Archive for the ‘Strategic Planning (and the tactical kind, too)’ Category

Everybody who’s not here please raise your hand

November 21, 2011

Will anyone reading this blog who was invited to this event, or knows anyone who was, please comment and tell the rest of us what it was supposed to accomplish and what actually happened?  Many thanks from the—oh, what’s the term?  “Other 99%”?

From the Chronicle of Philanthropy via LinkedIn (emphasis mine):

White House Hosts Meeting on Nonprofit Leadership

November 14, 2011,  5:07 pm

By Lisa Chiu

The White House has invited leaders from about 200 nonprofits to Washington to take part in a daylong program that will focus on the role of nonprofits and how charities can develop effective leaders. The event, which takes place Tuesday at the national office of the American Red Cross and is closed to the public, will feature discussions led by White House officials and business and nonprofit leaders.

Speakers include Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama; Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation; Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; and Kenneth I. Chenault, chief executive of American Express. The White House worked with American Express as well as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Aspen Institute Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, the Center for Creative Leadership, Commongood Careers, Independent Sector, and Public Allies to organize the event.


Emanuel and the foundations: What price access?

March 29, 2011

In fundraising there’s an old saw that if you want someone’s money, you ask for his advice.  Leave it to the ever-innovative Rahm Emanuel to turn this observation into an ultimatum, telling people equipped with useful advice that it won’t be heard unless it comes wrapped in money.

That, in effect, is the meaning of Mayor-elect Emanuel’s request to a group of Chicago foundations that they pay the costs of his transition, costs  traditionally covered by leftover campaign funds, of which Emanuel has plenty.   In a city whose political culture has long consisted of being punished for disagreeing with or disobeying the mayor, the foundations faced an unattractive choice: call the mayor-elect on his inappropriate pick-pocketing and look forward to 40 years in the desert, or pay the man the $2 (or $2 million, as the case may be) in order to be heard.

The Nonprofiteer doesn’t blame the foundations for ponying up, though she wishes they hadn’t: their job is to influence public policy and make change, and the mayor’s office is an important route (sometimes the only route) to doing so.  But the Emanuel administration-in-waiting should never have asked for this sort of tribute.  Whether intended or not, the request makes it appear that access to city government is restricted to those who tithe.  There’s nothing new about that—the title “City That Works” has always ended in a silent “For Pay”—but Chicagoans might be excused for having hoped for something new post-Daley.

Many in the nonprofit sector are dismayed at having to compete with city government for the foundations’ largesse, and that’s a legitimate concern, though a belated one: the Daley administration never hesitated to ask private and foundation donors to subsidize city expenses with money that would otherwise have gone to independent community groups.  (Can you say “Millennium Park”?  “Olympic bid”?)  But the Nonprofiteer is more concerned about a new mayor’s implying, and establishing a precedent for the idea, that even being heard on the 5th floor requires big bucks.

Some wag once said that New York was about culture and Washington about power, but Chicago was all about money.  Plus ca change . . .

Ownership and its Discontents

February 16, 2011

Many years ago the Nonprofiteer lived briefly in a cooperative apartment building, which looks like a condominium building but differs from it in a fundamental way. In a cooperative, owners don’t own their units: they just have long-term leases. What they own instead is stock in the landlord—a corporation whose sole asset is the building.

Being landlords, coop boards act like landlords: they determine who may move into the building, and what sort of alterations may be made to the units, and even how much heat any individual owner receives. As a result, coop owners are deeply involved, monitoring Board actions closely because those actions may intrude significantly on their lives. At the same time, they’re favorably disposed to any regulation promising to maintain or enhance the value of their units. They’re prepared to accept considerable restrictions on their own freedom of action for the privilege of restraining others’ freedom of action. The entire system is like living in the United Nations—for better and worse.

This came to the Nonprofiteer’s mind because in the past week she’s facilitated two Board meetings at which people have threatened to quit. (Perhaps this suggests she should alter her style of facilitation, but she prefers to think that she’s just making people face the hard questions.) At the first meeting, a Board member confronted for the first time with a clear statement that he was expected to make a personal financial contribution announced, “If I don’t get credit for using my corporate connections, I quit!” At the second, the Executive Director responded to a consensus that individual counseling was outside the agency’s mission by saying, “If you’re telling me I can’t listen to people’s problems and try to solve them, I quit!”

If people threaten to quit while talking about difficult issues like money and mission, what does that mean? It’s obviously necessary to press on the most sensitive spot, the issue that needs to be resolved before anything else can be accomplished; but is “I quit!” (whether acted upon or not) the only possible response?

