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
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
I’ve been leading several strategic planning efforts lately, and I am always amazed at the nonprofit sector’s general fear (borderline hatred) of strategic planning. I get it, strategic planning has traditionally been done so badly that many have just given up on the idea altogether. But that’s a mistake.
Without a long-term strategy for what your nonprofit is trying to accomplish and how you will marshal people and money to reach it, you are just spinning your wheels.
Rather than be a feared and misunderstood exercise, strategic planning can actually be distilled into 7 key questions. Now granted, these are really challenging questions, but they can be the impetus for some thoughtful strategic decision-making among board and staff. These 7 questions must be tackled in the following order because they build on each other.
The 7 questions are:
- What is Our Marketplace Map?
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 the first step in strategic planning is to map those three areas and figure out where your nonprofit lies. But because you cannot create a strategic plan in a vacuum, you need to do market research to see how future trends might impact your place in the market.
- What is Our Theory of Change?
A Theory of Change is an argument for why your nonprofit exists. It helps you articulate who your target populations are and how you employ your core competencies to change outcomes for them. It is a fundamental building block to any strategic plan because if you don’t know what you are ultimately trying to accomplish and for whom, how can you possibly chart a future course?
- What Are Our Vision and Mission?
These two statements are NOT feel-good rallying cries. Rather they are instrumental elements of your future direction. Your nonprofit’s Vision relates to the “Outcomes” section of your Theory of Change and describes how you want the world to be different because of your work. And the Mission relates to the “Activities” section of your Theory of Change and describes your day-to-day work to move toward that Vision. Any good strategic plan takes a hard look at the two statements and revises them as necessary.
- What is Our Mission and Money Mix?
Once you’ve articulated your Theory of Change you need to analyze your current programs to understand how well each one contributes to 1) your Theory of Change, and 2) the financial viability of your organization. This allows you to understand where to grow, cut, or restructure programs to align with your strategy.
- What Are Our 3-Year Goals?
Given your long-term Theory of Change, you then need to determine what 3-5 broad things (goals) you want to accomplish in the next 3-years. A strategic plan is too limited if it only charts 1-2 years out, and 4+ years is so far ahead that it’s probably meaningless. Typically those 3-5 goals break down like this: 1-3 program-related goals, 1 money goal, and 1 infrastructure (board, staff, systems) goal.
- How Will We Finance The Plan?
A strategic plan is not effective without an attached financing plan because there is no action without money. So as part of the “money goal” of your strategic plan you must project how revenue and expenses (and capital investments if necessary) will flow to your nonprofit over the timeframe of the plan. This becomes your financing plan.
- How Will We Operationalize It?
So many strategic plans have started out strong but withered on the vine because they had no implementation or monitoring plans attached. You have to include a way both to track the tactics necessary to achieve your goals and to monitor regularly whether the strategic plan is coming to fruition. Do not overlook this most critical (and often forgotten) piece.
There is a smart way to create nonprofit strategy. But it requires hard questions and the time and effort necessary to thoughtfully answer them.
If you’d like to learn more about the strategic planning process I take my clients through, visit the Social Velocity Strategic Planning page.
Photo Credit: pixabay
One of the most difficult decisions a nonprofit leader faces is whether to cut a program. The program might be draining staff and offering few results to clients, but once a nonprofit launches a program it becomes almost instantly institutionalized. Even if the program eventually no longer makes strategic sense, it is almost impossible to convince board, staff and donors to end it.
But for a nonprofit to be most effective, its leaders must understand the financial and social impact of all of its programs and make strategic decisions accordingly. And the way to do that is with a Program Analysis Matrix.
Nonprofit leaders are driven by the desire to provide as many services as possible, so to shut down an established program seems so wrong. But nonprofit leaders must regularly analyze their portfolio of programs in order to understand how well each program contributes to the organization’s mission and financial sustainability.
When I assess a client’s financial model, one of the first things I employ is a Program Analysis Matrix that analyzes the social and financial impact of their entire portfolio of programs. I chart all programs and activities comparing each program’s ability to:
- Contribute to the social change the nonprofit is working toward (“Social Impact” on the x axis), and
- Add or subtract financial resources to/from the organization (“Financial Returns” on the y axis).
A Program Analysis Matrix looks like this:
Each program that a nonprofit operates is placed in one of the four boxes depending on how well that program contributes to the social impact (or mission) the nonprofit is working towards and the financial sustainability of the organization. The four options are:
- Sustaining: the program has low social impact (it doesn’t appreciably contribute to the nonprofit’s ability to create social change), but does provide financial resources to the organization.
- Beneficial: the program has high social impact and provides financial resources to the organization—this is the best of both worlds.
- Detrimental: the program provides low social impact and drains financial resources from the organization—this is the worst of both worlds.
- Worthwhile: the program provides high social impact but drains financial resources.
This Program Analysis Matrix helps to surface issues that a nonprofit must address, for example when some programs are providing no benefits, or there are too many mission-related programs that don’t attract funding. Typically, a nonprofit has an abundance of “Worthwhile” programs that are integral to the mission and provide important social impact but are financially draining to the organization. In a situation like that, board and staff need to get strategic about developing programs that are “Sustaining” or “Beneficial” and provide a positive financial return.
Board and staff should work together to plot all current programs in the matrix. Once completed, the matrix can help make the appropriate strategic decisions (labeled as “Strategy” above) about which programs to “cut,” “maintain,” “nurture,” or “expand.”
This analysis can help a nonprofit take a hard look at everything they are doing and start to make some hard decisions. A conversation about cutting programs is always incredibly difficult, but with the right data behind it, the conversation can be a logical, as opposed to emotional, one.
