By Gayle Gifford

In defense of strategic planning

It seems to be all the rage in nonprofit circles to say that strategic planning is dead. Outdated. Worthless.

This sentiment was growing long before COVID rocked our world. While some aren’t willing to claim strategic planning is dead, we’ve been hearing that strategic planning isn’t right in these uncertain times.

To that I say: Balderdash!

Since when has the world been predictable!

Yes, COVID shook the foundation of most nonprofit organizations. It disrupted all in person operations and just about killed (and did kill some) organizations whose business models depended on earned revenues or contributed income from in person events.

But our sector has been living under the shadow of cataclysmic events for some time. That might be the death of the biggest funder, the fickle winds of government policy and foundation giving, a public relations scandal that decimates donor support, a great economic recession or missions no longer relevant.

Yes, COVID was a sucker-punch like none other most of us have experienced. Many of our clients had to pause as they confronted and invented their way through the immediate reality of shutdown. Meetings switched to virtual and online in a matter of just weeks.

But our huge societal problems didn’t evaporate because of COVID.

  • Climate catastrophe isn’t waiting.
  • Wars and societal disruption haven’t ceased.
  • Racism, all the other isms and social injustice didn’t evaporate.
  • The desire for connection, kindness, beauty, love, healing are longed for more than ever.

I think about the need for strategic planning from different perspectives.

At the organization level, when confronted by multiple options or challenges (i.e. scenarios), how do you decide which path to take if you don’t know where you are heading and why?

On the very practical side, have you ever tried to raise significant money without a vision of community betterment, without an assessment of capacity investments, or without some sense of the resources needed to complete the work ahead?

This may sound self-serving as one of the bedrocks of Cause & Effect’s capacity building work with nonprofit organizations is strategic planning. But from where I sit, as a consultant, a volunteer, a board member and former nonprofit staffer, now is as good a time as any to be thinking and acting strategically.

That’s what strategic planning is all about, isn’t it — a pathway that brings you from strategic thinking and framing to strategic action.

What I find most of the people who are ready to seal the casket on strategic planning really mean, is that the detail scoping of tactics over multiple years seems fruitless.

To me, strategic planning has never been about nitty gritty tactics parsed over three or five years.

I find myself frequently explaining to our strategic planning clients that those Gantt chart work plans they are drooling over are the realm of business planning, planning that happens best when done annually. To me, it’s impossible to predict what you will be doing three years from now, so why bother. And if you have had that foresight, you’re just lucky.

But the framework that enables you to be strategic, in the long term and in the moment, has to be created. For many, that framework IS the strategic plan.

The bedrock of that framework is strategic thinking. And the best explanation of what strategic thinking entails are the five elements of strategic thinking identified by Jeanne Leidtke, professor of business administration at the Darden School of the University of Virginia.

Shown in the graphic at the top of this article, they are: 1) intent focus, 2) systems thinking, 3) intelligent opportunism, 4) thinking in time, 5) hypothesis driven.

You can’t act strategically if:

  • you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish, for whom and at what scale (intent focused).
  • you don’t understand the environments in which you operate (systems thinking). Those environments have always been complex, dynamic and influenced by micro and macro forces.
  • you are paralyzed by indecision when the right opportunity arrives on its schedule, not yours. (intelligent opportunism).
  • you don’t have multiple timelines in your head all at one: one year, three years, 10 years, 20 years or 50, never mind holding the knowledge of the past the acting in the present (thinking in time).
  •  you aren’t considering scenarios and haven’t done the “if then, then what?” thinking required.

To do the above, you need to gather data by collecting information and reach out to listen to your constituents, communities and peers. You need to make meaning from your discoveries. Then, you get to imagine the future, identify your theory of change, codify that logic model and identify the capacity and cost of what you need to get to where you are going.

Reflection and learning are part of living the plan. Planning for the unexpected. Not expecting the optimal choices to always appear in your desired timeframe.

