Ticket to Ride and nonprofit leadership

January 27, 2021

Filed under: Communications,Consulting,Fundraising,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:51 pm

One of my pandemic “weaknesses” has been the amount of time I’ve spent playing Ticket to Ride – the online version.  For those not familiar with the game, you can read about it here. 

In short, your intent in the game is to connect train routes between different cities, collecting cards of varying colors and playing them in a strategic way before your opponents take the connections you need.   Longer routes are worth more than shorter routes.  You can add routes during the middle of the game, not just the beginning. For the most part, two players can’t use the same connection.

In order to “justify” my time spent, I started thinking recently about the lessons Ticket to Ride offers to nonprofit leaders.   

So here, without further delay, are my top 5 lessons for nonprofit organizations.  Of course, I’m pretty sure these lessons are worth reading even if you have never and will play the game . . .  .

Lesson 1 – In Ticket to Ride, there is a tension between waiting to have all your cards collected to complete a whole series of connections versus seizing some early connections that are good enough to get you started.  If you wait too long, though, you can miss your moment — in particular, somebody else may claim the same connection.

I’ve seen some nonprofit leaders fail because they were so focused on getting everything right, making sure all the plans and resources were perfectly aligned, that they took action too late.  A certain degree of boldness is essential to lead a nonprofit. 

Lesson 2 – In Ticket to Ride, there are eight different colored cards and one wild color (e.g. yellow, green, black, etc., plus wild.) and you have to be mindful of what colors you need now, what colors you need in the future, and what colors are available right now (you get to see 5 options or pick a mystery card). If you focus too much on your short-term needs only collecting colors you need for a few early connections you want to make, you’ll find yourself short of what you need for subsequent connections.  Of course, sometimes that first connection is critical and it’s worth the short-term focus.  But, over time, I’ve found that I tend to score highest when I focus on a diversity of objectives, looking beyond the initial few steps and towards the next set.

So too in nonprofits I’ve seen nonprofit leaders become so short-term focused that they find themselves emerging from a successful early activity completely ill-prepared for what comes next.  In contrast, nonprofit leaders who amass a variety of resources with the aim of pursuing a series of objectives over time tend to achieve greater success.

Of course, astute readers may ask: “doesn’t this contradict Lesson 1?”  In part, yes.  But not completely.  You must be bold (as described in Lesson 1), but not so bold that you fail to build up the resources (money, people, other assets) that you need to be successful in future endeavors. 

Lesson 3 – in Ticket to Ride, there is a benefit in collecting a series of routes that piggyback on each other, so that you can advance towards multiple objectives (e.g. routes) with a single connection.  For example, connecting Denver to Kansas City could help you connect Salt Lake City to Chicago as well as San Francisco to Washington DC.   You can use that connection on both routes.   

So too for nonprofits, it’s important to look for synergies and other ways in which the same activity can serve multiple purposes.  To take just one obvious example I’ve experienced recently, if you write an article for your email newsletter, are you also posting the same content (with either no or minor edits) on a blog?  Posting it on social media? 

Similarly, if you build relationships with constituents as part of your volunteer program or advocacy, are you taking advantage of those same relationships when fundraising rather than treat your fundraising as unrelated? While this may seem obvious, I’ve watched more than one organization fail to take advantage of the volunteer-fundraising synergy. 

Lesson 4– in Ticket to Ride, you can play cutthroat, where instead of building your own connections/routes, you anticipate the routes others appear to be building, and you block them on your turn.  This is perfectly legal within the rules of the game. 

But within my own social circle and with those I’ve been randomly playing online, it’s considered a social faux pas, and people (including yours truly) will often refuse to play in the future with those who compete in this “blocking” manner. 

A similar dynamic is true for nonprofits.  There can sometimes be short-term advantages you can seize away from an organization with which you are sometimes allied and sometimes in competition.  An example I’ve observed: raising money from a set of overlapping donors with a fundraising message that’s explicitly anti the other allied organization.  This may yield some short-term donations. However, if you get a reputation of being not a good collaborator, future opportunities to collaborate/partner will disappear, to your detriment. 

I can attest first-hand that as an environmental group Executive Director there were some environmental organizations who I cut out of opportunities because I’d seen them repeatedly use messages that undercut other allies.  If you develop a reputation for not being a “fair” player, your nonprofit will be weaker in the end.    

