Is Your Board Suitable for the Time?

Many nonprofit boards are populated by seniors. They have experience, talent, time, contacts, and money. In the past, that was the formula for the perfect board member. Perhaps its is time to redefine the perfect board member.

In a rapidly changing world, leaders must be agile. Success used to mean finding the right process and continuously refining it. Now survival depends on agility and a willingness to evolve. Today, it is impractical to design, test, and perfect a process before introducing it. Now is the time to try new ideas and perfect them while they are being scaled to serve a growing demand. The old ways must sometimes be abandoned before the new ways can be tested.

Evolution, rather than structured change, means giving the staff the latitude to design and implement changes without waiting for a formal review, carefully constructed plan, and cautious implementation. The board must give up control and be satisfied with writing policy and trusting the judgement of the staff. That is hard to do when the previous process has been successful for so many years. Today, those who know what is best and the best way to do it are those closest to the clients.

In the past, almost every nonprofit was designed like a factory. The clients were one of the elements in a regimented process. Each client received the same services. Today, in our infinitely customized culture, very few clients receive the same services. The goal today is to provide each client with exactly what they need for success. Consistent success is the measure rather than consistent services.

In the past, the process was trusted because it was consistent. It was unnecessary to track statistics because client success was the client’s responsibility. Today, nonprofits are in partnership with their clients and share responsibility with the clients for success. Therefore, donors and the community want statistics that demonstrate the nonprofit is fulfilling its responsibilities. In addition, there must be statistics that show growing effectiveness (more clients must be successful each year).

In the past, treating the problem was enough (feeding the hungry for example). Today, nonprofits must aspire to at least cure the problem. It is even better when nonprofits aim to prevent the problem.

In the past, information consistently came from a handful of sources. Today, new sources of critical information are constantly emerging. Those sources must be found and used.

In the past, it was possible to let other organizations lead. They incubated new ideas and proved they worked (created best practices for everyone). It was possible to have a high level of sustainability while following the leaders. Today, everyone must gather information from unique sources, combine it in unique ways, and uniquely implement it. Leading rather than following is the way to thrive. Now even the leaders must struggle to be highly sustainable.

Next Step:

Limit board membership to those who are ready for tomorrow regardless of their experience, knowledge, contacts, etc.

Commit to teaching your board what they need to know about your nonprofit, its business model, and its marketplace as well as what makes it unique

Create a culture that supports being a leading innovator

Challenge your board to think broadly and deeply

In the past, boards often limited their decision making to yes or no on the proposal in front of them. Today, boards must consider multiple options. The future is fluid. There are several ways forward. Therefore, the board must guide rather than direct.

The stakeholders need to know where the nonprofit is going rather than what path it will take. Your mission tells the world what problem your nonprofit will solve. Your vision tells the world what it will look like when the problem is solved. When your board breaks your vision into discrete goals, your staff will have the guidance it needs to drive your nonprofit forward. It will also have the flexibility it needs to respond to our changing world. The staff success must be measured by its progress toward the goals rather than the process used to reach the goals.

Take It Further:

Ask your board development committee to recruit members who have demonstrated their ability to be the agile and innovative leaders your nonprofit needs


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Effective Stewardship

Many nonprofit boards need to reimagine their roles. When they took on the leadership of the nonprofits, they agreed to become the stewards of the nonprofits. For some boards, stewardship means maintain the status quo. They aim to sustain the current level of effectiveness and efficiency. Those boards have limited their role to that of a troubleshooter. They focus on fixing what is broken or wrong and letting the rest continue undisturbed. In an ever-changing world, that results in a decline in sustainability.

The best boards believe that being a good steward means handing the mission off to the next group of leaders in better condition than they found it. They see the mission as being on loan to them. They hold themselves responsible for improving the value of one of their community’s precious assets – rather than maintaining what they were loaned. Their goal is to pass on a healthy mission with healthy resources so the next leaders can do even more for the community.

