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6 Steps to Operationalize a Nonprofit Strategic Plan

gearsOne of the biggest complaints about nonprofit strategic plans is that once created, they just sit on a shelf. A strategic plan is completely wasted effort if you neglect the final step of operationalizing it.

And by that I mean creating an annual tactical plan and monitoring process that directly tie to the larger strategy. In fact, lack of the operational part of your strategic plan is one of the 3 biggest problems with nonprofit strategic planning.

It does absolutely no good to have big goals that you want to accomplish and a larger future direction for your nonprofit’s work if you don’t have a way to connect that to your day-to-day operations.

So here are the 6 steps to do just that:

1. Create the Strategy
Start with the broad goals and objectives of your strategic plan. Typically, I recommend a nonprofit have 3-6 broad goals over a future (say 3 years or so) period. These should always tie to your longer term Theory of Change, and each goal should be broken down into the 5-10 objectives necessary to get there. And it goes without saying, but you have to create this strategy through a defined strategic planning process.

2. Create Annual Milestones
Once the board has approved those broad goals and objectives, staff needs to create a milestone table that articulates a lead person responsible (“Lead”) and a deliverable for each objective at the end of each year of the strategic plan (“Milestone”), like this:


milestone table











3. Create a Year One Operational Plan

Once you have that milestone table, you can pull out the milestones for the first year and develop your Year 1 operational plan (below), which lists monthly or quarterly checkpoints for each objective’s milestone for that year. This will helps you monitor (step #4 below) whether the plan is coming to fruition.

operational plan











4. Monitor Monthly at Staff Level

This operational plan should be reviewed on at least a monthly basis, where the staff comes together to analyze their checkpoints and report on what’s working, what’s not, and where they need to make adjustments.

5. Monitor Regularly at Board Level
Whether your board meets monthly, quarterly or (yikes!) less, you need to report to them on the progress of your strategic plan at every meeting. Since the board is ultimately responsible for the strategic direction of the organization, they need to understand how it is going. Using the operational plan above, you can easily highlight where: things are moving smoothly (green), things need discussion or action (yellow), and serious problems or hurdles (red) lie.

6. Adjust Accordingly
On at least an annual basis, the full board should review the organization’s Theory of Change and goals and objectives of the strategic plan to determine if any revisions (due to changes in internal and/or external circumstances) need to be made.

I believe that a huge reason for the distaste nonprofit leaders have for strategic planning comes from the poor operationalization of those plans. You simply cannot hope to execute on a strategic plan without tactics to get there.

You can learn more about what a strategic planning process looks like here.

Photo Credit: Kevin Utting


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5 Conversations the Nonprofit Sector Should Have

douglas fairbanksChange is certainly happening within the nonprofit sector and the philanthropy that funds it. From efforts to make philanthropy better at addressing inequity, to movement away from the overhead myth (and other myths), we are witnessing important shifts in how we tackle (and fund that tackling of) social challenges.

But I’m hungry for more.

And more could emerge from honest and transparent conversations about what is holding the social change sector back. There are some key hurdles facing the sector, and we have no hope of finding solutions to those challenges unless we start some no holds barred conversations, like:

  1. What keeps nonprofits from creating more sustainable business models?
    Everyone understands that nonprofits are sorely under-resourced and struggle to find sustainable financing for their work. But few are trying to really understand how we change this reality sector-wide. A few funders have commissioned research on the state of money in the sector, but it’s not nearly enough. I would love to see a real, solutions-oriented conversation about a problem that everyone (nonprofit leaders, boards, funders) knows exists.

  2. Why do we hold nonprofits to a different standard than for-profits?
    Because the nonprofit sector was borne out of the charitable impulse, we continue to see it as more holy than and separate from the for-profit sector. Therefore we are uncomfortable with nonprofits being too political, raising too much money, or spending too much on infrastructure. As a stark example, the nonprofits working for reform to our fairly dysfunctional political system have many fewer resources for and many more restrictions on their efforts than the for-profit lobbyists that the nonprofit reformers are fighting.

  3. Why won’t we treat nonprofits as equal partners in the economy?
    Related to this, because the nonprofit sector emerged as a side-note to the business-driven economy, nonprofits have always been viewed as secondary to, and thus less valuable and important than, the private sector. But you simply cannot have one without the other. The nonprofit sector often provides the research and development, worker support, quality of life and other services that fuel the success and profits of the private sector. Without the nonprofit sector there would be less profit and a weaker economy. So we have to recognize the critical (and equal) role that nonprofits play in creating a strong economy. And we have to begin investing equally in the success of those nonprofits.

