the theory. 

The format that makes sense for any particular organization is highly dependent on the circumstances – the nature of the goals being sought and mission being advanced, the types of activities pursued, and the complexity of the organization.

Why does articulating a theory of change matter?  And if it matters, how can a theory be developed?

Theories of change matter for at least five reasons.

  1. Resource Allocation: A theory of change can be a useful tool to identify how to spend scarce resources.  While there are some nonprofits that reach a scale that allows them to pursue many-pronged approaches to bringing about change, small and medium sized nonprofits almost always focus on a smaller number of strategies. 

    This is a basic function of the adage that it’s almost always more valuable to do one or two things really well than more things so-so.    

  2. Synergy: A theory of change can force an organization to think hard about how its various programs fit together to accomplish more  than the sum of the parts.  Instead of having programs A, B, and C running in silos, a theory of change can allow staff and leadership to more easily identify ways in which each of the Programs can be conducted in ways that build upon or reinforce each other.   

  3. Skill-Set Prioritization:  Having a theory of change also helps greatly in determining what skill-sets to focus on in hiring staff.   For example, if you are a nonprofit with a heavy focus on changing public policy, you might have a theory of change that focuses on grassroots pressure as a means of moving lawmakers.  Alternatively, your theory of change may focus on building strong relationships with centrist lawmakers who often hold sway.  Which theory of change should inform what type of staff skills you’d prioritize when hiring.    

    If you are a direct service nonprofit, by contrast, your alternatives might look very different.  Your theory of change may be very heavily dependent on having good relationships with the target audience you’re serving, in which case you should hire staff with a personality and track record for relationship building.  Conversely, if your theory of change is heavily focused on providing technical expertise, then technical expertise should be front and center in hiring.

    Of course, it’s easy when reading these examples to say: but we want both!  Yes, and I’d like unicorns and rainbows and leprechauns.    But when we hire candidates from the real world, we must pick and choose candidates with some strengths and other weaknesses.  Knowing what strengths are most essential to your organization is a by-product of having a theory of change.

  4. Communications and Branding: theories of change can inform how an organization brands itself publicly via its communications.   If you have a theory of change, it helps answer key questions about your message and audience.  Conversely, lacking a theory of change, it’s very easy for whoever develops your communications to settle upon messages that are problematic. 

    For example, more than once I’ve witnessed public policy organizations that lack theories of change who consistently try to both focus on pressure tactics that appeal to a base and simultaneously to use strategies based on personal relationships with centrist elected officials.  As a result, the organization’s communications are contradictory – language used to appeal to the base often sets back its personal relationship with centrists. 

    To use a somewhat analogous example from the movies:  There’s a reason a good cop, bad cop approach doesn’t work with a single cop. 

    In these cases, the organization should usually assess what allied groups are doing and then pick/choose one approach, rather than placing its communications professionals in an impossible situation.

  5. Team Alignment over Time: Lastly, theories of change can also prove really valuable as an orientation tool for new members of a team. The existing team may understand how your various activities work together towards your ultimate aims, but oftentimes new board or staff do not. On multiple occasions, I’ve found theories of change to be the best overall orientation to an organization.

So how does an organization set out to create a theory of change?

It’s definitely not rocket science. 

First, you need a clear goal or goals that advance your mission.  Until you know what change you are seeking, you can’t develop a theory for how to create the change.  The change sought by a nonprofit credit union will look very different from a nonprofit mentorship program for at-risk youth, which will look very different than the change sought by a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization. 

Yet, in each case, the first step is the same – identify one or more goals that you are seeking over a period of time (usually 2-5 years) that collectively will advance your mission.

Second, sit down with a group and describe your tentative activities and repeatedly ask “why” doing them would lead to your goal(s).  In doing this with others, I often find myself asking the question “why” 5-10 times in a row trying to tease out the steps in logic being used by participants.  In doing so, you may discover you’re making assumptions about the behavior of others that are iffy.  Or that you’re relying on allies to behave in a certain way without first securing buy-in from the allies for the strategy.

You’ll likely also discover interim outcomes that you’re seeking to achieve not because they are ends, but rather because they involve obtaining resources (money, volunteers, political power) that represents steps in the causal chain towards your ultimate end goal(s).  These interim outcomes should be celebrated, not dismissed as unimportant.

Third rebuild your list of strategies to match up with what you’ve discovered in the group exercise.  How do they fit together?  Are there ways they reinforce each other?

Fourth, write it down as a series of logical statements.  Or, if it’s easier, conduct an exercise where the team all individually creates a graphic/drawing of how the work fits together and then discuss your respective drawings. 

Most every organization I’ve worked with has been able to encapsulate its theory of change in either a page of text or a diagram.  Often times the diagram requires some explanatory text. 

Run the diagram or written theory by your board and/or others as a reality-check to see what questions they have.  You may find you’re leaving out something critical.  Or you may have made it overly complicated and you can simplify it to the bare essentials.