Some of the ways the better boards think about strengthening their nonprofits before handing them off are increasing financial strength, the relevance of the missions, sustainability, the number of clients served, the number of clients who achieve success, community support, stakeholder engagement, the missions’ value to the communities, and donor loyalty, engagement, and generosity.

It is unlikely that a board will be able to increase strength in all seven areas. Therefore, it must have a vision for the future and think carefully about what the next step is on the path to vision fulfillment. Once it can identify the next step forward, it is relatively easy to determine which strengths will be most beneficial. Defining the next step in quantifiable terms makes it easy to determine how much strength is needed in each area. When each successive board takes this approach, your nonprofit will enjoy a growing level of strength in all areas and a competitive advantage in important areas like attracting talent (staff, board, and other volunteers), fundraising, and serving clients.

Next Step:

Teach your board members to think about the legacy they are leaving rather than the most recent problem or challenge

Help your board create a vision for your mission, clients, and community

Lay a foundation for your nonprofit’s next step by creating the strengths that will facilitate the step

Preview the vision, the step, and strengths needed with your stakeholders to ensure your nonprofit has the support it needs to be successful

Regardless of the value and logic behind your vision, steps, or strengths, it is important to check with your stakeholders. Since your nonprofit is in partnership with your stakeholders, it makes sense to preview every major decision with them to increase the sustainability of their support.. It is easy to assume stakeholders will agree with the value, logic, and strengths. However, it is necessary to preview them to ensure you are presenting them in ways that will engage the stakeholders and increase their support. are appropriate, A great plan without inspired support will struggle.

A collateral benefit of focusing on building strengths is that mission effectiveness and operational efficiency increase without any direct effort or attention from the board. The focus on strengths also keeps the board from being distracted by operational issues or micromanaging issues. With the focus on strengths, the staff reports and community reports become focused on the issues that affect strength development, which helps to keep the board’s focus on the areas of greatest value to the future of your nonprofit and its sustainability.

Take It Further:

Add a budget line item that will support the strength building (strength building is an investment in the future of your mission and it creates a valuable asset – donors like to know what they are paying for)

Charge your board development committee with building the strength of your board, the fundraising committee with building the strength of your donor base and non-board volunteers, and your personnel and program committees with building the strength of your staff


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Challenging and Supporting Leaders

Many boards admit they need to do more about successor leadership. The boards are unsure who should be the next chair. Their personnel committees are unsure who should be the successor to any of the key staff positions. There is a lack of bench strength even though everyone knows that leaders are important to continued success, mission relevance, and sustainability. The unintended message to donors, the staff, and other stakeholders is that continued success is being left to chance. Hardly the way to increase or sustain donor generosity or stakeholder loyalty.

Someone should be testing the members of the team to see who has the potential to be a successor. There should be two or three candidates for every key position. If the opening comes in a time of growth, there must be someone who has the skill and will to manage growth. If the opening comes during a time of challenges, a great problem solver is the right person for the job. No one is right for every situation so limiting the field to just one candidate limits your potential to have the right candidate.

Seniority is never a qualification for leadership. The longer someone has been an individual contributor the more entrenched their habits are. Individual contributors are tempted to micromanage rather than lead. However, anyone who is willing can learn to be a great leader.

Every candidate, and especially the dark horse, deserves investment. Without an investment in their training and frequent testing of their leadership skills, they will always be stuck in the past and unprepared for the future when the opportunity arises. It is very difficult to retain the top understudies. They are prime prospects for other nonprofits and for-profits. In addition, stars are hard to keep because if they enjoy leadership and have the skills, they will want to use their skills. However, you can retain them if you continue to challenge them. The dark horse can become a prime candidate when an unexpected opening occurs shortly after the prime candidate leaves and the second choice is a poor fit because of the needs of the nonprofit at that moment.

