Theories of change – a primer

December 20, 2023

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 9:27 am

Organizations that thrive tend to have clarity regarding their theory of change.

What is a theory of change?  In plain language, a theory of change explains how the activities of the organization lead to accomplishment of the long-term goals an organization is working towards and how accomplishing those goals advances the mission.   

Sometimes the theory is a series of logical statements (because we do A, therefore B happens; because B happens, and we do C, therefore D happens; until one of these statements leads to the “mission” being achieved).

Sometimes the theory can best be explained via a flow chart or graphical diagram that visually displays the way different activities come together in ways that a logic chain or written statements can’t easily communicate.

Other theories of change I’ve seen are simply a series of “Strategic Assumptions” written down that collectively embody the theory. 

The format that makes sense for any particular organization is highly dependent on the circumstances – the nature of the goals being sought and mission being advanced, the types of activities pursued, and the complexity of the organization.

Why does articulating a theory of change matter?  And if it matters, how can a theory be developed?

Theories of change matter for at least five reasons.

  1. Resource Allocation: A theory of change can be a useful tool to identify how to spend scarce resources.  While there are some nonprofits that reach a scale that allows them to pursue many-pronged approaches to bringing about change, small and medium sized nonprofits almost always focus on a smaller number of strategies. 

    This is a basic function of the adage that it’s almost always more valuable to do one or two things really well than more things so-so.    

  2. Synergy: A theory of change can force an organization to think hard about how its various programs fit together to accomplish more  than the sum of the parts.  Instead of having programs A, B, and C running in silos, a theory of change can allow staff and leadership to more easily identify ways in which each of the Programs can be conducted in ways that build upon or reinforce each other.   

  3. Skill-Set Prioritization:  Having a theory of change also helps greatly in determining what skill-sets to focus on in hiring staff.   For example, if you are a nonprofit with a heavy focus on changing public policy, you might have a theory of change that focuses on grassroots pressure as a means of moving lawmakers.  Alternatively, your theory of change may focus on building strong relationships with centrist lawmakers who often hold sway.  Which theory of change should inform what type of staff skills you’d prioritize when hiring.    

    If you are a direct service nonprofit, by contrast, your alternatives might look very different.  Your theory of change may be very heavily dependent on having good relationships with the target audience you’re serving, in which case you should hire staff with a personality and track record for relationship building.  Conversely, if your theory of change is heavily focused on providing technical expertise, then technical expertise should be front and center in hiring.

    Of course, it’s easy when reading these examples to say: but we want both!  Yes, and I’d like unicorns and rainbows and leprechauns.    But when we hire candidates from the real world, we must pick and choose candidates with some strengths and other weaknesses.  Knowing what strengths are most essential to your organization is a by-product of having a theory of change.

  4. Communications and Branding: theories of change can inform how an organization brands itself publicly via its communications.   If you have a theory of change, it helps answer key questions about your message and audience.  Conversely, lacking a theory of change, it’s very easy for whoever develops your communications to settle upon messages that are problematic. 

    For example, more than once I’ve witnessed public policy organizations that lack theories of change who consistently try to both focus on pressure tactics that appeal to a base and simultaneously to use strategies based on personal relationships with centrist elected officials.  As a result, the organization’s communications are contradictory – language used to appeal to the base often sets back its personal relationship with centrists. 

    To use a somewhat analogous example from the movies:  There’s a reason a good cop, bad cop approach doesn’t work with a single cop. 

    In these cases, the organization should usually assess what allied groups are doing and then pick/choose one approach, rather than placing its communications professionals in an impossible situation.

  5. Team Alignment over Time: Lastly, theories of change can also prove really valuable as an orientation tool for new members of a team. The existing team may understand how your various activities work together towards your ultimate aims, but oftentimes new board or staff do not. On multiple occasions, I’ve found theories of change to be the best overall orientation to an organization.

So how does an organization set out to create a theory of change?

It’s definitely not rocket science. 

First, you need a clear goal or goals that advance your mission.  Until you know what change you are seeking, you can’t develop a theory for how to create the change.  The change sought by a nonprofit credit union will look very different from a nonprofit mentorship program for at-risk youth, which will look very different than the change sought by a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization. 

Yet, in each case, the first step is the same – identify one or more goals that you are seeking over a period of time (usually 2-5 years) that collectively will advance your mission.

