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strategy

What Are The Key Strategic Questions Facing Your Nonprofit?

At the beginning of any strategic planning process I lead, this is the question I pose to the nonprofit’s leadership: “What are the key strategic questions facing your nonprofit?”

Nonprofit leaders who want to plan for the future must first articulate what it is they need to decide about that future. A strategic question is a big picture, two roads diverged in the woods kind of question. Shall we go this way, or shall we go that way? They are not the tactical “How do we get this done?” questions, but rather the “What should we be doing?” kinds of questions.

So my first step in strategic planning is to lead the board and staff to create a laundry list of the big picture questions they want to be able to answer by the end of the strategic planning process.

These are questions like:

What people or groups are we seeking to benefit or influence?
It is absolutely essential that your nonprofit get crystal clear about who your target population is in order to better create change for those targets, more effectively encourage funders to invest in what you are doing, put your limited resources to their highest and best use, and, most importantly, to really understand how best to create social change. Your target populations are those people who you are uniquely positioned to benefit or influence and in doing so will move you closer to achieving your nonprofit’s long-term vision for change. When you get clear about who you are best positioned to benefit or influence, you will be better able to direct your precious resources (staff, board, money, volunteers) toward achieving that ultimate goal. The clearer and more specific you can get about exactly who your target population(s) are, the more effective you will be at creating change for them.

Which programs or activities should we cut?
Often nonprofit leaders are so big hearted that over the years they take on more and more programs and services, regardless of whether those additional programs make strategic sense or fit with the core competencies of their organization. So if you run a nonprofit with a long list of programs that don’t necessarily align with each other or with what you do best, you may want (during your strategic planning process) to ask which programs should stay and which should go.

What social issues are we working to address?
Sometimes a nonprofit’s board and staff are at odds about (or at least have never really decided) the exact list of social problems their nonprofit wants to address. A nonprofit is typically created because its founder recognizes some injustice or disparity and she wants to address that problem. But over time, a nonprofit’s leadership might take on additional issues, or the issues they were formed to address might change or grow, or other competing groups might launch to address similar issues.  So to chart a future direction, board and staff together must become crystal clear about exactly which social problems they believe are in their nonprofit’s purview.

Given what others working on the same issues are doing, where should we be focusing our efforts?
You cannot create a long-term strategy in a vacuum. Therefore you must get outside your walls and understand what other people and groups working on similar social issues are doing. And then you may need to determine what impact those efforts have on your nonprofit’s future direction and where can you have the most effective results.

What changed conditions should result from our work?
This is the ultimate strategic question because it forces everyone to articulate why your nonprofit exists. The changed social conditions that you desire (in other words, your desired outcomes) help you articulate what you ultimately hope your nonprofit will accomplish. And by articulating that, you can then work backwards to determine how you will operate, what programs you will run, who you will work with, how you will be funded, etc. Your desired outcomes serve as your nonprofit’s guiding light. And they hold your nonprofit accountable both internally and externally.

What is the most sustainable financial model for the outcomes we want to achieve?
All money is not equal and in order to create sustainable social change you have to figure out how to attract enough and the right kinds of money to achieve your outcome goals. So as part of your strategic planning process, you may need to figure out what your financial model should look like given the answers to all of your other strategic questions.

These are just a sampling of potential key strategic questions. Your unique mission and operating model will necessitate that you create your own custom list of key strategic questions.

Once you have that list, the purpose of a good strategic planning process then is to set about answering those questions in an evidence-based, decisive way. And once you have answers to all of your key strategic questions, you can craft a compelling, effective strategic plan that board, staff and supporters will be excited to bring to fruition.

If you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I use with my clients, check out my Strategic Planning page.

Photo Credit: Nick Page

 

 

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How Effective Is Your Nonprofit Leader?

In an ideal world, one of the things a nonprofit board of directors does is annually evaluate the performance of the executive director. But let’s be honest, how often does that actually happen?

I once had an executive director so desperate for feedback about her job performance from a board who refused to evaluate her that she hired me to interview board and staff and write her performance review.