Failure to invest in your potential candidates sends an unintended message. When a candidate is promoted without having been prepared for the step up, it is reasonable for the candidate to ask themselves if they can truly expect support from the organization.

Nonprofit executives have short tenures on average. Lack of support is one of the reasons they choose to leave their post. Lack of support can also be a reason for them being asked to leave. If they were promoted because of their potential but the potential was never developed, they are often seen as underperforming their potential and dismissed. None of the stakeholders will be pleased if you have to install a new leader in less than three years. It says that the board is unsure of what it wants in a leader or is unable to properly screen for the right leader. A symptom of a struggling nonprofit is to have more than two executives in any five-year period.

Board chairs with short tenures can be just as disruptive as executives with short tenures. Plans depend on the continuity of leadership. Trust and confidence depends on the continuity of leadership. Having a good working relationship between the staff and the board depends on a continuity of leadership on both sides. Donor and other stakeholder retention depends on a continuity of leadership. In short, it is as important to invest in your board chair and retain your board chair as it is to invest in and retain any other leader.

Next Step:

Know who your understudies are for every key position

Invest in the development of every understudy

Know the strengths and weaknesses of every understudy so you can promote the right person at the right time

Hold your board development committee accountable for training each board member and developing several candidates for the role of chair

Nonprofits who are willing to invest in their potential leaders at all levels find it easier to grow. They have the depth of leadership necessary to take on the next big challenge. Their depth of leadership also gives their stakeholders confidence that the next big step forward will be successful. Growth increases mission relevance and your nonprofit’s sustainability.

Take It Further:

Recruit board members who are overqualified so that your board has the capacity to lead as your nonprofit grows

Recruit board members who have a history of creating leaders within the ranks of their followers

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Decisions that Strangle Success

Nonprofits must be accountable for how they use a funder’s money. Accountability encourages good stewardship, gives the donor the confidence to be generous, creates a more effective mission, and enables greater client success. When accountability has the wrong focus, it strangles donor, nonprofit, mission and client success.

Donors, like nonprofit boards, have only the best interests of the nonprofit in their hearts. However, they sometimes put restrictions on their gifts that can have a significant impact on everyone’s success.

Let us imagine that Ms. Money, a highly successful business person, generous donor, and friend of a nonprofit, decides to make a significant gift. She requires periodic progress reports on the use of her gift. When certain benchmarks are hit, additional funds will be released. On the surface, her request may seem reasonable. Most boards will accept the gift and the terms because the gift is significant and since she is a successful business person it is assumed her request is reasonable. Further analysis of Ms. Money’s request may reveal a flaw that is counterproductive for everyone.

Instead of accepting Ms. Money’s request, the board should think carefully about the reasonability of the request. In addition, the board should be prepared to help her set expectations that are best for all concerned.

Most nonprofits solve significant social problems. While the services are delivered today, it can be months and often years before the problem is solved (desired outcome is produced). Measuring what happens during the service process is an inaccurate indicator of the outcome. The services are meant to change lives. During the service process there are indications that the clients understand the changes that need to take place, there is very little that indicates whether the changes will be durable. As an example, we all know people who have dieted and lost an impressive amount of weight while following a weight-loss program. Unfortunately, many weight-loss programs are unable to create durable outcomes (a permanent change in the clients’ weight) even though there is a high level of client success while clients are in the programs. While the weight-loss program taught the individual how to manage their weight, the program failed to create a durable change in the person’s life. If a donor uses program completion as a measure of the success of her gift, the social problem remains unsolved. If all of the emphasis is on the outcome (solving the social problem), the donor must wait a long time before she can determine the effectiveness of her gift. It is difficult to find the middle ground.

Donors prefer to fund durable changes rather than lessons learned. Therefore you should report your success in terms of your clients’ outcomes rather than short-term results, even though the lessons learned are a necessary precursors to the outcomes.

The wise donor will establish milestones that focus on what matters most to your clients, donors, nonprofit, mission, and community. It is your fundraising team’s job to help your donors focus on what truly matters.

