Thankful nonprofit quotes

November 24, 2021

Last month, in the spirit of Halloween, I shared the scariest things I’ve heard uttered by nonprofit leaders.

As a counterpoint, this month I offer up some “thankful” comments about and from nonprofit leaders.

These are things I’ve actually heard nonprofit leaders say, or close paraphrases, to the best of my recollection and/or based on looking back at interview notes I’ve taken down over the years.

  1. Our donors are really amazing. Getting to know them is one of the best parts of my job as Executive Director.

  2. I really enjoy working with the rest of the staff. The team has really gelled over the last few months. It gives me such a thrill to see them working so well together.

  3. It feels so good to start work every day knowing I’m making people’s lives better.

  4. I love, love, love our volunteers.

  5. My board is our secret superpower. They provide so much great energy for our work.

  6. When we lost our largest funder, our board really stepped up and helped me find a path forward.

  7. I’ve only been at the organization a couple of years, and I’m sure I’ve made several life-long friends already.

  8. When one of the students [we’re teaching] eyes just light up because they’ve learned something new, I have to resist the urge to go give the a high five.

  9. I know this sounds nerdy, but I love crunching data with our fundraising database.

  10. [AND LASTLY, MY FAVORITE]: The strategic plan has been incredibly helpful as a roadmap and in securing big gifts.

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Scary nonprofit quotes

October 29, 2021

In honor of Halloween 2021, here are the the scariest things I’ve heard from nonprofit leaders.  These are paraphrases as I wasn’t writing them down at the time.  If you read one of these and don’t think they’re scary, let me know and we can discuss. 

  1. I don’t have time to plan.  I’m just too busy.
  2. I don’t want an engaged board of directors.  They’ll just get in my way as Executive Director.
  3. I sent an email to my board asking for someone to volunteer for a task and nobody responded.  I guess they don’t care.
  4. I’ll be so glad when we get our Development Director hired and I can cut back on most of my time fundraising.
  5. “I hate hitting up people for money,” said by a Development Director.
  6. Not really something said, but I had lunch with a new Development Director.  It was a get acquainted meeting.  They talked about themself the whole time and didn’t ask me a single question.
  7. My staff’s pretty mediocre, but I’ve just come to accept that’s the way it is.
  8. I don’t care what the data says, I know it’s true.
  9. “It’s not that I don’t want coalition partners, it’s just that I think the other organizations who’re doing similar work just keep making stupid decisions.”  (Pretty sure that one’s an exact quote).
  10. Nonprofit leader: “I was really upset with the decision we made to X.” 

    Me: “But you didn’t say anything during the meeting!” I replied.  ‘If you disagreed with the potential decision, why didn’t you speak up?”

    “I didn’t want to make anyone upset,” he replied.

Have you heard any of these before? Something else scary to share?

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Facilitating hybrid meetings

August 10, 2021

Filed under: Consulting,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 4:34 pm

Good facilitation is a core part of my work.  Since I had already begun facilitating many meetings online pre-pandemic, the switchover to all virtual meetings for the last 16 months being virtual was seamless.  There are some clear best practices I like to follow.

Lately, though, I’ve been fielding questions that have prompted me to think harder about “hybrid” meetings.  These are meetings where a majority of people are in a single conference room, but one or more other participants are participating remotely.

I’ve done this a few times over the years, but usually with just one or two remote participants. In those cases, it was understood the remote participants were being “allowed” to participate remotely, but with a recognition the experience was going to be inferior. 

But as more organizations work in a hybrid space with employees permanently in the office and others permanently at home, it is critically important remote participants are genuinely and fully included as meeting participants.

That’s going to be challenging. I have no doubt that facilitating these so-called “hybrid” meetings is more challenging than either in-person or all-virtual.

I’ve come up with some tentative strategies (best practices) that I’ll be following and recommending in the months ahead.  But I would very much like to hear back from others who’ve facilitated or experienced such meetings and have further thoughts.

So here are my tentative hybrid meeting facilitation strategies.  Eight of these are technology related and ten are more general. 

