The Butterfly Effect
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 Outdated.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? 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…
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:
- Purpose before organization. A board’s first loyalty is to realize its purpose. Achieving that purpose may demand transcending the organization to achieve it.
- 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.
- Equity mindset. Boards need to ask recognize disparities and inequities in society and prioritize decisions to advance equity.
- 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.
Monday was a sad day for me. It was time to step off the board of Blackstone Academy Charter School.
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
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
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.
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
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.
“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.
It takes a lot of people-power to accomplish the work of our nonprofits. Staff, volunteers, and, for the tiniest of organizations, their “working boards.”
You’ve probably heard that expression. I hear it frequently: “we’re a working board.”
Guess what? All boards have work.
In virtually all of our charitable nonprofits, our board members are likely to wear two hats:
- the hat covering their fiduciary and governing responsibilities.
- the hat covering their volunteer, or staff-like tasks.
What is the work of the board?
Governing responsibilities are about setting direction and overseeing the well-being of the organization and its mission. These can’t be delegated away. For example,
- approving the big vision
- ensuring guiding strategy
- setting and monitoring the policies that guide organizational work
- defining the values everyone lives by
- defining the metrics that measure success
- asking the critical questions about impact, community changes, what’s coming down the pike
- making tough decisions about priorities and resource allocations
- organizing the board, from creating the standard of board excellence to determining the processes that bring people on board, train them, set meeting and decision standards and more.
- Choosing and providing feedback to the CEO or leadership staff team, acting as their strategic partner and letting go of them when they are no longer serving the organization’s needs
- overseeing required public reporting and accountability.
What are some staff or staff-like tasks? These are the things that if your organization had the money, you would likely pay a professional person to do. Tasks like:
- raising revenues and caring for donors
- running all aspects of events
- caring for facilities
- running programs
- keeping the books, paying the bills
- marketing, communications and promotion
- media relations
- managing the staff
- recruiting volunteers
So what do people mean when they say they have a working board?
Organizations say they have a working board when they have no or few staff and board members are usually the folks filling most of the staff functions. Or they may have staff but the board keeps some particular function for itself.
Board meetings get all muddled up by combining the work of governing and the work of managing (or staff work).
Staff work also gets neglected or done ineptly when no one person (or team) is in charge but everyone — the board — is in charge.
Here are a few suggestions to enable better work from your working boards.
These are some suggestions to get you started.
1.Divide up your board meetings. Be clear about what items on the agenda are governing work and what items on the agenda are really a staff meeting. You might even want to set them up as two meetings. One that’s the board following all of its bylaws procedures. When that adjourns, then open the staff meeting. You might not even need all the board members present for that if there is no work that involved them.
2. Be clearer than ever as to the goals that have to be accomplished, who is responsible for accomplishing them, and what authority the board has delegated to those people. This can save countless hours having the full board arguing over the cost of an event ticket or venue.
3. Recruit volunteers for staff work beyond the board. I say this often, most volunteers would rather not be on the board. I happen to find the work of governing very fulfilling. But those folks who like running a community meal site, or teaching a workshop, or working with their hands don’t often want to be on the board.
4. Recruit board members as managers of critical functions in the organization. Give them something they are accountable to the board for achieving. That might be raising the budget dollars, ensuring a years worth of membership programs are carried out, or serving as stewardship manager for your properties. They don’t do this alone.. they can recruit volunteers to be on their committees. But every board member should have a job and outcome that he or she is responsible for achieving.
What else have you found to work well in your working boards? Love to hear from you.
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
You may not be surprised to hear that COVID has caused a major drop in volunteer participation, according to a report from Fidelity Charitable – but fundraisers should take notice. Volunteer experiences can be an important point of entry for many donors, particularly Millenials. The study is summarized in today’s Mass Nonprofit News.
Sixty-six percent of volunteers report ending or decreasing their volunteer commitments since the crisis began. Only 11 percent have increased their volunteer hours. Of those who maintained or increased their commitments, about 80 percent participate online, compared to just 11 percent before COVID.
As with other COVID impacts, we can only speculate whether these changes in behavior will stick when we arrive at our future “normal.” In the meantime, it’s a good idea to engage with idled volunteers now to sustain these valuable relationships.