Perhaps boards are uncomfortable with reviewing the CEO, or they don’t know how to manage it, or they are simply unaware that it’s their responsibility. Whatever the reasons, effective evaluation of nonprofit CEO performance doesn’t happen enough in the sector.

But for a nonprofit to be effective and sustainable there must be a system in place for regularly evaluating it’s chief staff member (not to mention the rest of the staff and the board of directors itself, but those are for another day).

As I’ve said before, the head staff member (CEO or executive director) is the most important position in a nonprofit organization. She affects the level of engagement of  the board, the financial sustainability of the organization, the productivity of the staff, and ultimately the organization’s ability to achieve it’s mission. She is the chief spokesperson, chief fundraiser, chief cheerleader and so much more. At the very least, she deserves to know, on an annual basis, how well her board and staff think she is doing.

The CEO evaluation is an opportunity for the board to discuss the performance of their lead staff person, whether the organization is going in the right direction, and what, if any, adjustments need to be made. The discussion can offer a real point of organizational self-reflection that can re-energize and re-orient all involved.

So in order to inspire your nonprofit to create an annual system for evaluating the performance of your CEO or executive director, I’d like to offer some suggested questions to guide your board’s process. Ideally the board’s Governance or Board Affairs committee would be charged with managing the CEO evaluation each year. These are the types of questions they would want to answer (by surveying, compiling and analyzing staff and board feedback):

  1. What does the CEO do really well? What are his/her strengths as the leader of our nonprofit?
  2. Where is there room for improvement? What are his/her weaknesses as a leader of our nonprofit?
  3. How well does she/he recruit, manage and develop the board?
  4. How well does she/he recruit, manage, and develop the staff?
  5. How well does she/he guide the overall strategy of our nonprofit?
  6. How well does she/he serve as a spokesperson and external relationship builder for our nonprofit?
  7. How well does she/he ensure the financial sustainability of our organization?

It is critical to mention that the data gathered in the review process should be kept anonymous. You want board and staff to feel free to be honest in their responses and not fear reprisal or embarrassment for their candor. And when the board delivers the final evaluation to the CEO, they should do it in a way in which the CEO feels appreciated for the things she does well and supported in addressing any areas of concern. Ideally both board and CEO come away from the process feeling that the CEO has a clear path for the coming year and the tools and support she needs to get there.

If you need help getting your board moving forward on this process, or help coaching your leader to become more effective, check out the Leadership Coaching services I provide.

Photo Credit: Packer, poster artist, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

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The Network Approach to Social Change

nonprofit networkAlthough I already mentioned (in my September 10 Great Reads list) a really interesting article about “network entrepreneurs,” I want to further explore the concept because I think it could be a game changer for nonprofit leaders willing to embrace it.

Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in September, Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman, and David Sawyer describe a “network entrepreneur” as different from, and much more effective at creating social change than a typical nonprofit leader. As they put it:

A network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem. Not surprisingly, the potential for impact increases exponentially when leaders leverage resources of all types—leadership, money, talent—across organizations and sectors toward a common goal.

And this mirrors Wei-Skillern’s earlier article from 2008, “The Networked Nonprofit” where she described how a “networked nonprofit” builds alliances far beyond its own walls and is thus much more effective at creating social change that a traditional nonprofit:

Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts. And unlike traditional nonprofit leaders who think of their organizations as hubs and their partners as spokes, networked nonprofit leaders think of their organizations as nodes within a broad constellation that revolves around shared missions and values.

In essence, the network approach to social change is one of true leadership — leadership writ large. Because a true leader leaves their ego, and the ego of their organization, aside in order to assemble all the required resources (individuals, institutions, networks, funding) to chart a path towards larger social change. Instead of leading an organization, a network entrepreneur is, in essence, leading a social change movement.

A network entrepreneur understands that social change lives beyond any single organization. It requires someone (or a set of someones) to marshall all the necessary resources, create a larger change vision and lead people towards that vision.

This concept is so critical to nonprofit leaders who are often working with such limited resources. If instead of working to build an institution, a nonprofit leader worked to build networks, she could be much more effective at creating long-term social change.

