I’ve been leading several strategic planning processes lately, and as we wrapped up the last planning meeting for one of my clients (who had been encouraged to create a strategic plan by a funder) my client announced:
“I have to confess that when we started this process 6 months ago I inwardly rolled my eyes because I thought it would be a pointless process, full of silly buzzwords and with little value. I have completely changed my mind. I can already see how this new plan is making us smarter, more effective and more sustainable.”
Yep, I completely get it.
Strategic planning, when poorly done, is just a joke. But, when strategic planning is done well, it can completely transform an organization.
And there are three key places where a bad strategic plan falls short:
- Your Strategy Isn’t Big Enough
To create an effective strategic plan you have to start with the big picture. You must analyze and articulate who your target audience(s) are and your theory of change. Then you must look externally to understand the needs, the competitive landscape, the funding, the changing factors in the marketplace in which you operate. Nonprofit leaders sometimes mistakenly think they are creating an effective strategic plan when they sit in a room, look around at their fellow board and staff members, and ask each other what they think they should do. It is also a mistake to think that in such a rapidly changing world you can simply develop a status quo strategy. In order to stay relevant and sustainable you have to understand how you interact with the forces outside your walls and outside your control. And here’s a little secret: the more you think about the bigger world out there, the more excited your board and funders will be by the plan. Your nonprofit doesn’t exist in a vacuum, neither should your plan for the future.
- Your Strategy Isn’t Small Enough
But the other danger is to get too big and neglect the small part — the execution and monitoring of the plan. It’s great to have a bold vision and ambitious goals for the future that flow from an exciting theory of change. But that’s not enough. How will you implement it? How will you break down tasks, and responsibilities? What’s the timeline? And what is your process for determining, on a regular basis, whether the plan is actually coming to fruition? A good strategic plan, one that will actually transform your organization, requires operational detail and a process for monitoring it over time.
- Your Strategy Ignores Money
There is no effective strategic plan that neglects to answer how you will finance it. That’s why a good strategic plan devotes one of its goals to money. How much will it cost to deliver on all of the goals of your plan? How will revenue (and capital if you need it) flow to meet (or exceed) those expenses? A good strategic plan forces nonprofit leadership to become financially savvy (when they may not have been before) and begin to use money as an integral management tool.
How does your nonprofit’s strategic plan stack up? Is it big enough, small enough, and well financed? If you want to learn more about what a strategic planning process looks like, check out my Strategic Planning page or download the Strategic Planning benefit sheet.
Photo Credit: ESO/H. Dahle
I 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
I am back after an amazing three weeks away from the world of social change. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love my job and the ability it gives me to work each day with incredibly inspiring, passionate, and driven social changemakers.
But as I’ve said before, time away is absolutely critical to feeding your soul and making you a more complete, interesting and effective person. I am so grateful to the amazing guest bloggers who wrote incredible pieces for the blog while I was away (you can read their posts here).
One of the benefits of giving your brain a break is new insight. It occurred to me while I was away that there is a big difference between social change efforts that just exist and those that reach the tipping point of achieving real social change. I work at the nexus between the two because nonprofit leaders often come to me when they hit an inflection point. They desire a big change — to move out of the status quo and take a big leap — but they don’t know how to get there.
Sometimes they make the leap, and sometimes they don’t. And the difference often comes down whether or not they possess (or cultivate) these traits:
Those nonprofits that make it have someone (or a handful of someones) who are the cheerleaders for the change they seek. These are the people who are constantly reminding board members, staff, donors about why change is necessary and all of the great things that will happen if they continue with the hard work. To achieve true change you must have a leader who can see the ultimate goal and rallies everyone together to get there.
To take a big leap (scale your solution, rebuild your board) you must have the confidence that you can do it. And you need the confidence to convince others to join you. You have to “fake it ’til you make it.” Some leaders are really good at this, others are not. It amazes me how important confidence is and how many in the nonprofit sector often lack it. You must fight the fairly normal state in the nonprofit sector of supplication and instead make confident demands for what it will take to achieve the change you seek.
