Note: Fellow nonprofit consultant Cindy Gibson and I were asked to write an opinion piece for Alliance Magazine this month answering the question, “Should Consultants Be Thought Leaders?” There is no doubt that there is a preponderance of consultants in the social sector, some who help move the sector forward, and some who don’t. Cindy and I offer some thoughts about how to distinguish what has value and what does not. Text from the piece is below, and you can also read the piece in the June issue of Alliance.
From strategic and business planning to marketing and fundraising, there seems to be no shortage of consultants ready to help nonprofits meet all kinds of needs. But should they be thought leaders too? Because they are removed from the day-to-day experience of the average non-proﬁt or foundation and have a breadth of perspective that comes from working with different types of organization, consultants can provide important insights to the larger sector.
But when is that thought leadership adding value to the sector and when is it just a means for hawking a consultant’s wares?
At a recent conference, a consulting ﬁrm president suggested his shop’s model was the only way to achieve social change, which caused some participants to shift in their seats. As one participant put it, ‘It’s because they’re consultants. If there’s only one solution and that’s the one they offer consulting on, that’s the approach they promote.’ There is, after all, a difference between introducing ideas to spark new thinking and marketing particular frameworks to build a consultant’s brand. At the end of the day, it all comes down to value.
Is a consultant adding value by introducing new approaches, raising hard questions, highlighting important trends, or suggesting necessary changes to systems and structure, the hallmarks of thought leadership? Or are they using ideas to package what they’re selling? Here are some key questions that might help us to make that distinction:
- Is what the consultant is presenting really new or just something old with new packaging?
We’ve all fallen victim to shiny object syndrome. The next new thing can seem so appealing that it’s easy to believe the hype, but it isn’t necessarily applicable for many organizations. Before embracing a new approach, it’s important to determine whether it actually applies to the specific situation at hand.
- Has the consultant’s new framework been tested?
If the new idea is really worthy of broad adoption, there should be evidence of its value. Consultants need to be transparent about whether they have this evidence and, if so, how it was collected. Was it a randomly sampled population or a few focus groups of satisﬁed clients? Consultants, like other thought leaders, sometimes ignore the fact that the big ideas they’ve envisioned may not work on the ground.
- Does what the consultant is proposing embrace the complexity of the situation?
Social challenges are inherently difficult to resolve because change takes time and requires grappling with the messiness of ‘wicked problems’, which don’t usually respond to one best practice or even a set of discrete interventions. Wicked problems don’t come from somewhere; they come from somewheres. And so do the solutions. True thought leadership emerges from understanding and integrating a problem’s inherent complexity into a potential resolution.
- Is the consultant willing to engage in thoughtful debate about their ideas with those who may disagree?
Thought leaders who are genuinely interested in moving a ﬁeld invite feedback, including criticism, because they know open and honest discussion can strengthen the original idea. They’re also eager to make their ideas broadly accessible so that they become part of the larger ﬁeld.
- Are influential people hailing the new idea as definitive when there may be little hard evidence to suggest that it is?
While it’s nice to have the endorsement of influential people, this can sometimes be a shield against real critique. It can also suggest an echo chamber at work, where the hype around the idea is bigger than the actual value of the idea itself.
There’s no question that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate good marketing – which every consultant must do to survive financially – from real thought leadership. We think that consultants can and should have opportunities to stand away from their business and share what they’re learning and observing. Like other thought leaders, they can lift us out of our individual circumstances and move us to see a bigger picture.
That isn’t always easy, especially when consultants’ thought leadership is controversial. But good thinking that has the potential to transform minds and entire fields, even when it may be inimical to a brand, can sometimes lead to impact that may not be easily achieved by focusing only on clients’ individual needs. The key is knowing when and where that kind of thought leadership will add value.
Photo Credit: Eugene Atget
I’ve written before about how hard it sometimes is for nonprofit leaders to ask for help. Donors, board members, regulators, and others put enormous pressure on nonprofit leaders to do it all with little (if any) help.
So in an effort to help nonprofit leaders convince those around them about the benefits of getting help, I’ve developed five benefit sheets describing the advantages of building a stronger nonprofit organization.
