One technique for being more strategic

August 9, 2017

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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a lesson from my yoga instructor

March 13, 2017

Filed under: Fundraising,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:33 pm

My yoga story told a short story that she applied to life, but my mind immediately applied to nonprofit organizations.

Chapter 1: You’re walking down a street, and you fall in a hole.  It’s dark.  It takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 2:You’re walking down the street again, you pretend the hole isn’t there.  You fall in.  It’s dark.  It takes awhile to get out.

Chapter 3: You’re walking down the street again, you see the hole, but you still fall in.  It’s dark.  You get out quickly.

Chapter 4: You’re walking down the street, you see the hole, and carefully go around it.

Chapter 5: You figure out where you want to go and get there by going down a different street.

My yoga instructor’s point was that eventually you want to get to chapter 5 so that you avoid entirely the situation that puts you in peril of falling in the hole.

My application of this story to nonprofits:

Chapter 1: You hold a fundraising event and it’s a bust.

Chapter 2: You hold a fundraising event and give yourself a pep talk that this time it won’t be a bust, but it is.

Chapter 3: You hold a fundraising event, recognize why the last one failed, but it still does.

Chapter 4: You hold a fundraising event, recognize why the last one failed, and manage to make it a success.

Chapter 5: You take the time/energy you put into a mediocre fundraising event and meet with individual donors, raising far more money.

Okay — just one example, and perhaps not a great one.

But the central lesson I think is sound: sometimes when we find ourselves failing at something, the answer isn’t to ignore it, or work really hard to avoid the pitfalls involved.  Maybe the answer is to go do something else entirely that better achieves your goals with fewer risks.

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How much input should we seek?

February 15, 2017

Filed under: Consulting,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:27 pm

When starting to talk to a potential strategic planning client, one of the first questions that comes up relates to the level of input they are seeking to solicit as part of the process.

I’m specifically referring to input from those not on the board and staff.  I take it as a given that no strategic planning process is likely to achieve its desired purpose if board and staff – those responsible for implementing the plan — aren’t given significant opportunities to provide input throughout the planning process.

But once you get beyond the board and staff, there is no right answer to the amount of input worth seeking.

Some factors that argue for more expansive input include:

  • Input can increase the commitment of those solicited to the organization.
  • Input from those who have significant control over the organization’s future success will help make it more likely the resulting plan will be one they support.
  • Input may generate critical information about the external lay of the land you will be facing.
  • Input may allow you to hear views from constituencies you’re trying to help that aren’t already adequately represented on your board or staff.
  • Input may help you generate an assessment of how those not on the organization’s “inside” view the organization.

Counterbalancing this desire for input are other factors:

  • Input is costly — it takes time and, if a consultant is collecting the input, money.
  • Input can give those being solicited unrealistic expectations regarding their degree of say in the organization’s future.
  • If you generate too much information, it may be hard to assimilate all the information in a meaningful way.
  • Input can have an opportunity cost if it gets in the way of your ability to ask the person being solicited for some alternative use of their time that’s more critical.

So how decide?

There’s no scientific answer.

You’ll need to think hard about the factors arguing for expansive input and weigh them against the others.

It can be helpful to have someone write up an initial plan for input that tries to find the sweet spot, and then have people react to that plan.

 

 

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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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A primer on nonprofit dashboards

June 6, 2016

Filed under: Fundraising,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:29 pm

What’s a nonprofit dashboard?

Why should my nonprofit consider getting one?

And how should we develop one?

These are some of the questions I address in a recent guest blog for The Databank.

In addition, I recently gave a presentation on dashboards for the Nonprofit Network of Southwest Washington.  Here are the slides from the presentation.  

Check them out and then let me know what you think.

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Tips for “Virtual” Meetings

May 11, 2016

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

This blog was originally drafted in 2016.  A lot has changed on the virtual meeting front since them, although many fundamentals remain the same.  I periodically update it to reflect new information.  The most recent update was September 2021. 

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

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

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

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

    1. It’s super easy for participants to be multi-tasking during the meeting.  That could be something else they’re working on or it could be scanning their social media.  How do you get their full attention.
    2. You lose out on many of the social cues that come in an in-person meeting, such as body language.

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

First, plan ahead for video technology and don’t take it for granted.  There are many options: Zoom, GoogleMeet, Skype, Microsoft Teams, etc.  

If you’re trying a new option for the first time, do a dry run with guinea pigs.  Also, it’s important to identify someone other than the meeting facilitator who is prepared to deal with any technical glitches.  