Second, sit down with a group and describe your tentative activities and repeatedly ask “why” doing them would lead to your goal(s).  In doing this with others, I often find myself asking the question “why” 5-10 times in a row trying to tease out the steps in logic being used by participants.  In doing so, you may discover you’re making assumptions about the behavior of others that are iffy.  Or that you’re relying on allies to behave in a certain way without first securing buy-in from the allies for the strategy.

You’ll likely also discover interim outcomes that you’re seeking to achieve not because they are ends, but rather because they involve obtaining resources (money, volunteers, political power) that represents steps in the causal chain towards your ultimate end goal(s).  These interim outcomes should be celebrated, not dismissed as unimportant.

Third rebuild your list of strategies to match up with what you’ve discovered in the group exercise.  How do they fit together?  Are there ways they reinforce each other?

Fourth, write it down as a series of logical statements.  Or, if it’s easier, conduct an exercise where the team all individually creates a graphic/drawing of how the work fits together and then discuss your respective drawings. 

Most every organization I’ve worked with has been able to encapsulate its theory of change in either a page of text or a diagram.  Often times the diagram requires some explanatory text. 

Run the diagram or written theory by your board and/or others as a reality-check to see what questions they have.  You may find you’re leaving out something critical.  Or you may have made it overly complicated and you can simplify it to the bare essentials.

Of course, a theory of change – whether stand-alone or part of a strategic plan — shouldn’t be carved in stone.  A learning organization should continually evaluate and reassess its theory based on how its work plays out in reality.  You may believe that people involved in one of your programs are primed to volunteer for another program, but after 1-2 years of trying you may conclude that they’re not. 

Alternatively, the lay of the land may have shifted sufficiently to require a new theory.  Perhaps a pandemic upends a theory of change that relies on lots of in-person activities!

Do you have a theory of change that’s worked well for your organization?  Please share it with me as I’m compiling examples for a future, longer article.

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Musings on Theories of Change

May 24, 2023

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 5:18 pm

I was recently talking to a potential client when it became apparent to me that they really could use a theory of change.  Yet, their Executive Director was unfamiliar with the concept and it took some back and forth to help them understand.  After all, most nonprofits never broach the topic.  Nonetheless, I find it’s sometimes a very useful tool as part of strategic planning or as a stand-alone exercise.

What is a theory of change?  How can it help?  And how do you go about generating one?

What is a Theory of Change?

In plain language, a theory of change explains how the activities of the organization lead to accomplishment of the primary programmatic outcomes an organization is seeking.

Sometimes the theory is a series of logical statements.  Because we do A, therefore B happens; because B happens, and we do C, therefore D happens; until one of these statements leads to the ultimate outcomes being achieved.

Sometimes the theory can best be explained via a flow chart or other graphical diagram that helps visually explain the way different activities come together in ways that a series of written statements can’t easily accomplish.

A variation that I’ve used successfully is a set of “Strategic Assumptions” written down that collectively embody a theory about why the organization’s principal activities are advancing the mission. 

What format makes sense for any particular organization is highly dependent on the circumstances – the nature of the outcome(s) being sought, the types of activities pursued, and the complexity of the organization.

Why are theories of change important?

Theories of change matter for a few reasons.

Most obviously, as a way to identify how to spend scarce resources.  While there are some nonprofits that reach a scale that allows them to pursue many-pronged approaches to bringing about change, thriving small nonprofits almost always focus on one.

And even mid-sized thriving nonprofits stay focused on one or occasionally layer in just one other core strategy.  This is a basic function of the adage that it’s almost always more valuable to do one thing really well than two things mediocre.

I’ve witnessed organizations lacking a theory of change that are very frenetic, generating plenty of tactics, but without any unifying strategy that ties them together.  They’re jumping to seize opportunities that don’t tie together into a coherent whole.

Having a theory of change also helps greatly in determining what skill-sets to focus on in hiring staff.   For example, if you are a nonprofit with a heavy focus on changing public policy, your theory of change might inform whether to focus on hiring staff who’re adept at grassroots organizing to put pressure on policy makers, as opposed to those who are skilled at messaging to centrist lawmakers.

If you are a direct service nonprofit, by contrast, your alternatives might look very different.  Your theory of change may be very heavily dependent on having good relationships with the target audience you’re serving, in which case you should hire staff with the personality and track record for relationship building.  Conversely, if your theory of change is heavily focused on providing technical expertise, then technical expertise should be front and center in hiring.