It is your board’s responsibility to determine what truly matters. A focus on the results sacrifices the outcomes. Focusing only on the outcomes fails to provide sufficient feedback to encourage donor generosity, confidence, engagement, and loyalty. There are short-term and intermediate-term milestones in every path to great outcomes. Identifying those milestones and tracking the clients’ progress will provide the focus and evidence to generate the support your nonprofit needs.

Next Step:

Set goals and establish success measures that reflect the long-term success of your mission and clients

Guide your donors to use those same standards when evaluating the effectiveness of their gifts

Trust your staff to produce the short-term results that will lead to your mission’s ultimate success and the fulfillment of your board’s vision for your community

Think carefully and consult your programing team when setting the time frame and measurement system for each interim milestone. For example, a K-12 school board which has five-year goals may be forcing the staff to make short-term decisions that interfere with the long-term vision of having every alumni graduate from college.

Your nonprofit’s vision articulates your nonprofit’s value to your community and the relevance of the promises of your mission statement. Your board’s goals and success measures must provide the statistics that prove your vision is becoming a reality. Your goals and success measures should be the indicators that your donors use to evaluate the effectiveness of their gifts, the success of your clients, and the success of your nonprofit. What you choose determines how generous your donors will be.

Take It Further:

Begin collecting evidence today of the success your mission had years ago so that you have the data to reorient your donors’ thinking about how to measure success

Examine all of your board’s decisions to determine which are causing your staff, donors, and other supporters to think short term rather than long term because only the long term matters to your clients and community

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What Do You See?

Those with a vision are shaping the world. They see how things could be and chart a course that will create what they envision. Nonprofits are expected to shape the world around them.

Your community expects to be reshaped by your nonprofit. Your board has the power and the capacity to fulfill your community’s expectations. The first step is to commit to making a significant impact on your community. Most boards, and especially the boards of small nonprofits, stop before they start. They tell themselves they lack the resources, the skills, the money, the size, etc. They humbly believe they are unable to envision something of sufficient value. They tell themselves they are already doing all they can to change the world and without more resources there is nothing more they can do.

The leading tech companies are examples of once small organizations that are having a big impact. Most of them have very humble beginnings (a few people with an idea but no money). There are nonprofits in your community who were formed in the past few years and are growing rapidly. Their start was probably just as humble as Microsoft, Apple, Google, etc.

The rebuttal we often hear is “They are lucky. Mr. Bigbucks gave them a big gift to get them started and has continued to fund them generously. Anyone could succeed with that kind of support.” We see that as proof that a good vision is very important. Mr. Bigbucks gave them a big gift and continues to support them because he wants what their vision says he will receive.

Your nonprofit is a well-established member of your community. You have a proven process. You have a number of stakeholders and a history of success. Those are huge assets any startup would love to have. You are missing just one asset – a vision.

It is that simple. Cast a vision. Cast a vision that is too big, complex, and expensive to do alone. If your current vision is only large enough for the stakeholders you have, your ability to grow is limited by your vision and nothing more. Your limited vision is limiting the number of people who can help. The grandioseness of your new vision creates room for others to join you.

What your vision should be is much bigger than what you are doing. If your nonprofit is a struggling food pantry, stop thinking about hungry people. Envision what your community would be like if everyone was self-sufficient. That is a big problem that will attract many supporters. You can still pass out food but have a bigger purpose behind the food you distribute. Distribute the food in ways that encourage or enable self-sufficiency or create additional services that will develop self-sufficiency while distributing food.

Just like no one could predict what the big tech companies would look like today, no one can predict what your nonprofit will need to look like to fulfill your new vision. What you can do is envision the change you want to see. From there you can step forward and try to create what should be one of the components in your vision. Hopefully, it will be too big for your nonprofit to do alone. If so, you will be forced to share your vision in a way that will attract more supporters. With the new supporters helping you, your nonprofit will be well on its way.