Of course, a theory of change – whether stand-alone or part of a strategic plan — shouldn’t be carved in stone.  A learning organization should continually evaluate and reassess its theory based on how its work plays out in reality.  You may believe that people involved in one of your programs are primed to volunteer for another program, but after 1-2 years of trying you may conclude that they’re not. 

Alternatively, the lay of the land may have shifted sufficiently to require a new theory.  Perhaps a pandemic upends a theory of change that relies on lots of in-person activities!

Do you have a theory of change that’s worked well for your organization?  Please share it with me as I’m compiling examples for a future, longer article.

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How to relentlessly focus on relationships

July 25, 2023

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:42 pm

I’ve previously written about the value of relationship-building to nonprofit organizations.

Organizations that thrive relentlessly focus on relationships. Successful organizations are constantly expanding their pool of relationships and strengthening existing relationships. Then they consciously activate those relationships.

I was recently talking to a nonprofit leader who seemed to grasp this in theory, but struggled with execution.

As such, I’ve repackaged in this article some of my prior writing about the value of relationships with the aims of providing more practical advice people can use when it comes to building relationships that matter for your organization.

But first, why relationships?

It comes down to human nature.  While people receive information outside of relationships, relationships have a powerful role in how people react to information.

People listen more to people with whom they have a relationship.

People are more likely to be persuaded by people with whom they have a relationship.

People take action more when requested from people with whom they have a relationship.

Of course, the quality of the relationship matters too. The deeper the relationship, the greater the odds that we will listen to someone, be persuaded by them, or take action at their request.  Conversely, a bad relationship makes someone even less likely to listen or act upon a request.

Here’s a practical example of how this may impact fundraising for a nonprofit.  An Executive Director may give a pitch-perfect donation request to John Doe. A board member may give a mediocre donation request to the same John Doe.  If the board member and John Doe are friends and the Executive Director has never met John Doe, the mediocre board request is far more likely to yield a significant donation.

Yet, it would be a mistake to think of relationships as just about fundraising.  Relationships impact an organization’s interaction with volunteers, media, allied organizations, elected officials, and people the organizations are working to serve.  Any time you’re trying to shape behavior, relationships matter.

So how do you go from theory to practice?

Here are seven ideas worth considering.

First, build into your workplans (especially Executive Directors) time set aside for relationship-building.  If you don’t set aside time for it, you’re less likely to make it happen.  Examples of relationship-building activities that take time:

  • Attending fundraisers for peer organizations.
  • Going to lunch or coffee with allies who you don’t know particularly well.
  • Asking for advice from elected officials or other decision-makers.
  • Attending conferences and focusing on relationships more than the conference substance.

Second, create events with relationship-building in mind.  This could be:

  • A volunteer appreciation event. 
  • A “Meet the Executive Director” or “someone else important” event. 
  • A workshop or training where time is set aside for people to get to know each other. 

Every time you plan or attend an event, a standard question should be: “how can this event be used to meet someone new and/or strengthen my relationship with those I already know?” 

Third, train your staff about the value of relationships and events.  If they’re attending an event while working for you, they should understand they should be focused on new people and not just standing in the corner chatting with folks they already know well.  Challenge them to come back from every event with a couple examples of new people they met with whom they should do some follow-up.

Fourth, set relationship goals.  When I was an Executive Director, I had a goal of having lunch or coffee with one allied Executive Director per month with no agenda other than getting to know them (and their organization) better.  By putting this goal in writing as part of my annual goals with the board, I “forced” myself to stay on track.

Fifth, use your organizational database to record what you learn.  Even with the best intentions, it can be challenging to meet people and remember everything of relevance you learned six months or a year later. Your organization should have a CRM (constituent relationship management) database (probably primarily for fundraising, but for other things too) where you can keep track of who you met with of significance and add notes of anything significant you learned where you may wish to follow-up at your next meeting. Taking notes in your database doesn’t make your relationship any less authentic. It just recognizes we have fallible memories.

Sixth, seek out and bring into your organization those who’re obviously good at relationships.  You and I know them.  I’m a natural introvert.  But we all know those extroverts who seem to know everyone and like playing a connecting role between people. They are golden for your nonprofit if you can excite them about your cause.  If you see somebody who fits that bill express interest, put extra time and attention into cultivating them.

Lastly, be committed to asking those with whom you’re in a relationship to activate their relationships on your behalf.  As I write this, I have 1,345 LinkedIn Connections.  Those 1,345 have more than 477,000 unique connections!  Of course, LinkedIn is just being used as an illustration of a point:  the people with whom any individual has relationships open them up to a vastly larger network of relationships than they can ever tap on their own. 

So don’t just rely upon this “activation” of relationships to happen by chance.  Directly ask your supporters to reach out to their friends and neighbors.  This could be as part of a Peer to Peer fundraising effort, as part of volunteer recruitment, recruiting people to attend events, sharing online news, or some other method.  Bottom line: turn donors into fundraisers and volunteers into volunteer recruiters. 

Do you have other ideas for how to build and strengthen relationships? I’d love to hear in your comments.

