Connecting fiscal management to strategy

May 17, 2014

Filed under: Fundraising,Human Resources,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 9:14 am

I recently published a guest article for 501Commons on the importance of building a fiscal management system that connects with strategic decision-making.

The main point: you should track revenues and expenses by categories that provide information useful for strategic decision-making.  That means moving away from an exclusive focus on a “line item” approach that focuses on things like printing, postage, and salaries and also layers in a way of tracking by functional categories that represent your programs.

Check out the full article on 501Commons website and then let me know what you think.


Have you sharpened your axe lately?

March 27, 2014

Filed under: Board Development,Fundraising,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 12:49 pm

A friend was recently describing to me a challenge he faced as a new board member of a relatively healthy organization, but one that seemed to have a frenetic culture.

He said the situation reminded him of an allegory a colleague once told him and I liked the story so much I’m repeating it here.  (If anyone knows the source of this allegory, please let me know).

Once upon a time, there was a woodsman who made his living cutting logs into firewood.  People kept coming to him requesting his work, so he got very busy.  He complained to his neighbor about how busy he was.

The next day, when he had a lot of wood to cut, the neighbor came by to observe his work and asked him why he didn’t stop to sharpen his axe. 

The woodsman replied: “Can’t you see I’m too busy to sharpen my axe?”

Of course, the moral of the story is that the woodsman would actually cut more wood in less time with a sharper axe.

This lesson applies to organizations and not just individuals.

I’ve known many nonprofit organizations with a culture of “getting it done” that are constantly overwhelmed with “stuff to do” so they never take the time to “sharpen their axe.”

In the organizational context, sharpening the axe can mean many things:

  • Professional development/training for staff and/or the board.
  • Strategic or other long-term or short-term planning
  • Team-building exercises/retreats

So organizational leaders out there as you plot the year ahead, don’t forget to build in multiple ways in which you’re sharpening the axe and not just swinging it.

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Evaluating on two levels

February 14, 2014

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 3:14 pm

When talking to organizations about evaluation, I often find myself explaining evaluation on two levels.

These levels ask two related, but different questions.

1.  Did the organization take the specific action steps called for in the Strategic Plan?

2.  Did the organization achieve the Objectives of the Strategic Plan?  This latter question doesn’t ask: did we do what we set out to do?   It asks the equally important question:  Did doing what we set out to do change the world in the way we hoped?

In evaluating whether Objectives were achieved, organizations need to take into account that some Objectives (eg. those related to fundraising) are easily quantified and thus easy to measure.  Other Objectives are more subjective and should be evaluated with the eye of a trial lawyer marshaling facts towards a conclusion.

There will be times when the organization does everything it set out to do, but intervening factors (e.g a recession) will prevent it from accomplishing its Objectives.  Conversely, sometimes organizations fail to implement their tactics, but nonetheless achieve their Objectives because intervening forces are in its favor.

In the end, both levels of evaluation are critical.  If you fail to determine if you did what you set out to do, an organization will develop a culture lacking in accountability.  But if you fail to ask the second question, you may congratulate yourselves on implementing your plan, but learn nothing of value to figuring out what you should be doing in the future.

Thinking about triggers in work plans

June 19, 2013

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:02 pm

I’ve previously written about the importance of generating work plans once wrapping up strategic planning.

One of the most useful tools in a work plan is the concept of triggers.

Too often work plans focus on end products without thinking through what other steps must be completed before a specific tactic can be accomplished.

One of my clients this summer, for example, is using “tabling” at public fairs/festivals as a tactic for the first time.  The initial work plan simply said: identify two tabling opportunities, recruit 5 volunteers and table.  Of course, it soon became clear that this also meant developing the necessary materials, setting up new systems to identify/train volunteers, finding a table/chairs, designing/printing a banner, etc.

Another client recently discussed with me her experience putting together the organization’s first corporate sponsorship packages for an event.  Because no work planning had happened, she hadn’t identified the triggers that had to be done in advance of actually asking corporations to sponsor (updated materials, agreement upon sponsorship levels, relationship-building, etc.).   The process therefore took her considerably longer than they had anticipated.

Rather than just creating a to-do list, good work planning identifies the outcomes you want and then works backwards to identify all the triggers or precursors that must be accomplished along the way.    In addition to making sure steps are done in the right order, on time, making explicit all the triggering steps that must first be taken is essential to make sure the work plan is making realistic assumptions about how much staff time a project will take.

More than once I’ve watched organizations go awry when they fail to plan in this way and find themselves 2-3 weeks out from a major milestone scrambling because a trigger wasn’t taken into account.

Occasionally, there are brilliant people whose minds can do this all in their head.

But for mortals like me and you, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard is an essential step to make sure the work gets done in the right order on the right timeline.

What you call it doesn’t matter

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 1:49 pm

I was recently talking to someone who plays the staff role for a medium sized nonprofit organization.

She had raised the possibility of doing strategic planning with her boss and was told in no uncertain terms that their organization’s CEO was against strategic planning based on past negative experiences.

Yet, in her assessment the organization very much needed it.

My feedback to her is: it doesn’t matter what you call it.  So don’t call it strategic planning.

