Hail the Unsung Heroes of Hurricane Harvey- Sharon Danosky

I am frustrated by the lack of understanding that undermines the efforts of many dedicated staff and volunteers in the nonprofit sector.

What prompts my writing was an interview I heard this morning. A non-profit executive was stating that they would be providing a full accounting next week of the funds that had been raised and spent in the relief effort for Hurricane Harvey. The reporter then asked, with a note of incredulity in her voice – “wouldn’t that be the same?” Implicit in her question was an assumption that if the funds spent were not the same as the funds raised, there must be some mismanagement or worse.

Nonprofit organizations do not exist in a world that is so black and white. Simply because you have raised the funds, ordered the supplies, set up a supply chain, provided the cots, food, water, blankets, and distributed donated goods, does not mean that every bill is paid simultaneously. Nor does it account for staff time, travel, reimbursement for gasoline, etc.  The sheer logistics, coordination and manpower hours (both donated and paid) are staggering. Nonprofits are the first on the ground and many arrive at great peril and no one is punching a clock. But it does cost money and it is not a matter of simple bookkeeping. Vendors do not submit bills instantaneously and staff isn’t paid every hour, so the funds raised and spent would never be the same for any organization on a week to week basis. Why would it be so expected simply because it is a nonprofit organization?

Nor did this same reporter take into consideration what many on the ground have been saying consistently: this recovery will not be complete within days, weeks or months. It will take years. And the recovery efforts will also be funded and supported by many non-profits. Good stewardship of the funds raised includes insuring that they are being managed today and tomorrow. Whether there will be support to provide for the myriad expenditures to come is precarious. That is why investment in ongoing fundraising is critical to ensuring that continued resources are available. However, fundraising costs are frequently viewed as a negative without any recognition of the effort it takes to continue bringing the challenges of recovery to the public – long after the reporters have left.

We have been living in a world where every fundraising scam is given an inordinate amount of publicity – in some instances where it wasn’t warranted. In reality, nonprofit organizations do a remarkable job with limited resources. They are a critical part of the relief and recovery equation, often providing relief and support that federal and state governments are either unable or unwilling to provide.

What I do applaud is another reporter who was discussing a number of alternatives where people could contribute. He was asked why not focus on international organizations such as Red Cross or Americares? His response was that most people are aware of those organizations – and they do extraordinary work. However, the local charities are there today and will remain boots on the ground tomorrow – because this is their community and this is the work they do.

It is appropriate that we recognize the men and women, who are both paid and volunteer for the incredible work they do. We should also recognize those who raise and manage the funds. There is a cost to providing relief and recovery efforts.

Beyond the pictures of dramatic rescues and volunteers serving food – there is a nonprofit infrastructure that makes it function – and that, too is worthy of our support and recognition.    

We have a Strategic Plan, Now What?

“Nothing happens until something moves” Albert Einstein

Ask an Executive Director or CEO if they have a strategic plan. Many will say, “Of course we do – it’s here somewhere”. Then they will reach to the top shelf of their bookcase, blow off the dust and say – here it is!  This leads me to believe that a lot of strategic plans end up as bookends or dust collectors.

We recently posted an article that discussed how the most critical part of the strategic plan is actually the planning process. If that is the case, then what do you do when the ‘planning process’ is over and how do you bring those strategies to fruition?

To be relevant for more than a year (or even a day!), strategies must be fluid. So, how do you take something that is fluid and translate it into concrete action? I have found that implementing the following steps can keep boards and management focused on the priorities you agreed upon during your planning process.

1)     Assign Each Strategy to a Board Committee or Task Force. Accountability plays a significant role in maintaining focus on the things that matter. Having a team responsible for keeping an eye on a particular strategy goes a long way to keeping that strategy front and center. Standing Committees, such as Finance Committees, are a good place to delegate any financial aspects of your plan. Programmatic initiatives should involve a task force (or several) comprised of management and staff to develop key initiatives, conduct research or engage community constituents. Ownership of a strategy is what puts a strategy into play.

2)     Develop Action Steps for each Strategic Initiative. The best way to tackle a grand initiative – is one step at a time. This is the work of the committee or task force. Action steps often begin with gathering research. The research leads to analysis and conclusions – which then leads to options. This is where the fluidity of the strategy comes into play. The options present opportunities which can be pursued based on factors internal or external to the organization.  In other words – those activities an organization needs to take on to help it pursue its mission.