Of course, it’s easy when reading these examples to say: but we want both!  Yes, and I’d like unicorns and rainbows and leprechauns.

When we hire candidates from the real world, we must pick and choose candidates with some strengths and other weaknesses.  Knowing what strengths are most essential to your organization is a by-product of having a theory of change.

Theories of change can also inform how an organization brands itself publicly via its communications.   If you have a theory of change, it helps answer key questions about your message and audience.  Conversely, lacking a theory of change, it’s very easy for whoever develops your communications to settle upon messages that are problematic.

More than once I’ve witnessed public policy organizations lacking theories of change who consistently try to focus both on (a) pressure tactics that appeal to a base of supporters and (b) forging personal relationships with centrist elected officials.  As a result, the organization’s communications are in conflict: language used to appeal to the base often sets back its personal relationship with centrists.

To use a somewhat analogous example from the movies:  There’s a reason a good cop, bad cop approach doesn’t work with a single cop.

In these cases, the organization should usually assess what allied groups are doing and then pick/choose one approach, rather than placing its communications professionals in an impossible situation.

Lastly, theories of change can be particularly useful as a means of building and sustaining alignment within your team (e.g. your board and staff) as circumstances change.  If your team agrees on why you’re doing what you’re doing, alignment is more likely to endure than if they just agree on a surface level.  Often it’s this missing “why” that causes alignment on your team to break down.

How does an organization set out to create a theory of change?

It’s definitely not rocket science.

First, you need a clear outcome or set of outcomes embodied in your mission or top-level strategic goals.  Until you know what change you are seeking, you can’t develop a theory for how to create the change. 

The change sought by a nonprofit credit union will look very different from a nonprofit mentorship program for at-risk youth, both of which look very different than the change sought by a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

Yet, in each case, the first step is the same: identify one or more high-level outcomes that you are seeking over a longer period of time (usually 3-5 years).

Second, ask yourself what conditions or things must happen for the long-term outcome to be achieved.  You can think of these as interim outcomes or stepping stones on the path you’re laying out.

Third, identify the major strategies or activities you’re doing that you believe generate the desired conditions and therefore advance you down the path.

Fourth, ask yourself why those activities will lead to the conditions that will lead to the outcomes.  Sometimes I’ve run what I call the “annoying 5 year old” exercise when I pretend to be 5 years old repeatedly asking “why” to every prior statement. It can be annoying, but it often yields nuggets of wisdom the reveal the essential answer. Surfacing these underlying assumptions can create “aha” moments with the team that helps build alignment. 

Fifth, have somebody take a stab and putting the above “thinking” into both a written format and a diagram format.  In either format, this should be 1-2 pages and not more than that.  I’ve seen it done in half a page.

Lastly, discuss what you’ve developed.  Perhaps vet it with others outside your core to see what they think.  Does the theory adequately explain why your major activities are advancing the ball towards the desired outcomes/mission?  If not, what adjustments or refinements are needed?  Are any adjustments needed to what you do to allow for you to make the change being sought?

Then what

The theory may be included within your strategic plan or exist as a stand-alone document.

Trot it out annually to discuss how you’re doing as an organization in light of your theory of change. 

If it’s a diagram, blow it up and pin it on your wall as a reminder to come back to from time to time as a way to vet new opportunities.   

Use it as an orientation tool with new board members and new staff.

Of course, the theory should not be carved in stone.   I’ve seen organizations whose circumstances changed so dramatically over a couple of years that the prior theory of change no longer made sense.   I’d recommend revisiting your theory of change at least every 3-5 years through some form of exercise that abbreviates the steps above.

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Board members in management roles – updated

February 28, 2023

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 8:53 am

Originally published in August 2022, this edition of the post expands upon the suggestions I offered in August.

A challenge unstaffed nonprofits face is that board members necessarily take on roles that are not board governance.   These other roles are hard to categorize with a singular term.  They include management, administration, coordination, program administration – pretty much anything that one would expect to be done by staff in a large organization. For purposes of this article, I’m going to lump them together as “management.”

This challenge isn’t just for unstaffed organizations.  It is also true for many small or even medium sized nonprofits where the group’s ambitions exceed the staff capacity, leaving board members playing additional non-governance roles.

