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.”

Creating Our Climate- Larry Smotroff

Editable vector silhouettes of four people painting a blank wall different colors with copy space

July 11th, 2017

Creating Our Climate

During a recent visit to a health center I was struck by the organizational climate I encountered.   It had been some time since every person with whom I came in contact exceeded my expectations!  It was so distinctive and remarkable that it gave me pause.  The experience started me thinking about other places I had recently been where passion and dedication were significant factors contributing to an engaging climate; most notably a school and a library.  It also started me thinking about my work with non-profits and how passion and dedication were not the only driving forces needed to create that amazing climate that stops you in your tracks and makes you smile.

All organizations create a climate and establish a culture, naturally, out of hard to see elements like a person’s attitude or communication style.  The elements that create an engaging climate always influence the nonprofits effectiveness, for better or for worse.  We have all seen that keen interest in the other person’s eyes and felt compassion in their voice.  Alternatively, we have also experienced the opposite in the form of cold indifference to our interest or concern.

Have you taken time to consider how the climate of your nonprofit may be impacting your success?  It might seem like an elusive idea, but it is really pretty simple. It is the sense you have, that positive regard, or indifference, you feel when you interact with the leaders, the staff or the volunteers.  Those interactions indicate that you are valued, respected, and appreciated (or not) and contribute to a sense of trust and confidence.  How you are “greeted and treated” does matter; it reflects the attitudes, beliefs, and motivations of the organization.

To get to the heart of the phenomena, a nonprofit’s climate echoes volumes about the leadership’s impact on the enterprise and its services.  Leaders contribute to a climate with their distinctive qualities and characteristics.  Was it a great experience? Or a not-so-great experience?  How does the climate, driven by the behavior of leaders, transform the staff and volunteers who deliver the programs and services to clients, patients, and community stakeholders?

Your climate, unlike the natural climate, does not have to be unpredictable. Your leaders can create an organizational climate that captures the imaginations of Board members, staff, volunteers, clients, and community.  Are your nonprofit leaders conveying enthusiasm, trust, a spirit of helpfulness, a commitment to service, and a responsiveness to changing needs?  There are many leadership models out there; one framework to explore, adaptive leadership, offer tools for capacity building, progressive engagement, and enhanced effectiveness. It offers methods for reflection and opportunities to fine-tune attitudes and interactions.

Do you want to achieve a special mix of values and behaviors? Try leveraging your passion for the mission and be a catalyst that transforms and strengthens the board, staff, and volunteers.  Dig deeper into your adaptive leadership skills to re-discover how everyone in your organization can help re-define the climate, impact operations, and contribute to a climate of community engagement and collaboration that exceeds expectations every time.

Difficult Conversations-Sharon Danosky

Can you Face your Vulnerabilities in the Workplace and Beyond?

It is difficult to have conversations about racial equity, social justice, and real community engagement. For the most part, we are a polite society. We would prefer to stay quiet rather than risk offending someone or saying the wrong thing. So we say nothing at all.

Our firm was fortunate to be chosen to be one of the consultants facilitating theWorking Cities Challenge, a funding initiative from the Boston Federal Reserve to focus on economic development. We are working with a number of organizations in the greater Danbury area and were challenged by the Working Cities Challenge during a Design Session to explore the issue of racial equity. As many do, we lightly addressed the subject in terms of cultural and language differences we need to address. Yet, I was bothered. I felt we weren’t going deep enough.

I was going to facilitate our next team meeting along with my colleague Larry Smotroff, and we were struggling with this issue. As I was going through the daily news feeds, Independent Sector posted an article by Fortune referencing a video produced by Accenture. The video was attempting to address how the inability to address diversity in the workplace can personally impact employees in some very painful ways. I viewed the video through eyes that were tearing. After sharing the video with Larry, we made a decision – we were going to show this video at the meeting and see if we could prompt discussion.

We did just that and then opened it to discussion – carefully going around the table to ensure that everyone spoke. Two young men, freshly out of college and one who is Puerto-Rican/Dominican, spoke first – about how it affected them personally. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable and share how difficult it has been for each of them. That began a discussion where everyone spoke of their own challenges. Then the conversation shifted. And the meeting was no longer about how we can solve problems, but how we need to understand what those problems really are – from the perspective of the people who are living in poverty and have experienced generational poverty or have come into a community that is diverse but extremely disconnected.

It is a beginning.

I am of the generation where I was often the only woman in a room of men and frequently my voice was not heard. So I developed a facade of having to know all the answers, always be right and never let them see how you feel. Now I know better. And I truly believe that when we allow ourselves to share our vulnerabilities, we become stronger and can seek solutions in a very messy, confusing world where conversations can be difficult.