Lesson 5 – In Ticket to Ride, most players exclusively focus on building connections that complete their routes, and nothing but their routes.  However, I have noticed that really stellar players are aware of the overall board and sometimes build beyond their routes, to the next major city.  Perhaps they have to go from Boston to Phoenix and they go ahead and build as well to Los Angeles.  This is because late in the game you can score extra points by drawing new routes and some cities in particular (Los Angeles being an example) come up a lot.  This is an “if you build it they will come” approach, to quote the movie Field of Dreams. 

So too in nonprofits, sometimes when launching a new program, you just have to go the extra mile and do it, even if there’s not yet funding attached.  Build the program and then go out and seek funding for it, rather than the other way around.  I’m not saying always do that; you have to evaluate the level of potential benefit and financial risk.  But on several occasions, I’ve seen organizations grow dramatically in their impact by taking leaps of faith like this at key junctures.

And there you have it – five lessons for nonprofit leaders from Ticket to Ride.  I can now play the game some more without feeling guilty.  And if anyone is playing it online and looking for an opponent, just email me and we can set up a game. 

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Naive optimism

December 7, 2020

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 2:22 pm

I recently was speaking with Amanda Caffall, who helped start and currently leads the Commons Law Center, a relatively new nonprofit.  The Center is clearly thriving, even with the challenges posed by 2020, and I asked her to what she attributed their success.

Among the various reasons cited, she used a phrase about herself that struck a chord in me: “naive optimism.”

The optimism part was straightforward.  Basic personality matters when it comes to nonprofit leadership.  People who see the world as “glass half empty” tend not to perform as well in Executive Director roles as those who see it as “glass half full.” 

People whose instinct is to ask: “how do we get this done?” tend to perform better than those who instinctively think of all the reasons a program or project will fail.

Of course, people who are pessimistic and focused on what could go wrong play a really important role within nonprofits in keeping teams grounded, helping avoid problems, etc.  They make awesome chief fiscal officers.  But usually not Executive Director.

But what about the word “naive?”  Why does it matter in this context?

The key insight is that some people have been “educated” by seeing or being told about failure in all its myriad of forms.  And as their naivety is hammered out of them, they become more likely to inappropriately second-guess themself and they can become paralyzed by indecision and excess caution.  

“Naive optimism” is that lucky place some leaders find themselves in where they’re inherently optimistic and they haven’t yet “learned” something can’t be done.  So they go out and do it – often by leading a team.   

As I reflect, I can think of a dozen Executive Directors (mostly younger) who really shined in their roles because they combined strong leadership skills with “naive optimism.”  

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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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Holding up the wall

October 1, 2020

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:48 pm

As a nonprofit Executive Director, do you ever feel like if you walk away, things will crumble?

I felt this occasionally as an Executive Director, particularly in my first few years.

Strategies I employed to get beyond this feeling:

  1. Take deep breadths
  2. Look back at my to-do lists and short-term plans, break them down in chunks, and think hard about what else can be either delegated or pushed off/let go.
  3. Map out my major yearly, quarterly, and monthly tasks. Figure out which ones can be delegated. If to nobody right away, figure out how somebody can eventually take over those tasks. (Of course, for some, the answer is nobody because they’re inherent to the E.D. role).
  4. If appropriate after #2 and #3, ask for help. Be candid with your board chair or, if that would be awkward, somebody else who you can confide in who will grasp the picture. Sometimes just talking about it’s enough to recognize you’re probably not actually holding up the wall.

What strategies have you used when you have this feeling? I’m looking for other ideas to share!

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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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Planning and Management Amidst a Pandemic

April 28, 2020

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 1:42 pm

I’ve worked with quite a few clients over the last few years developing strategic plans.   A few have called me and asked: what now in light of the pandemic?

I always start with the question: has the lay of the land materially changed in a way that renders key strategies unworkable and/or goals unobtainable? 

Every time the answer has been “yes.”  Usually, it’s because they fear (accurately I assume at this point) that their plans hinged on fundraising that will not materialize in light of the pandemic.  Other times, the change to the lay of the land isn’t about money, but rather the fact that their programmatic work depends heavily on in-person forms of outreach or other work that has become impossible.

Here’s four pieces of advice I’ve given Executive Directors and Board Chairs who find themselves in either or both of these predicaments.

1. Hug your donors, just not literally.

Any reasonable fundraising strategy involves a combination of maintaining and upgrading existing donors (both individual and institutional), while also seeking new ones.  During the immediate health crisis and the economic fallout, organizations are going to have more success with their existing donor base as compared to attracting new donors.    

That means using multiple avenues to communicate with them (e.g. email, phone, online briefings, etc.).   And for those donors who love you the most, be really candid with them about where things stand for you.  They are the most likely to dig deeper to help you get through the crisis.

