It is a truth universally acknowledged that all thought pieces about strategic planning must include mention of a shelf and something about dust.
(Seriously! Google "strategic planning" and you'll see what I mean.)
Because let's face it: strategic plans have a bad rap, don't they? The common perception is that nonprofits invest significant resources–time! money! energy!–into developing their strategic plans only to leave them on a shelf to gather dust.
Does that happen? Absolutely.
Does it have to happen? In my experience, no.
And so, I'd like to offer five things you and your colleagues can do to keep your strategic plan alive and ensure that it is the worthwhile investment you need it to be.
1. Design an Inclusive and Engaging Strategic Planning Process
The process by which you develop your strategic plan can play a major part in whether it lives or gets forgotten. If most of your staff and board leaders feel like they had minimal or no role in crafting the organization's strategic direction, then they will have little enthusiasm for making it happen.
You can prevent this by designing an inclusive and engaging strategic planning process. Establish a strategy working group comprised of key staff and any board members who want to participate, not just officers. Build in lots of opportunities for the group to gather to ask tough questions, push boundaries, challenge the status quo, rethink your mission and vision, brainstorm creative and innovative solutions, and truly shape the future of the organization. The more ownership and buy-in your staff and board leaders have, the harder they will work to see your strategic plan through to fruition.
2. Build Your Organizational Capacity
By design, your strategic plan ought to be inspirational and ambitious. It should push your organization and its people to grow outside of your comfort zones to try new things in the spirit of serving your community.
But your strategic plan should also be achievable. Nothing will stop you dead in your tracks faster than a lack of necessary resources.
For that reason, you might consider including strengthening your organizational capacity as one of your strategic priorities. Be specific about which aspects need strengthening and ensure that they are aligned with and support your other strategic priorities. For example, one organization whose strategic planning process I facilitated knew that their strategic plan would require greater financial stability and increased staffing, so they included those in their plan.
3. Create an Implementation Plan
Through your inclusive and engaging strategic planning process, you will have identified 3-5 inspirational, ambitious, and achievable strategic priorities. Now what? Your strategic planning is not quite done!
Consider including an implementation plan so that you and your fellow org leaders feel empowered, rather than overwhelmed, in the face of the work ahead of you. The implementation plan outlines 2-3 supporting objectives for each of your strategic priorities. These objectives are not everything that you will need to do to pursue a strategy, but they're just enough to get you started on the path so your tires won't spin.
4. Track Your Progress + Course Correct
In the months and years following the completion of your strategic plan, you will want to track your team's progress toward achieving your strategic priorities. At some regular interval, say quarterly, you can highlight this progress for your board and engage them in a conversation. Are you collectively making adequate progress? Are your activities producing the desired results or change? If not, what are the barriers to success and what can you do, if anything, to remove those barriers?
And here's the really important part: you can update your strategic priorities and implementation plan, if your conversation reveals that is necessary. This ensures that your strategic plan can remain relevant and flexible even when the proverbial landscape around your organization is shifting.
5. Go Public with the Finished Product
Announce to your community, however you define it, that your strategic plan is complete! Help staff and key volunteers to understand their role in implementing the plan. Thank all of the stakeholders who offered their insight and show them how you incorporated their input into the final plan. It may even be appropriate for you to share your strategic priorities with the local media and post it to your website. There's just something about sharing your goals with everyone in your organization and the community at-large to ensure you hold yourselves accountable for working toward the future you envision.
What other techniques have you used for keeping your strategic plan alive? I'd love to hear them!
If I may make a prediction during what feels like the most unpredictable year, it's this:
virtual events are going to be with us long after the threat of coronavirus passes.
Nonprofit leaders are saying that they're experiencing 100% attendance at board meetings. I've noticed from the panels and webinars I've presented or facilitated over the past few months that registrations and attendance are much higher than usual. And personally, I've appreciated that I've been able to spend less time in the car going from meeting to meeting and more time getting things done.
There's certainly been a learning curve, though. Pre-pandemic, I had attended a handful of meetings via Zoom, usually small, informal groups. I was not well versed in the myriad features that virtual meeting platforms have to offer; how to manage large groups of people in a virtual setting; or how to make virtual events feel natural and welcoming.