I have often been tasked with assisting clients on how to help their boards be more effective.  For smaller organizations, I have repeatedly found that confusion regarding the additional non-governance roles taken on by directors is a problem that metastasizes in a variety of ways to make the board dysfunctional.

This article is my attempt to both explain the challenge and to point nonprofits towards some practical steps to address the challenge. I have seen a few nonprofits employ at least some of these strategies, but rarely have I seen them deployed aggressively in combination.

The Challenge

Let’s start with a basic premise:  in any nonprofit, there is a need for governance and management.  (Here, I’m using management as a catch-all term for everything that is not governance). 

The board must govern.  Everything else can be delegated to either staff or other non-board volunteers.

It would take an entirely separate article (or book) to fully explore what fits into the governance category.  I’m fond of BoardSource and the way they lay out 10 responsibilities of nonprofit boards. Big-picture, governance is making sure the organization has the right boat, the boat is pointed in the right direction, and it’s well-provisioned. Management is rowing the boat.

If all an organization did was governance, though, that means the boat would simply sit in place. The actual mission “work” of the organization would never get done, nor would much of the behind-the-scenes administration necessary to support that mission work. 

The result in small organizations:  board members take on management roles in addition to their governance role.  Board members necessarily row. And this leads me to my most important point:  too often, in board meetings and board governance discussions, these extra “rowing” roles are treated as part of the governance role, rather than as a separate non-board role.

Why is this a problem?

First, board meeting time gets filled up with discussing and coordinating management and programmatic tasks, which often seem more urgent.  The result: the board doesn’t spend as much time on governance as is needed to meet governance responsibilities.

Second, even between the board meetings. board members spend so much time addressing management, they lack the time or mental energy to perform their governance roles to the level required.

Third, the board applies to management the decision-making and communication norms meant for governance.

What do I mean by decision-making and communication norms? Norms are the ways we generally operate culturally; they are what seem normal.

In particular, governance “normally” tends to operate by consensus, with ample input from everyone before a collective vote.  That’s really important, particularly around governance responsibilities where all board members have legal duties to engage.

Yet, consensus and high-input decision-making processes are a recipe for inefficiency (or even paralysis) when it comes to management tasks.  I sat through a board meeting where an agenda item was to receive everyone’s input on a draft email newsletter and it was a deadly waste of time. Don’t even get me started on the board meeting that turned into a detailed conversation about table arrangements for a fundraising event.

Bottom line: meetings become bogged down in the wrong topics. Board members tune out listening in on decisions/discussions that really should involve a small subset of the participants, if they should involve discussion at all. Governance responsibilities get neglected and it becomes harder to recruit new board members being asked to take on both governance and management tasks. It becomes a vicious circle.

Suggestions to Address the Challenge

So how do you get past this conundrum? After all, if the organization had funds to pay for staff, it probably would.

Suggestion 1:  Be clear about roles and that these roles include both board roles and management roles. Management roles will vary wildly by organization, based on your administrative and programmatic needs.

One person may take on two (or more) separate roles that fit into separate categories. For example, Person a might be both (a) a board member and chair the board recruitment committee and (b) also serve as newsletter editor.

The important point: when playing the “management” role (in this case newsletter editor), the “board” member is not acting as a board member, but rather as a volunteer. After all, there’s no inherent reason the newsletter editor needs to be on the board. (Conversely, the chair of the board recruitment committee really should be a board member).

Suggestion 2: Treat these management roles held by volunteers as quasi-staff in how they work. There should be written “job/position” descriptions laying out their general responsibilities and areas of authority. 

People playing these roles should be given authority to operate as a leader and make decisions within their area of responsibility, without having to get pre-approval from the board. With the added authority should come some responsibilities. Most importantly, people playing these roles should be asked to provide something in writing that serves as the equivalent to a “staff” report prior to meetings so that meetings aren’t taken up with oral reports that are of no value to those not at the meeting.

Accountability, as with staff, should be after-the-fact, with potential removal from their role.

Suggestion 3: Recruit for these roles. Identify what you most need from these roles, write the descriptions, and share them with those who may be interested. Treat this as importantly as you treat board recruitment, if not more so.

What if some board members opt not just to take on this second management role, but to leave the board because they’d rather do “program” than “governance. That’s okay!