Related to confidence — but different — is a necessary fearlessness. A nonprofit leader I worked with several years ago wanted to dramatically grow her services, and she knew she needed a bigger, more networked board to get there. So she had to get over the fear of asking for new connections. It is terrifying to ask someone to help you in new ways, or to ask for something you’re not sure the other person is willing or able to give, but you don’t get anything unless you ask. The path of change may be really difficult, or it may force you to make hard decisions. But if you want real change you have to face those uncertainties head on.
Changing minds, changing systems, changing habits is really hard work, and you must be dedicated to seeing the change through to the end. I know that the daily work of your nonprofit is already hard work. But I’m talking about a different kind of hard work. It is the hard work of explaining to ineffective board members why they have to resign, or letting poor performing staff members go, or educating donors about how they are holding your organization back, or creating new performance management systems. I have found that those nonprofit leaders who are constantly fighting the urge to settle back into the status quo are the ones who succeed.
It’s not enough to want a bigger, better, more effective organization. You must cultivate the vision, drive, confidence and fearlessness to get there.
Photo Credit: Stuart Anthony
May was another busy month in the world of social change. For a start there was: a behavioral economics approach to social change, continued focus on civic tech, a tool for calculating a nonprofit’s true costs, new definitions of membership in the digital age, the evolving public library, digital sabbaticals, and much more.
Below are my 10 favorite reads in the world of social change in May, but feel free to add to the list in the comments. And if you want a longer list, follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, or Facebook.
You can also read 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- Perhaps some solutions to social problems lie in behavioral economics. Writing in The New York Times, economists Erez Yoeli and Syon Bhanot and psychologists Gordon Kraft-Todd and David Rand argue that the opinion of others, in this case regarding the preservation of natural resources, is a strong social change motivator.
- Civic tech, (the use of new technology to better engage citizens in democracy) has become quite the buzzword lately. But how do we know which civic tech solutions are actually creating change? Anne Whatley from Network Impact offers some tools for assessment in that arena.
- And another nonprofit tool comes from Kate Barr of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund. She provides a great tool to help nonprofits calculate and then articulate to funders the full costs of their work.
- Daniel Stid from the Hewlett Foundation writes a thoughtful piece on what separates good strategic planning from bad, because as he puts it “The real benefit of planning is not the final document but rather the discipline the process imposes, the new information it generates, the working relationships it fosters, and the conversations, insights, and commitments it sparks.” Amen to that!
- In this age of social media and technological connectedness, how do we create more formal structures for belonging to institutions? Melody Kramer, formerly of National Public Radio, is a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow working on that very question, and she offers some beginning thoughts on the project, including, “Imagine if public radio stations functioned as Main Streets…or in the same way that local public libraries do? It would transform the way people could interact — and participate — in the local news process, and would enhance the stories stations put out on air.” Fascinating.
- Speaking of libraries, NPR writer Linton Weeks provides a history of the public library and how it continues to (and must) evolve in the digital age.
- Great philanthropic futurist Lucy Bernholz has been offline for a bit, and it turns out she took a digital sabbatical. She reports that “without the addictive stimulation and distractions of digital life it feels like my brain grew three sizes.” What a great (and necessary) idea!
- Writing on the UnSectored blog, Marie Mainil describes the importance of building and supporting social movements to create global social change. As she puts it “Collecting data on the dynamics of local, regional, national, and international social change campaigns is the next frontier of organizing for social change. With a visual multi-level collection of ladders of engagement from across the world, social change actors would be able to better plan and coordinate tactics and actions at scale, thereby increasing their chances of success.”
- In May the Center for Effective Philanthropy held their biennial conference. Ethan McCoy provides great roundups of day one and day two. I almost feel like I was there!
- Never one to put things lightly, William Schambra cautions against what he sees as the hubris of tech philanthropists and his fear that they desire to “fundamentally…reshape the social sector in their own image, based on their supreme faith in advanced technology.”
