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: VolunteeringinAmerica.gov).  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.

Raising money through strategic planning

November 11, 2011

Filed under: Fundraising,Strategic Planning — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 11:12 am

Strategic planning can require significant resources — both time and money.

Fortunately, going through the process can also be a means of raising additional resources.

In my mind, there are three key tactics you should think about using to raise money from your strategic planning process.

The most obvious, and the one most people think about, is using the finished plan to sell donors on funding whatever is “new” in the plan.   Usually this involves creating a short 1-2 page summary of the plan and using it with selected major donors and foundations.   If, for example, the plan calls for hiring a full-time communications director and upgrading a website, those items could be pulled into a mini-budget and presented to funders as a reason to step up their level of giving.

But there are two other tactical steps organizations should also consider to turn a planning process into a revenue generator.

For starters, you should look for funders who will underwrite the planning process itself.   Many foundations fund capacity building either in general or for those organizations with which they have a long-term funding relationship.   Occasionally, an individual major donor (perhaps a board member) who values planning will step up with an extra donation to cover a significant portion of the planning process costs.  Start thinking about this the year prior to a planning process, so you have ample time to make the case to funders.

Second, you should think about using the process to cultivate your relationship with your supporters.  Many strategic planning processes involve some sort of interview process for stakeholders and you should think consciously about whether some major donors should be added into the process as a means of cultivating their support for the organization.   This may slightly increease the cost of your process (more interviews), but with a big potential pay-off afterwards.

Cultivation shouldn’t stop with major donors.  If your organization has a membership or base constituency that it can reach via email, do an online member survey.  Ask some questions to ascertain what your supporters want you to prioritize, while lao learning things about them that could be useful for future fundraising.   Beyond what you learn, just the process of asking for their input will help cement their support for your organization’s work.

How Organizations Learn

August 8, 2011

Filed under: Strategic Planning — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 11:58 am

Just read a fascinating article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on how organizations learn.

It definitely has tremendous applicability to any effort to help an organization establish systems or conduct training. Still pondering what it means for my work, but thought it was worth sharing.

On Evaluating Advocacy

June 8, 2011

Filed under: Strategic Planning — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 4:32 am

A great article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy.

Very much worth a read for those who want to understand the real-world of advocacy.

From strategic plan to work plan

May 24, 2011

Filed under: Strategic Planning — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 8:10 pm

I’m often struck when talking to people how often individual work plans are wholly disconnected from strategic plans.  Or even more by how some organizations never develop work plans.

A good strategic plan should set the structure for work plans.  Every member of staff should have a work plan, as should board members.

The strategic plan should list out some combination of goals, strategies, tactics, and objectives.  These should cover both your programmatic mission-driven goals, as well as your institutional goals.

Individual work plans should flow from the strategic plan.  It should identify each tactic you’re working on, what strategy and goal that tactic is connected to, what you’re doing in more detail and by when each major step should be completed.  Don’t just say:  We’ll issue the Legislative Scorecard in September.  You should break that down into its major pieces;  Initiate selecting votes and do research in July, Select votes and do writing/design in August, Release in September, etc.

Each individual should have a work plan.  It should clearly identify for each of these goals/strategies/tactics what you’re doing, who’s doing it, and by when.  Excel can be one way to make this visually flow.  But you can do it effectively in Word if you haven’t mastered the wonders of Excel formatting.

If you find yourself putting something in your work plan that can’t be clearly linked to one of your programmatic or institutional goals, it probably means you shouldn’t be doing it.

Board members also need work plans.  They’re more likely to be narrowly focused on a few institution-building goals (fundraising, accountability, financial management).

You can draft these plans either bottom up or top down.  Bottom up: You can ask each individual to go through the strategic plan and draft their work plan and then somebody has the task of making sure everything’s covered and, if not, assigning tasks by editing work plans as appropriate.  Top down: the Executive Director can start with the strategic plan and draft these for each individual.

Drafting these plans should be done in a way that makes sure that all the individual plans add up to accomplishing the strategic plan, or at least the piece of the strategic plan that you aim to accomplish in the next year.

You then need to hold yourself accountable to the work plans.  If you create your work plan for individual staff and then never look back at it over the course of the year, it’s probably not an effective work planning process.   Even the best staff needs a supervisor who meets with them monthly and going over the work plan is something that should happen at the meeting.  Evaluation of staff (and board) performance should focus first and foremost on whether the work plan was implemented and how effectively the work was done.

So build time for this accountability into the work plans themselves!

