Thursday, December 30, 2010

Winter Schedule of Free Wednesday Webinars from NonprofitWebinars

NonprofitWebinars is launching its winter 2011 season of free professional development webinars for nonprofit trustees and staff with some new presenters and a great list of new topics. Once again we’ll offer two webinars every Wednesday, at 1:00 and 2:30 (Eastern time).

The winter webinar schedule and links to free registration are available now at

We’ll begin on January 5 with

  • Create New Income Streams While Sharing Knowledge
  • and
  • Foursquare for Nonprofits
The season’s schedule also includes:


  • Nonprofit Boards & Effective Governance
  • The Financial Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards

  • Innovations in Volunteering
  • DIY Community Engagement Metrics
  • How to Hire Like a Search Firm, 101
  • Going Global: Preparing for Localization
  • Don’t Leap to a New Leader!
  • Leveraging Generational Knowledge, Talent Management and Recruitment

Strategy & Planning
  • Return on Mission

  • YouTube for Nonprofits
  • The Power of Like & Other Social Sharing Tools
  • Content Creation: The Ultimate “How To” Guide
  • Taking the Mystery Out of Metrics
  • How to Work with the Media

  • Yes! You Can Raise $$ on Facebook
  • Donor Relations
  • 10 Tips for Successful Grant Proposals
  • Why, When & How Big Gift Campaigns Work

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mission Statement Competition Winner

After discussing the three excellent finalists in the What’s Your Mission? Competition, our panel has awarded the first prize to FriendshipWorks for its mission statement:

…reduce social isolation, enhance the quality of life, and preserve the dignity of elders and adults with disabilities in the greater Boston area.

We really wanted to name all three finalists as winners, because Girls’ LEAP Self-Defense
Empowering girls and young women to value and champion their own safety and well-being.

and the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Inspire and motivate our children to achieve their full potential in the fields of science, technology, medicine and engineering

both have excellent—tightly-written, memorable, compelling, and inspirational—statements.

Next year we may well decide to have multiple categories, allowing us to select mission statements that excel in different ways. This year, though, we have decided to award first place to FriendshipWorks for its mission statement’s combination of several distinct qualities.

The statement is concise, memorable and compelling. It captures the purpose of the organization—the “why”—without getting into the “how”. It is specific enough that existing and prospective programs and services can be evaluated on how well they support the mission as stated. At the same time, it is sufficiently broad to allow for a variety of different programs and services to be developed to serve the mission. This helps trustees and staff to think creatively and strategically about whether the organization is actually investing its resources most effectively and efficiently. If a new program idea is raised, the statement will help to answer the questions of whether it fits this organization’s mission, and how it should be evaluated in comparison to existing programs.

It is rather easy to envision a strategic plan flowing from this mission statement, and also metrics. Three specific intentions are stated, along with two constituencies. From this the organization can generate mission-based goals, supporting objectives and measurable actions. Some of these measures will be outputs, but some should capture outcomes. From this dashboards of critical indicators can be developed to help the staff and board in their ongoing evaluation and process improvement.

Any nonprofit can create a mission statement that will enhance its sustainability by attracting the attention and focusing the energy of existing and potential stakeholders, shaping their perceptions and efforts into momentum for success. It is remarkable how many organizations fail to take advantage of this opportunity.

This year's winner can serve as an excellent model for other organizations. Great job, FriendshipWorks!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Finalists in the Great Mission Statement Competition

Which one is your favorite?

Last week we selected six semi-finalists in the What’s Your Mission? Competition and presented them in our webinar What’s a Mission Statement Worth? From these six excellent statements, webinar attendees helped us to select three finalists.

Take a look at the finalists (below) and pick your favorite. Either e-mail your comments or post them to this blog. We'll announce the winner at the end of the month.

Also note that we’re leaving the Mission Statement Makeover category open until October 26. If you’d like some advice and guidance on revising your mission statement, submit it by clicking here.

