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nonprofit case study

Charting a Nonprofit’s Future Direction: A Case Study

Engaging News ProjectI guess I am on a case study kick this week. I do think that actual examples of the paths other nonprofits followed in order to become more effective or more sustainable can be really helpful to other nonprofit leaders in the trenches. So in that spirit, I offer a case study of a small, startup nonprofit ready to grow their impact and their sustainability.

The thing I love about my job the most is that I get to work one-on-one with super smart people who are coming up with innovative solutions to making the world a better place. In particular, lately I’ve been lucky enough to work with some groups in the civic technology space, a really exciting emerging area where innovative technology solutions are used to make government, and ultimately democracy, more effective.

One of these groups, The Engaging News Project (ENP) is a startup nonprofit aimed at helping news organizations better meet their democratic and business goals in a digital age.

While ENP enjoyed success and the support of some key funders over the past two years, they were ready to move from the project phase to an established organization with sustainable funding and a long-term strategy for achieving impact on the digital news industry.

So ENP hired me to lead their strategic planning effort. With my guidance, ENP created an advisory group of staff and key stakeholders. I led the group to analyze the external environment in which ENP operates, develop their theory of change, define the audiences they want to target, and articulate the goals and objectives and corresponding financial projections of the next 3 years for the organization. I also helped staff create a year 1 operational plan to help execute and monitor the strategic plan.

The end result was a clear 3-year strategic plan with accompanying financial model and an engaged and excited staff and group of advisors.

Because of their new strategic plan, ENP has focused their project development efforts, clearly defined where and with whom they want to work, and detailed their goals for the next 3-years.

They are now working to implement the strategic plan. They are identifying new funders to help support the growth of the organization, expanding their collaborative partners, creating a formal advisory board, and streamlining operations. ENP staff are excited about the new direction and are actively working to have a greater impact on the future of digital news.

As Talia Stroud, Director of the Engaging News Project put it,

As a new entity, we had been doing more of the day-to-day work and hadn’t taken the time to think about the bigger picture of where the Engaging News Project was headed and how to get there. Social Velocity helped us to chart a future direction, hone our messaging, and develop a clear plan for our organization. By working with us to figure out our targets, potential collaborators, and goals, Social Velocity helped us to systematically figure out a strong path forward. I can’t wait to see what we’ll be able to accomplish with these plans in place.

I’m excited to see where the Engaging News Project goes from here and the growing impact they will have on our democracy.

Photo Credit: Engaging News Project


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Raising Money to Grow On: Creating The Plan

In May I launched a new ongoing blog series that profiles Social Velocity’s work with Charlotte Chamber Music, a small performing arts organization that has a big vision, but lacks the capital to get there. Charlotte Chamber Music enlisted Social Velocity’s help last Spring to create a strategic plan and a capacity capital pitch to raise the money to execute on that plan. You can read the first post in this series that details what gave Charlotte Chamber Music the desire to raise capacity capital.

Today I describe how we developed a strategic plan for Charlotte Chamber Music, which is the very necessary first step in raising capacity capital.

But first, let’s review. Capacity capital (or “philanthropic equity”) is the money so many nonprofits desperately need. Capacity capital is dramatically different from the day-to-day operating revenue that nonprofits are always fundraising for. Capacity capital doesn’t fund delivery of nonprofit services (beds for a homeless shelter, new productions in an opera house, books for an after-school program). Rather, capacity capital builds the organizational infrastructure of the nonprofit (technology, system, administrative or fundraising staff, materials) that allows the organization to become more effective or grow. The vast majority of nonprofit organizations don’t have access to this kind of money because:

  1. Funders are hesitant to fund “overhead,” and
  2. Nonprofits don’t know how to make the case for why this kind of money is so critical to their ability to deliver impact.

But you cannot simply go out and ask for capacity capital. First, you must develop a compelling, inspiring, actionable and measurable plan for what you would do with the capacity capital. And this is where we started with Charlotte Chamber Music.

Over a period of almost 6 months, Elaine Spallone, the Charlotte Chamber Music Executive Director, and I went through the strategic planning process:

Analyze the Internal Situation: We developed SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)  and core competency analyses. We also created an organization logic model, which helps the organization articulate how they take community resources ($, people, artists) and turn them into social change. Then Elaine took those 3 elements and “shopped them around” to board members, funders, staff, and other constituents to refine what we had developed.

Analyze the External Environment: Elaine and her board and staff then researched their competitors (those providing similar services in the community) and consumers (funders and clients) in order to understand trends, how their core competencies related to community needs, and the competing forces working to address those needs.

Refine Vision and Mission: Several month prior to working with Social Velocity CM had created a new vision and mission statements. But they were very internally focused.  Now, with all of the above data, analysis and feedback in hand, Elaine, her staff and board reviewed their current vision and mission and refined them to better reflect their new understanding of the value CCM brings the Charlotte community. As Elaine observed:

Working with Nell on the mission and vision was critical. We as an organization had in fact addressed them several months earlier and created something we felt good about. But Nell helped us understand that we created something that talked about us as an organization, and not about the way we were going to change our community. It is a critical distinction. It made all the difference and paved the way for our “aha” moment.