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Musings on Theories of Change

May 24, 2023

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 5:18 pm

I was recently talking to a potential client when it became apparent to me that they really could use a theory of change.  Yet, their Executive Director was unfamiliar with the concept and it took some back and forth to help them understand.  After all, most nonprofits never broach the topic.  Nonetheless, I find it’s sometimes a very useful tool as part of strategic planning or as a stand-alone exercise.

What is a theory of change?  How can it help?  And how do you go about generating one?

What is a Theory of Change?

In plain language, a theory of change explains how the activities of the organization lead to accomplishment of the primary programmatic outcomes an organization is seeking.

Sometimes the theory is a series of logical statements.  Because we do A, therefore B happens; because B happens, and we do C, therefore D happens; until one of these statements leads to the ultimate outcomes being achieved.

Sometimes the theory can best be explained via a flow chart or other graphical diagram that helps visually explain the way different activities come together in ways that a series of written statements can’t easily accomplish.

A variation that I’ve used successfully is a set of “Strategic Assumptions” written down that collectively embody a theory about why the organization’s principal activities are advancing the mission. 

What format makes sense for any particular organization is highly dependent on the circumstances – the nature of the outcome(s) being sought, the types of activities pursued, and the complexity of the organization.

Why are theories of change important?

Theories of change matter for a few reasons.

Most obviously, as a way to identify how to spend scarce resources.  While there are some nonprofits that reach a scale that allows them to pursue many-pronged approaches to bringing about change, thriving small nonprofits almost always focus on one.

And even mid-sized thriving nonprofits stay focused on one or occasionally layer in just one other core strategy.  This is a basic function of the adage that it’s almost always more valuable to do one thing really well than two things mediocre.

I’ve witnessed organizations lacking a theory of change that are very frenetic, generating plenty of tactics, but without any unifying strategy that ties them together.  They’re jumping to seize opportunities that don’t tie together into a coherent whole.

Having a theory of change also helps greatly in determining what skill-sets to focus on in hiring staff.   For example, if you are a nonprofit with a heavy focus on changing public policy, your theory of change might inform whether to focus on hiring staff who’re adept at grassroots organizing to put pressure on policy makers, as opposed to those who are skilled at messaging to centrist lawmakers.

If you are a direct service nonprofit, by contrast, your alternatives might look very different.  Your theory of change may be very heavily dependent on having good relationships with the target audience you’re serving, in which case you should hire staff with the personality and track record for relationship building.  Conversely, if your theory of change is heavily focused on providing technical expertise, then technical expertise should be front and center in hiring.

Of course, it’s easy when reading these examples to say: but we want both!  Yes, and I’d like unicorns and rainbows and leprechauns.

When we hire candidates from the real world, we must pick and choose candidates with some strengths and other weaknesses.  Knowing what strengths are most essential to your organization is a by-product of having a theory of change.

Theories of change can also inform how an organization brands itself publicly via its communications.   If you have a theory of change, it helps answer key questions about your message and audience.  Conversely, lacking a theory of change, it’s very easy for whoever develops your communications to settle upon messages that are problematic.

More than once I’ve witnessed public policy organizations lacking theories of change who consistently try to focus both on (a) pressure tactics that appeal to a base of supporters and (b) forging personal relationships with centrist elected officials.  As a result, the organization’s communications are in conflict: language used to appeal to the base often sets back its personal relationship with centrists.

To use a somewhat analogous example from the movies:  There’s a reason a good cop, bad cop approach doesn’t work with a single cop.

In these cases, the organization should usually assess what allied groups are doing and then pick/choose one approach, rather than placing its communications professionals in an impossible situation.

Lastly, theories of change can be particularly useful as a means of building and sustaining alignment within your team (e.g. your board and staff) as circumstances change.  If your team agrees on why you’re doing what you’re doing, alignment is more likely to endure than if they just agree on a surface level.  Often it’s this missing “why” that causes alignment on your team to break down.

How does an organization set out to create a theory of change?

It’s definitely not rocket science.

First, you need a clear outcome or set of outcomes embodied in your mission or top-level strategic goals.  Until you know what change you are seeking, you can’t develop a theory for how to create the change. 

The change sought by a nonprofit credit union will look very different from a nonprofit mentorship program for at-risk youth, both of which look very different than the change sought by a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

Yet, in each case, the first step is the same: identify one or more high-level outcomes that you are seeking over a longer period of time (usually 3-5 years).

Second, ask yourself what conditions or things must happen for the long-term outcome to be achieved.  You can think of these as interim outcomes or stepping stones on the path you’re laying out.

Third, identify the major strategies or activities you’re doing that you believe generate the desired conditions and therefore advance you down the path.

Fourth, ask yourself why those activities will lead to the conditions that will lead to the outcomes.  Sometimes I’ve run what I call the “annoying 5 year old” exercise when I pretend to be 5 years old repeatedly asking “why” to every prior statement. It can be annoying, but it often yields nuggets of wisdom the reveal the essential answer. Surfacing these underlying assumptions can create “aha” moments with the team that helps build alignment. 