To me, this is the essence of strategic planning. And if now is the time for strategic planning for you, don’t be dissuaded. Stand your ground. Do what you know is needed.

What does your board know about fundraising?

What does your board know about fundraising? I wanted to share my podcast interview on boards and fundraising with Steven Halasnik of Nonprofit MBA.  https://tinyurl.com/ygmn72x6

Get into the fundraising world with dugnad med tennbriketter where you can start learning and making voluntary work helping other in need.

What does your board know about fundraising? Start here:

  • First and foremost, the board needs to ensure that its nonprofit is making an important difference for its community, its constituents, or the planet. That is, the Board needs to ensure that the organization is worthy of donor support.
  • Next, it needs to ensure that the organization is trustworthy, that it stewards its resources well.
  • Then, board members need a deep emotional connection to the mission, to be able to be ambassadors and to sincerely thank donors for their support.
  • After that… it depends…

Is your nonprofit worthy and trustworthy?

Hooray! for reviving purpose-driven boards

Anne Wallestad, the CEO of BoardSource, has been rocking the nonprofit universe this month with the release of The Four Principles of Purpose-Driven Boards. I encourage you to read her March 10, 2021 article in Stanford Social Innovation Review.

What makes Anne’s article so noteworthy isn’t that her sentiment is new. But when BoardSource speaks, the nonprofit community listens. And, she said it so eloquently, especially for these times.

Here are the four principles of purpose-driven boards:

  1. Purpose before organization. A board’s first loyalty is to realize its purpose. Achieving that purpose may demand transcending the organization to achieve it.
  2. Respect for ecosystem. Boards need to understand the community in which they operate, the issues they serve and respect the other players in that system.
  3. Equity mindset. Boards need to ask recognize disparities and inequities in society and prioritize decisions to advance  equity.
  4. Authorized voice and power. In our system of corporate governance, boards represent the community they serve and act in its best interests. This requires both listening and embedding lived experience into the board itself, as equal partners.

The purpose-driven board has a history at least three decades long and likely more.  

Once in favor in governance circles, now often dismissed, is the PolicyGovernance(R) framework of John and Miriam Carver. At the heart of this framework is a focus first and foremost on delivering the Ends, or community impact.

In his 1990 book Boards That Make A Difference, Carver says:

The only justifiable reason for organizational existence is the production of worthwhile results.”

“The … impact on the world … should be chief interest, even obsession, of the governing board.”

Or simply stated: “What good? For whom? At what cost?” 

In Carver’s world, it is board work to be the link with the “moral ownership.” To ask, for whom or what exactly are we the trustee?

Back in 1986, Kenneth Dayton, then CEO Of Dayton Hudson Corp., spoke to Independent Sector,  a speech that was groundbreaking for its time. The speech was published as a monograph the next year. I would have loved to be there. I keep that monograph close and wrote about it in my article Governance is Governance.

In it, Dayton says about boards: “As representatives of the public, [board of director’s] be the primary force pressing the institution to the realization of its opportunities for service and the fulfillment of its obligations to all its constituencies.”

And in BoardSource’s own 2005 monograph, The Source, Twelve Principles of Governance that Power Exceptional Boards, Principle #2 is being Mission Driven.

So why have our boards drifted so far away from purpose?

Here’s my hypothesis.

In my own book on board governance, I write that as organizations move farther and farther away from their founding, they tend to drift away from the passion of purpose that created them.

As organizations grow, everything becomes more complicated. Finances are always pressing matters for boards, as are staff. And policy. And buildings. Before they know it, the gap between the board’s immediate focus and fulfilling the mission is a chasm.

Then, trying to improve their governance, those boards are hit with the shoulds and how-tos of being a board. Those trainings tend to be consumed with instruction about financial oversight, CEO-Board relations, term limits, or so-called fundraising obligations (you know I have a lot to say about that!).