Photo Credit: Bart van de Biezen
There is a fundamental error that nonprofit leaders make when recruiting new board members. And that is to be vague about the kind of board members they need. Nonprofit leaders often think in very general terms about the makeup of their board while ignoring their nonprofit’s specific needs. It then becomes almost impossible to get new recruits (let alone old board members) active or engaged because they are unclear about the unique role they should play in the organization.
A board matrix is a tool that many nonprofits use to analyze what traits their current board has and where the holes lie. Often the traits used include very general things like:
- Gender diversity
- Racial diversity
- Geographic representation (for national and regional organizations)
- General sought-after skills like marketing and fundraising expertise
- Access to vague networks, like “connections to people with deep pockets”
But this is the wrong way to think about who your board members should be.
To recruit the board you really need, you have to connect the skills, experience, and networks of your board to the specific goals of your long-term strategy.
Here are the steps to get there:
- Divide Your Strategic Plan Into Board Vs. Staff Roles
Take a hard look at each goal of your strategic plan and ask what the board needs to do versus what the staff needs to do to make that goal a reality. For example, if your nonprofit runs an in-school literacy program and your first goal is to grow the number of students by 50%, you probably need your board to open doors to school district decision-makers so that you can grow to additional schools and secure more district support. So at least one or two of your board members must have connections to school district leaders.
- Analyze Current Board Members
Once you’ve made a list of what you need from your board for each of your goals, add those elements to the top of your new board matrix. Make sure these are very specific skills, expertise areas, and networks. So for the example above, they would include things like: “Connections to School District Decision-Makers,” “Experience Growing Organizations,” and “Ability to Understand and Articulate Literacy Data.” At the end of the process, you should have 10-15 skills, expertise areas, or networks that your board must possess. Now list all of your current board members along the left side of the matrix and mark the characteristics that each member has.
- Recruit To Fill The Specific Holes
Once you’ve completed the matrix, you may see areas where your board falls short. Now you know exactly what kinds of board members you need on your board. Give this list of missing skills, expertise, and networks to your Board Recruitment Committee so they can find the specific people necessary to fill those holes.
- Give Each Board Member a Unique Job
Once you are clear about what you need from your board to deliver on your strategic plan, give each board member (current members and new recruits) a unique role to play. People function best when they are very clear about their specific role. If each individual member knows exactly what piece of the strategic plan is theirs to carry out, they will be much more engaged and active. So get specific: “We need you to secure meetings with district-level staff,” or “We need you to look at our growth model and ask hard questions.”
If you want a board that works for you, get specific about the kind of board you really need. To learn more about building a groundbreaking board, download the 10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board book, or the How to Build a Groundbreaking Board webinar.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
One thing the nonprofit sector desperately needs is more people asking hard questions. A lot of time is spent skirting issues or sugar coating situations. If nonprofit leaders instead forced some challenging conversations, with hard questions as the impetus, the sector could become more effective. And the place to start is with a nonprofit leader questioning herself.
I’ve written before about questions to ask your board, and questions to ask your nonprofit, and questions to ask before you pursue a new opportunity, but there are also some key questions a nonprofit leader should ask herself.
On a fairly regular basis a nonprofit leader should ask:
- Am I Leading or Managing?
A manager shuffles resources around, waits to be told what to do, and focuses on checking things off her list. But a leader crafts a larger vision for her organization, articulates what her nonprofit is trying to accomplish, and then marshals all the resources at her disposal (board, staff, funders, partners) toward that vision. And when some of those resources won’t align to the vision (board members who aren’t performing, donors who want to veer off course) she confidently tells it like it is. A manager will deploy resources, but a leader will ensure that the deployment results in social change.
- How Can I Address My Weaknesses?
A great leader recognizes when he is falling short and where he needs complementary abilities. A leader who doesn’t know how to fundraise hires a rockstar Development person, or gets fundraising training. A leader who struggles with strategic decisions finds a leadership coach. A leader who can’t build an effective board, asks fellow nonprofit leaders for counsel. Most importantly, if there are costs associated with addressing his weaknesses, a leader raises the money he needs, instead of doing it on the cheap.
- Am I Selling Myself (and My Nonprofit) Short?
I see so many nonprofit leaders not fighting for what their organization really needs. From not articulating the true costs of their nonprofit to funders, to allowing the board to shirk their fundraising responsibilities, to addressing capacity constraints with a band-aid, to burning out from long hours with not enough staff, nonprofit leaders are constantly giving their organizations, and themselves, short shrift. A true leader finds the confidence to stand up for herself and her organization and demand what is truly required to achieve the vision for change.
- Which Other Leaders Should I Align With?
It amazes me how many nonprofit leaders exist in a bubble. They may collaborate with others on a programmatic level, but they are not regularly analyzing the larger marketplace in which they operate (emerging competitors, new technologies, changing needs) and figuring out with which other leaders impacting the field (policymakers, organization heads, advocates, influencers) they should forge alliances. Social change requires much more than any single organization can accomplish. It is critical that nonprofits become fully networked in their area of social change. A nonprofit leader makes that happen.
- Am I Still The Right Person for The Job?
This is such a hard question. But if you simply don’t have the skills (or the energy) to lead the right road ahead, then you must step aside. Don’t hold your organization and the vision back because of your ego. If you are a true leader, you have assembled a whole army of board, staff, supporters and allies that can continue to move forward in your wake. It’s not easy to recognize or admit, but if you really care about the cause and want to see real change happen, then you should regularly be assessing this.
A true nonprofit leader drives the vision, marshals resources, forges alliances, inspires support, and, ultimately, leads the charge toward social change. Because now more than ever we need real social change leaders. People who are willing and able to find the best way forward and the confidence, smarts, and humility to lead us there.
If you want to learn more about nonprofit leadership, download the Reinventing the Nonprofit Leader book.
Photo Credit: iwona_kellie
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