I've learned some important lessons along the way. If virtual events are indeed here to stay, what can we do to make them more engaging and run smoothly? Here are some helpful tips for you:
1. It All Starts with the Script
Virtual events, especially large meetings or webinars, are media productions. There are lots of moving pieces: different speakers, presentation slides, audience needs, video, audio, recordings, polls, breakout rooms, Q&A, etc. Technical glitches, hemming and hawing, and figuring things out on the fly are amplified in this environment.
For that reason, I outline everything that needs to be said and done during the event. Who's welcoming the audience and introducing the speaker? What information do we need to share with our participants so they know what to expect and how to ask questions? When do we need to start sharing a screen? Who's responsible for making sure the event gets recorded? When do we need to launch our poll? Who's fielding questions behind the scenes to assist those with technical difficulties?
Documenting your entire event in a script format with production notes will ensure that your audience's experience is a favorable one.
2. Keep it Short
It can be more difficult to hold your audience's attention during a virtual event. There are many more distractions around them. They can't draw from the energy of other participants in the room. And there's just something about staring at screens for long periods of time that can wear people out. In turn, consider making your event shorter than you would if it were face-to-face. A 3-hour workshop in-person becomes 1.5 hours virtually. A 1.5 hour networking event in-person becomes 1 hour virtually. It's all about finding that sweet spot: just long enough to accomplish everything you need to; short enough to keep your participants' eyeballs and minds engaged.
3. Ask the Audience
One way to keep your audience engaged and gather live feedback is to check in with them periodically with polls. This is great for webinars, in particular, where your participants can see you, but you can't see them. Kickoff your presentation with a poll to gauge their prior knowledge. Try asking them about their top concerns and tailoring your presentation to their responses. Quiz them on their understanding to determine if there's a topic you need to explain in greater detail. If the purpose of your event is to reach a decision or identify a course of action, use polling to determine your participants' priorities.
4. Breakout the Breakouts
In Zoom, you can use the Breakout Rooms feature to quickly divide the main group into smaller groups of any size. If you want your participants to "turn to a partner" to discuss a prompt, for instance, you can automatically and randomly pair off your attendees with the click of a button. If you want your participants to engage in small group discussions, you can break them into virtual clusters of 4-6 people and then bring everyone back to the main group for reporting out. This can be a great way to keep your audience engaged and encourage them to reflect on key topics. It is also useful for inviting participation from audience members who are more reticent to share ideas in front of larger groups–even in a virtual setting!
5. Use the Buddy System
I mentioned above that there are a lot of moving pieces during a virtual event. It can be overwhelming for one person to manage. Allow yourself, or your guest speaker, to focus entirely on delivering content, moderating a discussion, or facilitating a meeting. Ask a savvy friend or colleague who's not easily flustered to take care of the rest: assisting audience members with technical difficulties, managing the influx of content-based questions from participants, launching polls, sorting the audience into breakout groups, and so on.
What other techniques have you used for keeping your virtual events smooth and engaging? I'd love to hear them! And if you have questions about running virtual events, I invite you to share those in the comments or get in touch.
And if you could really use a hand with planning or facilitating your next virtual meeting or webinar, let me know how I can help with my virtual event services.
I don't know about you, but it feels to me like 1,000 years have passed between last Monday and today. When I consider what I thought about coronavirus seven days ago versus today...well, let's just say those old thoughts are best described as "quaint."
Last night was the first time I felt really stressed about this situation we all find ourselves in. I've known and accepted that we would all have to make changes to how we do things, how we live our lives.
But what is striking to me is the pace with which everything is moving. Each day, we are faced with new information, new choices, and a lot of opinions. A decision that made sense yesterday makes little sense today. A course of action that seemed reasonable this morning seems like folly by the afternoon.
For those leading nonprofits (and households and school districts and farms and businesses and hospitals and...), the weight of our choices feels heavier on our shoulders.
I started to think, "It's really hard to know what is the best thing to do. I wish someone would just tell me."