Fifth, have somebody take a stab and putting the above “thinking” into both a written format and a diagram format.  In either format, this should be 1-2 pages and not more than that.  I’ve seen it done in half a page.

Lastly, discuss what you’ve developed.  Perhaps vet it with others outside your core to see what they think.  Does the theory adequately explain why your major activities are advancing the ball towards the desired outcomes/mission?  If not, what adjustments or refinements are needed?  Are any adjustments needed to what you do to allow for you to make the change being sought?

Then what

The theory may be included within your strategic plan or exist as a stand-alone document.

Trot it out annually to discuss how you’re doing as an organization in light of your theory of change. 

If it’s a diagram, blow it up and pin it on your wall as a reminder to come back to from time to time as a way to vet new opportunities.   

Use it as an orientation tool with new board members and new staff.

Of course, the theory should not be carved in stone.   I’ve seen organizations whose circumstances changed so dramatically over a couple of years that the prior theory of change no longer made sense.   I’d recommend revisiting your theory of change at least every 3-5 years through some form of exercise that abbreviates the steps above.

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Tools for an Executive to Stay Focused

April 24, 2023

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:46 pm

Quite a few times I’ve encountered Executive Directors who come across as very competent.  Their writing is cogent. Documents they produce are always well-formatted. They are well-spoken in person, laying out clear ideas. They get a lot of stuff done. Many tasks are clearly getting crossed off their to-do list. They clearly work a lot of hours.

Yet, their organizations flounder.

Almost always, it’s because they’re getting the wrong tasks done.

By wrong, I don’t mean they are doing tasks that are inherently counterproductive.  It’s that they’re doing tasks that should be priority 6 through 10 when priorities 1 through 5 are crying out for more attention.

Peter Drucker wrote extensively about this 50 years ago in his seminal book: The Effective Executive, which I have reviewed.  The effective executive not only does things right, they do the right things. 

How can an executive stay focused on the top priorities in order to be more effective?

In every organization I’ve encountered, the Executive Director (or CEO) could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and not run out of useful things to do on behalf of their organization. Of course, in the real world you have 40 hours per week on a sustained basis, with some executives able/willing to let that spike to 50-60 hours for extended periods.

How do you decide what to do within the time available?

My first recommendation for an Executive Director when evaluating a potential tasks/projects is to filter it through three questions to determine whether to not do a task.

Question one is: is the task/project essential to our organizational strategy. Whether or not the organization’s strategy is embodied in a written strategic plan, you should know what your goals are and the strategies you’re using to achieve them. If a task doesn’t squarely fit within one of the strategies to achieve one of your goals, it is almost always suspect.

Question two is: should I be the one to do this task? Just because it fits within the organizational strategy doesn’t mean the Executive Director should tackle it. What tasks should fall to the E.D. and what to other staff, to contractors, or volunteer leaders?

Even in an organization with no other staff or contractors, an E.D. who isn’t finding ways to delegate tasks to the board or other volunteers is almost always going to tackle tasks that take them away from higher priorities.

A question any Executive Director can ask: is this something that requires the E.D.’s participation either because of my unique skills or relationships? If not, your first step should always be to ask: who else would be better to do it?

This filter is especially important for an Executive to use when receiving requests that they participate in meetings. More often than not when I encounter a floundering executive, they are heavily scheduled into meetings where they aren’t essential participants. They just don’t want to miss out on the “action.”

A third filter to apply is to ask the question: is the task the cake or the icing on the cake?

Put another way, is accomplishing this task an essential building block to the overall success of the organization or is it just one nice outcome we want? Unless and until the essential building blocks are achieved (or on track for achievement), tasks that are simply positive should be shelved.

Think about posting a sign within your eyesight at your desk with these three questions:

  • Is it strategic?
  • Am I essential?
  • Is it the cake or just the icing?

In addition to using these filters to nix involvement in some tasks, there are three other tactics I recommend to Executives looking to become more focused.

First, identify up-front what are the most important tasks you struggle to complete. (Oftentimes that’s major donor fundraising). The solution: calendar large blocks of time to focus on the activities you struggle to complete and rigorously stick to that schedule. Force yourself to stick to a schedule where everyone on your team knows you aren’t to be disturbed.

Second, cut out the easy time-wasters. Examples of these include:

  • The meeting that takes an hour that could just as easily be accomplished in 30 minutes.
  • The half-dozen times during the day checking your Facebook because there might be something relevant to the organization’s work.
  • The extra 15 minutes formatting a document to be perfect when it was already good enough to be understood. (Occasionally, that extra 15 minutes matters, but usually not).

Lastly, beware shiny objects. These are the opportunities that come along that seem exciting on the surface. Perhaps you’re asked to speak to a group. Or to put together a media release on some breaking news of relevance.   Often, these are things that may gratify the ego, but really aren’t essential building blocks to organizational success. Get used to saying no and feeling good about it because when you say no to something new you’re saying yes to the core work you already have underway.

Do you have techniques of your own to share? I’d love to hear them.

