Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Power to the People: One More Reason for Boards to Listen to Their Communities

Smile Train and Operation Smile both provide (literally) face-saving surgeries to indigent children outside the U.S. born with cleft palates. Smile Train is actually an offshoot of Operation Smile, rising out of a difference in philosophy. Whereas Operation Smile sends doctors overseas to perform the operations, Smile Train uses local doctors. The spinoff, which occurred in the late 1990’s, left the two organizations bitter rivals. However, with the changes in the world the two organizations contemplated a merger this past spring that would have brought them back together again. Merger talks were suddenly called off though when donors of Smile Train representing 82 million dollars in contributions expressed opposition to the proposition – some quite publicly.

This is but one example of what those of us who closely follow the many news briefs and RSS feeds from the sector (special thanks to Ruth McCambridge, editor of The Nonprofit Quarterly who along with her colleagues put out an excellent daily feed and recently raised this particular example at the Alliance Conference in Oakland, California) are increasingly seeing – community stakeholders who are mad as hell about some of the decisions being made in their name. And, they aren't just going to take it any more. (For those too young to get the cultural referent, rent the 1976 film Network. It’s probably more relevant now than when it was released.) The public brouhaha that embroiled Smile Train and Operation Smile is just the latest volley in a trend that began with donors wanting a say in how their money is spent. It is a trend that intensified with those donors demanding the return of their money if they feel that the intent behind their gift is not being honored. And, it is a trend that became a runaway train with the decision of an increasing number of stakeholders to pump their financial and human assets into new organizations when they sense the legacy organizations are failing to achieve sufficient or desired impact.

Boards today must recognize that the marketplace will drive which nonprofits shall live and which shall die. If boards aren't paying close attention to what their stakeholders deem important, they may find their organizations on the list of failed entities and their personal reputations sullied for betraying the community’s trust.

To me, the lesson is obvious. Someway, somehow, boards must listen – really listen – to their stakeholders. This might be done informally as long as there is some intentional way of capturing the data on an ongoing basis, such as including BTW Talk on every agenda. For those who have not heard me explain this before, the BTW Talk involves scheduling 20 minutes or so at each meeting to discover what board members have been hearing in conversations with friends, family and colleagues since the last time the board met that could potentially impact the organization and its mission in some way. These are conversations that often start with, “By the way….”

Or, it can involve instituting a means for gathering information on a more formal basis. For instance, the board might contract to survey the community on a regular basis. These surveys can be done online, through the mail, in person or over the phone. Interviews, insight or focus groups, and large-scale change methodologies such as World Café, Future Search or Appreciative Inquiry can also be employed to garner the community’s insights.

The focused and purposeful use of advisory councils is another means of tapping into what the community needs. So is bringing greater diversity into our boardrooms. One way to do this is to choose a model such as Community Engagement Governance (see Freiwirth, Judy. “Engagement Governance for System-Wide Decision Making.” Nonprofit Quarterly. Summer 2007. pgs. 38 – 39.), which actually shares the power of decision-making with different individuals in the community based on their interests and areas of expertise. The key in all of these cases is to truly give weight to what the community is saying and not just employ the techniques as window dressing.

Since this list is by no means inclusive, I am anxious to hear what others have used to stay in touch with what their stakeholders are thinking, feeling and desiring. Please share your success stories and your “learning experiences.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Critical First Step of Income and Other Planning: Destination

Our last entry talked about the definition of good planning. This one continues along similar lines and explores the first step of all good planning: Knowing Where You Want to Go.

Most nonprofits know where they want to go. Like New Englanders in January, everyone agrees, they want to go south for February vacation. Likewise, your nonprofit may agree that your “south” is to improve the quality of the bay water, the readiness of children for kindergarten or the lives of people with developmental disabilities. While you may know the direction, good planning demands that you stop and clarify what exactly constitutes your destination. After all, Miami, Tucson and the Caribbean are south as are Brasilia, South Africa and Newark.

What, for example, does it mean to help people with developmental disabilities to live better lives? To do good planning it matters if you’re talking about housing, employment, family relations or health matters. Each destination requires a different plan.

Knowing your destination allows you to draw a straight line to it from where you are. Good plans reduce expensive meandering. Clear destinations also create vision energy at the start of planning. (Won’t it be exciting to see this in action?”) This energy is needed as fuel for the deep-thinking work ahead.

How has clarifying your destination helped your planning process? How has lack of clarity created confusion?

Monday, September 12, 2011

What is Good Planning?