Then I remembered a book a friend gave to me 10 years ago as I embarked on grad school: "The Three Questions," written and illustrated by Jon J Muth and based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. It's about "a boy named Nikolai who sometimes felt uncertain about the right way to act."
This morning, I snagged it off my daughter's book shelf (oh, how life has changed in these 10 years!) to ground myself in the answer to Nikolai's three questions:
In brief, Nikolai goes on a journey to find a wise and old turtle named Leo. Nikolai helps Leo to tend his garden and, while there, ends up rescuing an injured panda and her cub. Through these actions, Nikolai discerns the answers to his questions. In the end, Leo tells him:
"Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing by your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world."
"This is why we are here."
Whatever decisions are in front of you, whatever mountains you may have to climb, whatever rivers you may have to cross, I wish you all the best in the coming weeks and months. Take care of your people and the rest will follow.
I will see you on the other side of this.
For many years, I have used Pinterest to gather ideas for big, personal projects: planning events, renovating my home, collecting dinner recipes, and–perhaps my biggest project of all!–raising my daughter.
It occurred to me only in the last year that I could also use Pinterest to plan my nonprofit. #facepalm
Now there are not nearly as many nonprofit pins as there are, say, hairstyle or home decor pins, but they are there. And their number is growing.
In that spirit, I have started curating boards just for nonprofit leaders like you who could use easy access to the best communications + board development ideas out there. I have a board for newsletter tips, a board for storytelling, a board for social media, and more.
I invite you to join me over on Pinterest. Follow my boards that resonate with you, that can help you to solve the communications + board development challenges you are facing. Check in often–I add new pins and boards on a weekly basis.
And better still, create some boards of your own. If you are new to Pinterest, here are two suggestions for maximizing your time and the resources you find:
Here's a true confession, with my sincerest apologies to anyone at LinkedIn who might be reading this:
For years–years!–I have not fully understood the value of LinkedIn. I have been a member since I graduated from college. I have dutifully made connections with colleagues, classmates, and former students. I have been pretty good at remembering to update it with my latest and greatest professional details. But for me, LinkedIn has been something I participated in out of a bizarre sense of obligation.
No more! I have been converted. Did you know that LinkedIn is a treasure trove of board prospects? Allow me to explain...
LinkedIn users can indicate on their profiles if they have an interest in nonprofit board service. It's as though they are sending up a tiny beacon of light, beckoning Board Chairs and Nominating & Governance Committee members to invite them to learn more about their organizations.
How do you find these people? Login to your existing LinkedIn account and conduct an advanced search. Under 'Filter people by,' select 'Nonprofit interest' and then check the box next to 'Board service.' Voila! People in your first-, second-, and third-level network who could be your next awesome board member. You can filter the results even further by specifying a location.
Start with your immediate network. I know in an earlier post I urged those engaged in board member recruitment to dream big about whom they could invite to join their board. Still, it doesn't hurt to look at your own professional network, fresh with the knowledge that some of them are hoping to dive into board service. Speaking for my own efforts at board recruitment, I know I have unearthed professional connections where I immediately thought, "YES! This person would be SO GREAT on our board!"
Since you are already connected with such folks, send them a message like this:
Hello, John! As you know, I serve on the board of XYZ Organization. We are looking for new board members to join us. I noticed on your LinkedIn profile that you have an interest in board service. Would you like to learn more about XYZ Organization? I think you could play a valuable role on our board! Could we meet for coffee to discuss?
Move to the second tier of your network. You can either toggle the search filters to show you only second degree connections (people who are connected to one or more of your contacts), or you can click/scroll to the end of your list of first degree connections.
When you find someone who has knowledge, skills, or experience that could be of benefit to your organization, reach out to them. Depending on their account settings, you may be able to send them a message. More than likely, you may only be able to contact them via InMail, which is a premium service. If that is the case, you can send them an invitation to connect and include a personalized message, up to 300 characters. Try something like this:
Hello, Jane! I serve on the board of XYZ. We get school supplies into the backpacks of children from low-income households so they can be successful in the classroom. We are looking for new board members. I noticed you have an interest in board service and have some experience that could be valuable for the work we do. Could I send you more information?