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Tools and Techniques to Boost Efficiency

March 22, 2023

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 10:54 am

Guest Blog by Karen Graham

I had never thought of myself as an especially productive person. Like most of us, I often felt like there wasn’t enough time in the day to accomplish everything I needed to do, much less the things I wanted to do. 

But after colleagues called me out as an example of someone who is organized and efficient, I realized that I have in fact learned some helpful habits and discovered some helpful tools. I’ll share a few of them with you here, and I hope you will share your own tips in the comments, so we can help each other get better.

Start with your inbox

Whether you’re really struggling with productivity, or you’re already pretty good at it but want to improve, I recommend taking a look at how you manage your email inbox. Why? Because this is the low hanging fruit, an activity on which people tend to waste a lot of time, and where small changes can win back minutes or hours.

When it comes to email management, less is more. 

  1. Fewer touches – Check email less frequently, and when you do, try to either handle the message immediately or mark it for later, then get it out of your inbox. I use an adaptation of the Getting Things Done method, processing my email first thing in the morning and after lunch, and making sure my inbox is empty at least once a day.

  2. Fewer folders – Years ago, someone essentially dared me to delete all my email folders. I discovered that the search functions in Gmail and Outlook are so effective I really didn’t need folders, and I was wasting my time moving things to folders and sorting through them. Now everything that passes through my inbox either gets archived or deleted.

  3. Task apps – A task application or plug-in that integrates with your email system makes it easy to convert messages into tasks. I like Todoist for Gmail and Microsoft’s To Do for Outlook Web App, because they integrate tightly, preserving the link to the original message.

  4. Less email – Consider moving conversations to Slack, Teams, or other chat-style apps, especially if you’re living that reply-all nightmare.

Call in the robots

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) can do a lot of mundane tasks for you, though you’ll want to set this up carefully so it doesn’t leave a trail of destruction in its wake. Here are just a handful of ways to use automation and AI.

Consider using Zapier for sharing data between systems. For example, when someone signs up for a webinar on platform A, a Zap could pass their contact details over to the CRM.

Set up triggers and actions in a CRM, marketing system, or case management system. For instance, when a donor makes their first gift, the system could create a task or reminder for your development director to personally welcome them, and automatically add them to a series of welcome emails. You might be surprised at how much automation your data management software offers.

Redesign processes to be more efficient

When you’re implementing a new technology tool, that’s a great time to also look for ways to streamline your processes, improve quality and consistency, and even make them more enjoyable. 

Let’s say you want to improve your donation acknowledgement process. You might use a time tracking tool, such as Toggl, to record how much time the current process requires and how much you gained through improvements. You could also use software such as Lucidchart to make process maps, so you can visualize where the tasks and decision points are. Or just use a pencil or a whiteboard. Once you’ve identified a potential improvement, try simulating or prototyping to see how it might work. Tools for storyboarding, such as Canva’s free storyboard creator, are a fun way to bring the envisioned process to life.

Establish good habits

Look, all the fancy technology in the world is not going to compensate for your poor habits. Productivity experts have written plenty about time blocking, eliminating distractions, and creating deadlines and rewards. Read up on it, find something that works for you, and don’t beat yourself up if the habit doesn’t stick the first time around (or even the second or third time).

One of my most fruitful habits is writing down daily highlights. I use Evernote to keep a note for each month, with a numbered list corresponding to the days of the month. At the end of each day, I jot down one thing I accomplished, big or small. Looking back at this helps me realize that even when I felt like I was spinning my wheels, I actually was doing something worthwhile.

Wrapping up

Here are a few key points to remember.

  • Check email mindfully, avoid endless folders, and use integrated task apps to keep your inbox clean.
  • Take advantage of automation for mundane tasks. 
  • Streamline processes with the aid of time tracking, process mapping, and storyboarding tools.
  • Establish personal habits that amplify your productivity.

Go ahead, practice this now. Make a commitment to try one of these techniques, perhaps using time blocking or a task management app to remind yourself to complete it. And then think about all the wonderful things you can do with your extra time!

About the Author

Karen Graham is a nonprofit leader and technology strategist who loves helping people solve problems – from making their work easier and more enjoyable, to enabling their organization to more effectively achieve its mission. She writes and speaks on technology leadership, software selection, user adoption, innovation, and strategic IT alignment. Karen owns Karen Graham Consulting, providing technology coaching and consulting for mission based organizations.

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Board members in management roles – updated

February 28, 2023

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 8:53 am

Originally published in August 2022, this edition of the post expands upon the suggestions I offered in August.

A challenge unstaffed nonprofits face is that board members necessarily take on roles that are not board governance.   These other roles are hard to categorize with a singular term.  They include management, administration, coordination, program administration – pretty much anything that one would expect to be done by staff in a large organization. For purposes of this article, I’m going to lump them together as “management.”

This challenge isn’t just for unstaffed organizations.  It is also true for many small or even medium sized nonprofits where the group’s ambitions exceed the staff capacity, leaving board members playing additional non-governance roles.

I have often been tasked with assisting clients on how to help their boards be more effective.  For smaller organizations, I have repeatedly found that confusion regarding the additional non-governance roles taken on by directors is a problem that metastasizes in a variety of ways to make the board dysfunctional.

