Five ideas for staying focused as an executive

July 23, 2021

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:10 pm

Quite a few times in my years as a consultant, I’ve encountered Executive Directors who accomplish tasks very effectively.  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.  They clearly work a lot of hours. 

Yet, their organization is floundering. 

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 and take the organization backwards.  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.  What separates the great from mediocre executive is a relentless focus on getting the right things done, not just doing things right.

In every organization I’ve encountered, the Executive Director (or CEO by whatever title)) 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 35-50 hours per week on a sustained basis.

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

Here are my top five recommendations.

Recommendation 1:  Actually decide rather than letting events push you around.  I’ve met more than one executive who, beyond keeping a calendar, has nothing that could be described as a work plan beyond to-do lists scribbled on pieces of paper.    

There are dozens of ways to give yourself a work plan.  As an Executive Director, I used an Excel spreadsheet broken down by major categories of work and tasks within them, with deadlines.  I’ve worked with an Executive Director who used a Word document effectively.  Today, many executives have moved to online project management systems like Asana or Trello.  (I use Asana for my consulting work planning).   

Whatever technology you use, the bottom line is for the system to allow you to identify your big-picture goals (outcomes) that you aim to achieve, along with major activities underneath them.   Whether the time frame is monthly, quarterly, or some longer period of time, it should be updated regularly.

Of course, a corollary to this recommendation is you shouldn’t skimp on planning time. More than once I’ve had an executive say they’re too busy to invest the amount of time in the planning that I am recommending to them. This brings to mind one of my previous blog posts: have you sharpened your axe lately? The short version: a timber cutter who takes 10% of their time sharpening their tool and 90% cutting likely cuts more than one who just ignores the need to sharpen their tool. Think of planning as sharpening the axe. 10%-90% may not be the precise ratio to shoot for, but in my experience there is no way to confidently “get the right things done” without taking real time to think things through, whether alone or with your team.

Recommendation 2:  Don’t prioritize in a vacuum. Prioritize within your work plan by staying focused on your most important organizational goals and strategies.  Whether embodied in an organizational strategic plan or some other document that the Executive Director writes up, the goals selected should clearly tie back to important organizational outcomes and the strategies should match up with the organization’s primary activities.

When a new idea emerges (presented to you or generated by you), assuming it’s not already clearly within the work plan, ask three questions as a filter before adding it to the plan:

Question one: Is the task squarely within one of our organization’s strategies? If not, it is almost always suspect.

Question two: Should I be the one to do this task?  Just because it should be done, doesn’t mean the Executive Director should tackle it.  What tasks should fall to the Executive Director and what to other staff, to contractors, or volunteer leaders?  If it’s at all possible to delegate it, do so.

Another way of approaching this question is to ask: is this something that requires my participation either because of my unique skills or relationships?  If not, is there someone else able to do it?

This filter is especially important for an executive to use when receiving requests to 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.”

Question three: Is the task the cake or the icing on the cake?

Put another way, is accomplishing this task an essential element towards what I’m trying to accomplish or just a nice additive.  Unless and until you are confident all the essential building blocks are being achieved, tasks that are merely positive should be shelved.

Recommendation 3:  Use your calendar to block off the important tasks that you tend to struggle to complete.  Schedule yourself into a block of time when you’re committed to just that task, avoiding all distractions. Often times in the nonprofit sphere, major donor fundraising is what tends to get pushed off for other things that seem more time-sensitive. That was true in my case. I finally forced myself to stick to a schedule where everyone on my team knew I wasn’t to be disturbed.    

Recommendation 4:  Cut out the easy time-wasters.  Examples of these include:

  • The impromptu meeting with co-workers that takes half an hour that could be done in 15 minutes.  At the beginning of any such impromptu meeting, ask: “what do we need to get out of this conversation” and stick closely to that subject. 
  • The half-dozen times during the day you check your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or other social media because there might be something relevant to the organization’s work.  (This is one of my weaknesses). Unless it’s your job to manage these social media platforms, once per day should be sufficient.
  • The extra 15 minutes formatting a document to be perfect when it was already good enough to be understood.  Occasionally you’re producing something worthy of that extra 15 minutes, but most of the time that’s 15 minutes better spent moving onto the next important task. 

