Another technique for being strategic

August 9, 2017

Filed under: Board Development,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:20 pm

I recently blogged about the importance of being strategic as an organization and one technique for being so modeled after Paul Covey’s insight about effective people focusing on important tasks and not just urgent (e.g. time-sensitive) tasks.

Another technique I’ve found useful in being strategic is based on an insight from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors.

In it, he posits that great organizations find the sweet spot in a Venn diagram consisting of three circles:

  • What the organization can be the best at?
  • What the organization is passionate about?
  • What serves as the organization’s resource engine?

In explaining this, think about the three scenarios where two of these are true and the third is false.

If you’re passionate and can generate dollars, but not excellent, you’ll usually be outcompeted. Over time, even the dollars will fade because donors will figure out your work isn’t excellent.

If you’re excellent and can generate dollars, but not passionate about what you’re doing, your best intent will peter out over the long haul.

If you’re passionate and excellent, but there’s no path to generate resources, you won’t have funds to accomplish what you desire.

Of course, things get even bleaker if you’re only in one of the three circles.

One challenge in implementing this tool is groups are often not self-aware of their own limitations when it comes to excellence.  Finding a way to get candid feedback on this front from those in a position to evaluate the organization is really valuable.

Likewise, a challenge I’ve experienced on the passion front is the exercise is usually about what the most vocal person is passionate about, or the Executive Director/Board Chair.  I’ve had success using confidential interviews as part of strategic planning in a way that generates a more candid sense of where the overall team has its passion.

Lastly, figuring out an organization’s resource engine means taking a hard look at its revenue strategies (whether traditional fundraising or earned revenue) and whether those line up well with the programs being evaluated.

So how does this tool help you choose among various activities?  For each, you can generate ratings on the team’s level of passion for it, the team’s excellence at it, and the likelihood of the activity generating dollars.

You’re not looking for the sum of these ratings, but rather those activities that score well across all three.

One technique for being more strategic

Filed under: Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:04 pm

I’ve recently been thinking about the concept of organizations being strategic.

Being strategic is a choice made by successful nonprofits.

There are a lot of ways nonprofits fail to be strategic.

Some make a list of all desirable things to do and then set out to do them all.

Some do whatever is advocated for by whoever on the board is loudest and most persistent.

Some just keep doing what they’ve always done without reevaluating it.

They are the easy way.

But they’re not the most effective way.

Across many organizational functions (governance, fundraising, program), successful organizations develop systems to make calculated choices where to spend resources (time and money in particular) in order to gain maximum benefit.

That’s because the to-list of worthwhile activities is always far larger than you have time and money to do.

So how do you prioritize your time and money?

There is no one solution for every or even most organizations.

But here’s one tool to consider.  I’ll suggest additional ones in the future.

When you have a list of activities you’re looking to prioritize, plot them on a graph looking at their level of urgency and importance and focus on the upper right quadrant.

This task is taken from Paul Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and specifically his third habit, “Put First Things First.”

In explaining time management, he divides the world into four quadrants based on two continuum.  One continuum is whether an activity is important or unimportant.  The second continuum is whether the activity is urgent or not urgent, with urgency about its time-sensitivity.

Covey makes the point that effective individuals figure out how to prioritize those things that are important, but not urgent.  In contrast, ineffective people get caught up in urgent (e.g. time-sensitive), but unimportant tasks.

Here’s what this looks like graphically and applied by me to nonprofit organizations.

Important
Unimportant

Urgent

Not Urgent

  • Crises
  • Pressing problems
  • Important projects with deadlines
  • Relationship Building
  • Planning
  • Recognizing new opportunities
  • Prevention
  • Interruptions
  • Most phone calls and email
  • Some meetings
  • Popular activities
  • Trivia
  • Busy work
  • Some mail and phone calls
  • Time wasters

Adapted from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits, Page 151

Here are three examples of urgent, but not important activities that often bog organizations down.