Suggestion 4: Formally separate out the board meeting from a second management coordination meeting that addresses non-governance topics.  For efficiency sake, these can be back to back, since many of the same people will be involved. Take a 5-minute break between these two meetings.  The latter meeting may just be a subset of the board who are actually needed for it; and it ideally should include some non-board volunteers who’ve taken on an ongoing management role.

Importantly, for the “management coordination” meeting do not use the norms you use in the board meeting. The fundraising coordinator doesn’t get equal say on the newsletter content as the newsletter editor. The newsletter editor doesn’t need to weigh in on what someone is doing with regard to a specific program. The purpose of this meeting is to share essential updates and to ensure coordination is happening where needed between several people playing various roles, not to make collective decisions.

Suggestion 5: Just because a volunteer takes on a “management” role with the organization (e.g. leading on some program), doesn’t mean you should elect them to the board, especially not to “fill a slot.”  Reward and acknowledge people playing these non-board roles on your website, in your communications, etc., but don’t fill up your board with people who aren’t fully committed to the “governance” responsibilities that come with service. 

This may mean jettisoning some people from the board who really just want to volunteer in a management role.  It’s better to have a smaller board that focuses on governance than a larger board with uneven participation on governance because some “management” volunteers are sitting around the table without the time or expectations to actually govern.

Of course, it’s okay for some people to have dual roles – if they have the time to do so and understand they have two sets of responsibilities – governance (board) and management (volunteer).

Suggestion 6: Focus on Communications

The strategies above don’t work if you don’t adequately communicate across roles. Written reports prior to board and management coordination meetings should be the norm. They should be shared across the team. Short memos should be written after board meetings and management coordination meetings encapsulating key decisions and action items. (With the board, this should be above & beyond the formal minutes).

While your management team doesn’t have to include board members, you probably need one board member to attend those meetings and serve as a liaison if they are truly separate.

Suggestion 7: Efficient Meetings

Clear agendas. Written materials shared ahead of time with an expectation they will be read so that meeting time can be focused on discussion and decisions, not oral reports. Active facilitation to keep people on topic. Stay out of the weeds unless absolutely essential.

I’ve sat through too many 2 hour board meetings that should have been 90 minute board meetings with even halfway decent facilitation. The collective time saved can be substantial.

Suggestion 8: Embrace collaborative tools

Small nonprofits that embrace technology spend a little time up-front for large time-savings down the road.

Most importantly, technology now allows “asynchronous” planning where multiple people can be working together on the same document at different times, without having to email it back and forth and not knowing who’s working on the latest version.

Example: Googledocs and googlesheets stored in GoogleDrive.

Example: GoogleGroups for email lists for just those board/management & program volunteers focused on a specific task, so that everyone else’s email inbox doesn’t get cluttered up with topics they really don’t need to track closely.

The above tools are free.

There are many even more robust tools for collaboration and communication that cost a bit, but can take you to the next level.

I’ve seen boards composed of older, tech-averse board members take the time to force board members to learn these tools and they’ve always been really, really happy 6 months later.

Suggestion 9: Set realistic expectations

For all of the above, and for your governance responsibilities, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Be realistic. As you make plans, a little boldness is good and can inspire. Excessive boldness can sap your energy when you inevitably fail.

If your team is naturally all optimists who historically have led you to bite off more than you can chew, assign somebody the role of “pessimist” who’ll be charged with the task of asking hard questions during board meetings.

Recognize that you don’t have to do everything everywhere all at once. If you realize you’re not doing well fulfilling 4 of the 10 board governance responsibilities, phase in doing better over the course of a year or two, not over the course of a month or two.

Suggestion 10: Keep the purpose in mind

There’s a bricklayer parable.

Short version: Bricklayer 1 is laying bricks. Bricklayer 2 is building a wall. Bricklayer 3 is building a school.

Who’s likely to be happier and stick with their task the longest? Obviously bricklayer 3 (unless you’re a MAGA trying to destroy public education, but that’s a different topic.;-))

What’s that mean? Find opportunities to make sure that your board and your management volunteers learn about and experience the positive good your organization is seeking to bring to the world.

Your feedback

I’ve only seen a few instances where organizations have gone full-in on the suggestions I’m recommending in this article. I remain genuinely interested in hearing from others who have addressed the challenges I’ve raised either via something along the lines I suggest or some other method.

Shoot me an email or go ahead and comment on this blog.