If you feel squeamish about contacting someone you don't know, then you could ask one of your mutual connections for an introduction. But keep in mind that folks would not publicly indicate an interest in board service if they did not want others to contact them about such opportunities. Moreover, they might even feel flattered that you value their expertise.
Request an introduction to the third level of your network. It can be less easy to persuade a third degree connection (a connection of a connection's connection) to learn more about your organization and consider board service with you. For this reason, you should certainly ask a mutual contact for an introduction to grease the skids. You might write to that mutual connection and say:
Hello, Andrew! As you know, I serve on the board of XYZ Organization. We are looking for new board members to join us. I am wondering if you would be willing to introduce me to one of your colleagues, Jane Smith. I noticed on her LinkedIn profile that she has an interest in board service, and I think she could play a valuable role with our organization.
One final note worth mentioning. If you start to conduct a lot of these searches, LinkedIn will warn you that you are "approaching the commercial use limit" and will ask you to upgrade to Premium to get unlimited people searching. That said, your limit resets at the beginning of each calendar month.
There you have it: how to identify and connect with board prospects on LinkedIn, along with some messaging templates to get you started. This can be an incredibly useful approach if you feel that your network is limited or tapped out. You will soon see that you are surrounded by a robust community of professionals who would be delighted to support and guide the work of your organization.
Have you used LinkedIn to identify and connect with board prospects? Let us know how it went in the comments below. As always, your questions are welcome, too!
I have lamented before that nonprofit organizations, especially small ones, sell themselves short when it comes to board recruitment.
You may believe that the best you can hope for in a new board member is someone who participates in meetings, volunteers to take on a few simple tasks, and gets along well with the Executive Director and the other board members.
And you may believe that it does not matter what knowledge, experience, background, skills, or attributes your board members might possess.
But what if I told you that you and your organization could dream big about whom you can recruit to join your board? In today's post, I am going to help you kick these limiting beliefs to the curb, and give you the tools to figure out whom you need on your board.
Where do these beliefs about board recruitment come from? In my conversations with nonprofit leaders, I have found that these beliefs are often rooted in a sense of humility. I have heard things like:
Do any of these sound familiar to you? Whether you are a staff leader or a board leader, then let me ask you:
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then I encourage you to think strategically about your board recruitment.
> > > Related: If you could still use a confidence-boost that you should dream big about whom you can recruit, then check out these reasons why you must set the bar high for board service.
How do you figure out whom you need to serve on your nonprofit organization's board?
I really wish there were a one-size fits all template for determining the ideal composition. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all say: I need a lawyer, a banker, a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker. Check, check, and check!
Instead, you need to determine a composition that will best serve your organization’s unique vision, needs, and values.
Here are some things I would consider...
1. Who is on your board now?
Take inventory of your current leadership to learn more about the knowledge, experience, background, skills, and attributes your board members possess.
This can also serve as a great opportunity to get to know your board members a bit better. Invite them for coffee 1:1, or take time during a board meeting to go around the room and share. You will be delighted with what you learn.
2. Does your board reflect the community you serve?
There's an expression, "Nothing about us without us." This slogan has its origins in Central Europe, and has been widely used in a variety of social justice movements. No matter the mission of your organization, it is important that the voices and perspectives of those whom you serve are well represented and empowered on the board. For example, if your organization mentors homeless youth and provides them with a safe, warm place to stay, then several of your board members may have experienced homelessness as young people. If you find in the course of your inventory that the board does not reflect the community you serve, your recruitment process should rectify that as much as possible.
3. What do you need help with?
Start with any formal plans your organization might have. By this, I mean your strategic plan, fundraising plan, communications plan, etc. Are there any goals or strategies that you are unsure of how to achieve? That require special professional connections? That require significant funding?
Maybe you have formal plans. Maybe you don't. Whatever the case may be, here are some additional questions to ponder:
4. Putting It All Together
Take all of the information you have gathered back to your current board. In an ideal world, they have been engaged in the process alongside you. But no matter their level of participation, it is useful to review everything in the aggregate with them and to work together to put some stakes in the ground.
By the end of this process, you will have determined a board composition that is ideal for your organization. You will use it as a guide to help you find those in your community who will become your organization's best advisors, ambassadors, and advocates.