During the webinar we described the role of a mission statement, noted its critical characteristics, and shared examples of different kinds of successful—and almost successful—ones.

Briefly summarized, a mission statement has external and internal functions.

Externally, a mission statement is a branding and positioning tool that gets and holds the attention of the public, and underpins the case for giving.

Internally, a mission statement should inspire stakeholders, provide clarity and focus for operations, fortify strategic thinking, structure planning (strategic, program, business, technology…), and point to metrics that will indicate successes.

Some mission statements are very close to taglines, primarily aimed at grabbing attention; others are crafted more to differentiate one organization from others in the same field. Each nonprofit has its own set of issues, and somewhat different needs from its mission statement. But in broad terms, a mission statement should articulate the essence of why your organization exists. It can encompass what you are, but should avoid what you do and how. It should be accurate (specific, sufficiently broad, appropriately focused), accessible (concise, simply stated, jargon-free) and effective (differentiating, memorable, compelling).

For more detail on these points you can access the slides or a recording of the webinar and/or take a look at Critical Issues #7, On Mission.

The Finalists:

Girls’ LEAP Self-Defense
Empowering girls and young women to value and champion their own safety and well-being.

In 14 words, Girls’ LEAP meets the above criteria of a good mission. Competition judge Michele Levy says: “The statement helps me quickly understand who they are, and uses concise, compelling language that encourages me to dig deeper.” Discounting three “ands” and a “to”, all of the words in the statement are high-impact, defining the purview of the organization and its intentions.

Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
Inspire and motivate our children to achieve their full potential in the fields of science, technology, medicine and engineering.

A mature institution that remains focused on its founding idea “to inspire the inventive genius in everyone,” the Museum of Science and Industry has adopted a statement that “is clear enough to help guide decision-making within the organization at all levels. However, it is open-ended enough that it is inclusive to everyone in our organization as a whole. For example, we develop exciting exhibits to inspire and create a sense of awe. Then we capture that inspiration and leverage it by offering additional learning opportunities with more in-depth science programs for students, teachers and families. Our entire organization is familiar with this statement and how our daily work contributes to realizing it.” Those are excellent intentions for a mission statement, and are captured nicely in it.

…reduce social isolation, enhance the quality of life, and preserve the dignity of elders and adults with disabilities in the greater Boston area.

This statement, while concise enough to be memorable, and broad enough to allow the organization to develop new programs and approaches, offers a clear framework for planning and metrics. Competition judge Debra Askanase says, “Each of the 3 objectives is described strongly and clearly. The mission statement evokes the emotion and the power of both the problem and the ideal outcome.”

All three finalists meet competition judge Tina Cincotti’s criteria, “You want a mission statement that sticks—that’s simple, specific, emotionally compelling, and jargon-free.”

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Great nonprofit mission statement? Need a Makeover? Enter the What’s Your Mission? Competition

At a time when the challenges and needs facing nonprofits have increased at a faster pace than income

  • your message must be clear to compete with other causes
  • your strategy must be focused to deploy resources most effectively
  • your stakeholders must be inspired to spread the word
  • and you must have meaningful measures to track both performance & outcomes

Fundamental to all four—message, strategy, inspiration & metrics—is clarity of mission, and a concise, compelling and memorable statement of it.

On October 13 (at 1:00 pm EDT) I’ll be offering a webinar—What’s a Mission Statement Worth?—on the value of a mission statement to a nonprofit:

  • Why it’s important
  • What’s in a good one
  • How to use it

Leading up to the webinar we’re running a search and competition. If you think your organization has an Great Mission Statement, or if you would like to be considered for pro bono assistance in a Mission Statement Makeover, enter the What’s Your Mission? Competition. Or share this info with a worthy nonprofit with this link to or using #wyMC.

Submit your entry by noon EDT on Monday, October 11, 2010.

Webinar participants will help us to select the winners. The winners will get publicity for their organizations, and some free consulting.

More On a Mission?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Fall Schedule of Free Wednesday Webinars from NonprofitWebinars

Two free professional development webinars for nonprofit trustees and staff every Wednesday at 1:00 and 2:30 (Eastern time).

