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theory of change

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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When A Funder Takes Your Nonprofit Off Course

It’s fairly common knowledge that in the nonprofit sector the relationship between funders and nonprofit leaders is often fraught. A power imbalance between those with the purse strings and those without can sometimes lead to poor decisions about a nonprofit’s future direction.

The other day I was advising a nonprofit leader — let’s call him “Tim” — about whether he should expand his after-school program to a new school district, an expansion that one of his key foundation funders was championing. Tim was intrigued by the idea because due to a mix of circumstances (high need, proximity to other programs, etc.) investing in this school district had recently become popular among foundations.

But Tim was conflicted because, through years of experience implementing his very successful program, he knew that this new school district would not be a good fit for his program. The school district leadership was not fully invested in Tim’s program and approach, the district was located too far away for the nonprofit to ensure program quality, and the expansion would stretch Tim’s staff too thin, to name just a few of the issues. Despite the drawbacks, Tim was seriously considering expanding to this new district for the sole reason that one of his funders was really keen to see Tim’s program there.

This is a recipe for disaster. It’s an example of a nonprofit leader paying too much attention to the noise. But most troubling, this is an example of a nonprofit leader elevating a funder’s opinion above what the nonprofit leader knows is right.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it.

As a nonprofit leader, there are so many interested parties, so many stakeholders, so many voices telling you what is right and what is best. But the problem is that often those voices have inserted their, or their organization’s, self interest. That’s not to say that this foundation leader was acting with malice. Rather I would bet that he was simply acting with a lack of complete information. Perhaps the foundation leader thought, from his limited viewpoint, that Tim’s proven program would be the perfect addition to this troubled school district. But the foundation leader didn’t understand the larger dynamics at play. And if Tim kept quiet he would actually be doing both himself and the foundation a disservice by keeping his expertise out of the equation.

So when faced with a critical decision (and so many competing voices) how do you get clear about the right move for your nonprofit and then articulate that potentially unpopular decision to others?

First, you have to get quiet. I’m serious — take a walk, turn off your devices, go out in the woods, whatever it takes. You simply cannot make a critical strategic decision amid the ringing phones, your staff’s questions, the constant ping of emails, or the lure of social media.

Once you’ve gotten truly quiet ask yourself: “Which of the possible directions facing our nonprofit is most likely to increase our ability to achieve our desired outcomes?” If you haven’t yet articulated your nonprofit’s desired outcomes, then you need a Theory of Change, which is an excellent guiding document when facing critical strategic decisions like this.

In Tim’s case, if he had gotten quiet and asked himself this question, the answer would have been clear. An expansion to the new school district would actually decrease his nonprofit’s ability to achieve their desired outcomes because 1) they were unlikely to achieve those outcomes with the new students (for all of the reasons outlined above), and 2) the additional drain on his staff would likely decrease the outcomes they were already achieving with their current students.

Once you have arrived at your answer (not the answer someone else wants) articulate (on paper if it’s helpful) why this is the right decision for your nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes. Then convince a few board champions of your argument. Finally meet one-on-one with your funder, or whoever is trying to take you away from what you know to be the right path. In a clear, evidence-based, confident way explain the reasons behind the decision you have made.

Making the right decision for your organization might be terrifying at first – especially if you risk losing a key funder. But trust me, making the right decision will put your nonprofit in a much better place in the long run.

In Tim’s case, deciding not to expand to the new school district could result in one of two things: 1) he could convince his funder that this is the right decision and through Tim’s honesty and strategic decision-making solidify the funder’s long-term support, or 2) he could lose a funder who doesn’t have his nonprofit’s best interests at heart. And if Tim has a solid financing plan for his nonprofit, the loss of that single funder does not have to be a death knell for the organization.

Either way he has put his nonprofit on a stronger, more sustainable path.

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

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When Nonprofit Collaboration Actually Makes Sense

Let’s talk about nonprofit collaboration for a second. Funders and thought leaders often extol the virtues of collaboration among nonprofit organizations as a way to maximize increasingly limited resources. But pushing nonprofits to blindly collaborate, just for the sake of saving some money (“Can’t you all just work together?”), is really doing no one any favors.