This article is my attempt to both explain the challenge and to point nonprofits towards some practical steps to address the challenge. I have seen a few nonprofits employ at least some of these strategies, but rarely have I seen them deployed aggressively in combination.

The Challenge

Let’s start with a basic premise:  in any nonprofit, there is a need for governance and management.  (Here, I’m using management as a catch-all term for everything that is not governance). 

The board must govern.  Everything else can be delegated to either staff or other non-board volunteers.

It would take an entirely separate article (or book) to fully explore what fits into the governance category.  I’m fond of BoardSource and the way they lay out 10 responsibilities of nonprofit boards. Big-picture, governance is making sure the organization has the right boat, the boat is pointed in the right direction, and it’s well-provisioned. Management is rowing the boat.

If all an organization did was governance, though, that means the boat would simply sit in place. The actual mission “work” of the organization would never get done, nor would much of the behind-the-scenes administration necessary to support that mission work. 

The result in small organizations:  board members take on management roles in addition to their governance role.  Board members necessarily row. And this leads me to my most important point:  too often, in board meetings and board governance discussions, these extra “rowing” roles are treated as part of the governance role, rather than as a separate non-board role.

Why is this a problem?

First, board meeting time gets filled up with discussing and coordinating management and programmatic tasks, which often seem more urgent.  The result: the board doesn’t spend as much time on governance as is needed to meet governance responsibilities.

Second, even between the board meetings. board members spend so much time addressing management, they lack the time or mental energy to perform their governance roles to the level required.

Third, the board applies to management the decision-making and communication norms meant for governance.

What do I mean by decision-making and communication norms? Norms are the ways we generally operate culturally; they are what seem normal.

In particular, governance “normally” tends to operate by consensus, with ample input from everyone before a collective vote.  That’s really important, particularly around governance responsibilities where all board members have legal duties to engage.

Yet, consensus and high-input decision-making processes are a recipe for inefficiency (or even paralysis) when it comes to management tasks.  I sat through a board meeting where an agenda item was to receive everyone’s input on a draft email newsletter and it was a deadly waste of time. Don’t even get me started on the board meeting that turned into a detailed conversation about table arrangements for a fundraising event.

Bottom line: meetings become bogged down in the wrong topics. Board members tune out listening in on decisions/discussions that really should involve a small subset of the participants, if they should involve discussion at all. Governance responsibilities get neglected and it becomes harder to recruit new board members being asked to take on both governance and management tasks. It becomes a vicious circle.

Suggestions to Address the Challenge

So how do you get past this conundrum? After all, if the organization had funds to pay for staff, it probably would.

Suggestion 1:  Be clear about roles and that these roles include both board roles and management roles. Management roles will vary wildly by organization, based on your administrative and programmatic needs.

One person may take on two (or more) separate roles that fit into separate categories. For example, Person a might be both (a) a board member and chair the board recruitment committee and (b) also serve as newsletter editor.

The important point: when playing the “management” role (in this case newsletter editor), the “board” member is not acting as a board member, but rather as a volunteer. After all, there’s no inherent reason the newsletter editor needs to be on the board. (Conversely, the chair of the board recruitment committee really should be a board member).

Suggestion 2: Treat these management roles held by volunteers as quasi-staff in how they work. There should be written “job/position” descriptions laying out their general responsibilities and areas of authority. 

People playing these roles should be given authority to operate as a leader and make decisions within their area of responsibility, without having to get pre-approval from the board. With the added authority should come some responsibilities. Most importantly, people playing these roles should be asked to provide something in writing that serves as the equivalent to a “staff” report prior to meetings so that meetings aren’t taken up with oral reports that are of no value to those not at the meeting.

Accountability, as with staff, should be after-the-fact, with potential removal from their role.

Suggestion 3: Recruit for these roles. Identify what you most need from these roles, write the descriptions, and share them with those who may be interested. Treat this as importantly as you treat board recruitment, if not more so.

What if some board members opt not just to take on this second management role, but to leave the board because they’d rather do “program” than “governance. That’s okay!

Suggestion 4: Formally separate out the board meeting from a second management coordination meeting that addresses non-governance topics.  For efficiency sake, these can be back to back, since many of the same people will be involved. Take a 5-minute break between these two meetings.  The latter meeting may just be a subset of the board who are actually needed for it; and it ideally should include some non-board volunteers who’ve taken on an ongoing management role.

Importantly, for the “management coordination” meeting do not use the norms you use in the board meeting. The fundraising coordinator doesn’t get equal say on the newsletter content as the newsletter editor. The newsletter editor doesn’t need to weigh in on what someone is doing with regard to a specific program. The purpose of this meeting is to share essential updates and to ensure coordination is happening where needed between several people playing various roles, not to make collective decisions.

Suggestion 5: Just because a volunteer takes on a “management” role with the organization (e.g. leading on some program), doesn’t mean you should elect them to the board, especially not to “fill a slot.”  Reward and acknowledge people playing these non-board roles on your website, in your communications, etc., but don’t fill up your board with people who aren’t fully committed to the “governance” responsibilities that come with service. 