Let’s start with the eight technology focused recommendations.

  1. Don’t simply re-create a virtual meeting by having all the in-person participants on their computers individually on zoom or whatever platform is being used.  You might as well not be in person if that’s the approach.   (However, if everyone does has a laptop and the potential to participate in zoom during breakout sessions, that’s great – see below).
     
  2. If you have staff that will regularly engage in remote meetings, invest in second video monitors for them that can hook into their laptops.  They are not expensive and they absolutely boost productivity when they can both participate in a zoom on one screen and also view a shared document.  (This is something I’d recommend for those who use remote staff even in the absence of hybrid meetings).

  3. Make sure audio is high quality.  Invest in a high-quality microphone so that people participating virtually can hear anyone in the room.  That may mean a microphone system.  It also means a high-quality speaker so that those in the room can hear those participating virtually.

  4. Think about what video from the room to project for those participating via the internet.  That may very well mean two videos, or even three.  These can be detachable webcams hooked into laptops via USB cables showing a combination of participant faces in the room and any whiteboard or flip chart that will be used. 

  5. If there is a portion of the meeting when you will share a document on a screen that everyone needs to see, figure out how to simultaneously project it on a big screen (for in-person) and also share online for remote participants.

  6. Also think about video from the perspective of in-person participants and their ability to see remote participants.  If the room allows it, set up a screen and project remote participants onto it, as large as possible (up to life sized if possible).  This will give in-person participants a constant reminder to treat them as full meeting participants.  If feasible, set up the speakers for remote participants next to this screen, so the voice will emanate from the visual image.

  7. Test the audio-visual set up in advance so that you’re not floundering for the first 10 minutes.

  8. To capture meeting notes, use an online white board or focus a remote camera on a flip chart so everyone can see what’s happening.

Beyond these technology recommendations, here are ten additional recommendations.

  1. Try to reserve meeting time for things that require active discussion, using preparatory meetings shared in advance to get people on the same page.  Consider generating some of the input prior to the meeting using polls, googleforms, etc., rather than using up meeting time for it.
     
  2. Use an icebreaker or some other method to ensure everyone in the room and everyone remotely is talking at least once in the first 5 minutes just to get everyone engaged.

  3. Think about how to integrate remote participants into breakout sessions.  Don’t just default to have the remote participants always be their own breakout.  If you have the physical space where you’re meeting and extra laptops for the setup, figure out if you can do breakouts where the remote participants are distributed among the in-person.  For example, this could involve mini zoom meetings for groups of 3-4 people with 2-3 of them in a corner of the room and one remote.

  4. During overall sessions, the facilitator needs to pay special attention to the remote participants.  Don’t make the default be “and what about those of you not here” as something that only comes up at the end.  Sometimes ask them for opinions first, sometimes in the middle, sometimes at the end.  Mix it up just as you would if they were in the room. 

  5. Establish a clear groundrule not to have sidebar in-person conversations where a couple participants aren’t paying attention to the main ongoing conversation, but rather having their own conversation.  This is probably something you should always have as a groundrule, but sidebars are especially challenging for remote participants as it becomes even harder for them to hear accurately what’s going on in the room.

  6. Likewise, establish a clear groundrule that remote participants shouldn’t multi-task , where they have the meeting on one screen, but their second screen is being used for something unrelated.

  7. Have a second “facilitator” assigned who’ll pay special attention to the remote participants.  This can be a meeting participant (as opposed to truly a second facilitator).  Remote participants should be able to reach out to them via chat or text during the meeting if they have an issue to address.  Also, ideally someone other than the facilitator is “in charge” of the technology.  

  8. Schedule sessions to have more shorter breaks.   A traditional 3-hour bock might involve 80 minutes, followed by a 15 minute break, and then an 85 minute session.  Instead, have an initial 55 minute session, then 7-8 minute break, then 55 minutes, then another 7-8 minute break, then a final 55 minutes.  It’s just harder for people remotely to stare at a screen for more than an hour at a time. 

  9. After breaks, where in-person people may have been chatting about the meeting topic, give a couple minute opportunity for them to share any “aha” moments that those on remotely should also know about.