So what does this network approach look like in practice for a nonprofit leader?

Instead of thinking just about your organization, your staff, your mission, your board, your donors, you must analyze and connect with the larger marketplace outside your walls. You need to analyze the other people and entities working on similar challenges, and not just in the nonprofit space, but also in other sectors, geographies and time periods (yes, history matters!).  Determine how other places, other people, other organizations, both past and present, addressed similar problems. You need to understand the points of leverage for attacking the problem on a much larger scale than your single organization can. Figure out who the influencers are in the space and how to connect your work with those other individuals, institutions, networks.

The network approach also requires that nonprofit leaders move away from the resource-constrained, scarcity approach that keeps them from forging alliances with other entities that might be competing for the same limited pool of funding. Instead leaders must take an abundance approach that leaves fears behind in favor of a bigger, bolder approach.

And the network approach involves having the confidence to think that there is potentially a larger solution and that you might be part of it. The dysfunctional power imbalance present for so long in the nonprofit sector has bred a crisis of confidence that keeps nonprofit leaders focused just on their own work, instead of seeing the larger picture and envisioning a larger solution or role in that solution.

The network approach to social change involves taking a big step back from the work you have always done. It requires asking a much larger set of questions. And having the faith, confidence and leadership to plug into the network for social change.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

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Nonprofit Leaders, Take a Breath

nonprofit leaderEarlier this month, after much effort, I finally convinced a worn out nonprofit leader to take some time off to rejuvenate. But it was a battle.

Because they are often incredibly driven by ambitious social change visions, tremendous empathy for the plight of their clients, and an overly developed gratitude to their board and donors, nonprofit leaders push themselves extremely hard.

In fact, nonprofit leaders are really quite excellent at self-denial. I see this all the time in my coaching practice.

But nonprofit leaders you must give yourselves permission to breathe. And I don’t mean an afternoon off, or a weekend without checking email.

I mean a real break. A break where you start to find yourself again.

Not yourself as a nonprofit leader, but yourself as a human being with interests, connections, and passions outside of your organization. Someone who explores the world around you. Someone who realizes that you are on this earth for a very short time and while your role in social change is absolutely necessary, it is not your only contribution, nor is it the only place you can (or should) find meaning.

Because let’s be honest, the only way a pace like yours ends is in complete social change burnout. By existing only on the unending treadmill of work, work, work and ignoring your very human need to reconnect with your passions, your spirit, your family and friends you are setting yourself up for eventual breakdown. And make no mistake, without you as leader at the helm, your nonprofit’s work will grind to a halt.

So during these summer months when things are perhaps a bit slower, give yourself permission to take an extended period of time away.

And I mean really away.

Turn off your phone and your email. Step back from social media (believe me it will still be there when you get back).

Without the constant deluge of information and demands on your time assailing you, you are free to hike the mountains, get a massage, take in an art exhibit, watch your children or your grandchildren play (and join them!), explore your hobbies, read an amazing book. It really doesn’t matter what you do, just that you do something different and meaningful. Embrace the parts of yourself outside of your social change job, those things that make you fully human.

You may even consider taking it further, as philanthropic thought leader Lucy Bernholz did recently with a “digital sabbatical” where she went offline (no email or social media) for six weeks. She found the experience incredibly rejuvenating: “Without the addictive stimulation and distractions of digital life it feels like my brain grew three sizes.”

As the daily glut of information continues to increase, it becomes more important than ever to take a breather, to embrace the quiet. There is tremendous value in reconnecting with what makes us human, not machine.

And let me assure you that I am giving myself this same advice. I know how hard it is to step away from the email and social media beasts. I’m as concerned as you are with letting people down or not making enough progress.

But I am slowly coming to realize that sometimes progress is found in the quiet. And sometimes it is enough — more than enough — to just be. To sit and watch the world in all its beauty float by and have absolutely no effect on it other than to appreciate it.

If you need help finding the space to do this, check out the Coaching I offer nonprofit leaders.

Photo Credit: pixabay

 

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