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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Effective board governance in a nutshell

September 28, 2021

Filed under: Board Development — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 1:45 pm

Not every one of my client engagements involves work with a board of directors, but enough do that I can safely say I’ve worked with a lot of boards and that’s allowed me to reach some conclusions regarding what separates those that truly lift up their organizations from those that drag them down.

Unfortunately, it could also take a book to spell out all these differences, along with recommendations for how to improve boards.

Nonetheless, someone challenged me to identify the most important attributes of a high-functioning board so they could know where to begin for improving their own board.

So without further ado, here’s my best effort.

High functioning boards do five things particularly well:

  1. They are efficient
  2. They are responsible
  3. They are financially supportive
  4. They are connected to the cause
  5. They are continually improving

An efficient board holds well-run board meetings that are actively facilitated and focus on essential topics, they use committees or task forces where appropriate between meetings, and board-staff relationships are managed in a way that doesn’t create additional, unnecessary time sinks.

A responsible board meets its legal, ethical and fiduciary responsibilities.  Responsibility also means the board has a culture of accountability — if someone commits to a task, they do it.  

Financially supportive means they donate themselves and they have some involvement in raising funds or securing revenue for the organization.  Not everyone needs to be an asker, but everyone needs to somehow engage as an ambassador, steward, cultivator, or in some other way that either directly bring in dollars or helps someone else on the team bring in dollars.

They have some connection to the cause (that staff continually reinforces) so that their passion for the mission can help get past any inertia or fear that would otherwise block them from being effective board members.

Lastly, they are continually improving, meaning they are constantly asking relevant questions, such as: “What skills and attributes do we need to add to the board?” And: “What could we be doing better?”

There are, of course, many details underneath each of these.  Books worth of details.  And the process of taking a mediocre board to high-functioning can take multiple years. There is no silver bullet.

But, if you’re beginning the process of building or improving a board, I think reviewing the above with the board and asking them: “how are we doing?” is a good place to start.

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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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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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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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The Ten Commandments of Fundraising

December 11, 2020

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 9:35 am

When I first became Executive Director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, one of my early conversations was with Sam Schuchat, who was my counterpart at the California LCV. Over the years, I learned many things from Sam, particularly about fundraising.

He produced a 1-page summary of his fundraising rules, entitled The Ten Commandments of Fundraising. I was recently going through old paper files and recycling materials I’d never use again. I was struck by how well Sam’s Ten Commandments had stood up to the test of time, leaving aside the obvious missing references to email and online giving.

I made some tiny edits to his work.

They are worth sharing with anybody new to fundraising or anybody who needs a reminder about how fundraising tends to work (or not work).

The Ten Commandments

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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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