Recommendation 5:  Beware of shiny objects.  These are the opportunities that come along that seem cool.  They may even come with funding.   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 your own techniques for staying focused on the right tasks?  Please share them in the comments.

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The bricklayer parable and nonprofits

June 17, 2021

Filed under: About My Work,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 1:29 pm

An Executive Director working for a former client recently invited me out to have lunch at a park and then go kayak on the river with her.  We spent most of the lunch talking about the organization’s challenges and the potential role an upcoming strategic planning process could play in meeting those challenges.  

Then we went for our paddle.  Just a short one, about 40 minutes.

The Tualatin is a gentle river in a suburban area, but we saw (and heard) some lovely birds and this turtle sunning itself on a log.  

Despite the short amount of time involved, the experience was enough to get my brain recharged and think about the incredible role that rivers can play in improving our communities, which was well-timed given one of my current clients is entirely focused on watershed protection.   Thanks Jan! 

In thinking about the experience, I was reminded of the parable of the three bricklayers and the importance of nonprofit leaders taking steps to ensure they don’t lose touch with their deeper purpose.

This is a variation on a famous parable that supposedly was first told by Christopher Wren, in 1671, while he was serving as chief architect for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

A woman was walking down a street and came across someone laying bricks.  The first bricklayer was dejected and doing a sloppy job as they laid bricks on top of each other.  The woman asked the bricklayer: “what are you doing?”

The first bricklayer’s answer: “I’m putting bricks in a row and then putting another layer of bricks on top of them.”

Further down the street, the woman came across a second bricklayer.  This bricklayer was workmanlike – doing their job in an apparently competent manner. 

The woman asked the second bricklayer: “what are you doing?”

The second bricklayer’s answer: “I’m building a wall that will form the side of a building.”

As the woman walked even further down the street, she came across a third bricklayer.  This bricklayer was whistling as they worked, obviously happy, as they methodically and competently put bricks together in rows, mortared them, and slowly built upwards.

The woman asked the bricklayer: “what are you doing?”

The third bricklayer’s answer: “I’m building the wall of a hospital that will save people’s lives.”

Is it any wonder that the second bricklayer was more productive than the first, and the third was most productive of all? 

The first was given a task, but had no purpose. 

The second had a purpose, but it was shallow. 

The third had a task, a purpose, and the purpose was framed in a deeper way that could arouse passion.

So how does this apply to nonprofits?

Almost always, small, new nonprofits are like bricklayer three.  They are founded around a purpose and that purpose tends to remain front and center as the team is built and tasks are divided up.  Executive Directors who are founders are particularly like bricklayer 3. 

Yet, over time – whether the organization grows or not – nonprofits often wind up treating their staff, board, and other volunteers like bricklayer 2, or even worse bricklayer 1.

I saw this repeatedly when I was an Executive Director interacting with other organizations, and I see it sometimes as well as a consultant. 

As organizations grow, there is a tendency to focus on specific duties or tasks that need to get done at the expense of the mission.  This is particularly true on the organizational capacity side of the equation. 

It’s easy to stay focused on the purpose when you’re doing the programmatic work of your nonprofit that directly advances the mission.  It’s harder to say focused on the purpose when you’re working on board governance, or fundraising, or information management systems.  

These are the “bricks” that form the foundation of the organization, so it’s easy to get caught in the trap of focusing on the process of laying bricks or the fact that it’s a “foundation.”

Yet, in failing to keep your deeper purpose front and center, groups are likely to go off course as they lose some of the passion essential to fuel volunteer and staff activity. 

Here are a few examples. 

Your board is asked to raise money.  You pay a great deal of attention in training them to the mechanics of raising the money and the need to hit certain financial goals.  Yet, if the staff doesn’t repeatedly tie those financial goals back to the purpose as it talks to the board, the board is less likely to go the extra mile to ask their friends for money. 