This may mean jettisoning some people from the board who really just want to volunteer in a management role.  It’s better to have a smaller board that focuses on governance than a larger board with uneven participation on governance because some “management” volunteers are sitting around the table without the time or expectations to actually govern.

Of course, it’s okay for some people to have dual roles – if they have the time to do so and understand they have two sets of responsibilities – governance (board) and management (volunteer).

Suggestion 6: Focus on Communications

The strategies above don’t work if you don’t adequately communicate across roles. Written reports prior to board and management coordination meetings should be the norm. They should be shared across the team. Short memos should be written after board meetings and management coordination meetings encapsulating key decisions and action items. (With the board, this should be above & beyond the formal minutes).

While your management team doesn’t have to include board members, you probably need one board member to attend those meetings and serve as a liaison if they are truly separate.

Suggestion 7: Efficient Meetings

Clear agendas. Written materials shared ahead of time with an expectation they will be read so that meeting time can be focused on discussion and decisions, not oral reports. Active facilitation to keep people on topic. Stay out of the weeds unless absolutely essential.

I’ve sat through too many 2 hour board meetings that should have been 90 minute board meetings with even halfway decent facilitation. The collective time saved can be substantial.

Suggestion 8: Embrace collaborative tools

Small nonprofits that embrace technology spend a little time up-front for large time-savings down the road.

Most importantly, technology now allows “asynchronous” planning where multiple people can be working together on the same document at different times, without having to email it back and forth and not knowing who’s working on the latest version.

Example: Googledocs and googlesheets stored in GoogleDrive.

Example: GoogleGroups for email lists for just those board/management & program volunteers focused on a specific task, so that everyone else’s email inbox doesn’t get cluttered up with topics they really don’t need to track closely.

The above tools are free.

There are many even more robust tools for collaboration and communication that cost a bit, but can take you to the next level.

I’ve seen boards composed of older, tech-averse board members take the time to force board members to learn these tools and they’ve always been really, really happy 6 months later.

Suggestion 9: Set realistic expectations

For all of the above, and for your governance responsibilities, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Be realistic. As you make plans, a little boldness is good and can inspire. Excessive boldness can sap your energy when you inevitably fail.

If your team is naturally all optimists who historically have led you to bite off more than you can chew, assign somebody the role of “pessimist” who’ll be charged with the task of asking hard questions during board meetings.

Recognize that you don’t have to do everything everywhere all at once. If you realize you’re not doing well fulfilling 4 of the 10 board governance responsibilities, phase in doing better over the course of a year or two, not over the course of a month or two.

Suggestion 10: Keep the purpose in mind

There’s a bricklayer parable.

Short version: Bricklayer 1 is laying bricks. Bricklayer 2 is building a wall. Bricklayer 3 is building a school.

Who’s likely to be happier and stick with their task the longest? Obviously bricklayer 3 (unless you’re a MAGA trying to destroy public education, but that’s a different topic.;-))

What’s that mean? Find opportunities to make sure that your board and your management volunteers learn about and experience the positive good your organization is seeking to bring to the world.

Your feedback

I’ve only seen a few instances where organizations have gone full-in on the suggestions I’m recommending in this article. I remain genuinely interested in hearing from others who have addressed the challenges I’ve raised either via something along the lines I suggest or some other method.

Shoot me an email or go ahead and comment on this blog.

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Home Remodeling Lessons for Nonprofits

January 31, 2023

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 10:50 am

Back in 2013, my wife Suzan and I bought a house that was a fixer upper.  Not falling down.  But pretty much every room had at least one significant thing that needed work.

We’ve been slowly tackling the “project,” with an increased pace during the pandemic.

As I was reflecting recently on the process, it struck me that some of the lessons I should share with future home remodelers are also on point for nonprofit leaders.

So here are my top seven home remodeling lessons and their application to nonprofits:

1. Pace yourself

In remodeling, especially a house that needs a lot of work, don’t make your life miserable by trying to get everything done quickly.

There can be a tendency to see all the things you want to do and to try to do everything all at once.   Unless you’re Michelle Yeoh starring in a remarkable movie, you can’t be everywhere at once, so don’t try it. 

Don’t burn yourself out by working excessive hours.  Find work/remodeling life balance.  Recognize you’re looking to generate impact/improvement over time.

Every word above is true about nonprofit leadership. 

2. Set priorities

So if you can’t do everything at once, it’s important to figure out what aspects of your home are most urgent for you. 

We started with what was necessary to preserve the house, its structure, and our wallets (due to energy inefficiency).

Then we asked what improvements would give us the greatest joy while living in the house, as opposed to those that are mostly about the value of the house when it comes to eventual resale.  For me, the fact that the ceilings had lots of cracking wallpaper (yes, some idiots put wallpaper on ceilings) really didn’t impact my state of mind in the house. So I was fine waiting several years to address that task..  I imagine for others that aesthetic would have been a daily affront, so they would probably have tackled it sooner.