People who serve on nonprofit Boards do so out of passion for the agency’s cause, and what they get in return for their commitment of time and energy and money and belief is a sense that they own the agency. When an “owner’s” understanding of the agency is challenged or contradicted, naturally it feels as if his/her property is being stolen. “I quit!” means “I’ll throw this in the trash before I let you take it from me.”

It’s good that Board members consider themselves owners of the agency, but bad that so many of them misunderstand the nature of that ownership. They don’t own their own little condominium understanding of the agency’s mission or its means of achieving it. Rather, they co-own the agency with the rest of the Board, and it’s the whole Board that owns the understanding of mission and means.

This often makes Board membership difficult for people who are natural leaders. They’re accustomed to acting without consultation, or with the kind of consultation that acknowledges their superior knowledge and/or power. But on a nonprofit Board, those who act without consultation risk either distorting the mission to match their private vision or provoking the adoption of significant restrictions on everyone’s freedom of action to prevent that distortion from taking place. Neither is a good outcome.

The ideal circumstance is for all the owners to realize that they’re members of a cooperative group whose sole asset is the institution, and that securing that asset’s well-being is the task they all face together. When that’s clear, disputes about what the institution is or does or deserves from its Board members can be negotiated among all the owners, and no one says “I quit!”

Now, how to get there?

Dear Nonprofiteer, Who quit and made me president?

November 4, 2010

Dear Nonprofiteer:

Recently I started serving on a board of a small social service organization.  In the last six months our board president has slowly retreated from his leadership duties due to a variety of personal issues that he’s facing and I find that I’m essentially left driving the bus.  What resources are there that you would recommend for those seemingly newly anointed to oversee a nonprofit?

Signed,Nickeynewguy and Lost

Dear Nickey,

Of course the best resource is the Nonprofiteer it/herself–the site has no search function, I’m sorry to say, but if you just keep trolling backwards you’ll find numerous bits of advice for Board presidents.  But here’s the central thing to remember: even if you’re suddenly the Board PRESIDENT, you’re not suddenly the whole Board.

So the first thing to do is call a meeting of the Board (with the Executive Director in the room—s/he will be your most valuable partner) and say, “Well, I appear to have become president by default.  This wasn’t your choice and it certainly wasn’t mine; so let’s figure out what has to be done and divide up the tasks.”  In other words, make it clear from the word Go that you’re not going to be in this alone.

Second, if you’re the sort of person who ends up leading by default, that means you’re a natural leader in one way or another.  I’m going to proceed on the assumption that your leadership flows from quiet competence rather than noisy charisma (otherwise you’d have been Board president to begin with).  So use that quiet competence to help the Executive Director and your fellow Board members think through:

  • What do we have to do that’s urgent?
  • What do we have to do that’s important?
  • Are we letting the urgent get in the way of the important?
  • If so, is the urgent really so urgent?
  • If so, do we need more people to address things, urgent and important alike?
  • If so, who will lead a brainstorming session to identify and recruit prospective new Board members?

Note that I’m not suggesting you do the recruiting, though you may be the most motivated to do so, having suddenly awakened to a whole set of unasked-for responsibilities. Nor should the Executive Director do it—s/he’s got plenty to do already.   But the only way you can do your job is to make sure other Board members do theirs, and the best way to get them activated is to give them the fun job, namely, thinking about who else would just love the work you’re doing if only they knew about it, and then talking to those people with great enthusiasm about what you do.

Any Board member who can’t run, or at least participate whole-heartedly in, a recruitment campaign should be given some essential but boring task like reviewing budget vs. actual expenses or assuring compliance with the Federal and state filing requirements.  That person should have to report at the next Board meeting, as will the recruiters.  As soon as you’re having Board meetings where Board members talk to each other (instead of sulking, or reporting to the Executive Director or to you as though you were the only responsible parties in the room), you’ve got this presidency stuff down pat.

For more detailed guidance, the Nonprofiteer strongly suggests checking out any of the sites on the blogroll (in the right margin), as well as going to, which as its name suggests specializes in making Board service as straightforward and resource-rich as possible.  The Boardsource “Knowledge Center” is chock-a-block with guidelines, forms and checklists to help you make sure the essential bases are being covered—even in the center fielder’s absence.

And as further questions arise, please feel free to write again!

Making the most of high-skill volunteers: initial thoughts

April 8, 2010

What are high-skill volunteers good for?

