Tuesday night I started the board retreat with a reflective dialogue based on reading the children’s classic Who Took the Farmer’s Hat?
I sent the book around the room, with a different board member reading each page. The reading took about five minutes.
Then I asked this question:
Why would a board consultant ask you to read this book?
After a brief pause and a few blank looks, one board member launched in which started the conversation:
- “One theme is the need to incorporate different perspectives as different people (er, animals) see the same thing in different ways.”
- “Reacting to change you can’t control or anticipate is another theme.”
- ” ‘The farmer ran fast, but the wind went faster’ describes so many of the changes we encounter and the need to be extremely adaptive”
- “Sometimes you just have to let go of those things you’ve always done and the way you’ve done them”
And so it went. We spent about 20 minutes discussing and applying themes to the board’s role, getting deeper into the themes as we went along.
Using reflective dialogue to spark deeper thinking
As often as I can, I try to incorporate reflective dialogue into my work with organizations, especially boards or work groups.
Brain research tells us that we can’t scold, argue or out-fact our way to change in others. But we can open the door to it by helping to spark moments of insight. In my selection of materials, I’m hoping not only to spark discussion but also to open minds to new ideas, to new possibilities.
As the conversation facilitator, my role is to create a safe space for participants to share their ideas, to pursue concepts that might not be fully formed or are even a bit contrarian. I also come equipped with questions to help spark reflection and move conversation forward. A good resource for questions you can use is Making Questions Work by Dorothy Strachan.
Reflective dialogue for team building
I sometimes get push back from groups when I select adding a poem with discussion into their board meeting or retreat. Yet, those same groups are wondering how to develop stronger personal relationships among their board members.
I’m all for physical bonding exercises at the right place and time. But I have a deep love for these reflective discussions that allow board members to enter a topic through a different frame. We tend to compartmentalize our board members based on their professions, failing to create space for them to share their many gifts and knowledge from other aspects of their lives. My clients are always pleasantly surprised that their retired banker taught philosophy in his youth, or that lawyer was a race car driver.
Since a great workshop I attended given by Adam Davis, executive director of Oregon Humanities and former director of the Center For Civic Reflection, I’ve added A Bed for The Night, by Bertolt Brecht into my work with so many nonprofits. And I regularly assign Adam’s provocative essay What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about service to my graduate students before we jump into any community projects or service learning.
Sometimes I use a poem, a video or short story like the one above. TED talks can be great reflection starters or a reading from the relevant organization development literature. Other times we might reflect on a research report. Many of my colleagues have used movie clips.
The Center for Civic Reflection has a list of resources on different topics that you might consider as well as questions for you to use. For example, you might want to read Maimonides From Laws Concerning Gifts to the Poor to start your next fundraising discussion.
I’d also like to give a shout out to my colleagues at Creating the Future, who have launched a worldwide experiment “to determine how much more humane the world could be if the questions we ask in our day to day lives are bringing out the best in each other.”
Please share your own experiences and resources that you’ve found helpful with us and with our readers.
Yes, the election left me gobsmacked.
But this is no time to act like a deer in the headlights. Hundreds in my community and across the US are already thinking and planning to prepare to act strategically.
You don’t have to be for or against the incoming administration to recognize that a lot is going to change.
As a board and strategy consultant, I’m troubled that very few of the boards with whom I’m working are talking about planning for scenarios that might be heading their way. While front line advocacy organizations are already moving forward, I’m not seeing discussions happening in very many other sectors.
I understand that there is considerable uncertainty. I recognize that it might feel like a waste of time to talk about the unknown.
But isn’t that your job as a governing board? Shouldn’t you be considering best case, worst case and starting to prepare a plan of action? Haven’t you enough evidence of the policy changes that are likely to be made to start planning for those changes?
Your board has a lot of thinking and planning to do.
Need an example? We’ve already in a profoundly new world order. Jobs are vanishing fast, not necessarily because of global trade, but because what can be automated will. And there are very few jobs that can’t be automated.