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

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

  • In setting the agenda, try to give as many people as possible an explicit task during the meeting so they’ll see the value of being fully involved.  Aside from leading on particular topics, other tasks include serving as scribe or timekeeper.
  • Make sure the agenda and supporting materials are distributed ahead of time, in a format easy for them to access online (since many participants will not have a printer handy).  I have found that agendas in googledocs that link directly to all the referenced materials works particularly well. 
  • At the meeting opening, set the explicit expectation that people won’t be multi-tasking during the meeting.
  • Use round robins to hear briefly from everyone on key topics.
  • If it seems like there’s not enough engagement, ask someone who hasn’t spoken in awhile what they think.
  • Explicitly ask people if they agree and ask them to say so out loud.
  • If your chosen platform allows for it, consider using breakout rooms, polls, or other tools that can increase engagement. 

Fourth, think about how notes will be taken and shared during the meeting.  If you would have normally used a flipchart in front of the room in an in-person setting, consider using a shared whiteboard/googledoc or the equivalent.  This can create a disconnect between those who have multiple screens (one for the video and one for the whiteboard), so factor that in as you facilitate.  (If you’re an organization who expects workers to work remotely, invest in their having a second screen; they are really quite inexpensive).  

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

Sixth, structure the meeting time to include more short breaks as opposed to fewer long breaks.  In general, don’t go more than 60 minutes without a 5-10 minute break.  

Lastly, get the meeting notes out ASAP.

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

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What makes something a “strategic” plan?

January 20, 2016

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 10:50 am

What do we mean by strategic planning in the nonprofit context?

In my mind, there are three key distinguishing characteristics.

First, it’s long term.  Certainly more than a year.  It might be as short as 2 years.  For most nonprofits, it generally runs 3-5 years, though I’ve heard of organizations with 10 year strategic plans.

Second, it embraces the entire organization, across functions   It covers your program (the ways you’re trying to change the world) and your institutional capacity.  One test to know if it’s comprehensive:  for any significant activity of the organization, you should be able to point to what part of the strategic plan that it fits within.

Third, it answers a series of big questions about the organization.  Put in the simplest terms these questions are:

  • Who we are?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How do we get there?
  • How will we know if we’re successful?

That’s it.  I’ve seen strategic plans as short as 3 pages and as long as 50 that meet these tests.  What’s right for your organization, of course, depends on many factors.

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A goal is not an activity

November 24, 2014

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:59 pm

Public service announcement: A goal is not an activity, it’s an outcome.

The activity of educating people is not a goal.

More educated people could be a goal, with educating people (or more specifically classes, workshops, publications, etc.) the strategy achieve it.

Another example: Advocacy/lobbying is not a goal. Better public policies could be a goal, with advocacy/lobbying being the strategy to achieve it.

It shocks me sometimes how often people confuse the outcome they are seeking (the goal) with the activity to get there (the strategy).

End of PSA/rant.

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To follow your dreams, learn to say no

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:57 pm

Learning to say no is one of the most important skiils for any organizatonal leader or organization.

Oliver Bremerton recently wrote and illustrated a compelling explanation for how this plays at an individual level when it comes to following your personal dreams.

“Our brains behave like a beachball filled with bees. Hundreds of conflicting impulses, pushing us in different directions.”

Successful individuals (leaders, organizations, etc.) learn how to put aside the conflicing impulses and focus on the one, overriding “dream.”

Or in Bremerton’s words, “If you want to follow your dreams, you have to say no to all the alternatives.

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A riddle about 5 frogs – updated

July 11, 2014

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:31 pm

About 15 months ago I created a blog entry: 5 frogs sitting on a log. 

Here’s an updated version.

The riddle:

Five frogs are sitting on a log.  One decides to jump off.  How many frogs are left on the log?

The answer is five.  Deciding to jump off is not the same as jumping off, so all five are still on the log.

The five frogs are still sitting on a log.  One gets training on how to jump off.  How many frogs are left on the log?

Five, of course.  Being trained on somethings is no guarantee of action.

The five frogs are still sitting on a log.  One decides he’s a lily pad frog and not a tree frog, so he’ll jump off and onto a nearby lily pad.  He recently was trained on effective jumping.   He’ll jump at sundown.  He knows he’ll have been effective if he winds up on the lily pad.

In short, he knows who he is, where he wants to get to, how he’ll get there, and by when.

How many frogs are sitting on the log?

Of course, the answer is still 5.  But I’d venture to bet that the odds of it soon being four are very high indeed.

Although the parallels to nonprofit work are clear, I’ll hit you in the face with it:  An organizational strategic plan should answer who the organization is, where it wants to go, how it will get there, and how it will know if it’s successful.  In strategic planning terms, this is usually a combination of mission/vision, goals, strategies, and a timeline.

The best written strategic plan, even when combined with training, are no substitute for taking action.

But those who are trained and plan are far more likely to take action (and take it effectively) than those who are not.

 

 

 

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