Next Step:

Help your board to cast a big vision that solves a very important problem that is related to your mission

Take a small step forward to prove to the world that you are serious and will continue with or without the world’s help (prove your nonprofit and especially its leadership are passionate about the vision)

Ask current and prospective supporters to give you the support you need to expand your small step into a meaningful and noticeable step forward

Start talking about the next step forward before the current step is completed

Ensure you have input from a cross section of your stakeholders. Use their input to help you gather the support you need for your next step forward. If your stakeholders value your step forward, they will want to support your vision.

While it is unimportant how long it will take to realize your vision, it is very important that each step forward is meaningful, measurable, and durable. The steps forward should happen quickly, which means the size of the step must be carefully chosen. A steady succession of meaningful steps will make it easier to recruit new supporters and retain others. Each step must also be obviously mission centric and client serving as well as vision enhancing.

Take It Further:

Think about ways to engage other organizations (government agencies, for-profits, and nonprofits) in your vision (it is unnecessary for your nonprofit to be the central player in each step forward)

Preview your vision with senior community leaders (their support will help you gather supporters who are currently out of your reach)

Look for ways to expand your vision each year

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Staff, Your Competitive Advantage

Nonprofits are both service centers and experience centers. Clients come for the services and they have the potential to gain as much or more from the learning experience as they will gain from the services. What they learn might contribute more to their achieving the desired outcomes than the services.

The learning experience can be a valuable differentiator. It can significantly enhance the results and differentiate you from your competitors.

A hungry family needs a sack of groceries. What the family learns from the staff while collecting the groceries, is the differentiator between food pantries. For example, most nonprofits want their clients to have a high level of sustainability. How the nonprofit behaves, how the staff thinks about important matters, the culture of the nonprofit, and the policies and philosophy of the board all create a model for living sustainably and have the potential to shape each client’s worldview. Each visit by a client is a lesson in sustainability. Think about the other valuable lessons each visit teaches your clients. Be intentional about the ones that are most important to your clients. Your staff creates your competitive advantage through their actions because their actions teach your clients.

Does your client’s learning experience provide your nonprofit with a significant competitive advantage?

There are probably several fixed assets used to provide services. Those assets are reviewed annually to ensure they are functioning optimally and are kept up to date. However, while there are probably annual performance reviews of each staff member, very little is usually spent on keeping the staff up to date or on continuing education. In addition, the staff review is probably focused on staff performance rather than elements that will change the learning experience of the clients. Most boards can do more to fine-tune their most valuable assets.

Most board focus on tangible results. Continuing the previous example, the number of families served and the tons of food distributed are measured and reported. What the clients learned, how the lessons changed their lives, and the durability of the changes are seldom measured or reported to the board, donors, and community. Those results are also seldom part of the staff’s performance review, even though those are the results that attract donors, define the relevance of the mission, determine the level of value created for the community, encourage community support, and influence the nonprofit’s sustainability.

Next Step:

Determine what you want your client’s service experience to be to make a meaningful, measurable, and durable difference in your clients’ lives

Determine how to measure what your staff does that creates the meaningful, measurable, and durable value for your clients and community

Determine how to invest in your staff to better enable them to be successful

Share your meaningful, measurable, and durable value (anecdotes and statistics) with your donors and community

The monetary analysis of a nonprofit’s process is well understood, well managed, and frequently reviewed. That is good. Creating value beyond delivering services seldom receives the same attention. The focus needs to be on value creation rather than process efficiency or results (bags of groceries distributed).

With the rapid changes in society, the talent discussion is often limited to technical skills (accounting, computer, marketing, etc.). However, value creation comes from leadership skills and other soft skills. Technical skills are easy to hire. Learning to create value usually requires a detailed knowledge of the clients, goals, outcomes, and mission. Leadership skills are also critical. Leadership is necessary to guide the technical experts and enable them to use their knowledge to create value while creating the expected process results.