  • Low performing fundraising events.  Because events come with inherent internal deadlines both in preparing for and running the event, they create artificial time urgency.  Yet, in the long run, many low-performing fundraising events are simply not important to an organization’s financial health.  They create artificial time urgency, but they are not important.
  • Spending board time on short-term policy/politics.  Particularly for advocacy-focused nonprofits, board meetings can become dominated by backwards looking gossip about who said what, where things stand, and what the organization should do next week responding to some policy proposal.  It’s urgent in the moment.  But in the scheme of things for an organization’s board, it’s not important, since the board’s role should be focused on strategic governance and resources.
  • Leadership attending too many meetings.  I’ve repeatedly been told by Executive Directors that the biggest barrier to their raising more money is carving out the time to do so.  Yet, I then witness them attending meetings where their participation is nice, but of limited importance.  Meetings, because they have territory on a calendar, create an artificial urgency.  It has to be done right now because it’s in the calendar.

In contrast, much of the long-term strategic thinking and relationship building required of successful organizations is never particularly time-sensitive, but it’s critically important.  Effective organizations make those happen even if it means some urgent, but unimportant tasks get jettisoned.

Of course, if a team is doing this exercise, you may need some group process to reach a meeting of the minds.  In one past planning process, I successfully had each member of the team rate the activities being prioritized on both the urgency and importance scales from 1-10 with 10 being highest and then we averaged their ratings.

Regardless of the technique used, even having the conversation using the important/urgency framework can be eye opening to teams.

Check out 13 tips for email that gets results

June 14, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 9:51 am

Communications consultant Natalie Bennon recently published 13 tips for email that gets results.

If you’re just getting started in email communications for a nonprofit or if you want a quick refresher, it’s worth looking at her tips.

Email remains the most critical means of communicating with most supporters and potential supporters.  It’s worth your time to ensure you’re using best practices to get the biggest impact from your list.

a lesson from my yoga instructor

March 13, 2017

Filed under: Fundraising,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:33 pm

My yoga story told a short story that she applied to life, but my mind immediately applied to nonprofit organizations.

Chapter 1: You’re walking down a street, and you fall in a hole.  It’s dark.  It takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 2:You’re walking down the street again, you pretend the hole isn’t there.  You fall in.  It’s dark.  It takes awhile to get out.

Chapter 3: You’re walking down the street again, you see the hole, but you still fall in.  It’s dark.  You get out quickly.

Chapter 4: You’re walking down the street, you see the hole, and carefully go around it.

Chapter 5: You figure out where you want to go and get there by going down a different street.

My yoga instructor’s point was that eventually you want to get to chapter 5 so that you avoid entirely the situation that puts you in peril of falling in the hole.

My application of this story to nonprofits:

Chapter 1: You hold a fundraising event and it’s a bust.

Chapter 2: You hold a fundraising event and give yourself a pep talk that this time it won’t be a bust, but it is.

Chapter 3: You hold a fundraising event, recognize why the last one failed, but it still does.

Chapter 4: You hold a fundraising event, recognize why the last one failed, and manage to make it a success.

Chapter 5: You take the time/energy you put into a mediocre fundraising event and meet with individual donors, raising far more money.

Okay — just one example, and perhaps not a great one.

But the central lesson I think is sound: sometimes when we find ourselves failing at something, the answer isn’t to ignore it, or work really hard to avoid the pitfalls involved.  Maybe the answer is to go do something else entirely that better achieves your goals with fewer risks.

How much input should we seek?

February 15, 2017

Filed under: Consulting,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:27 pm

When starting to talk to a potential strategic planning client, one of the first questions that comes up relates to the level of input they are seeking to solicit as part of the process.

I’m specifically referring to input from those not on the board and staff.  I take it as a given that no strategic planning process is likely to achieve its desired purpose if board and staff – those responsible for implementing the plan — aren’t given significant opportunities to provide input throughout the planning process.

But once you get beyond the board and staff, there is no right answer to the amount of input worth seeking.

Some factors that argue for more expansive input include:

  • Input can increase the commitment of those solicited to the organization.
  • Input from those who have significant control over the organization’s future success will help make it more likely the resulting plan will be one they support.
  • Input may generate critical information about the external lay of the land you will be facing.
  • Input may allow you to hear views from constituencies you’re trying to help that aren’t already adequately represented on your board or staff.
  • Input may help you generate an assessment of how those not on the organization’s “inside” view the organization.