But when was the last board training you attended all about how the board can focus on achieving its nonprofit purpose?  One of the hardest exercises I undertake with board as part of strategic planning is creating a logic model. The hard part: courageously articulating what is the impact the organization is trying to achieve.

What I truly appreciate about Anne’s recent article is that it acknowledges what the governance research and a few of we practitioners have been preaching: that there is not only one way to be a board “For all these reasons, a board can be redesigned in any number of ways, provided it has the collective will to do so. This is both the beauty and the challenge of a board structure…”

So let’s take a collective board breath. Let’s deeply inhale this the focus on purpose-driven boards. For every board member, let’s promise to put purpose above all else.

Our society depends on it.

Is it time to step off the board?

Monday was a sad day for me. It was time to step off the board of Blackstone Academy Charter School.

Flowers and gift basket

Leaving did generate great departing presents!

Have I mentioned already how much I LOVE LOVE LOVE this school? I’d be surprised if I haven’t because I usually find a way to promote Blackstone regardless of the situation I’m in. If you asked me ten years ago if I’d ever find myself singing the praises of a public charter school, I’d likely say no. But after I worked with this school on a fundraising consulting project, I offered my volunteer services. That turned out to be board service, because that’s what I’m good at.

That was nine years ago. For the last three years (with a little extra due to COVID), I’ve also served as board chair.

The mission of Blackstone is “to build a strong community of learners and leaders.” Blackstone wants students to emerge from school with a strong sense of themselves as lifelong learners and a responsibility and investment in the wider world.  Read more

7 tips to see new fundraising opportunities

Is your fundraising stuck in a rut? Have you lost the ability to see new fundraising opportunities in your current work?

Have you ever played with a kaleidoscope? Those are those tubes that you look through and as you twist them colors and images shift.

I hadn’t played with one in years until I received one as a gift for presenting a workshop at a fundraising conference. Instead of creating designs from shapes embedded in the kaleidoscope itself, this one made fascinating patterns out of whatever you were looking at.

Successful fundraisers are a lot like kaleidoscopes.

How? Excellent fundraisers have the ability to look at people and their own organizations and see limitless opportunities for making interesting designs together.

As fundraisers, we are always on the lookout for donors whose dreams and desires are a perfect match with our organization. Sometimes that match is pretty straightforward, as when a loved one is stricken by a disease and family members give to the organization that is working to find a cure. Or the guidelines of a foundation are a perfect fit with our programs. Read more

Do your board leaders have too much responsibility?

In the P.C. (pre-Covid) year of 2018,  a team* of consultants, members of  the Alliance for Nonprofit Management  Governance Community of Practice set out to learn more about the formal leaders of nonprofit boards. We assigned the phrase board leaders to refer to officers and committee chairs.

three bowls with signs from the fairy tale Goldilocks

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Who responded?

Through the magic of survey monkey and a process called snowball sampling, we heard from 398 leaders of boards of local, regional and national organizations. They came from 35 US states and about two dozen from across Canada.

Of these respondents:

  • 216 chairs were board chairs, 36 of whom were co-chairs.
  • 78 were vice chairs and 31 described themselves as chair-elects.
  • 69 were board secretaries (also known as a clerk in some states)
  • 35 were treasurers.
  • 51% indicated they held positions as committee chairs, some of which overlapped with their officer positions.

How hard is it to recruit board leaders?

While we asked many questions, I wanted to zero in on what we heard about job size.

This might sound very familiar: 75% of the leaders answering the survey said that it was at least somewhat challenging to recruit the formal leaders of their boards with 28% Read more

Goodbye to hate. Good riddance 2020.

Say goodbye to hate.

Kick out racial injustice. And every injustice.

Say goodbye to this pandemic (soon, a little longer still).

Ring in  the opportunity to rebuild better.