The fall webinar schedule is available now at It includes offerings in:

  • Branding (Big Brand Impact on a Small Brand Budget, What is a Brand & Why Does it Matter?)
  • Communications (Ten Must-Do Marketing Communications Activities, What Is a Social Media Strategy?)
  • Development (Planned Giving Strategies that Work, Get Your Board More Involved in Fundraising, Ten Steps to Creating a Fundraising Plan)
  • Finance (Budgeting 101, Financial Management Basics for CEOs & Trustees, Diagnosing Financial Operations)
  • Organizational Development (Cultivating Stakeholders, Recruiting Your Best Board Members)
  • Operations (Ten Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Consultant, Common Pitfalls in Recruiting & How to Avoid Them)
  • Planning (Integrated Planning, Strategic Planning)
  • Social Entrepreneurship (Case#1: Amos House WORKS)
  • Technology (Free Online Tools for Your Nonprofit, Finding The Perfect Donor Database)

Also, leading into our October 13 webinar What’s a Mission Statement Worth?, we’re running the What’s Your Mission? Competition.How about entering yours?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Two stories about mission statements

Story 1.
Where do the other words go?

Recently, at a meeting with the senior staff of a nonprofit, to discuss strategy and marketing, I mentioned that I had taken a quick look at their mission statement and cut it by 90%, from 224 words to 21.

After a moment of startled looks (and one discreet, knowing smile of agreement), the CEO, who claimed authorship of the current statement, asked what would happen to the other 203 words.

That was a good question. They were important words that greatly helped to make the case for the organization. But they were about how, not why. The answer: they don’t have to go very far. The same web page or annual report page or trustee manual page that holds your mission can have below it statements of values, principles and how we do this. These flow from the mission statement, give context to it, and / or share additional information that existing and prospective stakeholders may want to know, but they don’t help to make a primary, compelling, memorable, and generative statement of mission.

An effective mission statement is short, crisp, and easily understood and remembered. It resonates with the stakeholders and prospective stakeholders (including funders) whose attention must be attracted and held, and whose engagement is required for ongoing success.

Story 2.
The editing process is like a mission statement: It can be wandering and unproductive, or focused and effective.

In the preparation phase of a strategic planning project a few years ago, I asked about the mission statement. I was told that the board had decided to work on the 131-word statement over the previous year, to refine it and tighten it up. At the end of that year the statement was 137 words long.

This captures the usual perception of mission statement exercises. Without strong, informed leadership, a well-articulated sense of purpose, and a well-conceived process, rewriting a mission statement can be a waste of time.

However, armed with an understanding of the true value of a mission statement (Critical Issues #7, On a Mission), the process can be quick, painless, and very rewarding. At this institution a subcommittee of staff and trustees tackled it again as part of the planning process, and with the leadership of a savvy staff member, they ended up with 24 words that eloquently expressed the unique nature of the institution.

The new, concise mission statement concentrated the attention of both internal and external audiences on the essential qualities that differentiated the institution, and drove the way they spoke about it. It shaped the strategic goals of the planning process, and suggested the critical metrics that could be used to keep the institution focused.

For a before and after look at this example, sign up for our free webinar What’s a Mission Statement Worth?, on October 13.

If you think your nonprofit’s mission statement is already a great one, enter our What’s Your Mission? Competition. Win publicity & free consulting.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What’s Your Mission? Competition

A clear, concise, compelling, & memorable mission statement is the basis of a strong message, focused strategy, energized stakeholders & effective metrics.
Does your organization have a Great Mission Statement?
Or are you interested in getting some help with a Mission Statement Makeover?
Enter your nonprofit or nominate a worthy organization in the What’s Your Mission? Competition.