Short v. Long-term Development Plans

May 15, 2011

Filed under: Fundraising,Strategic Planning — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 3:20 pm

An organization has done a LOT of fundraising, but has never had a real development plan, either short or long-term.

One set of consultants advised them to create a three-year development plan prior to doing a one-year plan. How do you know what you want to accomplish in year one unless you know the long-term plan?

But my response is: How do you know what your long-term real capacity is until you do a one-year plan, stick with it, and evaluate it. So I’m pushing them to do a one-year plan and write a 3 year plan in about a year.

What do you think?

Planning half heartedly

April 25, 2011

Filed under: Strategic Planning — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 7:13 pm

I was recently talking to an organizational Executive Director who’s thinking about a strategic planning process.

He wants the planning process to get his board more engaged.

But he doesn’t think the board will take time to participate in a real planning retreat.

This becomes a bit of a chicken and egg problem — if they won’t participate fully in a robust process, how do you get an outcome that increases their engagement?

I wish I had a simple answer.

One technique is to “trick” them into greater engagement by engaging them one on one with a consultant.  And then have the consultant fold them into additional conversations culminating in a short, but productive retreat.

In the end, though, no trick can replace leadership — either from the Executive Director, a board chair, or some other board champion who can rally board members to participate in a planning process.

Short of that, I worry about organizations that go through the motions of planning, without a real investment, and then expect a transformation in the organization.

More realistically, a strategic planning process that lacks serious board engagement can still be valuable as a tool for an Executive Director to get some real planning done, with buy-in from the board.  But buy-in and engagement are not the same.

Communications plans for institutions

April 19, 2011

Filed under: Communications,Strategic Planning — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 4:34 pm

I recently had a conversation which went something like this. . .

Person A: “We need a communications plan for our organization.”

Me: “Why?”

Person A: “We need to know who the swing vote is on our issue so we can persuade them.”

Me: “Why?”

Person A: “Because they’re the swing vote.  That’s who we should be talking to.”

Now I wasn’t pushing back on the “why” because I’m not a fan of communications plans for institutions.  To the contrary, I think they’re extremely valuable once an organization gets to a reasonable size.

But I’ve been struck a few times now by people coming out of the “campaign” world who don’t get how communications for institutions are not the same animal as communications for a campaign  — whether it’s a ballot measure or candidate campaign.

In a campaign, you have a very identifiable goal, with a timeline, and a specific set of people you’re trying to influence.  In most tough campaigns, Person A is right — your communications plan should identify the swing and figure out how you’re going to move them.

But what about institutions?  Institutions may engage in campaigns, but their interests run beyond the campaigns.  They may be trying to influence a variety of different audiences, making different asks of each.

In my experience, the most useful communications plan for an institution asks:

What’s our brand?

Who do we need to take action and what actions do we want to take?

Of these, which audiences are most important?

How do we reach our priority audiences?

What investments in additional capacity (staff, technology, other) do we need to make to have the capacity to reach them?

It may well be for an institution, very little of their communication is aimed at swing voters and the vast majority of its communication is aimed at potential donors, volunteers, and champion opinion leaders.  There isn’t a right answer here — the important thing is to make sure your communications plan for an institution is focused on the organization and not some campaign or project that has only short-term implications.

Paying attention to the institution

March 11, 2011

Filed under: Strategic Planning — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 10:51 am

I was recently talking to somebody about an organization that from all outward appearances was thriving.

They had expanded their programs and had gained recognition for having a real impact.

Yet, it turns out appearances were deceiving.

The Executive Director was doing it all without delegating.  The board was overly dependent on a board chair who was carrying their water.

The director was so focused on programs, that institutional systems weren’t being developed and relationships weren’t being generated to prime future fundraising.

So sure enough when the board chair burned out, the Executive Director was faced with huge hurdles, to the point they are potentially going to move on.  The organization faces a huge leadership void.  It’s definitely not thriving.

The reality is it’s very hard for any outsider to evaluate whether a seemingly thriving organization is doing so in a way that builds its long-term capacity, or if it’s generating lots of activity by effectively spending down its assets.  And by assets, I don’t mean money.

I mean its relationships, its institutional systems, its brand, its staff morale, and a dozen of other assets that go into determining an organization’s long-term vitality.

You can build a really big paper house, but it won’t stand up when push comes to shove.

As a donor, I struggle to determine which organizations are building for the long haul.

As a consultant, I’m trying to figure out how I can help boards and executive directors find the right balance between spending time and resources on program and spending time and resources on institution building.

I’d welcome hearing from others if you have tools or guideposts to help answer those questions.

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