Whether or not you are interested in working with me, these benefit sheets describe the return on investing in nonprofit organization building efforts like leadership coaching, strategic planning, board engagement. Obviously I feel very strongly that nonprofits need to build stronger, more effective organizations, but that’s often a difficult case for nonprofit leaders to make.
I hope these benefit sheets can help you make that case:
Nonprofit Leader Coaching
But it doesn’t have to be that way. A leadership coach becomes your strategic partner helping you analyze your challenges and concerns, think through staffing decisions, overcome fundraising hurdles, address board management struggles, and brainstorm new approaches. Coaching provides tremendous benefits including: increased board and donor engagement, more productive staff, greater financial sustainability, and clearer strategic thinking. Download the Nonprofit Leader Coaching benefit sheet.
In an increasingly competitive, resource-strapped world, great nonprofit strategy is less a luxury and increasingly a necessity. Without an overall strategy, a nonprofit is relegated to the world of “doing good work,” instead of the world of “making a real difference.” And these days more and more funders, supporters, advocates, partners and decision makers are requiring that nonprofits do more than just good work.
Smart nonprofit strategy can completely transform your nonprofit. It can create momentum, attract deeper funding, filter future decisions, become a management tool, and ultimately realize more social change. Download the Strategic Planning benefit sheet.
It can often seem impossible to get your board’s attention, let alone get them all pointing in the same, effective direction. But if managed strategically, your board can be an unstoppable army moving your nonprofit forward.
If you take a big step back and develop a groundbreaking board, you can dramatically increase your ability to: reach new audiences, grow your programs, forge new external partnerships, raise more money, increase exposure to key decision makers, build community investment and engagement. Download the Board Engagement benefit sheet.
Financial Model Assessment
It happens all the time. A nonprofit leader wants to expand her services to meet growing demand, or is frustrated with a stalled fundraising effort, or doesn’t know where to diversify her fundraising efforts. She wants to raise more money, but doesn’t know how.
A Financial Model Assessment can be game changing. It uncovers how all aspects of your organization contribute to or detract from money flowing through your doors, including strategy, mission & vision, leadership, program delivery & impact, marketing and partnerships. It can give your nonprofit a deep understanding of where you need to focus your efforts and a clear road map for growing your financial sustainability. Download the Financial Model Assessment benefit sheet.
Unlike a traditional fundraising plan, a financing plan is an integrated, thoughtful, and strategic way to help your nonprofit raise enough money to achieve your programmatic and organizational goals. Instead of asking the question: “How much can we accomplish with what we can raise?” you start asking the question: “How much should we raise to accomplish our goals?”
A financing plan galvanizes board and staff to bring enough of the right kinds of money in the door to make your nonprofit’s goals a reality. It creates a sustainable financial model for your nonprofit so that you can survive and thrive. Download the Financing Plan benefit sheet.
If you are trying to make the case for a stronger nonprofit organization download these benefits sheets and share them with your board, donors, staff. And if you would like to talk about these organization building processes in more detail, let me know.
Photo Credit: Johnathan Nightingale
Earlier this month, there was a great post by Linda Wood from the Haas Fund bemoaning the fact that 73% of nonprofit leaders in a recent Center for Effective Philanthropy study said they lack resources to build their leadership skills. And the recent Meyer Foundation Executive Director Listening Project found that nonprofit leaders’ biggest challenges are fundraising, human capital management and board of directors management — all leadership challenges.
This doesn’t surprise me at all.
I constantly witness the lack of support nonprofit leaders receive for building their leadership skills. Leading a nonprofit is an incredibly demanding task and the challenges are only growing. Nonprofit leaders are expected to magically solve the world’s problems, on a shoestring, while herding a disparate group of volunteers, funders, clients.
Which is why I think nonprofit leader coaching holds so much promise for the sector. If a struggling nonprofit leader had a strategic partner who could help her think through staffing, fundraising, board management and strategic decisions, instead of having to figure it out all on her own, it could be transformative.