2. Don’t forget to plan

There may be a temptation in a crisis to mistake activity for productivity.   It may feel “good” to get really busy, but it’s critical that you focus on the right things.  That means reevaluating your goals (the ends you’re trying to achieve) and your strategies (the major types of activities you’re undertaking to achieve your goals).  What priorities have shifted?  What strategies are no longer tenable and what can replace them?   

I recently facilitated a team meeting planning for a 2021 grant and we had a robust conversation about the ways in which the world will look different and what that means for their programs.  We touched on everything from changes to volunteerism, to how people engage politically, to whom people are willing to talk.  They may not have accurately predicted all these shifts, but it’s far better to have the conversation than to just plunge forward without thinking.

3. Don’t throw out the whole past plan

Some people are tempted to just throw out their strategic plan and start from scratch.  There may be a few organizations for whom that may make sense.  But for most, if your plan was solid before, ask yourself:  do you just implement the same plan just over a longer time period, assuming everything takes longer?  Or have the fundamentals changed such that some of the goals or strategies needed to change? 

In most cases, starting with the old plan and editing it makes more sense than a blank slate.

4. Give your staff (and yourself) time and space to grieve and experiment

Your staff are your most precious resource and it’s important to recognize that they need special handling in this environment.  Beyond the obvious shift many organizations have to go through of suddenly managing an employee working remotely, staff are likely to feel agitated, upset, uncertain, etc. 

While not everyone has experienced the loss of a loved one or even someone they know, there is a degree to which nearly everyone is mourning the loss of the world as we knew it.  You should find ways to give people the space to share their feelings and concerns, even if that costs you time and productivity.

The flip side is that the new context for some people provides a burst of creativity.  I’ve seen this first-hand with another one of my clients where a staff person came forward with some really interesting and implementable ideas for taking real-world activities into the virtual world, with some potential amplifying affects for the group’s ability to communicate – at least in theory.   As a manger, it’s imperative that you keep an open mind towards new ideas that are worth an experiment.

Have you had some experience managing or planning amidst the pandemic you’d like to share? I’d welcome additional thoughts or experiences.

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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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Relentlessly Focus on Relationships

November 30, 2017

Filed under: Fundraising,Leadership,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 11:23 am

This is a republication of Chapter 1 of Why Organizations Thrive.  

Organizations that thrive relentlessly focus on relationships.   This must begin with the Executive Director and the Executive Director’s relationships.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that successful organizations are constantly expanding their pool of relationships and strengthening existing relationships.  Then they consciously activate those relationships.

To understand why, it’s helpful to take a giant step back and talk about network theory and social change.  A wide variety of books have come out in the last decade detailing the various ways in which social change happens via networks of people connected by relationships.    The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, is a good example from this genre.

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.

As a practical matter, the power of relationships can impact organizations in many ways.  One example related to Executive Directors:  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, the mediocre board request is more likely to succeed.

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 should an organization systematically expand the number of relationships its Executive Director and other key leaders have with those that matter?

Here are a few examples of ways I expanded my pool of relationships as an Executive Director.

  • I attended fundraisers for peer-organizations, if possible sitting at the table of people I didn’t already know well.
  • I instigated lunch or coffee with the leaders of current and potentially allied organizations, particularly those I didn’t already know well.
  • I asked board members to invite me to any non-fundraising parties they were throwing so I could meet more of their friends.
  • I asked elected officials for advice, as a way to get to know them.
  • I attended conferences more with an aim towards meeting new people during breaks and social times than out of a desire to tackle the subject matter of the conference work sessions.

None of this would have worked if I hadn’t been genuinely interested in getting to know these people.  You can’t fake authenticity in building relationships.

Of course, relationship building isn’t just about the Executive Director’s relationships.

In planning programs and fundraising, relationships by everyone on the staff and board should be front and center.   Some Oregon LCV activities, for example, never made sense as stand-alone activities.

Examples:

  • Hosting brown bag lunches to compare notes with allies;
  • Volunteer appreciation parties;
  • Trainings for members of the community;
  • Hosting happy hours.

While they had some value, their primary value was to build relationships that our staff could subsequently tap into in other ways.

If you’re using this approach, staff should know their role at events like these is to get to know new people rather than hanging out with existing friends.

There are three other practical implications that follow from relentlessly focusing on relationships.

First, you need to be systematic in planning for relationship-building and tracking relationships.  As an Executive Director, that means setting specific goals (e.g. 5 per month) for how many new relationships you want to develop in the most important categories (e.g. peer Executive Directors, elected officials, potential major donors).  And it means actually using a “database” – whether your donor database or otherwise – to track relationships.