What am I missing? Share your best practices for determining your organization's ideal board composition in the comments below. Your questions are welcome, too!
'Tis the season for EDs and Development Directors to begin crafting their organization's year-end campaign. If you are like most, your campaign will include an appeal letter from the ED or Board Chair that will walk the fine line between, "Look at how amazing we are!" and "Please, please, please give us money so we can keep the lights on. Please."
If you have ever written such a letter–or had to sign it, fold it, and stuff it in a handwritten envelope 200+ times–you know how much work goes into this aspect of your campaign. Given your investment of time, energy, and papercuts, shouldn't you get a great a return?
Before you waste any more paper and ink on a lackluster, formulaic appeal letter, check out this list of ways to upgrade your correspondence and receive more contributions in return.
1. Name Names
Fundraising is ultimately about building relationships. But it is difficult to cultivate a relationship with someone if your letter greets them with a generic salutation, such as Dear Friend or Dear Donor. Moreover, the psychology of giving tells us that folks are more likely to open their wallets if they feel like they, and they alone, are being asked to give. If they perceive they are part of a group of people being asked–as a generic letter might imply–they will just leave it up to other people to donate.
Presumably, if someone is on your mailing list, you have their name. You can use mail merge in Microsoft Word to create and print personalized letters. The additional expense of printing these letters versus copying them en masse at your local office supply store is a worthwhile endeavor.
2. Show, Don't Tell
Instead of telling your recipients that your program has enriched the community in some way, how about showing them through storytelling? Stories have the power to inspire and motivate people to act, in a way that statistics cannot. To wit:
3. Don't Ask for a Donation
I know. This sounds counter-intuitive. Hear me out. Instead of asking your dear reader to "make a tax-deductible contribution" to your organization, invite them to join you in the good work you are doing. For example:
4. Make It Easy to Give
Easy is subjective, of course, but you should offer your recipients at least two ways to give. Whatever methods you might suggest, you should facilitate those processes as much as possible.
For example, many people still prefer the old standby of writing checks, so you ought to include a return envelope. I once heard a seasoned fundraiser say that not including an envelope is like putting a pool of crocodiles between the donor and their contribution.
For other people though, writing a check requires an act of Congress, and possibly an errand to buy stamps. Yet more pools of crocodiles! Consider alerting them to an online or mobile giving option.
Bonus: Put 'You' Before 'We'
Here's something that might put a little spring in your step today: it's all about you! Well, not you per se, but 'you' as in the person to whom you are writing. It is very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of "we did this and we did that; we will do this and we hope to do that." In the examples I offered above, I modeled this best practice as much as possible. Sometimes a 'we' is unavoidable, but you should try to make the letter about the recipient and the positive impact they can have their community.
What am I missing? Share your best practices for writing appeal letters in the comments below. Your questions are welcome, too!
If you are a nonprofit leader who has spent any amount of time on social media lately, you know the internet is ripe with tips, tricks, do's, don't's, mistakes, and best practices for successfully executing your organization's #GivingTuesday campaign.
And you have likely heard that in 2016, nonprofit organizations around the world received $177 million in a single day. I know when I hear that statistic, I think, "I want a piece of that pie!"
But let's take a step back for a moment: is #GivingTuesday right for your organization? That depends...How big is your nonprofit? Is your community active on social media? Have you had success with online giving in the past? Do you have the resources to develop a thoughtful, effective #GivingTuesday campaign? And more.
There's a lot to think about.
And so to help you with your thought process, I have rounded up some of my favorite essays that address the factors you need to consider before you ask for a slice of the #GivingTuesday pie.
Is your organization planning to participate in #GivingTuesday? Why or why not? Do you have any favorite articles that have informed your thinking about this day of giving? Share in the comments. Your questions are welcome, too!
Things have been going so well. You have had 100% attendance at board meetings for the past six months. Most of your board members have been actively engaged. They are asking great questions, offering their input, and connecting your Executive Director and staff with the resources they need to fulfill the organization's mission. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and just when you thought life could not get any better...