Peter Panepento’s recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is among the latest of these calls for more collaboration. In fact he explains a sort of magic he sees in collaborations that are forged between quite disparate groups. He argues:

“At a time when nonprofits are getting squeezed by government budget cuts and facing increased need among those they serve, many groups are realizing that they cannot achieve their missions without building new alliances…Interestingly, many of the most successful collaborations have been between groups working on very different missions, or between nonprofits and groups outside the nonprofit field.”

Indeed, innovative collaborations can be very exciting. But we must make sure that when collaboration happens, it follows a thoughtful, strategic approach, otherwise it can come at quite a cost. We can’t just encourage nonprofit leaders to “collaborate more” and call it a day. There are very specific times when, and very specific ways to approach, collaborations that make sense.

First, it’s important to make a distinction between two very different types of collaboration:

  1. Little “c” collaboration where a nonprofit coordinates with other organizations to deliver programs and services and/or share best practices, vs.
  2. Big “C” Collaboration where nonprofit leadership analyzes their external marketplace and forges organization-wide, strategic alliances with other entities that can help move the nonprofit’s social change goals forward.

In their article “The Networked Nonprofit,” Jane Wei-Skillern & Sonia Marciano articulated this difference:

“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.”

Collaboration with a Big C is a strategic way for nonprofits to operate, but it necessitates that nonprofit leaders have a clear understanding of their individual nonprofit’s core competencies, target audiences, and desired social change outcomes (through a Marketplace Map and Theory of Change), so that they can be very clear about which entities they should Collaborate with in order to move those outcomes forward. And instead of viewing their nonprofit as a single organization, nonprofit leaders can begin to think of their nonprofit’s work as part of a larger network of social change.

So to Collaborate effectively, nonprofit leadership must embark on a 3-part process:

  1. Get clear about the nonprofit’s core competencies (what you do better than anyone else), target populations (who you seek to benefit or influence), and desired social change outcomes (the change you’d like to see in the world). This can be done by creating a Theory of Change.
  2. Map your external marketplace to determine the potential Collaborators out there and where and when it might make sense to forge strategic alliances.
  3. Finally, because these need to be organization-wide alliances, you must engage your board, not just your staff, in creating high-level relationships with those with whom you’d like to Collaborate.

In other words, in order to move your mission forward through Collaboration, you must better understand both your nonprofit and your external environment. By figuring out exactly what your nonprofit brings to the table that is different from and additive to what potential Collaborators bring to the table, you can more successfully develop partnerships with more high-level decision-makers in the nonprofit, government, and/or private industries that affect the social change you seek. And isn’t that what it is ultimately all about?

I’m all for Collaboration — when it makes strategic sense. But the only way Collaboration works is when a nonprofit gets very clear about what change they want and which entities out there can help achieve it.

Photo Credit: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference to discuss the European Theatre in 1943, Wikimedia.

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Do Your Programs Contribute to Mission AND Money?

There is a tool that I think is incredibly helpful to nonprofit leaders trying to figure out where to focus their resources and how to plan for the future. Indeed it is typically one of the first activities in the strategic planning process I use with my clients.

The Program Matrix helps a nonprofit board and staff analyze their portfolio of programs to understand their overall mission and money mix.

Because those two elements — mission and money — are inextricably bound in an effective nonprofit organization. You simply cannot achieve your mission without an operation that attracts and uses money sustainably.

The Program Matrix looks like this:

And, here’s how to fill out yours.

List Your Programs
A nonprofit leader makes a list of all their mission-related programs and initiatives. But don’t include organization-building work, like pure fundraising activities, or board development. While those activities are absolutely critical to your success, they are a means to an end. For example, conducting a fundraising appeal has the goal of raising money to plow into programs. So in Program Matrix, we want to look at just the mission-related programs.

Plot Your Programs on the Matrix
Once you have that list of programs, plot each individual program on the matrix based on that program’s ability to contribute to:

  1. Social Impact: The social change outcomes you are working toward, which are found in your Theory of Change (on the x axis), and

  2. Financial Returns: The financial sustainability of the organization (on the y axis). A program that can attract enough money not only to cover its own direct and indirect costs, but also to subsidize other programs would be above the line (“positive”), whereas a program that cannot attract enough money to cover its own costs would be below the line (“negative.”)