Submit your entry by noon EDT on Monday, October 11, 2010.
Selected Great Mission Statement entries will be featured on and discussed in our blog. During our webinar What’s a Mission Statement Worth? on October 13, attendees will select three finalists, followed by an open vote to select a winner.The winner will receive extensive publicity and a free day of consulting on any aspect of nonprofit strategy, planning or organizational development.
Mission Statement Makeover finalists will receive assistance in creating a new draft mission statement. The winner will receive additional help to take it through internal approvals, and then publicity.

Tips? On a Mission.
Questions? Click here.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Strategic Plan vs. Marketing Plan

The other day I was speaking with a prospective client about the need for a strategic plan and a marketing plan. They characterized the strategic planning process as important but not urgent; the marketing plan as urgent. They asked me for my thoughts. Here is the gist of my response.

The ideal approach to planning is a comprehensive, integrated one. That consists primarily of an ongoing cycle of strategic planning (why), program planning (what), and business planning, part of which is a marketing plan (how). Once launched, this cycle is easier to maintain than it might seem, and it offers synergy and secondary benefits, as well (see Why Plan?).

But the question I was asked, of course, was not how to keep the cycle going, but how to start it, and where.

Strategic planning is a deliberative process that requires sufficient time to play out. How long is sufficient depends on a number of things, but primarily on the nature of the organization and its constituencies. It could take as little as a few months or well over a year.

If you are in a strategic planning process or about to start one, you’ll want to avoid long term commitments to things that may be affected by the strategies that will emerge. But the stream of decision making doesn’t pause during a planning process. Rather than trying to hold your (metaphorical) breath for several months, you need to keep going on the basis of the knowledge you have at the time, incorporating on the fly anything that is learned from the strategic planning process as it unfolds.

So if you need to, you can do strategic and marketing planning at the same time. There is plenty of overlap between the two processes. In The Structure of Planning I described five phases of a strategic planning process: preparation, assessment, engagement, plan development, and implementation. If in the preparation phase you lay out processes of assessment and engagement that embrace marketing issues, you can gather the knowledge you need to put together a marketing plan in parallel with the strategic plan.

In all likelihood the marketing plan will be completed first. If you think of it as a work in progress, you can start implementing it and make adjustments if the strategic plan suggests they are needed.

In the simplest of terms, the job of a marketing plan is to establish how an audience will provide the means to get from a situation to a goal. The job of strategic planning is to develop consensus among stakeholders on what it will take to pursue mission most effectively. Each provides a kind of context for the other. In an existing organization you can start with either, but they will be most successful if they reflect and support each other.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mind your RFPs & Qs, Part 1: Purpose

A Request for Proposals (RFP) can be a useful tool for hiring service providers. As someone who has written RFPs and RFQs (Request for Qualifications) for nonprofits, and has responded to others as a consultant, I’d like to offer some thoughts on getting the most out of them.

In this post and two that will follow, I’ll cover the essential features of an RFP, including

Define the project

The fundamental task of an RFP is to define the project you are planning to pursue. This is a crucial step, whether you intend to issue the RFP to multiple suppliers for competitive proposals, or are using it simply to specify your requirements to a firm you’re hiring directly based on successful past experience.

Most projects that involve service providers such as planning or organizational development consultants, web developers, designers, or architects have objectives subject to considerable complexities and nuances. Or they should have, if they are to make the most robust use possible of the time and expense that goes into them.

To assure that the results will encompass the specific range of concerns and opportunities of your organization, the first and most important step in the RFP process is to articulate—and develop internal consensus around—the full requirements and objectives of the project. This first step may seem obvious, but for various reasons, it is often neglected or underdeveloped.

Defining objectives can require a good bit of self-education about the full potential impact of, say, a web presence or a new facility, so that you can be a knowledgeable and self-advocating client. In some situations, when the stakes are high, the knowledge gap is great, and you don’t have a senior staff member or trustee with the experience to guide the development of an effective RFP, it is worth considering having a consultant advise you through crafting the RFP, and perhaps the selection process as a whole. More about that in the third post.