In nonprofit terms, are there priorities that must come first to preserve the nonprofits ability to operate? Or where failure to address the situation undercuts the nonprofits’ ability to thrive? Probably do those first. 

While with a home, it’s about joy, for a nonprofit it’s about impact.  What further improvements to your nonprofit will generate the most impact?

3. If you’re a team, work with each other’s strengths

Some people remodel solo, so this lesson doesn’t apply to them. In our case, my wife and I definitely have different strengths when it comes to remodeling.  I’m fine removing wallpaper with her, but please don’t ask me to paint if you want it done competently.  I’m far better than her at the budgeting and task management side of things.  We’ve found our way to work together allowing each of us to do those things where we excel (in comparison to each other).

In nonprofit terms, divide up the workload based on your skillsets and passions.  Of course, a lot of this is done as part of hiring when you hire for specific sets of duties/responsibilities.  But even within the broad confines of job duties, you will sometimes find yourselves working as a team on a project and, when doing so, take into account your relative strengths at tasks in dividing them up.

4. Have plans, but be flexible

Suzan and I had a long-term plan.  We knew what outside projects needed to happen (meditation hut built, deck built, retaining wall, etc.) and what inside projects (insulation, solar power, heat pump with mini-splits, address each individual room, etc.).   We had a rough order and at multiple points have put it in writing.  And we’ve generally followed the order envisioned.

But when the situation changed (such as Suzan having an extended period of not working, thus having more time), we adjusted things in order to take advantage of the situation. We’ve also had a contractor emerge with whom we work well at a good price, so we’ve moved some things up to play to his strengths and availability.

As a nonprofit, it’s essential to plan as well, both for the long-term (e.g. multi-year strategic) and shorter term by function (communications, fundraising, etc.).  But don’t feel like the plans manage you, manage based on the plans.  Adapt when an opportunity emerges if it matches your overall objective.  As a nonprofit Executive Director, I once created an entire program and position because a true rock star emerged who I knew could make a difference as part of our team.

On the flip side, address threats that may have been unexpected, like loss of a key funder.

Then go back and adjust the plans.

5. Pick your battles/don’t sweat the small stuff

Especially when working with contractors, recognize they won’t do everything 100% as you had envisioned/desired.  If something’s clearly wrong and it will bother you, make them address it.  But if it’s small and not really consequential, maybe let it slide. 

Same thing if it’s your own work that’s not superb.  Unless you’re trying to create a “show” house, recognize that the goal is quality not perfection.  So think about what you want to be absolutely right, and what can just be adequate. I absolutely adore the new exposed woodwork in my office after the paint was stripped from windows, doorframes, and the baseboard, but I wouldn’t want to put in the work to do the same in our upstairs hallway.

So too in a nonprofit.  I rarely find perfectionist Executive Directors do well.  They figure out that for most of what they get done, putting in 50% of the time to get to 90% of the quality is the sweet spot. Extra time required to redo a task or get a task done “perfectly” is only occasionally worth it. 

6. Don’t just do the fun stuff

Some parts of remodeling I found fun.  Okay, really not much at all.  Many parts of remodeling Suzan found fun. 

Yet, we recognized that if we only did the parts of a remodeling ourselves and tried to get a contractor to do everything “non-fun,” it would be wildly inefficient (and expensive).

So we removed wallpaper.  Way too much wallpaper.  I really don’t like sweating in a respirator while steaming/scraping.  But I recognized that to match our budget, we really needed to do much of that ourselves, saving contractors for the areas of work where we lacked the skill and equipment (or where Suzan lacked the time; she definitely has the skills).

So too in a nonprofit, there can be a tendency to ignore the parts of the job you find less fun. Perhaps for you that’s fiscal management. Or personnel management. Or fundraising.  You may try to outsource all the things you don’t find fun, but you’ll quickly find that’s inefficient, expensive, and often leads to work that doesn’t meet the organization’s needs.  

7. Think about who comes after you

This brings me back to my wallpaper rant. Whoever owned our home in its distant past thought the solution to cracked lath and plaster was to simply wallpaper over everything. Okay, not everything, but a lot.

It created the appearance a problem was addressed, at least I imagine it did for some period of time, but it left an even bigger problem behind for anyone else who came along later.

I recognize one homeowner doesn’t legally “owe” it to a future owner to have done a remodel in a way that doesn’t create challenges for their successor. But you should have at least some consideration for how things will play out over the extended time of a house with future owners. Hint: wallpaper sucks.

In a nonprofit, you owe a very real obligation to whoever succeeds you in your nonprofit not to have addressed problems in ways that paper over them. If you’re an Executive Director thinking about leaving their role, don’t leave a really problematic employee for a future Executive Director to address. Don’t “paper” over a problem like a non-functional fundraising database by jury-rigging it in a way that “kind of” works. Take the harder route that will leave your nonprofit able to make an impact not only today, but in the decades to come.

What are your lessons?

Anyone else have some home remodeling lessons to share? Please don’t be shy!

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