  10. Especially if your team is going to be doing these more frequently, acknowledge the challenge openly in the beginning of the meeting and your hope to run an inclusive process, while seeking feedback for future meetings.  Don’t assume you’ll get this perfect the first few times you run a meeting in this manner.

So what do you think and what have you experienced?

Any of these recommendations seem off to you?

Has something worked well for you that I’ve left of this list?

Please use the comment section to share with everyone.

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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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Investment Plans as a strategic planning tool

March 23, 2021

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 10:58 am

In many strategic planning processes, prioritization among competing potential ideas or strategies becomes the linchpin of the process.

If organizational identity isn’t at stake (e.g. vision/mission), the organization doesn’t face a financial crunch, and the organization pretty much knows its goals and major strategies, the question often comes down to: what should we do more of with our resources? 

By resources, I don’t just mean money.  Sometimes it’s a question of where time gets invested. 

I’ve had a few clients now for whom an “Investment Plan” was the answer.

What is a strategic planning Investment Plan?

And how do you create one?

In short, an Investment Plan identifies major new areas of spending spread out over a period of time, with the sequencing of investments as a means of prioritizing them.  Some investments may be contingent upon other investments happening and having their desired impact first. 

Here are three scenarios where an investment plan comes in handy:

  1. To deal with an unusual infusion of resources that’s sufficiently large that incorporating them in annual budgeting makes no sense.  This may be a bequest that’s unrestricted at a time the organization either doesn’t desire an endowment or doesn’t want to grow its endowment.

  2. The organization has, over time, built up a reserve fund larger than it deems necessary, and in the early stages of the strategic planning process it’s determined that it makes sense to use some of the “excess” in order to accomplish an important objective.

  3. The organization identifies an urgent priority of increasing its fundraising capacity and is willing to cut back on program work in the short-turn by making a series of targeted investments in fundraising capacity with the desired effect of leading to more revenue and increased program work in the long run.

On at least one occasion, an organization I worked with knew it needed an investment plan up-front before the planning process.  On a few other occasions, the desire for an investment plan emerged during the design and research phases of the planning process.

How do you create one?

It starts by letting your team imagine new things.  That means asking the right questions early in the planning process that gets people thinking beyond just doing things as you’ve done them in the past.  Many standard questions accomplish this, like: “What are 2-3 big goals you’d like to see accomplished in the next 3-5 years?  “What’s holding you back from having a bigger impact?”

Other questions can be more explicit:  What would you want to do a lot more of if you had more resources?  What’s something new you’d love to do if you had more resources? 

The next step is to synthesize the input into a series of ideas that get lumped together into categories and described as an actionable investment.  Examples:

  • Hire a new development staff person. 
  • A major update to our website. 
  • Upgrade our facilities. 

Once you have a manageable and categorized list, start identifying price tags both in estimated dollars and time.  This may take some research, so build in a little time to do that. 

Then identify contingencies.  Some contingencies are temporal: do this before do that. Others are linked: Only do this and that at the same time. 

Here’s a temporal contingency example:  One of my client really wanted to add another program staff person to grow a program where they are confident there is greater community need.  But it needed to know it had a higher level of sustainable revenue before taking the leap.  Their plan:  Invest a portion of their reserve in more development staff and an upgraded website, and then add the new program staff when more revenue materializes. 

I often describe this as sequencing instead of prioritizing because it helps board members get past the natural inclination to always say “program” is the highest priority.  When you describe it as sequencing instead, they may feel more comfortable letting “more program” happen later on in a multi-year plan.   

A linked contingency example: the same one above focused on the fact that the organization wanted to hire development staff and upgrade their website at the same time.  They determined that their existing website was so poor that putting more time into development made no sense if they were driving donors to something that would turn them off.  Likewise, they lacked the staff time to manage a website upgrade.  The solution: have the new development staff person oversee the website upgrade as a first major task. 

Of course, sometimes investments have nothing to do with organizational fundraising.  Another former client owned multiple properties and had to weigh upgrades to facilities at one property serving one program against building a new building at a different property serving a different organizational program. 