3)     Establish timelines and share progress. Inertia is the downfall of many a plan. How you safeguard against inertia is by creating a blueprint which lays out how you will move things forward.   Then hold yourselves accountable by setting deadlines and reporting on progress at each Board meeting. I often recommend embedding the action steps and timelines into the Board agenda. If the Board and management agreed that specific strategic objectives are the priority for the organization – then it only makes sense that the Board has regular discussions relative to whether it is moving forward on these strategies. Timelines hold you accountable.

4)     Develop dashboards to mark progress. Dashboards are a great visual for reporting progress – and should be a tool every Board uses. For strategic planning, I think it should be straight-forward. Each strategy has action steps it needs to undertake each year.   Create a simple table, with the action steps listed in rows and three columns across the top: Not Begun; In Process; Completed. This way you can see at a glance whether you are moving your strategy forward, or falling into the trap of inertia. Color coding them – green for good, yellow for caution and red for problems – can help you see the progress with a quick glance – and focus strategic discussions around problem areas.

5)     Review. While each step along the way is important – review is probably the most essential. We talk about plans being fluid for a number of reasons: assumptions change, organizations face unforeseen challenges; the world changes on a dime.  Reviewing your plan twice a year – or minimally once a year, allows you to evaluate what has happened internally or externally which may impact your plan. And it is ok to change and adapt your plan. You may need to consider going in a direction that wasn’t apparent when the plan was made. That is why plans should be fluid. If you strategies are broad enough, you will be able to accommodate these fluctuations in direction.

The final take-away should be that even when you think the planning process has ended – it really never does. Your plan is your guideline and there are action steps you need to take. But planning and strategy is an ongoing discussion – one that is essential for effective Boards. A good strategic plan should be able to provide the framework.

(Next week look for our post on When Not to Plan, or refer to our prior post on What makes for a good strategic plan? And Click Here to see D&A’s planning process

What makes for a good strategic plan? – Sharon Danosky

How relevant can a strategic plan be in a world where change occurs at such a rapid pace?   Good question.  One I would counter by asking – is there ever a time in history where life has been certain and predictable.  I highly doubt it.  So, what is the role of strategic planning – and how do you determine whether your strategic plan will be a viable document – or gather dust on a shelf?

In a June 2016 article titled, “Strategic Plans are Less Important than Strategic Planning,” written for the Harvard Business Review, Graham Kenny stresses that a strategic plan is not a device for control; rather it is one of guidance.  It is the process, not the end product that really matters.

For that reason, I think a good strategic plan must be fluid, above all else.  It is not a list of tactics or “to do” action steps that need to be taken.

The thing about strategic planning is that it creates cohesion, a unity of purpose.  Your strategies are more like the major themes you will address, rather than the specific actions you are going to take.  Almost every non-profit strategic plan will incorporate several of the following objectives:

  • Improve operational effectiveness
  • Enhance or expand programs or services
  • Strengthen governance
  • Explore and pursue strategic collaborations
  • Develop a staffing plan to meet future organizational needs
  • Achieve or build financial stability
  • Create a strong advocacy stance
  • Build community and stakeholder awareness

There is nothing magic about any of these.  Yet, through the planning process you are able to determine where your greatest vulnerabilities and opportunities are and among the eight objectives, what your primary focus should be for the next 3-5 years (recognizing that focus on all eight at once should never be an option).

The beauty lies in achieving a shared understanding of priorities among board members and staff alike.

Several years ago, a relatively new Executive Director approached me, a bit frustrated.  He told me that he had been the General Manager of a mid-sized manufacturing facility and that it was so much easier to plan and execute actions.  He said there were just a few variables and it was basically contingent on market demand and cash flow.  “Now”, he explained, “At every board meeting, some board member has a new idea, they all like the idea and now I am off exploring yet another new concept.”  While I am sure that was a bit of an exaggeration, I asked whether or not he had a strategic plan.  No, he said he did not.  And therein lies the problem.

If he did have such a plan, then it would have been relatively easy.  Every time a new great idea was presented, he could ask the question of whether – and how – the new idea fits within the strategies you outlined?  That would yield a more strategic discussion, rather than volleying around yet another new idea.