Photo Credit: Erin Kelly
Over the past few years I’ve developed a Social Velocity library of books, step-by-step guides, and webinars. My hope is that these tools can make the concepts I use with my consulting clients accessible to smaller and start up nonprofits who aren’t ready for or interested in a customized approach.
The tools follow the methods I develop in my consulting practice (like creating a financing plan, growing the board of directors, designing a theory of change) so when my consulting approach changes over time, the tools must change as well.
Which brings me to the Design a Theory of Change Guide. I created this guide a couple of years ago, but I recently changed the Theory of Change framework I use with my clients. I used to follow a more traditional logic model approach, but over time I’ve come to realize that there are really five specific and complex questions that make up a Theory of Change.
And those are:
- What is the target population or populations you are seeking to benefit or influence?
- What relevant trends in or changes to the external environment are occurring?
- How and where are your core competencies employed?
- What changed conditions do you believe will result from your activities?
- What evidence do you have that this theory will actually result in change?
The completely revised Design a Theory of Change Guide walks you step-by-step through answering these questions and creating your nonprofit’s own Theory of Change.
A Theory of Change is a fundamental building block to everything that your nonprofit does. Because without a Theory of Change, you won’t know what you are trying to accomplish, how you will get there, or whether you are moving towards it, and you certainly won’t attract the funding necessary to get there.
A Theory of Change can strengthen your nonprofit in many ways:
- Guides your strategic planning process. If you understand your nonprofit’s overall Theory of Change and what you exist to do, it is much easier to chart a future course.
- Helps revise the vision and mission of your organization, making them stronger and more compelling.
- Gives a framework to prove whether you are actually achieving results and creating real social change.
- Provides a filter for new opportunities as they arise. Do new opportunities fit within your Theory of Change?
- Engages board members and other volunteers, friends and supporters in your work. If people understand the bigger picture, they will be more inclined to give more time, energy, and other resources to the work.
- Allows staff to understand how their individual roles and responsibilities fit into the larger vision of the organization. This can increase staff morale, productivity, communication and overall commitment to the organization.
- Provides the basic argument for a case for investment or other fundraising messaging. With a Theory of Change, you can articulate what you are working to achieve, in a compelling way.
A Theory of Change is so fundamental because you cannot chart a strategic direction if you don’t know what you are trying to change. And you can’t prove that you’ve changed something unless you have articulated what it is that you want to change in the first place. And you certainly can’t convince funders, volunteers, and key decision makers to support you if you can’t tell them what you are trying to change and whether you are actually doing it.
So to truly create long-term social change you must start with a Theory of Change, which is why I encourage every nonprofit engaged in social change to create one.
You can learn more about the Design a Theory of Change Guide and download a copy of it. If you downloaded the previous Theory of Change Guide and would like the newly revised version free of charge, let me know, and we’ll send it to you.
As always, you can see all of the Social Velocity books, guides and webinars available for download on the Social Velocity Tools page.
One of the clients I’m working with right now is the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). This is a group of incredibly smart and passionate people who are committed to improving public understanding and policies that impact American Muslims by engaging the government, media, and communities.
The challenges they face as a nonprofit organization are not unique. So I’d like to share their story as a case study.
I met MPAC in 2013. While they had been around for 25 years and aspired to be a truly national organization, MPAC struggled to build a diversified financial model and a donor base beyond southern California. At the same time the organization lacked a coherent strategy for their future work. They wanted to expand their national presence, grow their networks and influence, strengthen and diversify their funding sources, and ultimately increase their impact on a vibrant American Muslim community, but they didn’t know how to get there.
MPAC hired Social Velocity to conduct a Financial Model Assessment to determine what was holding the organization back from growing their revenue and diversifying their funding sources. I interviewed board and staff members and some external constituents to uncover what was holding MPAC back. I also analyzed MPAC’s past financial history, board and staff structure, marketing materials, fundraising activities and more to understand what was working and what was not. I delivered to board and staff a 30+ page assessment that described how MPAC could strengthen their financial sustainability.