  • None of us sits in our strategic planning sessions and says, we want to stuff more envelopes, but that’s what we give our volunteers to do–instead of using them on major projects.
  • Many organizations are used to giving high-level work to interns and trainees and law clerks; why is it harder to do that with adults? Because/but–
  • Volunteer coordinator has a hammer so everyone looks like a nail–whereas interns are  assigned directly to substantive staff.  The coordinator’s job is often defined as “find volunteers to accomplish these menial tasks none of us want to do” and/or “keep the volunteers out of our hair.”  It needs redefining to recognize she’s the gateway to your most valuable resource.
  • Instead use them for projects for which you’re understaffed: if you need a part-time coordinator of major gifts solicitations, use a volunteer; if you need more marketing outreach, use a volunteer; etc.  Note: do NOT use volunteers for grant-writing except in exceptional cases, e.g. an experienced grant-writer and/or foundation program officer is your volunteer.  Explain clearly to the mere writers among your volunteers that, no matter how skilled they are at writing, grant-writing is more a matter of button-pushing and buzzphrase-using, and their skills actually disqualify them from doing it well!

How to identify major projects:

  • Essential: to identify discrete projects on which volunteers can work.  If you have a strategic plan, take a look at what needs doing under it but isn’t getting done.  Particularly suitable for relatively small groups of volunteers, pairs or individuals: research.  If your strategic plan says, “Find new space,” send volunteers out to case the neighborhood, establish prices, do your capital campaign feasibility study.  If it says, “Expand into day-care,” send your volunteers to talk to other day-care centers about what they charge, their costs and cashflow; and so on.  One of the most satisfactory volunteer experiences I ever had was at the Lakeview YMCA, where the Exec Dir looked at my resume and offered me a project directly relevant to my expertise: “Oh, you’ve been a real-estate lawyer; we’re trying to figure out why our residence isn’t filled.”  I did the research, reported to the Board, and they 1) acted on it and 2) put me on the Board.  This is a hole in one in the world of high-skills volunteering.
  • Important: to identify projects on which high-skill volunteers can work independently–independently from you, that is.  The reason so many of us end up assigning busywork to volunteers is that we don’t know how to integrate someone who hired herself into our day-to-day work.  That’s not because “They might leave” or “it’s confidential” or any of the other excuses we give: it’s because we’ve organized ourselves to get our day-to-day work done, and we don’t want to risk having it taken away from us by a volunteer and thus losing our jobs.
  • High-skill volunteers are pretty indigestible in most ongoing projects precisely because they’re not interns or trainees or law clerks–they’re people with significant experience and leadership ability.  So the best way to deploy them is to give them an opportunity to lead.  This, by the way, is why the long-term “Ladies who lunch” model worked so well: the volunteers were told, “Plan the annual event” and off they went.  It was up to them if it took 2 minutes or 2 hours to decide on the color of the tablecloths, and it was up to them to break the larger project into constituent parts and assign them around.  Doubtless you already use largely-unsupervised volunteers for your annual benefit event, though if you think of it they’re not necessarily better qualified to choose table arrangements than to assess spreadsheets.  So come up with those discrete projects.

How to integrate volunteers into those projects

  • Obviously, not everyone can be a leader; but if you find a volunteer leader–and this requires reading his/her resume, taking seriously the experiences shown thereon, and talking to the person to assure yourself of his/her abilities–the best thing to say is, “We need someone to create ____; can you take that on for us?”  Then let the person write plans, recruit other volunteers, set schedules, solve problems; and have either the volunteer coordinator or the substantive area leader supervise the leader, rather than the whole cadre.
  • The reason so many volunteers are turned away is that no organization has extra supervisory capacity, and volunteers require supervising–so let one supervise others, and then instead of having 30 people to manage you’ll have one.  [This is the theory of the Taproot Foundation model, where an “account manager” assembles a team of volunteer professionals to do a project previously identified by the nonprofit.  The account manager’s ass is on the line to produce, and that requires figuring out how to herd the cats she’s dealt herself.  Sorry about mixed metaphors!]
  • The leader, of course, will be happy because s/he’s got The Big MAC —
  1. Meaningful work;
  2. Autonomy; and
  3. Collegiality/community
  • His/her followers will be happy because things a volunteer won’t hear from a staff member (“This is all we’ve got for you to do”) s/he’ll hear from a fellow volunteer–and also, a fellow volunteer is more likely to be able to break off chunks of responsibility and hand them to other volunteers, precisely because s/he isn’t a full-time staff member with turf to protect.

The Nonprofiteer is beside herself with ecstasy . . .