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Home Remodeling Lessons for Nonprofits

January 31, 2023

Filed under: Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 10:50 am

Back in 2013, my wife Suzan and I bought a house that was a fixer upper.  Not falling down.  But pretty much every room had at least one significant thing that needed work.

We’ve been slowly tackling the “project,” with an increased pace during the pandemic.

As I was reflecting recently on the process, it struck me that some of the lessons I should share with future home remodelers are also on point for nonprofit leaders.

So here are my top seven home remodeling lessons and their application to nonprofits:

1. Pace yourself

In remodeling, especially a house that needs a lot of work, don’t make your life miserable by trying to get everything done quickly.

There can be a tendency to see all the things you want to do and to try to do everything all at once.   Unless you’re Michelle Yeoh starring in a remarkable movie, you can’t be everywhere at once, so don’t try it. 

Don’t burn yourself out by working excessive hours.  Find work/remodeling life balance.  Recognize you’re looking to generate impact/improvement over time.

Every word above is true about nonprofit leadership. 

2. Set priorities

So if you can’t do everything at once, it’s important to figure out what aspects of your home are most urgent for you. 

We started with what was necessary to preserve the house, its structure, and our wallets (due to energy inefficiency).

Then we asked what improvements would give us the greatest joy while living in the house, as opposed to those that are mostly about the value of the house when it comes to eventual resale.  For me, the fact that the ceilings had lots of cracking wallpaper (yes, some idiots put wallpaper on ceilings) really didn’t impact my state of mind in the house. So I was fine waiting several years to address that task..  I imagine for others that aesthetic would have been a daily affront, so they would probably have tackled it sooner.

In nonprofit terms, are there priorities that must come first to preserve the nonprofits ability to operate? Or where failure to address the situation undercuts the nonprofits’ ability to thrive? Probably do those first. 

While with a home, it’s about joy, for a nonprofit it’s about impact.  What further improvements to your nonprofit will generate the most impact?

3. If you’re a team, work with each other’s strengths

Some people remodel solo, so this lesson doesn’t apply to them. In our case, my wife and I definitely have different strengths when it comes to remodeling.  I’m fine removing wallpaper with her, but please don’t ask me to paint if you want it done competently.  I’m far better than her at the budgeting and task management side of things.  We’ve found our way to work together allowing each of us to do those things where we excel (in comparison to each other).

In nonprofit terms, divide up the workload based on your skillsets and passions.  Of course, a lot of this is done as part of hiring when you hire for specific sets of duties/responsibilities.  But even within the broad confines of job duties, you will sometimes find yourselves working as a team on a project and, when doing so, take into account your relative strengths at tasks in dividing them up.

4. Have plans, but be flexible

Suzan and I had a long-term plan.  We knew what outside projects needed to happen (meditation hut built, deck built, retaining wall, etc.) and what inside projects (insulation, solar power, heat pump with mini-splits, address each individual room, etc.).   We had a rough order and at multiple points have put it in writing.  And we’ve generally followed the order envisioned.

But when the situation changed (such as Suzan having an extended period of not working, thus having more time), we adjusted things in order to take advantage of the situation. We’ve also had a contractor emerge with whom we work well at a good price, so we’ve moved some things up to play to his strengths and availability.

As a nonprofit, it’s essential to plan as well, both for the long-term (e.g. multi-year strategic) and shorter term by function (communications, fundraising, etc.).  But don’t feel like the plans manage you, manage based on the plans.  Adapt when an opportunity emerges if it matches your overall objective.  As a nonprofit Executive Director, I once created an entire program and position because a true rock star emerged who I knew could make a difference as part of our team.

On the flip side, address threats that may have been unexpected, like loss of a key funder.

Then go back and adjust the plans.

5. Pick your battles/don’t sweat the small stuff

Especially when working with contractors, recognize they won’t do everything 100% as you had envisioned/desired.  If something’s clearly wrong and it will bother you, make them address it.  But if it’s small and not really consequential, maybe let it slide. 

Same thing if it’s your own work that’s not superb.  Unless you’re trying to create a “show” house, recognize that the goal is quality not perfection.  So think about what you want to be absolutely right, and what can just be adequate. I absolutely adore the new exposed woodwork in my office after the paint was stripped from windows, doorframes, and the baseboard, but I wouldn’t want to put in the work to do the same in our upstairs hallway.