I’ve seen the same situation happen with staff playing a non-program role.  Whether they’re doing your human resources, your database management, your accounting, or any of the myriad of other tasks that go into a medium or larger sized nonprofit, it’s easy to fall into the trap of training them in isolation on just their own jobs.  Many nonprofits can find competent administrative staff to “lay bricks.” 

Yet in my experience, administrative staff who’re repeatedly shown how their work is critical to your deeper purpose, are stronger performers.  It may take a little extra time up-front to consistently keep the purpose front and center, but the payoff is almost always worth it.  They will work harder and are less likely to leave for another job. And they will be more creative in finding ways for their work to better support the programmatic work. 

How about volunteers?  

A great deal of my experience managing volunteers is in the election context, so my example will lie in that realm.  Election volunteers are asked to step out of their comfort zone to talk to strangers at the door or on the phone on behalf of candidates or issues.  

In the election context, I repeatedly found that enthusiastic, repeat volunteers emerged most often when they were informed not just about the task at hand (the phone bank – bricklayer 1), and not just about the campaign (the phone bank as key to winning the election – bricklayer 2), but also the underlying purpose (the phone bank as key to winning the election so the candidate can lead on policies that save lives from dangerous levels of pollution — bricklayer 3).

So what are some management techniques leaders can use as a manger to avoid going off course by losing touch with your deeper purpose?

Three techniques come immediately to mind:

First, get really good at talking about your organization’s fundamental purpose, whether you call that your mission or otherwise.  Make sure this is about underlying values and not first-order impacts. Keep talking about it.  Just because you think everyone’s heard you talk about it before, don’t be shy about bringing it up again to reinforce the message.

Second, make sure the agenda for any significant meeting and the talking points for any presentation have some time set aside that connects the topic at hand to your deeper purpose.  Even if you think everyone attending already understands your purpose, consistently reminding people of that purpose when they’re together as a group is a powerful way to build community and teamwork.

Third, as you grow, don’t completely silo those people who perform largely administrative or capacity building functions from your program work.  They should be part of staff meetings or retreats that are focused on program.  As you hire, train, and supervise these staff, make sure you find ways to continually connect them to the purpose.

In the end, of course, some people are going to naturally think like bricklayer 1, just as others are naturally going to think like bricklayer 3.   But nonprofit leaders are absolutely in a position to make sure their organization doesn’t go off course by letting the purpose be lost amidst the details.

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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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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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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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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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Why Volunteers and a Spiderman Theory

October 31, 2016

Filed under: Advocacy,Human Resources,Leadership,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 1:22 pm

Why Volunteers and a Spiderman Theory of Volunteer Responsibility

Most organizations with whom I consult make some effort to involve volunteers.

Some are wildly successful.  Others are not.

There are many factors that lead some to be more successful than others, but two stand out that I want to explore in this article.

First, most successful programs are crystal clear about why they’re mobilizing volunteers and they design their program accordingly.

Second, most successful programs find the right balance between asking volunteers to take responsibility and giving them power.   That gives rise to my Spiderman theory of volunteer management.

Why Volunteers?

Before we can get to Spiderman, it’s important to first ask the question: why volunteers?  There are dozens of potential answers, but in general they tend to fit into three big categories:

  1. Getting more stuff done
  2. Building power
  3. Generating leaders

Getting more stuff done

If I’m a staff person for an organization, I can spend an hour doing an activity.  1 person x 1 hour = 1 unit of activity.

If instead I spend that hour recruiting volunteers and find one volunteer who’ll show up and do the activity for 3 hours, then I’ve magically transformed my 1 hour into 3 units of activity.

Of course, there are many assumptions here, such as the assumption of 1 hour = 1 volunteer recruited, that the volunteer can do the activity as effectively as the staff person, that it won’t take even more staff time overseeing the volunteer, etc.

Each organization needs to unpack the various activities for which it’s looking to use volunteers and run the math (using the best estimates you can for your rate of volunteer recruitment, how much training and oversight time will be needed).  Then it can answer the question:  will a volunteer recruitment focus lead to more bang for the buck than just doing the work without volunteers.