Instead, I recommended she suggest to her boss that they need to reach clarity on the organization’s identity (who they are, what they uniquely do) and business model (what they do, how they fund it), along with 3-4 long-term goals that everyone on staff can rally behind.

Rather than do a “planning retreat,” they can tackle these questions in much shorter, discrete meetings that involve a subset of the board/staff that then comes back with proposed answers.

Of course, in the end, if the CEO of the organization doesn’t want anything along these lines to happen, forcing it on them won’t accomplish anything.  But there are ways to bring along reluctant staff and board members to the idea that organizations with a strategy and with everyone rowing in the same direction are more likely to thrive than those that wing it.

You don’t have to call that strategic planning to make it work.

A fascinating video about motivation

November 20, 2012

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership,Strategic Planning,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 5:39 pm

The question I keep asking myself after repeatedly re-watching this video is: what are the implications for nonprofit organizations?

Some implications are fairly straightforward:

For example, with very few exceptions, nonprofits tend to eschew the use of financial performance bonuses as a means to spur better future results. The video suggests nonprofits are right to avoid financial bonuses.

Also, nonprofits have an inherent advantage over for-profit entities, in that their “purpose” is hard-wired into their reason for existence, unlike the “purpose” examples Pink cites from the for-profit world.

But how about mastery and autonomy? I think one of the deeper meanings of the video is that nonprofits can’t simply play the “purpose” trump card as a way to motivate volunteers and staff, if there is no effort to take into account the other two motivators.

If purpose, mastery, and autonomy are three legs of a stool, the nonprofit can’t survive on just one leg.

Another way of putting it is: if you strip away autonomy and mastery as a way to motivate your nonprofit team, what will result?

A nonprofit I’ve known for some time recently changed its decision-making structure to remove a great deal of authority (e.g. autonomy) from volunteers, even as the nonprofit continues to tout volunteers as a critical part of its strategy. Over time, what will that mean for the nonprofit’s ability to attract high quality volunteers? My prediction (which hasn’t yet had time to be born out) is that it will have a significant negative impact.

Aside from giving decision-making control to volunteers, are there other ways to meet their needs for autonomy and mastery?

What about employees? Are there lessons for how to engage them beyond the usual generalities about not micromanaging them?

Your feedback is encouraged.

Clarifying the “why” when doing strategic planning

August 2, 2012

Filed under: Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 1:45 pm

Often times in early conversations with clients, it becomes clear that they can’t articulate why they’re doing strategic planning.  This can lead to disagreements about what process to utilize, since the process should focus on meeting the organization’s primary need for doing strategic planning.  In worst case scenarios, it can lead to the process falling apart.

By way of example, a strategic planning process that aims to get the staff and board past disagreements about mission and strategy should look different than one whose primary aim is to help a smaller or medium sized organization figure out how to get to the next level.

So here are five potential “top” reasons to do strategic planning.  Before launching a planning process, I advise organizations to make sure that they’ve identified the top one (or perhaps two) reasons and make sure the process they’re undertaking will be tailored to address the reason.

  • To help with fundraising.  A good strategic planning process should strengthen your relationship with top donors.  And more importantly, a good strategic plan can be an effective tool to go to your largest donors and convince them you have a solid plan to get to the next level if they invest.   (As an aside, “next level” doesn’t have to mean larger, it could mean more effective).
  • To prioritize. A good strategic planning process can help the board and staff collectively determine priorities among what are often too many laudable goals and strategies.   This can then provide a useful tool for future budgeting and work planning.
  • To reestablish consensus around the mission.  Often as groups grow, mission creep sets in, for both good and bad reasons.  As board turnover happens, you can easily wind up with a board and/or staff that has disparate opinions about the fundamental purpose the organization is seeking to serve.  Over time, this can lead to all sorts of inefficiencies and conflict.  Strategic planning is a great way to resolve these differences, or figure out what to do if the differences are unresolvable.
  • To get the board more engaged. Even the best boards go through cycles of less engagement.  It’s hard to overcome that through one-on-one meetings (thought they’re critical).  And regular board meetings can be improved to generate more engagement.  But to take a the board up a notch usually requires a reboot using something like “strategic planning” to excite the board, build community among the board, and convince them that stepping up their involvement will help lead to more success.
  • To develop new strategies or better articulate existing strategy.   A well thought out strategic planning process should either help you identify new strategies to initiate or, at the very least, better articulate how your existing strategy or strategies are designed to lead to achievement of your goals.   Without a strategy, you’re not likely to be effective.  And by better articulating your strategy, you’re far better prepared over time to stay on track as new opportunities and threats emerge.

This is not intended as an exhaustive list.  And I don’t want to suggest you have to pick one of these to focus on.

But thinking through why you’re doing strategic planning remains a key piece necessary to design a useful process.

Tips for being innovative

June 22, 2012

Filed under: Strategic Planning,Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 4:20 pm

Lots of groups say they value innovation.

But it’s harder to say that than to do it.

If you want to encourage out-of-the-box thinking in your organization, here are some ideas I’ve gleaned over time.   I’d be curious to learn what other ideas you have.