You realize that the terms of two your best board members are coming to an end in a matter of months. You whimper. You gnash your teeth. You briefly consider proposing a resolution to eliminate term limits. Ultimately, you pull up your big-kid britches, sit down with your contact list, and think, "Let's see...who do I know who has a pulse?"
May I stop you right there? It does not have to be this way. It should not be this way.
Perhaps I painted a very rosy picture at the beginning about the current status of your board. Maybe you have trouble getting some board members to attend meetings. Maybe you have some board members who remain silent. Maybe you have some board members dutifully clutching their rubber stamps. You might even have some board members who are outright hostile to each other.
How to address those types of situations is the subject for a future blog post, or two. But however functional (or dysfunctional) your board might be, you owe it to yourself, your organization, and the community you serve to recruit the best darn board members you can find. Time and time again, I see organizations sell themselves short at the outset of their recruitment process, and end up settling for board members who prove to be dispassionate, disengaged, or otherwise dissatisfying.
I don't want that for you. And I know you don't want that either. Instead, I invite you to dream big about whom you can recruit to join your board, no matter the size of your organization. And here's why...
Board members are your organization's ambassadors. They are sharing stories about the impact of the work that you do. They are leveraging their networks to help you find the time, talent, and treasure your organization needs. They are cultivating relationships with your best donors, volunteers, and community partners. If a board member is lukewarm about your mission, or is afraid to ask others to learn more and do more for your organization, then they will not effectively fulfill their role as ambassador.
Board members are your Executive Director's most trusted advisors. They bring their knowledge, experience, skills, background, and attributes to bear on the work of the organization. They can support your Executive Director in solving problems, overcoming challenges, and identifying opportunities. Your organization will best serve its community if its work is informed not only by the Executive Director, but by the diversity of perspectives represented on your board.
Board members play a role in staff retention. Your Executive Director sends an email to your board asking for their input or announcing a significant gift. Crickets. Your Development Director attends a board meeting and asks for volunteers to assist with lapsed donor re-engagement. No one raises a hand. A board member directly approaches the staff with a long list of tasks or requests. A board member provides destructive criticism of the Executive Director, to their face, in the presence of the rest of the board. If your staff members perceive that the board does not care about their work, micromanages their work, or does not respect their work, they will leave. And then you will be looking for much more than a few new board members.
Board members can help or hinder the future of your organization. They collaborate with your Executive Director and other staff members to set strategic directions, often in 3-5 year intervals. But is not uncommon for board members to get stuck in the weeds or to dwell in the past because there is great comfort in dealing with the known rather than the unknown. You need board members who don't mind this discomfort, and are adept at creative and strategic thinking.
See what I mean? Board members are so much more than warm bodies to achieve a quorum. They have a tremendous influence on the stability and impact of your organization. As you begin thinking about your upcoming board recruitment cycle, I hope you remember that your organization deserves board members who bring more than their pulse to the table. They must also bring their head and their heart.
What am I missing? Can you think of other reasons why organizations should "dream big" when it comes to board recruitment? Share in the comments below. Your questions are welcome, too!
It's not every day that you get to meet your heroes. I still haven't met mine, but I did get to be a guest on her podcast!
I had the pleasure and honor of joining Joan Garry on a recent episode of "Nonprofits are Messy" to talk about what it's like to be the only staff member of a small nonprofit.
If her name is not familiar, Joan is the former CEO of GLAAD, a regular panelist on NBC's Emmy award-winning show "Give", and a consultant and published author on nonprofit leadership. Joan knows nonprofits!
One of the things that I enjoy most about Joan–apart from her endless wisdom and generous spirit–is her ability to maintain a sense of humor about the nonprofit sector and also remain in absolute awe of the good work we are all trying to do. This feels like a healthy balance to me.
During our podcast conversation, Joan and I covered a lot of ground: elevator pitches, a day in the life of a solo Executive Director, board roles and responsibilities, volunteer engagement and management, and trying to grow when there aren't a lot of resources.
You can stream our episode online, or download it to your mobile device with your preferred podcast app.
And don't stop with that one! Joan has had a lot of amazing guests over the years. Here are just a few of my favorite "Nonprofits are Messy" episodes... (What about incorporating this one into your new board member orientation?)