Planning is one of the many overused but little understood terms tossed around nonprofit organizations. Recently, several consultants from this blog were organizing an audio-conference for nonprofit board members on the topic. We started our planning by discussing the definition of planning. Fifteen-minutes later while we had made progress, we had also uncovered more questions than answers. If it took three experts fifteen minutes to begin to agree on what planning is—you will probably find some uncertainty at your organization. Yet, planning is something we do everyday. After all, you plan when you run out paper and make a note to pick it up after your meeting. You plan when you prepare for your special event. You plan when you determine how exactly you will improve transportation service for seniors.

For starters, here is a definition: planning consists of tasks, energy and resources applied to create a desired future. Good planning includes three components:

1. Where we want to go (the vision).

2. Where you are now.

3. The bridge you will build to get to the vision.

These three components are universal to all planning. This includes your smallest efforts (where should we hold our special event?) to big questions (what is the most effective way to cure cancer?)

How can you tell if your planning was good? If you can create, in your mind’s eye, the bridge you will build and imagine using it to travel from where you are to where you want to go.

When you plan, all three areas need your attention. Which area do you find that you neglect the most? Did you ever stop to define what planning was before you begin to do it?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Boards - Your Chief Administrator Wants You to Learn and Practice CEO Evaluation

Ask board members to list their responsibilities and most will include the supervision of the CEO. However, according to the findings of CompassPoint and Meyer Foundation researchers as reported in Daring to Lead 2011: A National Study of Nonprofit Executive Leadership, there is apparently a disconnect between what board members acknowledge as their responsibilities and what they take on, because close to half of the CEOs surveyed reported that they had not had a performance review within the past year. Adding concern, of those boards that do ensure their CEOs are reviewed, more than two-thirds may not be particularly skilled at the process, judging by the report that fewer than one-third of CEOs found their review either somewhat useful or very useful.

With CEOs clamoring for effective feedback there are evaluation basics that every board can incorporate. Assign a month within which the CEO review will be done, add it to your compliance calendar and make a commitment to follow through. Ask the CEO to consider process and goals and to explain what he or she feels will make the review valuable on both a personal and organizational level. Gather input from the entire board. Then select a few board members to sit down with the CEO to negotiate what the review will consist of. Be sure success measures and deadlines are clearly defined so that everyone has a clear picture of what it will look like when the CEO has successfully met all expectations. Provide interim assessments that ensure everyone is still on the same page and that movement toward goal achievement is on track. (See “Evaluating the Top Administrator: A New Approach” for more.)

But what takes evaluation beyond the basics and ensures an effective result? I would like to learn what those boards that are providing “very useful” feedback are doing. I’d also like to hear from CEOs about what would make their reviews satisfying and helpful. Are there tips that you can share with your colleagues and partners? Perhaps you’ve asked a former board chair to lead the process or brought in a consultant to guide it. Maybe you’ve found a book or article that provided helpful insights into the process or content. All input is encouraged.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Rational Fundraising and Income

Is This Task On Your To-do List? Miss It At Your Peril
One overlooked task of nonprofits is to make sure they are rational in their fundraising and income development work. Why is this overlooked? People don’t realize it is needed. Most people come to your nonprofit based on their emotions, that is, their passions.
Passions are an excellent starting point. It is how we select the causes we care about from the overstuffed cereal-aisle-full of nonprofit opportunities. What do we believe in? What made a difference to us? What will make a difference in our community? We choose based on emotions. We choose based on passions.
Passions get us in the door. While passions should not be forgotten, they do not make a good base for fundraising and income development work. Passions alone do not create income. Passions mixed with rational actions based on research, strategy, analysis and planning do create income.
How can you tell if your fundraising and income development work is rational?
Here are three keys to evaluate it:

Key One: Logical and Realistic Expectations. If you raised $100,000 last year from earned revenue, it is logical given similar efforts and a similar market, that you will raise the same amount give or take 10 percent next year. If you never raised $100,000 is unlikely you will receive a gift this size, even if you included it in your strategic plan. Your fundraising and income plan are rational when you can identify short sequential steps that get you from here to there.
Key 2: Effort. The strategic plan states that the fundraising committee will raise funds. The committee meets regularly, directs several initiatives and makes appointments to ask donors for donations and to build relationships. In this case, effort matches the sought outcomes. Contrast this with a fundraising committee who meets for several times and then quits because they have no idea how to fulfill the goals given to them.
Key 3: Proven Paths. Not only must you put forth effort, it must be the right effort. Susan, in the midst of her first capital campaign, attends a workshop to confirm that her work as campaign coordinator is on track and that she has correctly organized her next steps. From her research, Susan learns that she has a proven plan to meet her goal.
Passions often rule, even in fundraising and income development work, unless efforts are made to be rational. What keys that show you are being rational would you add to these three? How do you make sure your fundraising and income development work is rational?