So too in a nonprofit.  I rarely find perfectionist Executive Directors do well.  They figure out that for most of what they get done, putting in 50% of the time to get to 90% of the quality is the sweet spot. Extra time required to redo a task or get a task done “perfectly” is only occasionally worth it. 

6. Don’t just do the fun stuff

Some parts of remodeling I found fun.  Okay, really not much at all.  Many parts of remodeling Suzan found fun. 

Yet, we recognized that if we only did the parts of a remodeling ourselves and tried to get a contractor to do everything “non-fun,” it would be wildly inefficient (and expensive).

So we removed wallpaper.  Way too much wallpaper.  I really don’t like sweating in a respirator while steaming/scraping.  But I recognized that to match our budget, we really needed to do much of that ourselves, saving contractors for the areas of work where we lacked the skill and equipment (or where Suzan lacked the time; she definitely has the skills).

So too in a nonprofit, there can be a tendency to ignore the parts of the job you find less fun. Perhaps for you that’s fiscal management. Or personnel management. Or fundraising.  You may try to outsource all the things you don’t find fun, but you’ll quickly find that’s inefficient, expensive, and often leads to work that doesn’t meet the organization’s needs.  

7. Think about who comes after you

This brings me back to my wallpaper rant. Whoever owned our home in its distant past thought the solution to cracked lath and plaster was to simply wallpaper over everything. Okay, not everything, but a lot.

It created the appearance a problem was addressed, at least I imagine it did for some period of time, but it left an even bigger problem behind for anyone else who came along later.

I recognize one homeowner doesn’t legally “owe” it to a future owner to have done a remodel in a way that doesn’t create challenges for their successor. But you should have at least some consideration for how things will play out over the extended time of a house with future owners. Hint: wallpaper sucks.

In a nonprofit, you owe a very real obligation to whoever succeeds you in your nonprofit not to have addressed problems in ways that paper over them. If you’re an Executive Director thinking about leaving their role, don’t leave a really problematic employee for a future Executive Director to address. Don’t “paper” over a problem like a non-functional fundraising database by jury-rigging it in a way that “kind of” works. Take the harder route that will leave your nonprofit able to make an impact not only today, but in the decades to come.

What are your lessons?

Anyone else have some home remodeling lessons to share? Please don’t be shy!

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Slowing down to speed up

December 29, 2021

Filed under: Board Development,Consulting,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 11:17 am

A few years back, somebody used the phrase “slow down to speed up” in my presence and it really resonated.  Doing some quick google searches, I found dozens of articles that reference the phrase, although nothing that showed me who first said it.

Years ago I also learned of an alternative saying: “There’s so much to do, I must move very slowly” which is often attributed to the Buddha.

Regardless of who coined the phrases, I feel “slow down to speed up” is great advice for many of the nonprofits with whom I’ve worked.  And as the New Year hits, I’d strongly encourage nonprofits to think about it before accelerating into 2022.

The bottom-line challenge:  nonprofits often get so caught up in the small, urgent things that “demand” our attention that we don’t pay sufficient attention to the “why” and the “how,” leading to all sorts of inefficiencies that decrease our ability to advance the mission of our nonprofits.

Put another way, to increase our impact, we need to be more deliberate in the actions we take.

Why is this the case?  And how can nonprofit leaders slow themselves down with long-term effectiveness in mind?

Why can going too fast lead to inefficiencies?

To be sure, you can be paralyzed by indecision and thus not take actions needed.

For most nonprofit leaders I’ve worked with, though, the opposite is the challenge.  The tendency to act too quickly has repercussions on at least four different levels:

  • At the tactical level, trying to do too many different things at once often leads to errors.  These mistakes subsequently cost time and energy when they’re discovered.  Or, short of mistakes, activities are done shoddily and that reflects poorly on the organization (which can negatively influence the commitment of donors, volunteers, and stakeholders).
  • At the relationship level, a relentless focus on your “to do” list can lead you to underinvest in the time-consuming task of having longer conversations with organizational partners that are necessary for long-term alignment and success. 
  • At the strategic level, rushing to get to your destination increases the risk that you actually aren’t using the best method to get there.  Using a map analogy, you may try the most obvious direct route between point A and point B, but perhaps you’ve ignored the lay of the land in between the two points (e.g. a mountain), meaning the fastest route was actually going around the obstacle. Or, continuing the map analogy, it may be the terrain between point A and B requires you to use a different vehicle (e.g. you need an entirely different strategy).
  • Also at the strategic level, still thinking about maps, rushing towards your destination without sufficient attention sometimes means you’re headed to the wrong destination entirely, given your mission and the community needs you’re trying to meet.  In most cases, this is because you’re headed where you’ve always headed as an organization, even though circumstances have changed sufficiently for a strategic reset.
  • Lastly, at the personal level, trying to maximize the number of things you get done increases the odds that stress and frustration will burn you out.  This can lead to employee turnover that creates big organizational challenges, especially at small nonprofits.