Analyze the Results
Once you have plotted your entire portfolio of programs on the matrix, take a look at where they fall in the four boxes. These are:

  1. Worthwhile: The program significantly contributes to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, but it drains financial resources from the organization. A nonprofit will always have programs in this box, and that’s fine.

  2. Sustaining: The program doesn’t appreciably contribute to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, but it does provide a surplus of financial resources to the organization, which is great.

  3. Beneficial: The program contributes to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes AND it provides excess money that can be plowed into “Worthwhile” programs — this is the best of both worlds.

  4. Detrimental: The program doesn’t contribute to the nonprofit’s mission and desired outcomes, AND it drains financial resources from the organization — this is the worst of both worlds.

Once filled out, the Program Matrix helps to surface issues that a nonprofit must address. First, any “Detrimental” programs should be significantly reconfigured, given to another organization to run, or abandoned. Second, in order to ensure financial sustainability, make sure that there are enough “Sustaining” and “Beneficial” programs to subsidize the “Worthwhile” programs. If not, you need to get strategic about developing programs that can offset the financial drain of the “Worthwhile” programs.

Repeat the Analysis Often
Once you’ve completed the Program Matrix analysis, rinse and repeat. On a regular basis (at least annually) board and staff should take a look at an updated Program Matrix and make any necessary programmatic adjustments. And any time you are thinking about adding a new program, redo the Program Matrix to include your best guess of where this new program will fall, so that you can understand its impact on the overall social impact and sustainability of your new portfolio of programs.

Armed with the power of the Program Matrix, nonprofit leaders can create a mix of programs that ensure achievement of their social change goals in a sustainable way.

Photo Credit: ParentingPatch 

 

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6 Steps to Operationalize a Nonprofit Strategic Plan

gearsOne of the biggest complaints about nonprofit strategic plans is that once created, they just sit on a shelf. A strategic plan is completely wasted effort if you neglect the final step of operationalizing it.

And by that I mean creating an annual tactical plan and monitoring process that directly tie to the larger strategy. In fact, lack of the operational part of your strategic plan is one of the 3 biggest problems with nonprofit strategic planning.

It does absolutely no good to have big goals that you want to accomplish and a larger future direction for your nonprofit’s work if you don’t have a way to connect that to your day-to-day operations.

So here are the 6 steps to do just that:

1. Create the Strategy
Start with the broad goals and objectives of your strategic plan. Typically, I recommend a nonprofit have 3-6 broad goals over a future (say 3 years or so) period. These should always tie to your longer term Theory of Change, and each goal should be broken down into the 5-10 objectives necessary to get there. And it goes without saying, but you have to create this strategy through a defined strategic planning process.

2. Create Annual Milestones
Once the board has approved those broad goals and objectives, staff needs to create a milestone table that articulates a lead person responsible (“Lead”) and a deliverable for each objective at the end of each year of the strategic plan (“Milestone”), like this:

 

milestone table

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Create a Year One Operational Plan

Once you have that milestone table, you can pull out the milestones for the first year and develop your Year 1 operational plan (below), which lists monthly or quarterly checkpoints for each objective’s milestone for that year. This will helps you monitor (step #4 below) whether the plan is coming to fruition.

operational plan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Monitor Monthly at Staff Level

This operational plan should be reviewed on at least a monthly basis, where the staff comes together to analyze their checkpoints and report on what’s working, what’s not, and where they need to make adjustments.

5. Monitor Regularly at Board Level
Whether your board meets monthly, quarterly or (yikes!) less, you need to report to them on the progress of your strategic plan at every meeting. Since the board is ultimately responsible for the strategic direction of the organization, they need to understand how it is going. Using the operational plan above, you can easily highlight where: things are moving smoothly (green), things need discussion or action (yellow), and serious problems or hurdles (red) lie.

6. Adjust Accordingly
On at least an annual basis, the full board should review the organization’s Theory of Change and goals and objectives of the strategic plan to determine if any revisions (due to changes in internal and/or external circumstances) need to be made.

I believe that a huge reason for the distaste nonprofit leaders have for strategic planning comes from the poor operationalization of those plans. You simply cannot hope to execute on a strategic plan without tactics to get there.

You can learn more about what a strategic planning process looks like here.