March 6, 2010

to report that she’s just been published for the first time on Huffington Post, with a piece called “Full-Body Scans Are a Feminist Issue.” Over the years, some of you have mentioned that you wouldn’t mind hearing her opinions about things other than nonprofit management; be careful what you wish for!

She’s also excited to mention that she’s ramping up her consulting practice again, with a slightly altered focus: in addition to strategic planning and individual-gifts fundraising, she’s concentrating on helping nonprofits use the flood of high-skill volunteers now available in virtually every location and occupation.  Her work will include Board recruitment and training, but won’t be confined to it–there must be 50 ways to take advantage of people’s passion, skills and abilities even if they’re not Board material.  And the Nonprofiteer is determined to discover each and every one of those ways!

If you’re in Chicago (or have a travel budget) and want to meet with the Nonprofiteer in her guise as NFP Consulting, please just drop her an e-mail.

And meanwhile, let her know what you think of the HuffPo piece.  Thanks!

Dear Nonprofiteer, Does refusing to describe my job mean I can refuse to do it?

April 9, 2009

Dear Nonprofiteer,

The Executive Director of our mid-sized environmental advocacy nonprofit never actually does any work.  I take up the slack from my perch as Program Director, with a lot of help from the Development Director; but all we can do is make sure the day-to-day gets done.  We don’t have the power to push the group in the new directions made necessary and possible by a collapsing economy coupled with a President who’s actually pro-environment.

Here’s the problem: though the E.D. is weak in the sense of not doing the job, she’s strong enough to resist the occasional calls for a job description.  So I can tell you that she never actually does anything, but the Board can’t exactly fire her for failing to measure up to a completely nebulous task.  What should we do?

Signed, Doing Double Duty

Dear Double,

The Board CAN exactly fire her if it wants; that’s its job.  But if it wants to avoid litigation, it won’t do so without first giving Lazy Exec warnings and the opportunity to mend her ways–and, right, it can’t do THAT without having a written job description against which to compare her performance.

But I don’t understand “strong enough to resist . . . calls for a job description.”  Very few employees write their own job descriptions, and lest we forget the Executive Director is merely an employee.  The Board is the employer, and it should write a description for the job it expects her to do.  (If the Board has a Personnel Committee, writing descriptions of this type is its primary–perhaps its only–task, though many such committees instead amuse themselves by interfering with the Executive Director’s management of the staff.)

Of course, we’re all collegial and non-confrontational in nonprofits, so the description should be presented to Lazy Exec as a draft for her input; but whether or not she provides input, the description should be adopted at the next Board meeting and it should be clear at the time of adoption that it’s the basis on which Lazy will be evaluated going forward.

But how to accomplish this from your post on the program staff?  First, be specific: what does Lazy not do that an Executive Director should be expected to do?  What’s slipping through the cracks?  Put your head together with the Development Director and make a list: Lazy refuses to meet with your biggest funder, leaving DevDir to do it.  Lazy didn’t review the evaluations from your last public program and instructed you to repeat portions of the program that attracted condemnation from all quarters.  Or whatever.

Then bring these to the Board’s attention as tactfully as possible.  How?

  • Drop them by-the-way into your own reports to the Board.  “Oh, no, we didn’t get a MacArthur grant this year.  They require the Executive Director to participate in the site visit.”
  • Mention them off-the-record to a friend who happens to be a Board member.  (You never heard me say this because staff members should NEVER go around the Executive Director to the Board.)  Remind your Board friend that without a job description Lazy Exec can’t be held accountable for anything, and urge him/her to raise this with the Personnel Committee.
  • Agitate within the staff and informally among the Board for the agency to conduct a strategic planning process.  Then make sure “Human Resources” is one of the strategic planning teams, and that someone with HR expertise is invited from outside the agency to participate in the process.  Trust me: before the process is through, creating an Executive Director job description will be high on the list of Board tasks.

The third technique is actually most productive, because it’s easiest to determine the Executive Director’s tasks when the agency’s direction has been recently and ambitiously spelled out.  Besides, what Program Director ever got in trouble for suggesting that her agency think and act strategically?

An epidemic of Munchausen by Charity?

April 1, 2009

This is a public health alert provided for our friends in the funding community: please be aware of a sudden uptick in cases of what can only be called Munchausen by Charity.  Though the Nonprofiteer makes her living through funded consultancies, and therefore stands to profit from outbreaks of the disease, she nonetheless feels compelled to bring this most recent epidemic to the attention of those whose funds are being consumed in fruitless treatment of its symptoms.

Munchausen Syndrome,  as readers may know from exposure to medical dramas, is a mental illness which expresses itself in faking ailments to secure the psychic benefits of being the center of attention.  In Munchausen by Charity, an agency finds itself perpetually inadequate to its tasks, and therefore perpetually in need of consulting services.