Put another way:  Slowing down allows for more attention to tasks, more robust relationships, more strategic decision-making, and a better work-life balance.

How do you slow down when there’s so much to do?

I’ve laid out all the above in a conversation with one nonprofit Executive Director whose organization perennially struggles and I can hear their voice as they say to me: “but there’s too much to do right now to take the time you’re suggesting.”

I don’t want to underestimate the challenge organizations and people face when they want to “slow down to speed up,” but the challenge can be overcome.

Here are five strategies that can help in this situation, both for individuals and organizations:

  1. Use the 5-95 or 10-90 rule for planning versus doing.

If you’re not setting aside at least 5% of your time (2 hours per week), or better yet 10% of your time (4 hours per week) for planning, you’re not spending enough time planning.  If planning isn’t your natural instinct, force yourself to set aside time on your calendar for planning (e.g. every Tuesday afternoon is set aside for planning and unavailable for meetings). 

Set aside time both for personal and organizational planning.  Personally, ask yourself at least weekly, “what are my priorities” in light of the organization’s top priorities?   Organizationally, you should have top priorities, whether established via a strategic plan, an annual work plan, or functional plans (e.g. development/fundraising, communications, etc.).

Admittedly, I have a conflict of interest in urging every organization to have a strategic plan, but every organization should have alignment (board and staff leadership) around your organizational purpose, the long-term outcomes you’re seeking to achieve, and the primary activities you’re engaged in that lead to those outcomes.  (Whether or not you call it a “strategic plan” and what terminology you use (e.g. “goals”, “mission,” “strategies,” etc.) is immaterial).   

2. Calendar for relationship-building

In your goal-setting and in your calendar, be explicit that you’re setting aside time for longer, relationship-building meetings, whether with board members, allied organizations, or other stakeholders.  When I was an Executive Director, the commitment I settled upon was two such longer meetings per month.  I forced myself to treat these conversations as very big-picture and relationship-focused rather than task-focused.

3. Let go of some things

It can be incredibly freeing to have some things you’ve done before that you let go of as an individual and/or organization.  I inherited some strategies when I became an Executive Director that I felt compelled (initially) to continue, even though I had some doubts about their effectiveness.  When (after some planning) we let go of those strategies to free up space to dive deeper into other existing strategies, it felt liberating.  And led to more organizational impact. 

Beyond strategies, at the more tactical level, ask yourself periodically, what are some things that can be streamlined?  Are there things you do now where spending half the time would yield 90% of the benefit?  Give your team at least a couple times per year when you think specifically about this question instead of just assuming your tactics and organizational procedures are set in stone or will somehow “streamline themselves” on an ad hoc basis.

4. Consider some form of mindfulness practice

This is more at the individual than organizational level, but it’s important to provide yourself mental space.  For some, that’s meditation.  For others, that’s exercise or yoga.  I’ve had some of my best inspirations about nonprofit strategies when riding my bike for fun, even though that was definitely not my intent when setting out on the ride.   

Organizationally, I also had some luck taking some meetings outside whether sitting on a park bench or walking.  There are some notetaking challenges this way, so it’s not for every meeting, but for some types of meetings it can give 2-3 participants the mental space to think outside the box. 

5. Talk to your board about this specific challenge

If you’re an Executive Director and you want to slow down to speed up, but you feel that the ideas above just won’t cut it, set aside time at a board meeting or hold a meeting with a few key board members to discuss this precise topic. 

Your board leadership may have creative ideas and may give you the “permission” you need to let go of some organizational activities (in the short run) in order to generate more organizational success (in the long run).


Do you have other suggestions to your peers about how to slow down to speed up?  Please share them!

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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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