Nonprofit leader coaching is one-on-one strategic counsel from someone with deep management, financial, and strategy expertise. With a strategic coach, a nonprofit leader can find solutions to issues like how to:
- Create the most effective staffing structure for growth
- Recruit and engage an effective board
- Diversify and grow funding streams aligned with the nonprofit’s specific mission and operations
- Analyze strategic opportunities for the organization
- Develop effective collaborations that build on the organization’s assets
The return on investment of coaching can be really exciting. Let me give you some examples:
Increased Board Fundraising
Fundraising is such a tricky business. Often nonprofit boards are fairly ineffective at it, largely because they and their nonprofit leader don’t know how to focus the board’s efforts. This was true for one of my clients whose board didn’t understand fundraising and was confused about their role. Through coaching, both with the executive director and board members, the board now understands how each of them individually can contribute to bringing money in the door. They also understand how to focus their efforts on the most profitable activities and now have the skills and knowledge to move the organization’s financial strategy forward. As a result, the board has dramatically increased the number of new donors to the organization.
Clearer Strategic Thinking
Nonprofits are constantly bombarded with new opportunities, new partnerships, new funding ideas. A coach can help a nonprofit leader think through how a new opportunity might fit with the overall organization strategy, ask hard questions and analyze the costs and benefits. In this coaching role, I encourage nonprofit leaders to take a step back and examine all of the implications of a decision, how it might draw resources away, what impact it will have on the larger work, how it moves the organization closer to or farther away from strategic alignment, and so on. Coaching can get nonprofits away from group think and towards making smarter, more strategic decisions.
More Productive Staff
Management of staff is one of the hardest jobs of being a leader in any setting, but I think it’s particularly tricky in the nonprofit sector where resources are tighter and nonprofits are often encouraged to play nice at all costs. In coaching around staff challenges, I help a leader create an effective staffing structure for the organization, analyze and resolve staff conflicts, and make sure all staff are playing to their strengths.
Strategic coaching is not right for every nonprofit leader because it takes a real commitment to change, a willingness to analyze situations, and an openness to making difficult decisions.
But coaching is right for a leader who:
- Leads an organization that is ready for change
- Is open to trying new approaches
- Wants to have difficult, but important, conversations with board, staff and funders
- Needs a thinking partner to help make strategic decisions
- Recognizes that she doesn’t have all of the answers
- Is ready to build her leadership skills
Photo Credit: PhilanTopic
As I’ve said many times before, it’s no longer enough for nonprofits to do “good work.” Funders, policy makers, board members are increasingly demanding that nonprofits explain what change they exist to create. With increasing competition for social change dollars it is absolutely crucial that nonprofit organizations develop their own theory of change. This Social Velocity webinar “The Power of a Theory of Change” can help you do just that.
A theory of change is basically an argument for why a nonprofit exists. It describes how an organization uses community resources (money, volunteers, clients) to perform a set of activities which result in changes to the clients’ lives (outcomes) and changes to broader communities, institutions, or systems (impact).
Essentially a theory of change describes how a nonprofit creates social change.
It used to be enough for a nonprofit to talk about what it produced (or outputs), such as meals served in a soup kitchen, hours spent reading to a child, beds provided in a homeless shelter, but that just doesn’t cut it anymore. In a world where there are fewer and fewer dollars and more and more nonprofits fighting for those dollars, people are increasingly asking the question “To What End?” So what if you created outputs, did anything really change because of your work? Did the lives of those in your program change and did the community change?
That’s where a theory of change comes in. If you can articulate what change you hope your organization is creating, then with that fundamental building block in place you can:
- Chart a strategic direction
- Prove your results
- Secure more support for your organization
And ultimately achieve the holy grail of the nonprofit sector: sustainable community change.
The “Power of a Theory of Change” webinar will help you:
- Understand what a theory of change is and how it can help your nonprofit
- Develop your nonprofit’s own theory of change
- Connect your mission to your new theory of change
- Learn how to use your theory of change to chart a strategic direction
- Use your theory of change to attract more funding
- Help your board understand its power
On Demand Webinar
And remember, all Social Velocity webinars are available as on demand downloads, so even if you can’t make this date and time you can still register for the webinar and get access to all of the content.
Photo Credit: frank.itlab.us
One of my resolutions this new year is to add more video to the Social Velocity site. I love watching video, and I’d love to see more nonprofits using the medium, so I thought I should probably follow suit. A few months ago I created a Social Velocity YouTube channel and will continue to add video to it over the course of the year. I also plan to do some video blogging this year, which I’m pretty excited about.
But today I want to introduce my new consulting video. Here I discuss how I consult with nonprofit clients. If you are reading this in an email, you can see the video by clicking here. Take a look!