The value created by your staff is a source of sustainability, client success, community value, and mission relevance.

Take It Further:

Make value the focus of every discussion because value is a competitive advantage that is hard to copy

Invest in creating the leaders you will need five years from now

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Multiplying Critical Assets

The five critical asset classes every nonprofit should have are staff, donors, volunteers, advocates, and referral sources. Individuals and/or organizations are the assets that make up each class. Those assets are probably more important than any of the assets on the balance sheet because they create, maintain, and feed the balance sheet assets. Nurturing the five critical assets makes sense. Multiplying them makes more sense.

The first step is to know how many members of each asset class you will need and what the profile of the average asset in the class should look like five years from now. You must look out at least five years because it takes time to gather assets and it takes time to shape the ones you have to meet your future needs.

The second step is to create a profile for what you want to recruit today so that you develop the asset you will need. For example, prospective board members who are satisfied with their achievements will be a better fit for a nonprofit without plans to grow. You want volunteers who see themselves growing and developing new strengths. If one board member wants to rest, it sends a message to all of the other assets. Growth is the only way to increase sustainability in a rapidly changing world.

The third step is to have a development plan for each asset in each class. The development goal is raising the effectiveness and efficiency of each asset so that their individual impact is multiplied. In addition, the development plan should include how to attract more assets to the class.

Developing assets implies being willing to invest in each member of the class. Your willingness to invest in an asset tells the asset how much you value them and encourages them to do more, be more engaged, and helps to increase the sustainability of your relationship with the asset. What you do for one asset also sends a message to all of your other assets that you value them and will invest in them when appropriate.

Be creative when thinking about how to invest in an asset. For instance, inviting referral sources to tour your facilities and talk about what is new is a valuable investment of your time and very little expense. At the same time, the better your referral sources understand your process the better job they will do of selecting the perfect referrals. Sending you the perfect referral is very gratifying for them. It helps them maximize their value to those they serve (your clients and others). It also helps to raise the effectiveness of your services, the success of your clients, the relevance of your mission, and your value to your community.

The asset in each class are individuals. While it simplifies the article to refer to individuals as assets, it also objectives the individuals. It is very hard to engage people if they feel like they are objects. Therefore, talk about them as individuals and never as objects.

Net Step:

Have an asset plan that spans at least five years

Be selective when adding assets and be willing to invest in each asset (new or existing)

Hold your board accountable for the increase in the value of your assets just as you do with the balance-sheet assets

Most of the preceding sounds like something the staff should do. It is. However, your board must establish the criteria for the successful acquisition and development of assets. It can only do that if it understands the value of developing and multiplying the critical assets. Without that understanding, attempts by the staff to develop assets will be side-tracked by the board’s other priorities. Goals and a plan encourage the board and staff to collaborate and work in harmony.

The place to start is with your board. How they develop their members will be a model for the rest of your nonprofit. It will demonstrate your commitment. It will increase the capacity of your board to serve, which will be necessary to support the growth of the other assets.

Take It Further:

Hold your board development committee accountable for the board’s development

Make all of the growth and multiplication goals client and mission centric

Use the change in generosity and loyalty of your assets as the success measures for your critical asset management, development, and sustainability activities

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Sustaining Critical Assets

Every nonprofit should have four critical assets. The assets are advocates (rare), referral sources (few), donors (many), and staff (most). Almost all have donors and staff, some have referral sources too, very few have advocates as well.

What is your nonprofit doing to increase and nurture each of your asset classes?

It is surprising the number of nonprofits who lack an asset because they think it is unnecessary. In our experience when two nonprofits are competitors, the one with more asset classes is very often the stronger one. Having a full complement makes a bigger difference.

The best leaders surround themselves with diverse groups of people who have insights into areas the leaders lack. The members of each asset class have unique knowledge and perspectives. Their insights will help your board better understand your community and your marketplace. It is also specific, actionable, and current information that is be hard to acquire elsewhere.