Some prospective clients will ask why they need to know the business of the consultant… isn’t that what they are hiring an expert for in the first place? Yes, but… the service provider doesn’t know your business, your values, your objectives. The best results will be produced by a combination of the right expertise and intimate knowledge of the organization and its goals.

A good designer, for example, will usually be ready to take you down a compelling path. The trick is to make sure that the path is the one you want to be on; you need to establish the direction as fully as you can before hiring a guide. The best design (website, building, strategic plan) emerges in response to the best understanding of the constraints.

Get a sense of the approach

If an RFP is issued to several candidates, one of the objectives will be to see how each one interprets the material provided and approaches the project. Some responses may be boilerplate that doesn’t respond specifically to the needs and objectives the organization has provided. Others may go off on a tangent or perhaps misinterpret the RFP entirely.

The best result is to get responses that give you new insights about what you are trying to accomplish, and/or how to go about it. These are the ones that give you confidence in the success of your selection process.

Minimize the cost

Often an organization looks for a competitive RFP to obtain the lowest possible fee for the work. If a service provider knows that is an important criterion, he or she may well offer a leaner set of services, perhaps with options for extra services that can be provided if desired. It may also be that one of the providers has a lower fee structure than another.

However, there are caveats to consider when it comes to comparing fees in an RFP. I’ll look at that in the next post, on structure and content.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

If it ain’t broke…

I first encountered the term “no brainer” as a corporate manager. Since I had arrived in the corporate world from academia, I was not very good at turning off my critical imagination on command. Often, I found, the term “no brainer” was used to intimidate colleagues or subordinates into consensus for an idea that was flawed or just flat wrong.

Consensus is essential to working together on mission-driven goals. Often the biggest problem in an organization is that different groups or individuals are working at cross purposes, undercutting efficiency, effectiveness, communication, and success. However if the rush to achieve consensus is so strong that it suppresses and obscures important contrary factors, the result can be worse.

The urge for consensus can cause problems in a number of ways. Starting at the top, nonprofit boards typically are populated by trustees who are highly accomplished in their own fields. However, because of inadequate orientation to or information about the organization, or misunderstanding about their fiduciary role, they essentially rubber stamp what the are told by the CEO or board chair. They may raise a question or two, but they haven’t done the homework needed to make an informed challenge, and they see their role in terms of support rather than critical judgment.

Often the people that regularly persist in challenging a report or proposal are branded simply as obstructionists. (Of course sometimes they are.) The trick is to develop an expectation that board meetings will largely be occupied in discussion of important issues that require at least a minimum of advance preparation, and that critical thinking is essential. This is not to make a case for interference with staff. Judgment and leadership in governance need to be separated from management.

The economic and political climate today are immensely challenging, and conditions can change rapidly. Independent thinking is crucial in charting a course. “We’ve always done it this way,” and “no brainer” are dangerous phrases. Assumptions need to be challenged. Instead of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the better motto is “if it ain’t broke, break it.” High-level challenge to received ideas is something that should be expected of a board.

It is as important to be clear about weaknesses, vulnerabilities and changes in external conditions as about strengths and opportunities.

If administrators and governing board are uncritical in receiving their own message, they may not realize that a major overhaul is needed until too late. Staff and governing boards at all too many institutions talk about their institutions in zealous terms more suitable to a sports rivalry than to effective responsiveness to the always changing conditions of societal conditions and professional and academic disciplines.

The biggest enemy of any institution is complacency. It is human nature to achieve morale through comparative categorical hyperbole: We have the best of this, the most individualized of that, the most opportunity for the other. This is not bad, the first time it’s said; with repetition, it becomes a catechism more than an assertion of tested fact. It substitutes for critical thinking and thus interferes with good governance and management.

Of course, this approach needs to be managed carefully. It requires excellent board leadership and clear guidelines.