I’m inspired by this reflection from author Arundati Roy:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

“We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

I would like to acknowledge the amazing feats that my colleagues and clients in the charitable sector pulled off in 2020. Our nonprofit world is too easily denigrated by those on the outside. But your hard work, creativity and perseverance in the face of adversity like no other were a bright beacon of hope this year amidst the chaos. You inspire me. I am thankful for your presence. Here’s to new beginnings in 2021. #creativity #nonprofit #leadership #gratitude

Goodbye to hate.

True donor gratitude

Henrietta White-Holder, Founder and CEO of Higher Ground International

On this day of giving thanks, I’m resharing this post from 2018 about true donor gratitude, from a heart filled with love.

All my best to all of  you and your loved ones for this Thanksgiving.

You might want to read about the history and myth of Thanksgiving while  you are waiting for the turkey to roast.

***********************************************************

We talk a lot in fundraising circles about gratitude. We hear over and over again how we need to honor all of our donors.

But then organizations revert to form by tiering their gratitude to the size of the gift. The biggest gifts get the most personalized thank yous. The biggest donors get priority mention in the annual report. Big givers get their names at the top of the donor wall. They are forever fixed in our minds, remembered by name and amount.

The little gift donor barely registers.

Yet that small gift may be a much bigger act of philanthropy. How often do you celebrate that small gift? Do you stop to think what kind of sacrifice might come with that gift? Someone of limited means or on a fixed income may have reached deep to send their donation.

So when I saw this message bubbling with gratitude on Facebook, I knew I had to share it with you.

With the permission of its author, Henrietta White-Holder, founder and CEO of Higher Ground International, I bring you a close-up, truly authentic example of loving your donor for their act of generosity:

“Lounging around and I received a notification on my phone that someone had made a donation to HGI via our website.

“I checked, and there it was – a wonderful woman had donated $10.00 (ten dollars).

“I found it very significant and heartwarming that she would think of us in such a loving and kind way to donate what she could. It is not the amount that matter[s] but the fact that she contributed in such a thoughtful way means a LOT to us.

“Now, her generous gift of $10.00 is going to help purchase ice melt to help keep the premises of the HGI’S Rukiya Center safe!

“Oh, Happy Day! ❤”

Thank you so much, Henrie, for reminding each of us that donor love starts within our own hearts.

More on donor gratitude

An attitude of gratitude

13/100 Things we’ve learned: Build a culture of gratitude

Hiring a fundraiser? Six questions to get you started.

Free Download: Bringing a Development Director on Board Are you excited about hiring a new fundraiser?

While looking at all those exciting resumes, it’s easy to forget to bring the necessary rigor to your interview. Don’t get swayed by all those gobs of money allegedly raised!

As we learned from the ground breaking study UnderDeveloped, it’s really hard finding a fundraiser you can afford with the experience you need. Don’t be charmed by the individual and hire for all the wrong reasons. We share our cautions in our article: The Ten Worst Reasons For Hiring Your Development Director 

To be more confident about who you hire, be meticulous about reference checking.

Another screen is to be very thoughtful about the types of questions you ask in your interviews. Here are some tips:

What kinds of questions do you want to ask in your interview?

  • Because you need someone with both fundraising knowledge and the ability to execute, ask questions that probe for technical skills in action.
  • Consider questions that uncover the candidate’s personal attributes, like creativity, passion for achievement or people skills.
  • Be sure to ask about your candidate’s approach to work to help you understand how they might fit in your workplace.
  • Because you wanted dedicated professionals, ask about professional membership, professional development and service to the profession or philanthropy.
  • And of course, it’s important to know where they are heading, so ask about their future ambitions and goals.

Read more

Please take our board coronavirus survey.

Smiling faces on video conference

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

How is your board doing? And other boards in New England. Would you like to know? Then please take this board coronavirus survey. Click here for survey.

Board service is challenging in the best of times – and these are not the best of times.

Cause & Effect Inc. and BWB Solutions have partnered to survey non-profit board leaders and chief executives in New England. With your response, we can better understand and record how the pandemic has affected the process and practices of your board. By sharing your insights and experiences, we’ll all do better in the challenging times ahead.

Read more