  4. Why are nonprofit boards largely ineffective?
    Another truism of the nonprofit sector is that boards just don’t work. I have yet to meet a nonprofit leader who doesn’t have at least some frustration with her board and many are resigned to their board’s deep dysfunction. It is extremely difficult to corral a group of volunteers, to be sure, but instead of accepting that challenge as a rule, let’s figure out how to fix it. Perhaps greater standards and regulations, perhaps compensation for their efforts — I don’t know what the right answer is, but let’s analyze the root causes of this inefficiency and change it.

  5. How do we direct more money to efforts that result in social change?
    There is much debate about whether donors want to give based on the results a nonprofit creates. But if the government is going to continue to off-load social interventions to the nonprofit sector, we don’t have the luxury of letting the funders of those nonprofits give solely based on emotion, reciprocity, or duty. You may not believe in “effective altruism” (the idea that philanthropy should flow to the most effective social interventions), but the fact remains that with mounting social problems and a resource-constrained and gridlocked government, a growing burden for addressing social challenges is falling to the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits will only be able to rise to this challenge if the solutions that work have enough resources to actually work. So let’s recognize the tension among increasing social problems, less government involvement, and lack of money and figure out how to fix it.

It’s time for bigger conversations. We have to openly face the challenges standing in the way of social change and figure out a way forward together.

Photo Credit: Paul Thompson

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The Future of the Nonprofit Sector [Slideshare]

I’m excited to be heading to Pennsylvania next month to speak at the 2016 Nonprofit Day Conference. My keynote address for the conference will be “The Future of the Nonprofit Sector.” I wanted to share an abbreviated version of the speech with you here via the Social Velocity Slideshare library.

In my mind, there are some fundamental shifts happening in the sector that will be important to watch. They include:

  • Increasing competition in the space
  • A greater demand for results and social change
  • An increased use of advocacy to achieve that change
  • A move to more “networked” approaches
  • Less “starving” nonprofits of their operational needs
  • And (of course) a move from fundraising to financing

These are interesting times, and they hold tremendous opportunity, I think, for the social change sector.

If you want to see other Social Velocity Slideshares go here. And if you want to learn more about inviting me to come speak to your group or event, check out my Speaking page.

The Future of the Nonprofit Sector from Nell Edgington

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Why Nonprofit Boards and Fundraising Must Mix

mixing board and fundraisingI recently received a note from a blog reader who disagreed with my argument that a nonprofit’s board of directors should be charged with raising 10% of their nonprofit’s budget. Not only did this reader disagree with the idea of setting a 10% board fundraising goal, but he disagreed with linking board governance and fundraising at all.

As he wrote:

“I recently resigned from a board of a nonprofit, after a 5-year stint. I was honored to be asked to join the board, until at my first meeting pledge cards were passed around, and I realized it was my money, not my leadership skills, that qualified me for board membership. I have given on numerous occasions, but I refused to pay a “bill” I received for my share of employee Christmas bonuses last year. There have been many instances where the board was expected to give money. Only a tiny fraction of the budget would be raised through these measures, so it seemed like it was a membership test. Governance should be totally separate from fundraising.”

While I appreciate this reader’s frustration as a board member, I would argue that his unfortunate experience had more to do with poor management of a board, and less to do with fundraising being part of a board member’s charge.

I don’t believe board members should ever be “billed” for a contribution. Rather, the board chair and the executive director should sit down with each board member individually on an annual basis and have an open conversation about that board member’s role on the board. This should be a much larger conversation than just what she wants her annual financial commitment to be, but that still must be part of the conversation. So while you absolutely should discuss why the board member has chosen to serve on your board and what she would like her role to be, you also can (and should) discuss how she wants to contribute to the financial model of the organization.

And if you define a board member’s “contribution” much more broadly than just a check she writes, the sum total of all of the contributions each board member makes can be much more significant than “a tiny fraction of the budget.” Every single board member, if truly right for the post, has many ways to contribute to the financial model of a nonprofit (here is just a beginning list of ways). If you ask board members to think strategically about how they can contribute, and if they are well versed in the financial model of the organization they serve, it should be fairly easy to get them involved in a significant way.

