7/100 Things – Stop talking to yourself and start listening to others

I frequently run into nonprofit boards where virtually all of the members have been on for decades, or the organization or its board has been shrinking and members feel that they can’t leave because there is no one to replace them.

As I probe deeper, it is pretty much guaranteed that they have been spending too much time talking to each other and not enough time asking questions and listening to what others have to say about their organization or their issues.

A few years ago I was invited to undertake strategic planning with a rural community center. They had a small and diminishing board and were feeling somewhat unclear of their future direction. A starting point for me in any strategic planning is to step back and undertake an community scan. In addition to reviewing hard data about the community and its needs, I also work with the board and staff to compile a list of people who might be particularly informed about the issues they address or the audiences they work with, who might become or are already partners, or who might even be in the position to contribute some resources to the organization.

For this small town, our interview list included the mayor, the superintendent of schools, the fire chief, the police chief, a few local business owner, the town doctor, elder services, the hospital, a few or their major funders, the banker, and clergy. We held focus groups with parents, students and seniors. All together the Executive Director, staff and board members interviewed about 26 people, not counting another dozen or so in our focus small focus groups.

As we neared the end of our planning work together, the Executive Director told me that one of the most valuable, if not The most valuable part of the planning process was interviewing all those people. Even thugh she was very active in the community, she felt the structured conversations were very rewarding and she planned to keep having those conversations. New partnerships were forged, more people learned about the community center, and lots of important information was gathered.

A few years ago, while consulting on another strategic planning process, I split community interviews with that organization’s board. They did some and I took the interviews that were considered the most sensitive. The message that I heard over and over again was confusion and concern that my client was one of two virtually identical organizations working in the same neighborhoods. These major funders offered to put some resources on the table if these two organizations ever wanted to explore a merger.

Within a few months, they were talking about how they might work together more closely. I was able to refer a consultant colleague who had experience with mergers and today, those two organizations have merged. While the process wasn’t a piece of cake, everyone feels extremely energized about the hard work they did to get to the point they are at today. (By the way, I’m back working with the newly merged organization on a new strategic plan).

I’m about to start work now with another small nonprofit that has a very tiny board and a lack of clear direction on its programming. First item of business: getting out and talking to the community. What to me is one of the pleasures of this work feels kind of scary to a number of their board members. But if they  follow through, I’m pretty sure that they too will look back someday and see count it among the best work they have done.

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