There are two questions every asset should be asked at least once a year:

Why do you continue to support our nonprofit?

What might entice you to support someone else?

The simple act of asking the questions will help to retain the asset. It tells them that you think they are an asset and you care about their needs. Having a board member or two in attendance when the questions are asked adds a level of sincerity to the process. Most of the time, you will learn about things you can do that will strengthen the relationship and prevent the loss of an asset. You will also learn about emerging trends, new opportunities, and new threats. Most of the responses will provide you with another perspective on an issue that is important to your mission and clients.

The goal is to discover what must be done to retain the asset. The other information you learn underscores how valuable each asset and asset class is to your nonprofit. Therefore, anything that reduces attrition and strengthens a relationship is worth doing.

All of the assets have an acquisition cost. Compared to the acquisition costs the maintenance costs are low. Therefore, the return on the time you invest in talking with assets will be well rewarded.

Next Step:

Ensure your nonprofit has a full complement of assets

Educate your board about the value of each asset class

Identify and assess each of the key members of each asset class

Monitor the health of the relationship between your nonprofit and each asset class member annually

Your board pays careful attention to the health of the assets listed on your balance sheet. The change in those assets is probably reported to the stakeholders in the annual report. Those are hard assets. The soft assets (advocates, referral sources, donors and volunteers, and staff members) are probably more valuable. In combination they are probably a more important source of income and sustainability than the ones listed on your balance sheet.

Remind your board that it is responsible for protecting, maintaining, and increasing the value of all of your nonprofit’s assets.

Take It Further:

Look for other assets that are critical to the success of your nonprofit and mission but never appear on your P&L or balance sheet

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After the Strategic Plan

We have written many articles about strategic planning to help boards. They cover the pre-planning phase and the creation of the plan. This article will help you lay a foundation for the successful execution of the plan.

Implementation begins immediately after the plan is written. This is when the operational changes begin. When most boards think about the operational changes, they limit their thinking to what the staff will be doing. Though the staff’s job is important and probably the bulk of the work to implement the plan, the board must change too.

The success of the new strategic plan depends on the board making operational changes. If the board’s role remains unchanged by the strategic plan, the plan is really an operational plan. A strategic plan will affect all elements of your business model. Some will be more affected than others. If there are unaffected elements, the strategic plan is too narrow in its scope. At best, you have a tactical plan but it is probably just a complex operational plan, often referred to as a long-term plan.

The strategic plan will change the way the staff meets its obligations to the clients. Those changes in the operational activities ensure the clients receive the benefits envisioned by the strategic plan. If a strategic plan can be implemented without bringing additional benefits and value to your clients and community, you know it is an operational plan instead of a true strategic plan.

A strategic plan will change the way the board meets its obligations to the mission. At a minimum, the board must set new goals, standards, and policies. It may need a new committee structure. It probably needs additional skills and new success measures for itself, your nonprofit, the clients, and the staff. It probably needs to establish new expectations for each stakeholder group. It will be the board development committee, other board committees, and your staff’s responsibility to implement most of the changes.

Part of your board’s responsibility is to ensure that everyone is proud of your nonprofit, its mission, and leaders. Pride in an organization promotes loyalty, which is important for staff retention, engaged board members, generous donors, and engaged referral sources and advocates. Stakeholder pride starts with a strategic plan that is truly strategic, which means it elevates the meaningfulness, measurability, and durability of everything your nonprofit does. It also means that your board must promote the new value the plan brings to your clients and community.

The bigger the step forward, the more pride the plan generates. A bigger plan with bigger impact will probably take more time to implement. It will also generate more support because supporters want to be part of something big and important.

The board must be fearless. Big and important can seem like high risk. Since big and important draws additional support, the risk is lower than small and incremental. When a nonprofit misses a small incremental goal, people are disappointed because it seems like success should have been easy. Even when incremental changes are successful they often do nothing more than support the current level of sustainability in an environment where sustainability is being undermined daily.