One of the biggest things holding MPAC back financially was the lack of a future organizational strategy around which they could rally donors. Upon hearing my findings, the board voted unanimously to undertake a strategic planning process to chart a focused future direction. We then worked over the next 6+ months to develop a 3-year strategic plan to increase MPAC’s impact and financial sustainability.
Because of the new strategic plan we created, MPAC has focused their efforts and resources and are now working to implement the strategic plan and financial model recommendations. They are working to identify outside investors to help fund a growth campaign, expand the board, hire a Development Director, and streamline operations. Board and staff are excited about the new direction and are actively working to bring it to fruition. And to help MPAC in this critical change and growth phase I am coaching staff and board on how to implement the plan and set the organization up for success.
Outside guidance is sometimes critical to moving an organization forward. As Salam Al-Marayati, MPAC’s President and CEO put it:
Nell’s assessment illustrated how we were wasting resources and not connecting prospective donors with a clear message. After the board and staff read the report, we all decided to proceed with a strategic planning process. That exercise, which spanned over 6 months, opened everyone’s eyes. We now have buy-in from our most important stakeholders in the organization – the board – for change. We realized that in order to achieve growth, we have to change internally. Nell helped us to navigate the road to becoming a national organization by changing how we operate internally. Nell’s experience in nonprofit management and fundraising proved to be invaluable in our planning process. We are now beginning to implement the strategic plan are excited about this new era for the organization.
It doesn’t have to be so hard. The mission your board and staff are so passionate about can be achieved in a sustainable way.
You can learn more about how I work with nonprofits on my Consulting page, and you can read more case studies on the Clients page. If you’d like to discuss how I might work with your nonprofit, let me know.
Photo Credit: Evelyn Simak
As I mentioned last month, the Leap Ambassadors (of which I am a member) recently released the Performance Imperative, a detailed definition of a high-performing nonprofit. Because I think the Performance Imperative is so important and every nonprofit leader should understand it and begin to use it, today I am kicking off a series to describe, one-by-one, each of the seven pillars of the Performance Imperative.
I think the Performance Imperative is so exciting because it can serve as a north star to the nonprofit sector, helping organizations analyze their own performance and create a clear roadmap for improvement.
As Lowell Weiss, one of the leading architects of the Performance Imperative, explained in my interview with him last month:
High performance is all too rare in our sector today. In fact, we don’t even have a commonly accepted definition of the term “high performance.” The Performance Imperative is our attempt to create that common definition and then start the process of creating guideposts to help nonprofits who are motivated to improve their performance for the clients and causes they serve.
So, first up in this series on the Performance Imperative is Pillar #1: Courageous, Adaptive Executive and Board Leadership.
Without true leadership, at both the board and staff level, you will achieve little as a nonprofit. This pillar is about asking hard questions, pushing the organization toward excellence, continuously improving and taking nothing for granted.
You can read the full description of Pillar #1 in the Performance Imperative, but here are a few key elements present in nonprofits that exhibit this pillar:
- Boards “ask probing questions about whether the organization is living up to its promises and acknowledge when course correction is needed.”
- Executives and boards “know that great talent is a huge differentiator between organizations that are high performing and those that aren’t.”
- Executives and boards “know that they haven’t figured it all out and acknowledge that they still have a lot of work to do.”
- Executives and boards “are constantly assessing not only what the organization should be doing but also what it should stop doing…redirecting scarce resources to the highest opportunity areas.”
In other words, nonprofit leaders who embody Pillar 1 of the Performance Imperative, ask hard questions, build a stellar staff, seek continuous improvement, and put resources to their highest and best use.
There is no doubt that there are many examples of this courageous, adaptive leadership in the nonprofit sector. One of those, I believe, is Molly Baldwin, founder and CEO of Roca.