I’ve been talking about strategic planning a lot lately (here and here) because I think it is so critically important to the success of a nonprofit organization. But it’s not enough to create a great strategic plan on paper, you have to implement and monitor it. This is why I insist that the strategic plans I help create have a detailed, measurable operational plan that describes the day-to-day work that will bring the strategic plan to fruition.
But sometimes a strategic plan calls for so much change to a nonprofit organization that they need follow-up staff coaching to make the plan a reality. This was the case for one of my clients, ACE: A Community for Education.
ACE is an early childhood literacy tutoring program, with a proven model that really works to get children to grade level in reading by 3rd grade. The outcomes of the program were so impressive that they wanted to expand it to many more schools. But, the program was a well-kept secret. A small advisory board and limited external connections left the organization struggling to build the kind of community, funder, and school district support they need to dramatically grow.
ACE hired me to create a 3-year strategic plan for growth. ACE assembled a working group of staff, advisory board members, funders and other key stakeholders, and I led them through a 5-month process analyzing the internal and external environment, creating the goals and objectives of the strategic plan for growth, determining the projected budget required to get there, and creating a detailed annual operational plan to bring the plan to fruition.
But ACE realized that their strategic plan was so ambitious that they would need some guidance and regular coaching to make it a reality. So once the strategic plan was created and adopted by the advisory board and other stakeholders, ACE hired me to coach their staff on:
- Restructuring the advisory board to lend more strategic support and expand community connections to ACE
- Expanding their fundraising efforts in order to support the new goals of the strategic plan
- Growing the staff and program infrastructure to implement the plan
So over a 10-month period I met regularly with the Executive Director and the Development Director to coach them on:
- Restructuring the advisory board
- Creating a major donor fundraising campaign
- Implementing the strategic plan
- Using the strategic plan to filter future decisions
- Effectively using staff resources
The result is that ACE has moved quickly to grow their program. They plan to triple the number of students served by the program by 2016. They have already secured a significantly increased financial commitment from participating school districts to do so. They have also completely restructured their advisory board and expanded its membership. They have hired new staff positions to make growth a reality. They have begun involving the advisory board in their new major donor campaign efforts and have already enjoyed new and renewed interest from funders. Staff and advisory board are energized and focused on their plans for growth.
As ACE Executive Director Mary Ellen Isaacs put it recently:
“Our work with Nell has been critical to developing a viable growth strategy and plan for ACE. The process helped us clarify our core competencies, engage stakeholders, and articulate exactly how and why ACE should grow. As a result of Nell’s strategic planning and follow-up coaching, my staff and I, and our advisory board, have the tools and confidence to reach our larger vision for ACE. This was one of the best investments we have made in ACE!”
If you are interested in learning more about how I coach nonprofit staff to strengthen or grow their organizations, check out my Staff Coaching consulting service.
Photo Credit: VarsityLife
Note: I’m heading out of the office for the next week and a half, but in my absence I want to offer a couple of blog posts from the Social Velocity archives. The one below appeared on the blog in February 2011. Enjoy!
I’m a huge believer in questions. Sometimes asking good, hard questions is the only way to get to the bottom of something, to analyze potential options, to find the right path.
So too in the nonprofit sector hard questions can play a pivotal role. It is critically important that we move away from an unwritten rule that “charities” are doing good things that shouldn’t be questioned, to a place where nonprofits are continually asking themselves whether they are making most effective use of resources and providing real solutions.
These are the 5 questions I’d like to see nonprofits asking themselves:
- Do we know if we are accomplishing anything? Because nonprofit organizations can’t simply look at a profit and loss statement to see progress, determining success is much more difficult than in the for-profit world. Yet a nonprofit organization cannot just translate community resources into activities and call it a day. Nonprofits are increasingly forced to demonstrate the change their work creates in the community. I’m not suggesting that every nonprofit must conduct large evaluation projects. Rather, I’m arguing that a nonprofit must create a solid strategy for creating change and then find a way (as cheaply and simply as possible) to determine whether they are delivering on that strategy.
- Are we adapting to our external environment? Gone are the days when a nonprofit enjoyed a core group of donors that funded delivery of the same services to the community year after year. In this ever-changing, increasingly fast-paced world, nonprofits must constantly analyze the trends in their external environment (funding, competitors, community needs) and effectively adapt to those trends in order to survive and thrive.