So, their new and improved vision and mission statements became:

  • New Vision: Charlotte becomes the cultural center of the Southeast through the vibrant engagement of its citizens, connected to their humanity, history and each other.
  • New Mission: To stimulate, animate and connect Carolinians to each other and their region through the presentation of curated chamber music performances.

Develop Goals and Objectives: With their new vision and mission statements as the guiding elements and filters of the strategic plan, CCM developed a strategic direction. What was really interesting about defining their strategic direction is that the final direction was much different than what they had thought it would be. Before our strategic planning process started, Elaine and her board thought their ultimate goal was “to become a top tier arts organization,” in essence to mirror the largest, most successful, most well-funded performing arts organizations in the city.

However, what they realized in a key “a-ha” moment was that that direction didn’t fit with their core competencies or their place in the external environment. There are countless arts organizations vying to be “top tier.” But CCM’s strength is it’s scrappiness–it’s ability to easily adapt to the changing environment and experiment because they don’t have an expensive staff or infrastructure that needs to be slowly moved. Thus, CCM came up with this strategic direction:

By 2020, through an expansion of venues and channels, Charlotte Chamber Music becomes a new model for engaging people in broader and deeper ways with the cultural arts community

CCM made a very strategic decision: they want to be a new, innovative model that connects people in their community through the cultural arts. They want to draw on their assets of ingenuity, flexibility, innovation and the inherent qualities in chamber music that are so good at connecting people to each other in its intimacy, engagement and accessibility. With their new strategic direction in place, they developed 5 broad goals, and the objectives to get to each of them, for the next 3 years.

With this exciting new strategic plan in hand, Elaine remarked:

A year ago, before we met Social Velocity, we held an informal board and staff retreat. At one point, the board chair called on each board member to share what they felt was the most critical issue we faced as an organization. Overwhelmingly the response was: “What are the measurements for our mission and vision, what are the goals?” and “No clear understanding of where we are going”. I am excited a year later to know all these questions have been answered, and we have a completely new  trajectory in which we have set ourselves upon!

CCM’s new strategic plan has begun to dramatically shift the culture of the organization. CCM now has an exciting, compelling long-term vision (and a detailed plan to execute toward that vision) that is getting staff, board and funders excited for the future.

In the next post in this series, we’ll talk about how we created the day-to-day operational plan to execute on this strategic direction, the 3-year budget to get there, and a system for monitoring the plan going forward.

Photo Credit: laura padgett

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The Dire Consequences of Poor Nonprofit Strategy

There was a really interesting article in the Wall Street Journal recently about the New York City Opera that dramatically illustrates how critical a nonprofit’s strategic alignment of mission, money and competence is. I’ve written before that for a nonprofit to be truly effective and sustainable, three things must be aligned:

  1. Their mission, or reason for existing
  2. Their core competencies–what they do better than anyone else in the world, and
  3. Their revenue engine–all the ways in which they sustain themselves financially

So that an organization, in alignment, fully integrates and gives equal weight to those three elements. Those nonprofits not in alignment eventually suffer the consequences, which can sometimes be quite dire, as is the case with the New York City Opera (NYCO).

Once a shining star in New York City’s performing arts world, NYCO has fallen on financial hard times, requiring them to move out of their Lincoln Center home and dramatically scale back their performance calendar this year. The NYCO chorus and orchestra are so upset about the situation that they have held a protest. What a nightmare.

In the 68 years of its existence, NYCO’s mission statement has been clear, succinct and captivating: “The People’s Opera.” However, in recent years, the organization has struggled to align its core competencies and revenue engine around that compelling mission. In 2008 Gérard Mortier, the NYCO general manager and artistic director, canceled NYCO’s 2008-09 season while Lincoln Center was under construction. And the following season, after Mortier quit, NYCO scrapped their planned season and staged a selection of unpopular productions that flopped. The result is that NYCO has lost its audience, lost its revenue, and lost its way.

At the same time, NYCO’s competitor, the Metropolitan Opera, has transformed from a very conservative opera house into a media-savvy, artistically adventurous opera company that trains its own new singers instead of relying on NYCO to develop upcoming stars. All of this leaves the Wall Street Journal to ask, “New York already has one major opera company. Why does it need two? If [NYCO] can’t come up with an answer to that question, then New York City Opera is doomed—and deserves to be.”

Harsh, but true. NYCO is faced with a critical inflection point. They can either figure out how their mission should adapt to their core competencies (what they do better than the Metropolitan Opera) and develop an integrated revenue strategy around that mission and those core competencies, or they need to close up shop.

The reality is that NYCO isn’t alone in this dilemma. It is becoming increasingly difficult to survive these days. Growing competition from nonprofit and for-profit solutions, decreasing funding available, and the advent of new technological channels to reach customers, clients, and funders means that now more than ever nonprofits need to find alignment. They must constantly be analyzing whether their mission, money, and competencies are working in tandem to create an effective, sustainable organization that brings value to its community. Because to ignore alignment is to eventually wake up to the heart-wrenching decision NYCO now faces.

Photo Credit: NYCO website

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