And getting each board member engaged and involved in the organization should be the aim. While I agree that the idea of a “membership test” is certainly unappealing, there should be a bar to being a member of the board of a nonprofit organization. If some members are allowed to be members in name only, but not required to have any skin in the game, then what compels any member to invest their time and resources in a significant way? If there is no bar that a board member must clear to be a board member, then what separates a board member from just an interested member of the public?

A board of directors must be a nonprofit’s staunchest supporters, most vocal advocates, and most committed allies. If a nonprofit cannot depend on its board to work tirelessly, not only to ensure achievement of the mission, but also to ensure financial sustainability, how can a nonprofit possibly expect those outside the organization to care? So, yes, being a member of a board must come with some level of commitment, both of time and of resources.

Because at the end of the day, there is no mission without money. By allowing any individual board member, let alone your entire board, to make programmatic and organizational decisions without fully understanding and contributing to the financial model of the organization you are creating an enormous disconnect between mission and money. A person cannot hope to understand something unless they have actually worked within it. So each board member must somehow contribute to the financial model of the nonprofit on which they serve.

Just because nonprofit leaders sometimes do a poor job of engaging their board in the financial model does not mean that we should separate the governance of a nonprofit from its financial model. All board members must understand, embrace, and actively work toward the financial sustainability of the nonprofit they govern.

Photo Credit: Susana Fernandez

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Is Your Frustrating Board a Symptom of a Larger Problem?

nonprofit board frustrationOne of the biggest complaints I hear from nonprofit leaders is that their board is not working well enough for them — most often around fundraising. From board members who are largely in name only, to others who refuse to fundraise, to those who meddle or micromanage, to those who don’t understand the organization or its programs, there can be a large list of grievances that nonprofit leaders have about their board. So nonprofit leaders often look for a magic bullet to get their board in gear.

Just last week a nonprofit leader approached me seeking help getting her board engaged. She thought that if she hired a consultant to rewrite their board by-laws and rework the board committee structure, all would be well.

But it just isn’t that simple.

An ineffective board is often just a symptom of a larger problem at your nonprofit. And while nonprofit boards can be incredibly frustrating, it is often not their fault that they aren’t working harder for you.

If you are frustrated with your board, ask these questions to uncover the larger issues at play:

Do We Have a Compelling Case?
You simply cannot get people excited to help further your nonprofit’s cause if they don’t fully understand and embrace that cause. Have you had a conversation with your board about why your nonprofit does the work it does? Have you articulated together your nonprofit’s Theory of Change? Have you involved your board in creating your nonprofit’s Case for Investment? It surprises me how often I see nonprofit leaders leaving these critical and investing conversations at the staff level. The number one way to get your board excited about your work is to get them involved in articulating to others why that work is so critical.

Do We Have a Long-Term Strategy?
But it’s not enough to articulate what you hope to accomplish as a nonprofit, you also need to create a strategy for bringing those goals to fruition. You must involve your full board in your nonprofit’s overall strategy. They must buy in at the ground level to the goals of your strategic plan. And then the board must be in charge, as is their true leadership role, in  monitoring in their ongoing board meetings whether those goals are actually being realized. Give your board the opportunity to create and then drive the overall organizational strategy, and then see how they start to come alive.

Do We Have Clear Board Responsibilities?
And they will truly come to life when they understand how each of them individually can and must contribute to bringing that larger strategy to fruition. You simply cannot expect a board to engage when they don’t understand how and where they can be helpful. Give the overall board specific goals and responsibilities and then talk one-on-one with each individual board member to determine together where their unique skills and experience can be brought to bear on the larger strategy. With a clear roadmap for how they can help, you will see your board start to pick up the pace.  

Do We Have the Wrong Board Members?
However, you may find that some of your board members are simply taking up space. It may be that some are disengaged because they simply don’t have the skills, experience and networks necessary to achieve your goals. That’s why you have to do the analysis and look at every single board member against the skills, experience and networks you need to deliver on your strategic plan. Please, please, please don’t fall for the temptation of filling your board with warm bodies. Make sure that you are recruiting the type of board members that you truly need to deliver on your organization’s strategy.

Are We Afraid of Asking For What We Really Need?
Nonprofit leaders sometimes fear their board members as much as they fear their donors. Rather than insisting their board members step up to the plate and effectively contribute their time, energy, and resources, nonprofit leaders may be overly grateful for ineffective board members. But when you operate under that dysfunctional power imbalance, you are setting the bar incredibly low for your board. And when a person is confronted with a low bar, there is nothing compelling him to get engaged and get working. So be very clear with your board members about what you want from them, and then be equally clear when they aren’t delivering. There is a nice way to tell a board member that you need more from her. And if she isn’t willing, then it is probably best that she walk away and leave room for more effective board members.