Counterbalancing this desire for input are other factors:

  • Input is costly — it takes time and, if a consultant is collecting the input, money.
  • Input can give those being solicited unrealistic expectations regarding their degree of say in the organization’s future.
  • If you generate too much information, it may be hard to assimilate all the information in a meaningful way.
  • Input can have an opportunity cost if it gets in the way of your ability to ask the person being solicited for some alternative use of their time that’s more critical.

So how decide?

There’s no scientific answer.

You’ll need to think hard about the factors arguing for expansive input and weigh them against the others.

It can be helpful to have someone write up an initial plan for input that tries to find the sweet spot, and then have people react to that plan.

 

 

Personal stories in fundraising

January 9, 2017

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 10:22 am

Telling Personal Stories when doing Fundraising Meetings

Often, we spend so much time honing the stories we’re going to tell to donors about our organization, that we fail to also think about what personal story or stories should become part of donor cultivation and solicitation meetings.

We’re excited to tell the prospect about the organization’s work.  So we rush ahead of the important step of forming a genuine relationship with the prospective donor.

Most good fundraisers understand that relationship-building means doing a lot more listening than talking during donor meetings.   But even good fundraisers sometimes find it difficult to draw out prospects.

About 5 years into my own fundraising odyssey, I learned there’s an important first step that can really help – tell your own personal story.

Why tell your personal story during a fundraising meeting?  And what makes a good personal story that sets up a fundraising meeting?

Fundraising is about Relationships and Stories are Key to Relationship-Building

At its heart, good major donor fundraising is about relationships.  People are far more likely to make a major gift when the ask is by someone with whom they feel comfortable and where they feel you are a person and not just a “position” within an organization.

That means getting to know the donor.  And that’s only possible if they get to know you.  It can’t be one way.

Yet, if we start a donor meeting with just asking the prospect a series of questions, that can be off-putting.   Unless you’re exceptionally gifted, most prospects will keep their guard up when faced with a series of opening questions.

A trick I learned about 5 years into being a major donor fundraiser really changed the dynamic for me when it came to the quality of meetings.  Before I learned this trick, my meetings were successful, but I always felt something was missing.  Afterwards, it was like a switch had been turned on and I found donors far more revealing of themselves.

The trick was to start by telling my own personal story.   After some introductory chit chat and thanking them for something they’ve already done, say something like:

“Thanks again for taking time to meet with me to talk about THE ORGANIZATION.  Before we dive into it, I want to share with you why I’m so glad to be WORKING/VOLUNTEERING for THE ORGANZIATION.”

And then tell the story.

The role of this story is to demonstrate to the donor prospect:

  • That you’re a real person with values motivating your fundraising and not just a cog in the organizational machine.
  • To identify something you value that they probably value too.
  • To create a space in the conversation where it’s natural and appropriate for you to ask about the prospective donor’s own story, background, values, etc.

I’ve heard dozens of effective personal stories over the years.  My own story when fundraising for conservation causes has to do with growing up amidst suburban sprawl and losing easy access to nature.

A good personal story for a fundraising meeting:

  • Answers the question: what in your background motivates your involvement with the organization.
  • Speaks from the heart, and not just the brain.
  • Takes place in time prior to your involvement with the nonprofit.
  • Usually has the structure: “When I was . . . , I . . . ., and then . . . . , and that’s why . . . . .”

After telling the story, it’s much more natural to start asking questions of the prospect.

“So tell me your story  — how did you first become interested in X?”

X will vary wildly based on their career, volunteer interests, etc.

And then you’re off to the races.   Almost always, their answer to the opening question should allow for follow-up questions that can be used to get to know them and their interests.  And occasionally, it will be useful for you to tell another story about yourself to further the relationship.

And then you gradually transition into telling the organization’s stories (why it exists, why it’s successful, what’s urgent).  Now that you know them better, you can also tailor stories about the organization around their interests.