How do you decide what’s most important?  Sometimes you just need to look at the overall strategy of the organization and weigh the relative value of each investment and say this before that since we can’t do both at the same time. 

For the investment that gets put “last” in this process, it’s still incredibly helpful to include them in the ultimate investment plan contingent on revenue exceeding forecasts.  This allows the champions within your organization of that program to not feel completely left out of the overall strategic plan, even if it’s not being prioritized in the investment plan.

Have you used an investment plan or something like it to prioritize?  How was your experience?

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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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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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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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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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One technique for being more strategic

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:04 pm

I’ve recently been thinking about the concept of organizations being strategic.

Being strategic is a choice made by successful nonprofits.

There are a lot of ways nonprofits fail to be strategic.

Some make a list of all desirable things to do and then set out to do them all.

Some do whatever is advocated for by whoever on the board is loudest and most persistent.

Some just keep doing what they’ve always done without reevaluating it.

They are the easy way.

But they’re not the most effective way.

Across many organizational functions (governance, fundraising, program), successful organizations develop systems to make calculated choices where to spend resources (time and money in particular) in order to gain maximum benefit.

That’s because the to-list of worthwhile activities is always far larger than you have time and money to do.

So how do you prioritize your time and money?

There is no one solution for every or even most organizations.

But here’s one tool to consider.  I’ll suggest additional ones in the future.

When you have a list of activities you’re looking to prioritize, plot them on a graph looking at their level of urgency and importance and focus on the upper right quadrant.

This task is taken from Paul Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and specifically his third habit, “Put First Things First.”

In explaining time management, he divides the world into four quadrants based on two continuum.  One continuum is whether an activity is important or unimportant.  The second continuum is whether the activity is urgent or not urgent, with urgency about its time-sensitivity.

Covey makes the point that effective individuals figure out how to prioritize those things that are important, but not urgent.  In contrast, ineffective people get caught up in urgent (e.g. time-sensitive), but unimportant tasks.

Here’s what this looks like graphically and applied by me to nonprofit organizations.

Important
Unimportant

Urgent

Not Urgent

  • Crises
  • Pressing problems
  • Important projects with deadlines
  • Relationship Building
  • Planning
  • Recognizing new opportunities
  • Prevention
  • Interruptions
  • Most phone calls and email
  • Some meetings
  • Popular activities
  • Trivia
  • Busy work
  • Some mail and phone calls
  • Time wasters

Adapted from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, Page 151

Here are three examples of urgent, but not important activities that often bog organizations down.

  • Low performing fundraising events.  Because events come with inherent internal deadlines both in preparing for and running the event, they create artificial time urgency.  Yet, in the long run, many low-performing fundraising events are simply not important to an organization’s financial health.  They create artificial time urgency, but they are not important.
  • Spending board time on short-term policy/politics.  Particularly for advocacy-focused nonprofits, board meetings can become dominated by backwards looking gossip about who said what, where things stand, and what the organization should do next week responding to some policy proposal.  It’s urgent in the moment.  But in the scheme of things for an organization’s board, it’s not important, since the board’s role should be focused on strategic governance and resources.
  • Leadership attending too many meetings.  I’ve repeatedly been told by Executive Directors that the biggest barrier to their raising more money is carving out the time to do so.  Yet, I then witness them attending meetings where their participation is nice, but of limited importance.  Meetings, because they have territory on a calendar, create an artificial urgency.  It has to be done right now because it’s in the calendar.

In contrast, much of the long-term strategic thinking and relationship building required of successful organizations is never particularly time-sensitive, but it’s critically important.  Effective organizations make those happen even if it means some urgent, but unimportant tasks get jettisoned.

Of course, if a team is doing this exercise, you may need some group process to reach a meeting of the minds.  In one past planning process, I successfully had each member of the team rate the activities being prioritized on both the urgency and importance scales from 1-10 with 10 being highest and then we averaged their ratings.

Regardless of the technique used, even having the conversation using the important/urgency framework can be eye opening to teams.

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