Very often boards have an almost euphoric experience after a good planning retreat and a resulting epiphany regarding the direction for the non-profit they care about.   This isn’t a result of the brilliant strategies that came about.  Rather, it was a process where everyone agreed on direction, priorities, and a sense of shared purpose.

Strategic plans are a sound basis for ongoing strategic discussion.  They must be fluid to adapt to an always-changing environment.  They have to be continuously reviewed and debated and agreed-upon.  They are the beginning of the process, not the end.

A storm’s a comin': Batten down the hatches …. – Sharon Danosky

Non-profits have weathered storms in the past; so much so that stormy weather is just part of the long-range forecast. The beauty of having weathered so many in recent years, is that we have gained perspective and learned a thing or two about how to prepare and how to batten down the hatches. With anticipated cuts in both federal and state budgets, we contend that the time to do so is now. At Danosky & Associates, we put our heads together and have compiled a list for you to consider as the storm clouds begin to gather. We know for some, you may be already be seeing the early weather warnings. For others, the forecast is further down the road. Regardless of where you are – here are a few suggestions.

1. Plan. 

This is a good time to seriously consider your strategic plan. You may need to adjust it. Focus on those areas that will have the greatest effect – whether it is operational or building one initiative that will have the greatest impact. If you don’t have a strategic plan – then it is wise to invest in doing one. With strong strategic objectives you won’t get lost in the myriad of challenges that are bound to come your way.

2. Perform an organizational assessment.

Understand where your strengths are and what areas are most vulnerable. How can you modify your systems, build capacity, strengthen your teams, and improve your processes so that you are operating on all cylinders?

3. Test your assumptions. 

Budgets and financial plans are based on good assumptions: growth assumptions, revenue assumptions, cost assumptions and others. Testing those assumptions will allow you to do the financial modeling and scenario planning that can anticipate changes and act precipitously when they occur.

4. Invest in fundraising. 

If there were a downturn in our economy, donors do not stop giving; rather they become more selective. Are you retaining your donors, stewarding their generosity and building the relationships that ensure they will continue to give and further invest in your organization when the going gets rough.

5. Utilize social media. 

Building a community of support – whether it is for advocacy or raising money or volunteers, is most effectively done by using multi-plat-formed messaging.  Capturing stories and communicating both your value and impact can set the stage for stronger support in the most cost effective manner possible.

6. Collaborate. 

This a term that has been used by the sector for a generation or more. Collaboration may be as simple as sharing people, sharing space or sharing back-office systems. For some, though, collective impact, innovative partnerships, acquisition of new services or even merging with another organization can all have a meaningful impact on how you deliver your mission.

While we hope that funding and support is stable, we know that the above steps will serve you well at any time. And early investment in these activities will strengthen the organization, regardless of the weather o’er the horizon.

Grassroots Video: Empowering Your Staff to Capture the Moments That Matter

During a recent meeting with a prospective client who was considering one of Danosky & Associates workshops to create videos in-house, an interesting questions was posed:

Should we have D&A produce a video for us, or should we focus on learning how to create videos ourselves?

We suggested both. But not at the same time. We suggested that the organization should first learn the basics of video production to establish a steady stream of short outreach videos to illustrate their mission and the intrinsic values of their services. And then, maybe down the road, we could explore the production of a larger promotional video.

The main driver for this answer is that nonprofits have many (many!) moments on any given day that visually illustrate the profound impact their services have on the clients they serve.

So we believe you should train the people in your organization who work front-line with your clients and volunteers to capture these moments. Because they’re moments. They’re there, and then they pass. Great memories, but you can’t visually revisit them. The most impactful scenes in a video are often not staged, but happen spontaneously.

That being said, it is also extremely important to have a firm and well-understood videotaping policy with applicable releases in place that clearly list the do’s and don’ts of capturing video in a social services or medical setting. You select those who will capture video for your organization carefully. They must have strong relationships with their clients, and know when – and when not to – turn on the camera…if at all. They must be good with technology, but even better with empathy and discretion.

Imagine the emotional insight your organization can capture and communicate if those who work directly with your clients are empowered to record some of the profound moments that surround them on any given day.

And ask yourself – how many times have you thought, “Man, I wish I had a camera.”