Of course, it may also be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway:  this technique isn’t just useful for fundraising.  I’ve used it doing board recruitment meetings and more general volunteer recruitment, for example.

If you have a personal story you’ve written up and want to run it by me to see if I feel it’s on the right track, feel free to email me.

 

 

 

Why Volunteers and a Spiderman Theory

October 31, 2016

Filed under: Advocacy,Human Resources,Leadership,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 1:22 pm

Why Volunteers and a Spiderman Theory of Volunteer Responsibility

Most organizations with whom I consult make some effort to involve volunteers.

Some are wildly successful.  Others are not.

There are many factors that lead some to be more successful than others, but two stand out that I want to explore in this article.

First, most successful programs are crystal clear about why they’re mobilizing volunteers and they design their program accordingly.

Second, most successful programs find the right balance between asking volunteers to take responsibility and giving them power.   That gives rise to my Spiderman theory of volunteer management.

Why Volunteers?

Before we can get to Spiderman, it’s important to first ask the question: why volunteers?  There are dozens of potential answers, but in general they tend to fit into three big categories:

  1. Getting more stuff done
  2. Building power
  3. Generating leaders

Getting more stuff done

If I’m a staff person for an organization, I can spend an hour doing an activity.  1 person x 1 hour = 1 unit of activity.

If instead I spend that hour recruiting volunteers and find one volunteer who’ll show up and do the activity for 3 hours, then I’ve magically transformed my 1 hour into 3 units of activity.

Of course, there are many assumptions here, such as the assumption of 1 hour = 1 volunteer recruited, that the volunteer can do the activity as effectively as the staff person, that it won’t take even more staff time overseeing the volunteer, etc.

Each organization needs to unpack the various activities for which it’s looking to use volunteers and run the math (using the best estimates you can for your rate of volunteer recruitment, how much training and oversight time will be needed).  Then it can answer the question:  will a volunteer recruitment focus lead to more bang for the buck than just doing the work without volunteers.

Building power

Organizations also use volunteers to build power.  To the extent our organizations are trying to impact public decision-making, perceptions of political power matter.  And in general, organizations who appear to be backed by lots of people have more power than those backed by fewer.  And volunteer activity can be harnessed to be visible to public officials.

Beyond this general maxim, it’s also the case that public officials are more likely to respond to the pleas of their constituents than they are to paid staff for organizations.  Of course, that assumes the constituents are on-message, well trained, etc.  And not all constituents are equal – as much as we wish they were.  Some constituents will be especially appealing to some elected officials based on their role in the community (e.g. business owner, clergy, neighborhood leader, etc.).

Generating leaders

Beyond building power and getting more stuff done, we also use volunteers to generate leaders.

Within our organizations, we’re always looking for the next set of board members and those willing to take on higher-level responsibilities.  If we don’t involve volunteers at the more basic level, it will be harder to identify organizational leaders or take potential board members out for a “test drive” in some other role.

In addition, to the extent our organizations are part of movements, we are hoping to generate movement-leadership as well.   In training a volunteer, they may wind up taking on leadership for an allied organization.  At OLCV, I always took pride when our volunteers wound up serving as staff for other organizations after going through our training program.  Since our organization’s vision was explicitly to serve a network/movement, we saw that as a clearly positive outcome.

Matching your volunteer program to your primary reason

It would be easy to just say: “we want all three of the above” as the reason for a volunteer program.  But in my experience, especially when organizations are first really investing in their volunteer program, it’s important to decide their primary objective among the three, and then design their program accordingly.

  • A getting more stuff done emphasis may lead to a focus on clear, simple-to-do tasks and urgent campaigns around which to motivate lots of volunteers.
  • A building power emphasis may mean a focus not on the overall number of volunteers, but rather identifying volunteers from key audiences (the constituency being served, influential within the community, etc.).
  • A generating leaders emphasis may lead to a focus on a smaller number of volunteers recruited to take on higher-level tasks with a lot of training and relationship-building baked into the program.