If you are fed up with your board, use frustration as an opportunity to dig deeper to figure out what is really causing their uselessness. And if you need some help to get there, check out the nonprofit leader coaching I provide.

Photo Credit: Peter Alfred Hess

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Where Does Your Nonprofit Fit In the Market?

nonprofit puzzleAs much as we might like to deny it, nonprofits exist in a market economy, which means that nonprofits, like everything else, must compete for customers and resources. Therefore it is critical that you understand where your nonprofit fits in the market.

While a business has one customer, a nonprofit has at least two distinct customer groups:

  1. Those who benefit from a nonprofit’s work (clients), and

  2. Those who fund that work (donors, government contractors, etc).

So it is absolutely critical that nonprofit leaders understand what unique value their work brings to these customers. This can be done through a Marketplace Map, which is one of the first exercises (along with a Theory of Change) that I help nonprofit leaders create during a strategic planning process.

A nonprofit organization is best positioned to create social change in a sustainable way when their core competencies (what the organization does better than anyone else) intersects with a community need (or set of social problems) apart from their competitors or collaborators, like this:

Marketplace Map


But don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that a nonprofit shouldn’t collaborate.

On the contrary, nonprofit leaders must forge strategic alliances that help move the social change they envision forward. However, when they create those alliances, they must be crystal clear about what their organization brings to the table, versus what a potential ally brings to the table. Thus, a marketplace mapping exercise is absolutely critical to charting a way forward.

In order to create their marketplace map, a nonprofit’s board and staff must answer these three key questions:

  1. Core Competencies: What superior assets (expertise, relationships, etc.) do we possess as an organization that are not easily replicable?

  2. Community Needs: What community needs/social problems are we attempting to address?

  3. Competitors/Collaborators: What other entities are working on some/all of those same problems?

The social change sector has become increasingly competitive in recent years. Now more than ever, nonprofits need to understand this external marketplace of competitors/collaborators against their own core competencies in order to understand the unique value that their nonprofit can contribute.

From this marketplace mapping exercise, some key strategic questions will emerge for the nonprofit, such as:

  • Where do our core competencies and activities end, and where do others’ begin?
  • Is our nonprofit better positioned than other entities to conduct all of the activities (from our Theory of Change) that we currently do? Should some activities be left to those who do it better?
  • Are there core competencies that we must develop in order to better address the community needs we’ve identified?
  • Are there collaborators/competitors that we should be more strategic about aligning with?

Creating a Marketplace Map, much like creating a Theory of Change, is an incredibly useful exercise that gets your board and staff thinking in bigger, more strategic ways about your work. And those more strategic conversations can help lead to a more effective and sustainable path forward.

If you want to learn more about how I work with clients to develop their strategic plan, download the Strategic Plan benefit sheet.

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A Summer To Do List for Nonprofit Leaders

nonprofit summerMemorial Day is almost here, and in my mind that means so is the beginning of summer. While work surely carries on over the summer months, for many of us there tends to be more space to reflect, recharge, and reconnect with your core.

But you have to make time for it.

Sometimes nonprofit leaders will tell me that they love the slower pace of summer because it means they can catch up on their to do list, move paperwork off their desk, make progress on their filing, get more organized.


Let me tell you right now that your to do list will never be complete, so instead, make better use of the space summer provides by taking a big step back and getting inspired for the work ahead.

Here are some tasks I suggest you put at the top of your to do list this summer:

Get Quiet
Before you can do anything else, you need to step out of the rat race for a bit and listen to the silence. There you can reconnect with your core, ponder some bigger questions, figure out what you are meant to do. Maybe you need to take a trip away from your normal routine and the many demands on your time. Maybe you need to find a space to just be. Maybe you need to find activities that are outside of your job, because remember that you are so much more than the leader of a nonprofit organization. However and wherever you do it, you have to make some time to journey inside.

Find Inspiration Again
I know as a nonprofit leader you are (or at least once were) inspired by the work you do. Passion and commitment to mission are often what define a social change leader. But that source of inspiration is not endless. And the day-to-day drudgery of trying to move mountains can wear you down and make that light grow dim. When that happens you have to seek inspiration elsewhere. The world we live in is endlessly inspiring, so when you are feeling that your vision is impossibly narrow, get outside your walls. We must give ourselves permission to reconnect with what makes us human, not machine. But if you simply cannot figure out what will inspire you, go back to the first item and get quiet enough, long enough to figure it out.