Building power

Organizations also use volunteers to build power.  To the extent our organizations are trying to impact public decision-making, perceptions of political power matter.  And in general, organizations who appear to be backed by lots of people have more power than those backed by fewer.  And volunteer activity can be harnessed to be visible to public officials.

Beyond this general maxim, it’s also the case that public officials are more likely to respond to the pleas of their constituents than they are to paid staff for organizations.  Of course, that assumes the constituents are on-message, well trained, etc.  And not all constituents are equal – as much as we wish they were.  Some constituents will be especially appealing to some elected officials based on their role in the community (e.g. business owner, clergy, neighborhood leader, etc.).

Generating leaders

Beyond building power and getting more stuff done, we also use volunteers to generate leaders.

Within our organizations, we’re always looking for the next set of board members and those willing to take on higher-level responsibilities.  If we don’t involve volunteers at the more basic level, it will be harder to identify organizational leaders or take potential board members out for a “test drive” in some other role.

In addition, to the extent our organizations are part of movements, we are hoping to generate movement-leadership as well.   In training a volunteer, they may wind up taking on leadership for an allied organization.  At OLCV, I always took pride when our volunteers wound up serving as staff for other organizations after going through our training program.  Since our organization’s vision was explicitly to serve a network/movement, we saw that as a clearly positive outcome.

Matching your volunteer program to your primary reason

It would be easy to just say: “we want all three of the above” as the reason for a volunteer program.  But in my experience, especially when organizations are first really investing in their volunteer program, it’s important to decide their primary objective among the three, and then design their program accordingly.

  • A getting more stuff done emphasis may lead to a focus on clear, simple-to-do tasks and urgent campaigns around which to motivate lots of volunteers.
  • A building power emphasis may mean a focus not on the overall number of volunteers, but rather identifying volunteers from key audiences (the constituency being served, influential within the community, etc.).
  • A generating leaders emphasis may lead to a focus on a smaller number of volunteers recruited to take on higher-level tasks with a lot of training and relationship-building baked into the program.

Matching power and responsibility

That gives rise to the second point I want to make about effective volunteer programs – they find the right balance between asking people to take responsibility and giving them power.

That’s where Spiderman comes in.  Spidey’s catchphrase is: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  My volunteer corollary for that is:  “If you want your volunteers to take on real responsibility, you must give them real power.”

Many organizations vest real power in their board and zero power in their other volunteers and then wonder why those other volunteers won’t take on more responsibility.  This becomes particularly challenging if the organization’s plan relies on creating a core group of “mid-level” volunteers who’re there to do more than take on tasks, but less than the obligations of board service.

In my experience, the solution lies in providing zones of authority for these mid-level volunteers.  These are areas where they have responsibility and with it, some power to make decisions – whether on organizational policy or allocation of organizational resources.

This can be scary for some boards because it means these mid-level volunteers can make mistakes.  In my experience, though, as long as appropriate side boards are put in place, giving these mid-level volunteers (working through committees, task forces, work groups, etc.) authority can vastly expand their commitment to the organization – and from it the level of work they take on.

During my time at OLCV, this played out with multiple straight election cycles where our campaigns involved more than 1000 volunteers, heavily fueled by chapter steering committees recruiting their friends and families to volunteer.

Of course, your mileage may vary.  The devil’s in the details.

Each organization needs to find the right balance given their organizational culture, lay of the land, and priorities.  But better to think this through explicitly rather than leave it to chance.

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Creating a “Time” Budget

June 20, 2016

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:09 pm

As a consultant, one thing I often observe is that clients routinely have staff who are working far more hours than is sustainable.  Moreover, they often have little idea where their time sinks are that are causing this.

I realized that an exercise I did as Executive Director may be unusual.  I created a “time” budget and not just a monetary budget when planning.

I’m finding as a consultant that this concept is foreign to some of my clients.  Yet, I feel it’s an exercise nearly every Executive Director should use, particularly with small, growing nonprofits.

What do I mean by a time budget?