While Munchausen by Charity presents in many guises, the version with which the Nonprofiteer is most familiar goes something like this:

The  Board of Directors couldn’t possibly govern the institution without a strategic plan, so it hires a strategic planning consultant, who discovers that the Board is weak.  The Board couldn’t possibly repair that weakness without hiring a Board development consultant, who attempts to shore up the Board with a clearer description of its tasks as well as a group of new members.  The expanded Board couldn’t possibly take on its newly-clarified tasks without hiring a Board trainer, who provides the group with sessions of role-playing in which they can practice those tasks (e.g. asking for money) without ever actually leaving the safe confines of the group.  The trained Board couldn’t possibly go out and ask people for money without hiring a development consultant, who draws pyramid diagrams showing that the biggest gift goes at the top and convenes meetings at which members of the Board try to remember if they’ve ever met anyone with any personal wealth.  And so it goes–on, and on, and on.

What the Munchausen by Charity sufferer is experiencing, of course, is the euphoria of personalized attention divorced from the need to actually do anything oneself.  If this diagnosis sounds harsh, consider that before discovering the Syndrome the Nonprofiteer believed serial consultancies were nothing more than a stalling tactic to delay fundraising, or a futile search for an expert who’d say it could be avoided altogether.  But now she realizes what we’re dealing with is not a trick or a device but an illness, about which we should all be understanding.

If, however, the Nonprofiteer had the financial reins at foundations that give technical assistance grants, she might suggest a limit on the number of funded consultancies–something along the lines of “Three Strikes, You’re Out.”  It only takes two hands to find your ass; it certainly shouldn’t take more than three consultants.

Or perhaps the epidemic will subside by itself–say, by next April Fool’s Day.

h/t Jan Stempel

Foundation Friday: Case study from Detroit

March 27, 2009

This account from Sunday’s New York Times gives the flavor of life in a community where the supports are all crumbling at once.  N.B. the emphasis on the possibility that agencies will have to merge or collaborate to secure support from strapped philanthropies.

Historically, mergers and collaborations driven by funders (the United Way was an early champion of the technique) have been less successful than those initiated by the relevant agencies.  But it’s understandable at a time of crisis that philanthropists can’t wait for agency executives to get their egos out of the way, and must press for quick action.

The article also makes a point it may not have intended: that charities reliant on organized philanthropy are at the mercy of same.  Only an agency’s own individual donors–who are persuaded of the essential irreplaceability of its particular approach to issues, whether social-service, arts, advocacy or environmental–can sustain it through these tough times.

So if you’re not already raising money from individuals, time to start.

On having brains as well as heart

March 24, 2009

A few provocative notions from the new book by Cass Wheeler, longtime head of the American Heart Association:

  • “Every organization needs a breakthrough goal.”  Wheeler gives as an example the Millennium Development Goals, which charge UNICEF and its sister UN agencies with reducing by half the proportion of people in the world living on less than a dollar a day, and with doing so by a date certain (2015, if you’re curious, which is sooner than you think).  While having such a goal (referred to in strategic-planning-speak as a BHAG, Big Hairy Audacious Goal) can be daunting, it gives everyone a sense of what’s possible as well as a clear yardstick against which to measure what’s actually accomplished.

The Nonprofiteer is a bit concerned about organizations’ identifying huge goals and then being discouraged by them rather than inspired; but she acknowledges that a bigger problem in the sector is the sense of complete futility that paralyzes social-service workers: “What difference does it make if I help this guy when a million more are waiting right behind him?”  A goal like, “Reduce from a million to half a million the number of unserved guys like this one” would at least reduce the sense of participating in the labors of Sisyphus.

  • Apply the Rule of the Three to every nonprofit project: assume that a third of your volunteers will do what they’re supposed to, another third will come through if you nag them enough, and the remaining third will be a dead loss.  This clarifies the hostility of many nonprofit workers to their volunteer partners–of course the two-thirds who are lots of trouble for not much reward will eclipse the one-third who are pure pleasure!–and also provides a way of planning volunteer activities so that every one of them isn’t doomed to disappointment and a sense of failure: if you get 75% participation (instead of 66%), have a big party!

Wheeler’s book contains much other information, though it’s a bit big-business-oriented for the Nonprofiteer’s taste (the emphasis on advertising seems particularly beside the point for most of her small- and mid-sized nonprofit clients.)  But it’s certainly smart and densely-packed with guidance gleaned from experience.