What does this mean for your clients? What about your donors? Your community? Your employees?
Here’s another: How is the shifting landscape of philanthropic giving affecting your organization, where the rich are giving more and the rest of everyone less?
And the big one: What policies have the new administration and the majority party been championing over the last eight years or eight months? How will that affect us?
If there was every a time for both strategic and generative thinking, it’s now.
When the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, it may be too late to mobilize a satisfactory response.
- I’ve felt that way at least three times before in my voting life. But yes, this one seems completely different. Having been a member of Amnesty International for more than four decades, I’ve read the stories on how democracy can be lost seemingly overnight.
In this work, we constantly challenge organizations to think deeply.
To do that, staff and board members need to start their planning with a true sense of inquiry.
So we encourage lots of questions:
- What do you already know about your challenges, opportunities and needs?
- What is your dream for your clients? for your community?
- What is the best work happening in your field? How is that different from what you are doing? The same?
- Why is it that you do the work in the way you do? What evidence do you have for this?
- What does your community need — do you really know?
- What is your special role in meeting that need?
- What will get you to your community impact the most effectively?
- How much stronger could you be if you included others in your journey?
- What values won’t you compromise along the way?
- What capacity do you need to build to get you where we want to go?
- How much will that cost? What’s the plan to get there?
Seeking out data, talking to others, grappling with questions, pursuing answers, creating frameworks, crunching numbers — that is the strategic planning.
The written report codifies that thinking to guide your future.
“You’re a strategic planning consultant? You must use Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions a lot.”
Sinking feeling. As I stood by the grill with a beer in my hand at a recent summer party, I couldn’t come up with even one of his apparently essential strategic questions
I mentioned some of the business thinkers we often draw on, like Jim Collins and Peter Block. My new friend nodded politely, but I was clearly speaking to a Drucker man. He told me how Drucker’s business frameworks had guided his successful career as a manager. How they were now helping him transform the effectiveness of the nonprofit board he served on.
I was eager to learn more when I got back to the office. Amazon is taking its sweet time delivering Drucker’s book, but in the meantime here are Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask Your Nonprofit Organization:
What is your mission?
Who is your customer?
What does your customer value?
What are your results?
What is your plan?
These are all questions we ask and answer in the course of strategic planning with our clients, although not in Drucker’s specific terms.
For instance, the word “customer” was once a refreshing shock to nonprofit sensibilities, a challenge to those who automatically disdained commerce and marketing. Later on, calling donors and clients “customers” became a cliché. When a useful term becomes a buzzword, it shuts down the good thinking it once may have stimulated.
But it’s been a while since Drucker’s heyday and “customer” seems to have dropped out of frequent use in the nonprofit world. So, maybe it’s time to bring the “customer” back into our strategic discussions.
In any case, I’m glad to be challenged to learn more about the amazing Peter Drucker and I’m looking forward to learning more about his Five Questions.
If we “stress test” this strategic plan – borrowing the idea from banking, how would recent decisions our organization made align with this plan?”
Stress testing is a simulation used to test how banks will fare against a series of scenarios. During our planning process, our committee explored future shifts. The suggestion of looking backward against recent decisions was well-received.
What followed was a robust and thoughtful Read more
- A compelling vision of change. First and foremost, of how the world, your community will be different.
- The way. While setting an inspirational and meaningful goal is critical, without articulating your path to that goal you’ll not really being strategic, are you?
- The will. While plans are more than paper and the planning process itself should unleash new understanding and meaning, you have to believe enough in what you’ve committed to to start acting on your strategy in all you do.
- Leadership. This may or may not be a proverb, but I love this saying “the community goat starves to death.” Someone has to take ownership of the plan to move it forward. Hopefully, that’s your board. And your CEO. And each and every person in the organization.
- Courage. You’ve probably made some big stretches in your plan. To quote Francis Perkins:
“Most of man’s problems upon this planet, in the long history of the race, have been met and solved either partially or as a whole by experiment based on common sense and carried out with courage.”