A time budget identifies all individuals who are scheduled to work in the upcoming year and determines what level of staff time will be required for each of their significant responsibilities.   Just like a monetary budget makes sure that revenue and expenses line up, a time budget makes sure that the time expected to be worked by the employee matches up with their responsibilities.

Why create a time budget?

The simple reason is it’s a necessary step in the process of good fiscal budgeting if your budgeting system allocates staff time into different categories of activities by program or function.

This is something that really should be true.  After all, for most nonprofits staff salaries are the biggest expense, so how do you really know where you’re spending your money strategically unless your accounting system tracks staff time and allocates the cost among programs?

Even if that wasn’t the case, I’d still want a time budget to answer some more general questions:

  • Are we trying to do too much given current staffing?
  • Is anyone on staff being given too much?
  • Does anyone on staff have extra room to take on more responsibility?

So how do you create a time budget?

If:

  1. You already have time sheets where you’ve been tracking time,
  2. Your staff will be exactly the same in the upcoming year,
  3. Your programs and their intensity will be exactly the same in the upcoming year, and
  4. All your major administrative and fundraising activities will be the same in the upcoming year . . .

. . . then you can simply do an analysis of how you “spent” your staff time last year and budget accordingly for the year ahead.

The number of times this is likely to be the case is zero.

So how do you create a true time budget from scratch?

Here’s how I did it when I was an Executive Director.

As budgeting began, I would first identify what the major activities are that would be undertaken by each staff.  This could be programmatic work by program staff, administrative work by admin staff, or fundraising activities.  It would be broken down into the same categories used in fiscal budgeting.

Then, I’d identify how much time I expected each activity to take in hours, rounded to the nearest 10.  (Usually, though, I never had this exercise start with activities that are less than 40 hours (5% of a 2000 hour work year).

Of course, I wouldn’t make up this number.

  • Usually, I’d ask the staff person responsible for the activity to first suggest something and that initial estimate would be reality checked by the person’s supervisor to use their judgment.
  • In other instances, the activity was to be done by someone not yet on staff, so I or someone else was asked to generate the first estimate.
  • In still other instances, a grant or contract already had determined we’d spend a specific amount of staff time on a program.  (Or dollars, which we’d then use to work backwards and determine the staff time).

If following this process, it’s important to avoid leaving out big chunks of time.

  • Most importantly, you have to be sure to include a category for “administration” for each of your staff – to cover everything from filling out expense reports and timesheets, to attending board and staff meetings, to professional development, etc.
  • If you expect some of your staff to supervise others, build in estimates for good supervision.
  • I also usually kept a chunk of 5% of everyone’s time for miscellaneous stuff that will no doubt happen during the year that’s impossible to predict.

Once you’ve done this for everyone, you can then ask the question:  do the number of hours you can reasonably expect them to work mach up with what you need — taking into account vacation time as well.   If someone has too much on their plate, you can ask various questions:

  • Do we lower our expectations for what they will accomplish so we can lower the amount of time a project/program will take?
  • Is there someone else on staff who has some extra time and an appropriate skill-set that can be assigned a piece of the role?
  • Do we have to add staff, either permanent or temporary.
  • Or contractors to carry out some activities previously done by staff.

Breaking it down within the year

Then there’s one more important step:  break it down within the year by reasonable periods, either quarterly or monthly.  It does no good to correctly place 2000 of hours on someone’s plate for the year (50 weeks x 40 hours) if the hours are deeply uneven over the course of the year (e.g. if a development director has a big fundraising event at the same time as some other major fundraising activity is scheduled).  Yes, sometimes in the nonprofit world we have extreme peaks when people work a 60-80 hour week.  But nobody can sustain that long.

Often times the monthly version of the time budget draft led us to shift our planned activities to different times of the year so that work flow would even out.

Other times, it led us to figure out how person A could provide support to person B during a time when person B was overly busy (reducing the burden on person B), with the favor returned in a later month, evening out both of their hours to a reasonable level.

For some, the above process may seem tedious.  Or involved too much estimation.

It’s certainly not perfect.  And in larger organizations, it would probably need to be a series of departmental time budgets rather than one for the organization as a whole.

