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.
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:
'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!
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?)