Second, you need to recognize that not everyone is equal when it comes to relationships.   In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about three types of people who play a particular role in social change:

Connectors have an unusually large number of relationships.

Mavens have a strong need and ability to help solve other people’s problems.

Persuaders are particularly likeable and charismatic.

In hiring, in recruiting board members, and in recruiting volunteers, Executive Directors should keep an eye out for people who fit these descriptions and put an extra emphasis into developing relationships with them.

Lastly, the organization should think hard about how to maximize the value of relationships once they are generated.

In my experience, the key step in maximizing the value of relationships isn’t the initial “ask” you might make of someone (e.g. donate, volunteer, etc.), it’s in having your relationships tap into their own relationships on your behalf.

As I write this, I have 581 people in my Linked In network.   Those 581 people have 127,965 direct LinkedIn 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 directly.

Organizations that thrive don’t just systematically build and activate first-order relationships – they get first-order relationships to tap into a further network.    As a practical matter, thriving organizations tend to turn donors into fundraisers and volunteers into volunteer recruiters.

How do you make that happen?  In the online world it’s seemingly easy – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and dozens of other sites are specifically geared to allow people to spread information and “asks” throughout their social network.   But while easy to spread information and asks, online response rates are abysmal.

The real payoff comes when people spread information or make requests where two-way communication is happening in real-time – which usually means on the telephone or face-to-face.

How do you get your first-order relationships to turn around and ask their friends for donations, to volunteer, to attend an event, to write their Congressman, or just to talk up your organization when at a cocktail party?

At the simplest level it’s by having a compelling message that motivates them.   (More about this in Lesson 13, Know and Tell Your Stories).

But beyond message, you need to structure their involvement in ways that motivate.  At Oregon LCV, we did this first and foremost by organizing teams of volunteers at the local level who took ownership of certain organizational decisions, thus motivating them to act.  With their help, we grew from an organization with a few dozen volunteers in 1996 to more than 1000 by 2004.

Of course, you can have all the relationships in the world, and your organization won’t thrive without many other elements.  But organizations that thrive almost universally place a very high value on building and strengthening personal relationships.

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Pros and Cons of ED Transition Processes

September 25, 2017

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

I was recently asked to write up some pros and cons for an organization when it comes to different hiring approaches to take for an upcoming Executive Director transition.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.  Interested in additional feedback.

In my mind, there really are three scenarios for any organization:

Scenario 1: Hire from within without an open search.

Scenario 2: Hold an open search with internal candidates welcome to apply.

Scenario 3:  Hire an Interim Executive Director for a 6-12 month period and then figure out whether to move to Scenario 1 or 2.

Scenario 1 (hire from within) Pros/Cons

Pros

  • Maximizes odds the new E.D. will be a good cultural fit for the organization.
  • Minimizes risk that a new E.D. will try to take the organization in a sharply new direction
  • Minimizes the amount of training/on-boarding likely needed.

Cons

  • If there are two strong internal candidates, it often leads to the departure of the one not chosen.
  • Can lead to insular thinking in the absence of new strategic-level leadership.
  • Focus on current organizational culture can limit the ability to achieve a more diverse workplace.

Scenario 2 (open search) Pros/Cons

Pros

  • Has the potential to bring in someone with significant new relationships with funders, partners, and potential board member
  • The search itself can increase the profile of the organization.

Cons

  • Hiring of an external candidate can be discouraging to and even lead to the departure of a strong internal candidate who isn’t selected.
  • An external candidate who was strong on paper may prove to be a poor fit in practice.

Scenario 3 (Interim ED) Pros/Cons

Pros

  • Someone with expertise in the Interim role can help identify organizational challenges with a fresh perspective and advise the board on the best path forward and give a candid assessment of whether there is, in fact, an internal candidate who’s ready.

Cons

  • Additional period of uncertainty for funders/allies.
  • Harder for the outgoing Executive Director to “train” their successor.

Additional Notes

  1. Of course, for some organizations Scenario 1 isn’t even a consideration if there’s obviously no internal candidate potentially available.
  2. Scenario 3 would normally be used when the departure of an outgoing E.D. is abrupt, without time prepare.  But occasionally I’ve seen it selected when the board desires significant change and needs time and expertise to figure out what change is needed.
  3. Regardless of the Scenario, it’s advisable to have a 1-2 month overlap between the outgoing E.D. leaving that role and the new E.D. taking the helm. During this period, the E.D. plays a training and special projects role.

Are there additional pros and cons that should also be considered of the various approaches?

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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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