- Is our board helping or hurting? A board of directors can be a nonprofit’s most important asset, expanding its footprint in the community, bringing in resources, driving a bold direction, ensuring accountability and transparency. Or it can be a group of people who show up to network, meddle in minutiae, and bog the organization down. A nonprofit’s board needs to take a hard look at itself, as individual members and as a group, to determine if they are an effective governing body or not, whether they are moving the mission forward, or just getting in the way.
- Do we really need that new building? Time and again nonprofit organizations launch a capital campaign as a way to get their name out in the community, get the board motivated, bring big donors in the door, and seek significance and importance. But the result is often an organization crippled by resources draining away from the mission. Board and leadership needs to ask themselves if a new building is directly tied to achievement of mission. There are other, better ways to build your brand, rally the board and donors, and raise big dollars, like a growth or capacity capital campaign, which can actually result in more social impact and financial sustainability over the long term.
- Are we using money as a tool? Nonprofit boards often shy away from discussions about money, ignoring tools like financial reports, budget reviews and fundraising net-revenue analysis, in order to focus meetings on programs and mission. But money is an incredibly effective tool for making programs and mission happen, and nonprofits need to create and implement an integrated financial strategy that feeds into the overall organization’s plan. Money, if used strategically and effectively, can help your nonprofit do so much more.
To move forward, the nonprofit sector needs to do away with safe, routine conversations and start asking some hard questions. Indeed questions are sometimes the only route to open up possibilities, try new approaches and find a better way.
Photo Credit: Wade Rockett
Until recently, market research, or understanding the marketplace in which a nonprofit operates, had no place in the nonprofit sector. Once the sole purview of entrepreneurs and corporate brands, market research is quickly (and rightly) becoming a skill set that nonprofits must embrace. Because in an increasingly competitive landscape, if you don’t understand the needs of your clients, who else is addressing those needs, what your funders are looking for, who else they are funding, where policy makers and decision makers are moving, you are sunk. But for many nonprofit leaders market research seems nebulous, inaccessible and expensive. It doesn’t have to be.
Here’s how you can start to wrap your head around market research.
The first step is, with board and staff, to map the marketplace in which your nonprofit operates. A nonprofit is best positioned where their core competencies (those organizational assets they have that cannot be easily taken or replicated) intersect with a community need, apart from where their competitors or collaborators are strongest. Which looks like this:
The idea is that if a nonprofit organization can figure out what part of the solution to a social problem they offer and how that relates to the piece their competitors or collaborators have to offer, then the nonprofit can (for a start):
- Better articulate to funders what their nonprofit is uniquely positioned to accomplish
- Forge partnerships with organizations who supplement weaknesses the organization has
- Stop wasting resources on “doing it all” and focus on the 1-2 things they do exceptionally well
- Reduce competition for funding
- Chart a sustainable future direction
But it is not enough to simply ask board and staff where they think your nonprofit fits in this map. Once they’ve taken a stab at it, you need to get out into the marketplace and see if that assessment holds true. This is where market research comes in. You need to understand current and future trends in your competitors/collaborators and the community need you are trying to address. So you need to find the answers to questions like:
- Is the need within your client population expanding or contracting? In what areas? Why? What does the future hold?
- How else are your clients getting these needs addressed or not addressed?
- What is the future strategy of your competitors and collaborators?
- What are the core competencies of your competitors and collaborators?
- Are there new competitors/collaborators entering the space?
- How do key decision makers (policy makers, funders, etc) feel about your competitors/collaborators? What do they think your role in addressing the problem is?
So how do you go about finding these answers? You can call current funders, friends or other connections and ask them to give you a lay of the land. But you also need to pull some data. And there are lots of free resources out there. Here is a beginning list of things to try:
- Check out these free market research tools
- Ask your local reference librarian for help
- Use the many free databases available at public and university libraries
- Use SurveyMonkey (or other free/cheap survey tools) to ask clients, funders, volunteers what they think
- Ask a market research class at a local college or university to practice their new skills for free on your organization
There really is no excuse for nonprofits not to explore the market in which they operate. The information is out there, you just need to go out and get it. And if you don’t, you will be moving forward in the dark.
Photo Credit: HikingArtist.com
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