Ask Some Big Questions
Once you have found quiet and inspiration you will then have the capacity to figure out what’s next. Nonprofit leaders are so busy with the day-to-day that they often find themselves disconnected from the big picture. Why are you doing this work? What are your ultimate goals? Who is your target audience? Take advantage of the mental space summer provides to ask yourself and your board some of the big questions that can help you recommit to the work and more easily attract the other people and resources necessary for the next chapter.

Figure Out What’s In Your Way
If you are like most nonprofit leaders, you are so accustomed to scraping by without the necessary tools, staff, systems to do your job that you rarely take a big step back and ask, “What do we really need to accomplish our goals?” Take some time to figure out the things that drive you and your staff crazy. What are the hurdles standing in your way of doing more? An ineffective board? A lack of strategy? Not enough money? The wrong technology? Not enough staff? Create a list of what you really need to do the work, put it in front of your board and ask them to help put together a capacity building plan.

Forgive Yourself
Man, are social change leaders hard on themselves. Apparently it’s not enough to work on saving the world, but you have to continually berate yourself for not doing it quickly enough, or well enough. So get over it. You are doing the best you can with what you have. Give yourself a break and you will find that without a bully constantly breathing down your neck you can accomplish much more. Take that knowledge with you into the fall, and you may just be transformed.

This summer, step outside the routine and commit to a real break that allows you the physical, mental and spiritual space that you as a social change leader so desperately need. Happy Summer!

Photo Credit: Unsplash 

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Do You Know Your Nonprofit’s Target?

targetWhen I work with nonprofit leaders to create a strategic plan, one of the first things we do together is create a Theory of Change. A Theory of Change is an articulation of why your nonprofit exists — what you ultimately hope to accomplish. The Theory of Change is the culmination of answers to a set of 5 key questions, the first of which is, “Who is Your Target Population?”

Your Target Population is the individuals or groups that your nonprofit is seeking to benefit or influence. So if you are a social services nonprofit, your target population is probably your clients. If you are an advocacy group, your target population is probably lawmakers. But often a nonprofit has multiple target populations. For example, a school that works directly with both children and their parents would have both groups as separate target populations.

When a nonprofit exists just to do good work, its leaders are less clear and less disciplined about exactly who they are seeking to benefit or influence. But it is absolutely essential that your nonprofit get crystal clear about who your target population is, in order to better create change for those targets, more effectively encourage funders to invest in what you are doing, put your limited resources to their highest and best use, and, most importantly, to really understand how best to create change with your target.

But figuring out your target population is not easy.

First, let’s start with who is not your target population:

Not Your Funders
Your target population is not individuals or groups who fund your work. While funders are absolutely critical to your success, they are not core to your mission-related work. So while you would love to influence them to give you more money, their doing that will not by itself create social change. They are not your target population, rather they are a means to an end.

Not The Targets of Your Competitors or Collaborators
Your target population is also not individuals or groups that are being better benefitted or influenced by other organizations or entities. This is where your Marketplace Map comes in (another key part of a strategic planning process). As a nonprofit you will be most successful when your 1) core competencies (what you do better than anyone else) uniquely position you to address 2) a community need, apart from your 3) competitors or collaborators. So once you figure out who your competitors and collaborators are, you should avoid target populations that are being more effectively served by those other entities.

Not Those Who You Cannot Change
Your target population is also not individuals or groups who you really want to help, but are simply not well-positioned to do so. This is the case with nonprofit leaders who are so big-hearted that they continue to add new groups to serve until they realize that their services and the people they serve range much too far and wide. This approach often spreads a nonprofit too thin and ends up providing diminishing returns for the organization and their clients. While it often goes against a nonprofit leader’s ethos, sometimes you have to turn some people away in order to better serve those who you can serve really well.

So who is your target population?

Your target population then are those people who you are uniquely positioned to benefit or influence and in doing so you will move closer to achieving your nonprofit’s long-term vision for change. When you get clearer about who you are best positioned to benefit or influence, you will be better able to direct your precious resources (staff, board, funders, volunteers) toward achieving that ultimate goal.

In other words, when you are clearer about who you want to change, you will become better at actually creating that change.

If you want to learn more about a Theory of Change, download the Design a Theory of Change Guide, or if you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I take clients through, download the Strategic Planning Benefit Sheet.

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