Matching power and responsibility

That gives rise to the second point I want to make about effective volunteer programs – they find the right balance between asking people to take responsibility and giving them power.

That’s where Spiderman comes in.  Spidey’s catchphrase is: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  My volunteer corollary for that is:  “If you want your volunteers to take on real responsibility, you must give them real power.”

Many organizations vest real power in their board and zero power in their other volunteers and then wonder why those other volunteers won’t take on more responsibility.  This becomes particularly challenging if the organization’s plan relies on creating a core group of “mid-level” volunteers who’re there to do more than take on tasks, but less than the obligations of board service.

In my experience, the solution lies in providing zones of authority for these mid-level volunteers.  These are areas where they have responsibility and with it, some power to make decisions – whether on organizational policy or allocation of organizational resources.

This can be scary for some boards because it means these mid-level volunteers can make mistakes.  In my experience, though, as long as appropriate side boards are put in place, giving these mid-level volunteers (working through committees, task forces, work groups, etc.) authority can vastly expand their commitment to the organization – and from it the level of work they take on.

During my time at OLCV, this played out with multiple straight election cycles where our campaigns involved more than 1000 volunteers, heavily fueled by chapter steering committees recruiting their friends and families to volunteer.

Of course, your mileage may vary.  The devil’s in the details.

Each organization needs to find the right balance given their organizational culture, lay of the land, and priorities.  But better to think this through explicitly rather than leave it to chance.

Alignment around “why” and not just “what”

October 19, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 1:30 pm

I was talking with someone recently about the struggle of getting a board and staff to stay aligned around a planned set of activities.

In the course of the conversation, I came up with a theory as to why they were having so much difficulty.

The problem is they had agreed on what to do, but they had never articulated in writing why.  Over time, those differences in why were causing some of the participants to believe a switch should now happen because circumstances had changed.

In addition, they had brought on new board and staff members who weren’t part of the original decision and were only presented with the plan for what they were going to do.  Not knowing why, they were less likely to embrace it.

That’s why it’s critical in plans not just to say what you’re going to do, but to include enough of the “why” to make agreements durable over time.  That means agreeing upon the “lay of the land” or underlying facts driving the decision.  And it means agreeing upon strategic assumptions or a theory about the way the world works to reached a shared understanding of why doing what you’re planning will have the impact you desire and expect.   Sometimes this is organization-wide as a “theory of change.”  Oftentimes it’s more granular, program by program.

This can make plans longer.  So it may be some of this is in an appendix.

Bottom line: articulating “why” along with “what” will make your plans more durable as a means of aligning staff and board.

Some thoughts about donor stewardship

September 22, 2016

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 11:05 am

They gave!  Now what?

You want donors to have an ongoing, steadily deepening relationship with both you and the organization.

So you should steward that relationship.  Hence, donor stewardship.

Stewardship starts with the thank you

It may be obvious, but bears emphasis: stewarding the relationship starts with a genuine thank you.

For anyone who’s taken the time to meet with you, that means a handwritten thank you.  Even for major gifts that otherwise come in, a handwritten thank you is advisable.

The alternative: a phone call thank you when the gift comes in.

Either way, this is an opportunity to show genuine appreciation separate from the formal letter the donor should receive thanking them and including any information appropriate for tax purposes.

Stewardship after the thank you

Good stewardship encompasses three primary goals:

  • To strengthen the personal relationship between the prospect and most likely next solicitor,
  • To educate the prospect about the work you do and its importance, and
  • To help the donor see themselves as part of a community of like-minded supporters.

In designing any stewardship activity, you should always be able to point to at least one of those three goals being achieved or else you should rethink whether it’s worthwhile.

Stewardship Tactics to Consider

What activities accomplish these purposes?