Photo Credit: Kevin Utting

 

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The Future of the Nonprofit Sector [Slideshare]

I’m excited to be heading to Pennsylvania next month to speak at the 2016 Nonprofit Day Conference. My keynote address for the conference will be “The Future of the Nonprofit Sector.” I wanted to share an abbreviated version of the speech with you here via the Social Velocity Slideshare library.

In my mind, there are some fundamental shifts happening in the sector that will be important to watch. They include:

  • Increasing competition in the space
  • A greater demand for results and social change
  • An increased use of advocacy to achieve that change
  • A move to more “networked” approaches
  • Less “starving” nonprofits of their operational needs
  • And (of course) a move from fundraising to financing

These are interesting times, and they hold tremendous opportunity, I think, for the social change sector.

If you want to see other Social Velocity Slideshares go here. And if you want to learn more about inviting me to come speak to your group or event, check out my Speaking page.

The Future of the Nonprofit Sector from Nell Edgington

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Do You Know Your Nonprofit’s Target?

targetWhen I work with nonprofit leaders to create a strategic plan, one of the first things we do together is create a Theory of Change. A Theory of Change is an articulation of why your nonprofit exists — what you ultimately hope to accomplish. The Theory of Change is the culmination of answers to a set of 5 key questions, the first of which is, “Who is Your Target Population?”

Your Target Population is the individuals or groups that your nonprofit is seeking to benefit or influence. So if you are a social services nonprofit, your target population is probably your clients. If you are an advocacy group, your target population is probably lawmakers. But often a nonprofit has multiple target populations. For example, a school that works directly with both children and their parents would have both groups as separate target populations.

When a nonprofit exists just to do good work, its leaders are less clear and less disciplined about exactly who they are seeking to benefit or influence. But 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 change with your target.

But figuring out your target population is not easy.

First, let’s start with who is not your target population:

Not Your Funders
Your target population is not individuals or groups who fund your work. While funders are absolutely critical to your success, they are not core to your mission-related work. So while you would love to influence them to give you more money, their doing that will not by itself create social change. They are not your target population, rather they are a means to an end.

Not The Targets of Your Competitors or Collaborators
Your target population is also not individuals or groups that are being better benefitted or influenced by other organizations or entities. This is where your Marketplace Map comes in (another key part of a strategic planning process). 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 once you figure out who your competitors and collaborators are, you should avoid target populations that are being more effectively served by those other entities.

Not Those Who You Cannot Change
Your target population is also not individuals or groups who you really want to help, but are simply not well-positioned to do so. This is the case with nonprofit leaders who are so big-hearted that they continue to add new groups to serve until they realize that their services and the people they serve range much too far and wide. This approach often spreads a nonprofit too thin and ends up providing diminishing returns for the organization and their clients. While it often goes against a nonprofit leader’s ethos, sometimes you have to turn some people away in order to better serve those who you can serve really well.

So who is your target population?

Your target population then are those people who you are uniquely positioned to benefit or influence and in doing so you will move closer to achieving your nonprofit’s long-term vision for change. When you get clearer about who you are best positioned to benefit or influence, you will be better able to direct your precious resources (staff, board, funders, volunteers) toward achieving that ultimate goal.

In other words, when you are clearer about who you want to change, you will become better at actually creating that change.

If you want to learn more about a Theory of Change, download the Design a Theory of Change Guide, or if you want to learn more about the strategic planning process I take clients through, download the Strategic Planning Benefit Sheet.

Photo Credit: vizzzual.com

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Building Better Nonprofits: A Podcast

podcastLast month I was asked by Ted Bilich, CEO of Risk Alternatives — a Washington, DC firm helping nonprofits manage their organizational and financial risks —  to participate in a podcast. This is part of their ongoing podcast series “About Risk” which talks to thought leaders about risk management and process improvement for nonprofits, small businesses, and startups.

In the podcast Ted and I talk about:

  • How the nonprofit landscape has become more competitive
  • Why nonprofits need a theory of change
  • How and when to engage in strategic planning
  • How nonprofits can determine if they are applying best practices
  • The benefits of a financial model assessment
  • How to address common risks involving a board of directors
  • And much more

You can listen to the podcast below, or click here.

And you can see all episodes in the “About Risk” series here. And if you want to listen to more podcasts about the evolving nonprofit sector, go here, here or here.

Photo Credit: Patrick Breitenbach

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