Yet, despite the imperfections of the process, it’s one I found to be highly useful and would recommend to Executive Directors.

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Preparing for an Executive Director Transition

October 20, 2015

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:37 pm

Often times Executive Director transitions are abrupt, taking place within a 1-2 month period when an E.D. moves onto another professional opportunity.  Rarely, they are even more abrupt after a tragedy or the Executive Director being fired.

However, in many instances an Executive Director is able to give significant advance notice to their board, often as much as 6-12 months.

In those instances, the organization has an chance to make the most of the transition so that it serves as an opportunity as much as a threat.

Below, I list 10 major steps an organization should consider to manage the transition, particularly in the 6 months immediately prior to it.

    1. Make sure that the organization has a current strategic plan. In the absence of a complete strategic plan, the organization should hold a facilitated meeting to ensure the board is aligned with the remaining senior staff regarding the purpose of the organization and major programs for the next 1-2 years.

 

    1. The Executive Director should consciously “transfer” personal relationships with major donors and institutional funders to others within the organization. Depending on the situation this could involve board members or other senior staff.   This could be accomplished by holding meetings (e.g. lunches, coffees, or more formal) with the donors one-by-one or by hosting small gatherings with multiple donors.

 

    1. Communicate early and clearly with allied organizations and funders in advance regarding the transition. In those communications, identify the specific steps the organization will be taking to ensure a successful transition.

 

    1. In public communications, such as newsletters, press releases, the website, etc., tell success stories about other staff and have other staff serve as spokespeople.  The more constituents come to know staff beyond the Executive Director, the less noticeable their absence will be.

 

    1. Have the Executive Director write down organizational stories. These stories could involve the founding of the organization if they were involved in it.  It should definitely involve stories that demonstrate the organization’s success and/or impact.  Depending on the E.D., this may be best done by having someone “interview” the Executive Director and write up the stories as they are told, as opposed to having the E.D. sit at a computer and write.

 

    1. Create an E.D. “Job Manual” that identifies the systems used by the Executive Director. This should cover all the major administrative and fundraising activities of the organization where the E.D. is involved, identifying what major activities need to be conducted weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.  This might also cover major “program” activities if the E.D. plays a substantial role, again broken down by weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.

 

    1. The outgoing E.D. should talk to other senior staff about their own timelines for professional development and discuss if/how to motivate them to stay on with the organization at least at least 6-12 months after the E.D. transition. This conversation should also be an early flag of whether the senior staff intend to apply for the Executive Director position.

 

    1. As soon as feasible, the E.D. and the board’s Finance or Executive Committee should develop a cash flow analysis of where the organization will be financially as of the date the new E.D. should start.  If at all feasible, additional funds should be raised or spending should be curtailed so as to maximize the amount of unrestricted reserve available at the time of transition.  If cash flow is going to be tight, the board should be asked to increase their personal giving in the short run in order to help.

 

    1. If the outgoing E.D. has relationships where it would make sense, use the transition as a message around which to raise extra funds.  Examples of tactics that have been successfully used include an event that “roasts” the outgoing E.D. and the creation of a “Legacy” fund by which donors can make a gift in honor of the outgoing E.D.

 

    1. The board and Executive Director should identify a “Plan B” should the hiring process for a new Executive Director not succeed in finding someone appropriate who says yes. Boards should be enthusiastic about new Executive Directors and  organizations are almost always better off not hiring someone who they believe will be mediocre.   The Plan B could involve an outsider brought on as an Interim E.D. or the temporary assignment of one of the other staff as Interim E.D.

 

Do you have additional suggestions for steps an organization should take when planning for an Executive Director transition?

If so, please comment below.

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Questions from Joan Garry to ask candidates for your fundraising job

June 24, 2015

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources — jonathanpoisner @ 1:00 pm

Joan Garry has some superb questions to ask those interviewing with you for a fundraising job, as well as what types of answers you should hope they provide.

I particularly liked Joan’s questions on their approach to philanthropy and how they would work with a board.

http://www.joangarry.com/recognize-top-fundraiser/

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