  • Sending them information is always a good place to start.  Personalized emails or general email updates can help.  Many organizations still mail major doors an Annual Report or similar document demonstrating the organization’s impact.  It may be a personalized letter once or twice a year aimed at organizational “insiders.”
  • Creating a branded program to recognize and generate community among major donors. For example, a “Leadership Circle” or “Presidents Council.”  A donor belongs to this when they give annually at greater than whatever dollar figure is your threshold.  Those within the program should ideally receive at least a couple communications per year specifically aimed at them.
  • Whether or not you have a branded program, major donors should ideally be given one or two opportunities a year to attend a non-fundraising event. The point of these events is to give them opportunities to engage with leadership, community leaders, and each other.  If they attend these events, it’s important to use the opportunity to get to know them and learn about what motivates them, rather than just talking “to” them.
  • Ask for advice. This can be online, in-person as part of small listening sessions, or in a more formal setting like strategic or program planning.
  • Ask them to volunteer. This could be basic volunteering, serving on a committee or task force, or for those most engaged, service on the board.
  • Give them recognition.  This could be as simple as including their name(s) in an Annual Report along with all similar donors.  Or it could be specific to them, such as giving them an award (hopefully for things they’ve done beyond just their donations).
  • Provide them a personal, one-on-one opportunity to catch up over coffee, lunch, or even on the phone. As with cultivation, whenever you are engaged one-on-one, use it for an opportunity to ask them questions about why they’re interested, what motivates their support, what specific aspects of your work they find most appealing, etc.
  • Send them personalized emails if/when you read about them in the press or come across an article that you feel they would be particularly interested in. (If they have a somewhat unique name, set up a Google news alert to automatically email you if they are mentioned in the news).

In the end, there will almost always be more good stewardship ideas than you have time to do, so it’s important to identify tiers of donors.  Some will get basic stewardship.  Others will get much more personalized stewardship.  When I was an Executive Director, we planned out personalized stewardship for our top 30 donors and all other major donors were folded into a general stewardship plan.  What’s appropriate for your organization will depend on the level of development staff time that is being devoted to major donor fundraising, which in turn should be related to what you can reasonably expect to raise from major donor prospects over time.

If you have additional creative ideas for donor stewardship, please do share them with me!

Overcoming the fear of rejection

Filed under: Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 10:36 am

When people say they are “afraid” of making fundraising asks one-on-one with a prospective donor, there are many facets to that fear.

One is the age-old fear of rejection.  Everyone fears rejection to some degree.  We fear it in our personal lives when we ask people to do something or in our professional lives.

Even the most magnificent major donor fundraiser will feel rejection.  Indeed, if they don’t sometimes receive a “no,” it undoubtedly means they aren’t asking enough people to donate.

There’s no magic solution to this challenge.

But there are some mental techniques that have helped other fundraisers get past this fear.

For one, we can recalibrate in our minds what we mean by success.  Don’t judge success by school standards (90% = an A, 80% = a B, etc.).  Judge yourselves by major donor fundraiser standards (anything better than 50% yes is pretty darn good).

Another tool is to recognize that most “no’s” are really “yes” to something else.  You may be “selling” hamburgers while they want hot dogs.  You may be selling environmental protection while they want to feed the hungry.  In other words, they may have other nonprofits or campaigns they wish to prioritize.  Or, in other cases, really valid personal needs that they need to prioritize.  It will be an exceptionally rare circumstance where someone will say “no” to you while saying they’re going to invest their dollars in something you actively oppose.

Another thing to always bear in mind is that many “no’s” are actually “not now.” They may have already given away all they can during the period in time, but perhaps you’ve set them up for a big gift next year.  Your success is having primed the pump for a future ask that will succeed.

And even beyond future gifts, you can learn to recognize the many other positive outcomes that can come out of a relationship-focused donor meeting even if no gift materializes.  They can volunteer.  They may have offered ideas you like for how the organization can do something differently.  You may learn about something else happening in the community.  You may get leads or referrals to other donor prospects.  I’ve experienced each of these outcomes and by focusing on the positive, the “sting” of rejection quickly faded.

In the end, all the mental tricks in the world won’t fully eliminate the momentary feeling that something is awry when people tell us “no.”  It’s still part of our human nature.  But by thinking consciously about it, successful major donor fundraisers can quickly go from “fear” of rejection to embracing the good that comes out of any one-on-one donor meeting.

If you have other techniques you have used to get past your own fear of fundraising, please let me know!

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