If you are starting your strategic planning, here are a few other tips for you:
What is it that nonprofits want or need from grant makers?
At the very top, I put:
# 1: Flexible, unrestricted operating funds.
According to the most recent data from The Foundation Center, only 23% of foundation grants go to general support.
#2: Long-term donor investment
Every organization has to re-raise every dollar it receives each year. Having a reliable source of funding can improve stability and planning (though for some nonprofits, it can make them very lazy).
#3: Other wants/needs
- Larger donations that make a significant difference.
- Gifts that deliver a high return on investment in time and direct costs.
- Response to rapid change or emergency community needs.
- Leadership development: A mismatch between organization needs and its people can sink an organization. Sometimes, changes need to be made. Other times, investment in leadership development can make a different. Areas for investment on my list include self-knowledge, managerial and leadership skills, technical expertise in administration, human resources, fund development, program development, etc. (This is an investment in the whole sector as leaders switch organizations).
Too rarely does a mission statement confidently offer up its promise of betterment for its community.
Don’t get bogged down in all the stuff you do. You don’t need to throw the kitchen sink at your mission statement.
Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation threw down a mission challenge in “The Eight Word Mission Statement” in the September 18, 2012 Stanford Social Innovation Review. The eight words: “a verb, a target population, and an outcome that implies something to measure.”
I agree that “razor-sharp” clarity about where you are going enables you to be strategic, adaptable and clear on where you are heading. That’s why I’m such a stickler for developing a clear theory of change/logic model and include its development into the strategic plans I work on. Plus, I learned long ago, that having a theory of change and logic model upped Read more
The Audubon Society of Rhode Island (ASRI) has long had a three-part agenda that included Conservation, Education and Advocacy.
But why? Why those three strategies? How did they fit together? How do they produce the change that ASRI is trying to achieve in Rhode Island?
We ask questions like these routinely in our strategy work with our clients. We find that developing a logic model is the perfect way to answer these questions.
What’s a logic model?
The logic model is a graphic representation of your core hypothesis: “if we do this, then that will happen.” It’s the path that you have chosen to get from point A to point B.
You can develop a logic model for your entire organization, for a department, even for a specific project you are undertaking. Let me change that last sentence. You should develop a logic model ….
Why should? Because whether you admit it or not, you are carrying a logic model in your head that guides your action. But if you don’t put it down where everyone can see it, can dissect it, can test it, you could all be working from different change theories or even none at all (as in “we’ve always done it that way”).
The framework you are using should have some research-based evidence that it will produce the results you are looking for. But if it doesn’t, if it is experimental based on your local knowledge, or intentionally contradicts the established wisdom, then you owe it to all of us and your clients to let us know the whys of what you are doing and to collect the evidence that what you are doing is working.
If you’ve done any government grant seeking, you’ve probably been asked to include the logic model for your program. Before you start complaining how confused you get by the difference between outcomes and outputs, in our strategic planning we use a simplified model that is focused on your theory of change – or why it is that you have any confidence at all that the path you are on is going to get you to the results you are hoping for.
Here’s the example from the Audubon Society of Rhode Island example (thank you to Executive Director Larry Taft for letting us share this with you). Just click on the image to enlarge:
To achieve that end, the path ASRI had taken was three fold:
1. Conserve natural habitats, by owning refuges directly or supporting regulations or other actions that would protect them.
2. Enable personal stewardship, by helping people make choices in their lives that support sustainability, including critical political and financial support.
3. Advocate for public policy that protects ecosystems and reinforces personal choices.
As a leading environmental organization , ASRI is also frequently asked to take up all kinds of projects. Because they can all see the why behind the work they do – staff, board, members, supporters – choices and priorities are clear.
Here’s some other reading about logic models:
Reflection questions for the year past:
What did we think was impossible this year, but accomplished anyway? What made it possible?
Of all that we accomplished, what makes us most proud? Why is that important to us?
What question was I asked in 2013 that was so powerful I couldn’t stop thinking about it? Why?