1. Be explicit about when you’re experimenting and how to evaluate it.  If you’re trying something innovative, have clear goals and think ahead of time about how you’ll know whether the innovation was better than whatever standard practice you’re putting aside.  Of course, true A/B experiments when you can compare the results are possible in some situations (e.g. testing email formats), but not in others (testing an innovative board meeting or conference call format).

2. Set aside some professional development time to attend conferences, particularly those OUTSIDE your core field.  It’s when you get out of your core network that you’ll be most likely to be exposed to something truly new.  Or to have that flash of brilliance that somehow connects something new in one field to an opportunity in your own.

3. Set aside reading time.  This can be anything from books or blogs.   This is best if you can get a few people in your organization to read the same topic and then have a discussion about what it means for your organization.

4. Ask a funders if they’ve heard of any innovative projects from which you could learn.

5.Recognize employees who’ve done something innovative or interesting, even if it fails!  As long as you’ve learned from the failure, this should be counted as a victory.

6. Get together as a staff and watch a dozen TedX videos on subjects that are tangentially related to your organization and see what ideas come up.

7. At least once a year, make sure to set aside a true staff retreat where out-of-box thinking is encouraged, preferably in a non-corporate setting.

Of course, innovation for innovation’s sake doesn’t make sense.  If something’s working, sometimes the answer is to scale it up, not change it.

What other practical ideas do you have for how to encourage innovation withing a nonprofit organization?

Time is your most precious commodity

May 10, 2012

Filed under: Strategic Planning — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 10:01 am

I recently wrote an article about the perils of chasing money and other shiny objects.

That article didn’t do justice to one reason why this type of mission and strategy creep can be so damaging.

Time is your most precious commodity as a smaller, growing organization.  And even small amounts of time that are distractions from your core activities are damaging.

I recently came across a great article making the same point about the for-profit world.

As they put it, the scarcest resource in a start-up or small business is management bandwith.

It’s tempting to take on new projects, new features, new geographies, new speaking opportunities, whatever. Each one incrementally sounds like a good idea, yet collectively they end up punishing undisciplined teams. I like to counsel that the best teams are often defined by what they choose not to do.

Read the full article.

Why volunteers before how volunteers

December 20, 2011

Filed under: Strategic Planning,Volunteers — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 3:26 pm

It’s an age-old question in virtually any social impact organization – how we do get volunteers?

In my experience, if you start by answering that question, you’re getting off on the wrong foot.

Instead, you should first ask the question: why volunteers?

How you go about getting volunteers will greatly impact what types of volunteers you secure.    You may recruit lots in raw numbers, but not meet your needs.

So before designing the how, start with the why.

And to answer the why, I generally counsel asking two other questions in combination:

First, what do you most want out of your volunteers?

Second, what level of volunteer do you need?

Let’s take those questions in turn.

What do you most want out of your volunteers?

Here are four potential reasons I’ve experienced first-hand:

1. To do the work staff just can’t get around to doing (either back-end administration/fundraising or programmatic).   62.8 million adults volunteered almost 8.1 billion hours to local and national organizations in 2010 (Source:  A well-designed volunteer program should get more work done than could be done with the staff time necessary to recruit the volunteers.

2. To be authentic voices.   Whether in fundraising or program, volunteers can speak authentically in ways that staff simply can’t.

3. As sources of local knowledge.  Particularly if your organization is trying to make a difference over a relatively large geography, volunteers are uniquely positioned to become your eyes and ears on the ground to help you make sure you deploy your resources in their geography in ways that will work.

4. As sources of specialized expertise.  Whether it be graphic design, accounting, information technology, or a dozen other areas, organizations can sometimes meet their needs for technical expertise through high-level volunteers that save them money.

If this is what you most want out of your volunteers, the second question is: what level of volunteer do you need?

My very crude short-hand is that there are three levels of volunteerism: participants, activity leaders, and organizational leaders.

Participants show up and do something for you.   Often just once, but sometimes repeatedly.   This is the bread and butter of many volunteer programs, particularly if they aim to generate lots of activity – tree plantings, stream cleanups, canvassing door-to-door, phone banks, and mailing parties are just a few  of the potential activities for which you need participants.

Activity leaders are the next level up: these volunteers are willing to lead all or part of some activity.  They may provide the training for participants, they may provide food for the fundraiser, or they may take responsibility to find 10 people for a phone bank, to cite just a few examples.

Organizational leaders take ownership for the long-term health of the group, overseeing either a series of activities or overall organizational health.  Board members are inherently organizational leaders if they’re doing their job.  But social impact organizations shouldn’t assume that only board members will fulfill organizational leadership roles.  Other volunteers can be cultivated and given non-board authority in ways that allow them to take on organizational leadership volunteering.

After answering these questions, it’s now appropriate to go back and set up a program that answers the how of volunteer recruitment.

If what you most need is local knowledge from people who’ll take organizational leadership, it argues for a very different volunteer program than if what you need most are activity participants who’ll do basic grunt work.

In a future blog entry or article, I’ll write more about effective volunteer recruitment programs that match up with the different why’s.

But no matter your skill-set at recruitment, you’ll go further in setting up your program if you start by answering the question why.

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