Molly founded Roca in 1988, and by 2004 it was a multi-million dollar teenage pregnancy and violence prevention program. But that year, Molly began asking some hard questions about the results Roca was achieving. She forced board and staff to take a huge step back and examine what they were doing and the ultimate effect that work had. She led her board and staff through a rigorous refocusing and pruning effort to limit their target populations and use data to drive their interventions. Instead of continuing a laundry list of services to many different populations that had limited effect, she helped her organization refocus resources on where they could create real change — transforming the lives of young men in the criminal justice system.
It was a challenging transition to lead, but the results are impressive. An internal study overseen by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2013 found that Roca reduced recidivism 65% and increased employment by 100% for the men in the program. And Roca was chosen as the lead provider in Masschusetts’ first pay for success effort.
Ten years ago Molly could have continued on Roca’s then current path, continuing to do “good work,” but failing to ask hard questions about whether that work was really resulting in change. But instead, Molly brought everything to a halt and forced board and staff to grapple with some fundamental and incredibly risky questions. In the end Molly’s leadership transformed Roca into an organization that is truly delivering solutions.
That’s the kind of social change leadership we need.
If you want to learn more, download the Performance Imperative and read additional case studies here.
Photo Credit: William B. T. Trego painting depicting George Washington’s army at Valley Forge.
As a general rule, nonprofit leaders are a self-less lot. You are so driven by your passion for social change that you are willing to perform any and all tasks required to get the job done. But there is a critical calculation that so many nonprofit leaders neglect. And that is to understand the value of their time and allocate that most precious resource effectively.
Yes, you read that correctly.
As the leader of your nonprofit your time is your organization’s most precious resource. Sure, board members, other staff members, and donors are absolutely critical to the work. But without you, there would be nothing. You are the visionary, the cheerleader, the linchpin around which everything (and everyone) revolves.
There are only so many productive hours in the day, so any hour you spend on one task is an hour you don’t spend on another task. You must put each hour of your working day to its highest and best use. As the most important connector for your nonprofit, you should be outside the organization as much as possible meeting with allies, funders, prospects, decision-makers, advocates who can help move your mission forward.
If you are stuck inside your organization updating a database, cutting checks, filing, or putting out fires, you are missing a huge opportunity.
So you need to use your time more effectively. Here’s how to start:
Create a Strategy
When a nonprofit creates and then manages to an overall strategy there is less time spent putting out fires and more time achieving outcomes and goals. So convince your board and staff to create a strategic plan and then manage to that plan. Move your organization’s culture from the reactive to the strategic and watch how you (and your staff and board) get more accomplished in the same amount of time.
Manage To Goals, Not Tasks
Once you have a strategy in place, you can manage your staff to goals, instead of discrete tasks. Whenever possible, delegate whole projects instead of specific pieces. Give a staff person the end goal you have in mind and the tools they need to get there and then empower them to do it their way. Check in on a regular basis to see how they are doing, but resist the temptation to micromanage. In so doing you get more off your plate while giving your staff license for creativity and initiative.
Regularly Meet One-on-One With Staff
I know I’ve said it before, but I’m a HUGE fan of the management power of weekly one-on-one meetings with each member of your staff. There are so many benefits. Your staff interrupts you less frequently because they know they have your undivided attention once a week, you are more willing to delegate because you know you have regular check-in points, staff learn how to problem solve on their own, and (most importantly) you have more time to GET OUTSIDE.
Find Administrative Help
As head of your nonprofit you must free yourself, as much as possible, from paper pushing tasks like filing, database maintenance, accounting. If you have the budget, hire an administrative assistant. If you don’t have the budget, recruit a volunteer to provide office support until you can grow your financial model to support administrative help. And while you are at it, outsource your accounting to a freelance bookkeeper or virtual CFO. Don’t put your administrative support at the end of the list of things your nonprofit needs. The sooner you free up your time, the better off your entire organization will be.
Nonprofit leaders, stop selling yourself and your organization short. Your time has tremendous value. So think clearly about how you allocate that limited resource and find solutions that put your time to its highest and best use. Free yourself to be the connector, fundraiser, and leader your nonprofit so desperately needs.
Photo Credit: National Archives