On the way to reaching a big and important goal, there are many small successes. Those small successes help to create goodwill, patience, and optimism, which sustain supporters when things go amiss. Big and important has a big impact on sustainability.

Next Step:

Ensure your strategic plan is truly strategic

Ensure your board has a clear understanding of how its role is changed by the strategic plan and that the board is committed to doing its part

Ensure your board is committed to letting the staff handle the operational changes

Your staff is up to the implementation challenge. They have been successfully operating your nonprofit for years. There have been times when your board has been intensively involved but those have been rare. It may feel otherwise but, remember, running a nonprofit is a full time job. Boards lack the resources to be a full-time manager for more than a few months.

If the board starts by ‘helping’ the staff in the early days, it will handicap the staff and make success in the future more difficult. The hard lessons that cause a stumble in the beginning are there to prevent a tragic misstep later. If the misstep never occurs because a wise board member foresaw it and prevented it, the absence of the institutional learning will ensure the problem will arise later when its impact is likely to be more harmful. Growing sustainability depends on learning lesson early.

Take It Further:

Add a high-level list of operational changes for each element of the business model to the strategic plan before adopting it

Ask each board member to formally commit to fully supporting the strategic plan and doing what is necessary for its success before adopting the strategic plan

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Talent Development

In the final analysis, the only thing your nonprofit has to offer your clients, donors, and community is the talent of your people. They design your programs, raise funds, and provide services. They are at the heart of your nonprofit’s sustainability, effectiveness, success, and your mission’s relevance.

Are you doing enough to nurture that talent?

The response of most nonprofit boards is that “We are doing all we can afford to do.” If talent is the key ingredient to success and change is constantly demanding new skills and new ideas, talent development should be the highest priority expense.

Your investment in talent tells your employees they are valued. You want them to grow, contribute, and flourish. You know they are key to your nonprofit’s success. Those are easy things to say and most boards do say that to their staff. When the staff sees funding talent development put into practice, it makes the board’s sincerity tangible.

When the board postpones talent development until next year because of a tight budget, it is usually an unfulfillable commitment. The budget is tight because of a new challenge the nonprofit is facing. Every new challenge needs a new way of thinking, new skills, and new ideas. The trial and error approach to finding the right response to a new challenge makes resolution slow and uncertain, if it works at all. Therefore, the recovery may only restore the nonprofit to it previous level of sustainability while the world has moved on. As a result, sustainability will be below where it should be. If so, the budget will be too tight to fund any talent development next year. It is better to intensify the investment in talent and focus on ensuring the response to the challenge provides a new, much higher level of sustainability.

Your donors want more than excellence. They want your clients to reach higher levels of success each year and they want more clients to achieve success each year. The only way to consistently fulfill your donors’ expectations is to have a growing talent pool. While every donor knows that, it is good to remind them.

Next Step:

Make talent development a priority

Promote what your talent can do and will do so that your supporters will enthusiastically fund your talent development needs

Hold your board personnel committee accountable for the successful development of the staff’s talent

Talent development needs an advocate in every board meeting. That is the role of the personnel committee. Advocating on behalf of talent development is important while the budget is being developed. It is equally important to have an advocate when a new challenge or misstep is discovered. Since it is rare that a misstep or challenge arises because of negligence or inattention, better talent development is both the cure and the prevention.

Frequently, executives notice the need for talent development before it arises. Equally frequently, they miss the signs because they are so involved in immediate issues they are unable to spend time looking ahead. More talent (people and skills) will help but that depends on increased resources, which depends on an advocate at budget time. The board has the diversity of talent that can help predict needs but only if they look into the future and have a plan

If you want your mission to remain relevant and valuable to your supporters, clients, and community, invest in talent development.

Take It Further:

Invest in your board’s talent and the talent of other volunteers

Have a talent plan for each staff member and volunteer

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