Some of the basics can be found in earlier blog posts (on the board manual, the individual service plan, and board self-assessment), in Critical Issues # 4, On Boards, and in the upcoming webinar (July 14), Nonprofit Boards and Effective Governance (click on the widget to the right to register or go to for a categorized schedule of the whole Wednesday Webinar series)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Business Planning in Nonprofits

A nonprofit organization needs a business plan as much as a for-profit company does. In either case, business planning is about charting a course toward success and sustainability.

I talk about integrated planning as a process with three activities at its core: strategic, program and business planning; the why, the what and the how. No matter how compelling the why, or how thorough the what, the how is the third leg of a three-legged stool: the other two are useless without it.

Business planning can provide a framework for examining and reconciling a large body of otherwise disparate information, such as:
• Market analysis (market conditions, competition, market share, program offerings, audiences, pricing)
• Business strategy (positioning, targeting, marketing, programs, competitive advantage)
• Business / financial goals (revenue model and projections, capital and program fundraising, investments, metrics for defining success)
• Resource requirements (personnel, facilities, technology, risk management, phasing)
• Organization structure

While in these areas there is clearly some overlap with the concerns of strategic and program planning (stakeholders, content, resources, organization), only business planning provides a rigorous mechanism for considering issues of revenue.

Some nonprofits have traditionally relied on fundraising and/or public funding for all of their support, while others have revenue from operations as well (fees for service, ticket sales, tuition).

Business planning may be required by public and private funders to assure that their money is being well spent. Increasingly, however, even nonprofits that have relied predominantly or exclusively on fundraising have been looking for opportunities to capitalize on the value of their resources, their expertise, and their name (or brand). They are finding that new revenue-generating services and programs can support their mission while also producing income to subsidize their established operations.

Examples come from many sectors:
• Social service agencies have started businesses to offer work experience and employment to some of their clients while also providing their own support (a copy shop; a culinary arts training program and a catering business; painting and landscaping services)
• Organizations have been founded to combine giving with partially self-funding community development (Bikes Not Bombs, Good News Garage)
• Some nonprofits have developed expertise that becomes valuable intellectual property that can be shared for a fee.
• Colleges and independent schools can use their brand and their resources (facilities, faculty) to develop summer programs or school-year non-tuition revenue programs.

Like any for-profit start-up, a new program requires serious attention to business planning to make sure that an apparent opportunity offers real promise, especially when there are significant initial costs. When there are a number of options to consider, financial modeling can facilitate evaluation and fine tuning, as well as providing benchmarks. For an overview of financial modeling, see the latest number of Critical Issues in Strategy Planning and Organizational Development.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wednesday Webinars for Nonprofits: Summer 2010

The summer schedule of Wednesday Webinars is just about complete. The first half of the year saw a great start to the program, with over 300 registrations for the most popular sessions, and overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews of the presentations. There is so much that we want to include in the program that we'll be expanding to two webinars per week, at 1:00 EDT/10:00 PDT and 2:30 EDT/11:30 PDT.

We'll have new offerings by some of the most popular presenters from the first half of the year—Michele Levy on nonprofit branding and marketing, yours truly on planning and governance, Tina Cincotti on fundraising, Debra Askenase on social media—along with some great new topics, in
  • Communications (David Neff on Affordable Video Production, Elizabeth Turnbull on Nonprofit Storytelling)
  • Development (Allan Pressel on 35 Ways to Maximize Fundraising through Your Website, Rod Miller on Major Gift Strategies)
  • Finance (Jenn Lammers on An Introduction to Nonprofit Financial Statements and Telling Your Stories in Numbers)
  • Professional development (Pamela Ziemann on Speaking With Confidence, Clarity and Conviction and Allan Pressel on 50 Time and Stress Management Techniques)
  • Operations (Phyllis Lasky on Managing Volunteers and Expectations: A Win-Win)
  • Governance (Judy Freiwirth on Innovative Governance Options)

For a first look at the full schedule (and to register for the remaining spring webinars) go to We’ll have the full listings up and ready for registration next week.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Structure of Planning: Process, part 3


If strategic planning in nonprofits is to a great extent the development of consensus around mission (our definition), then engagement is the heart of the process. This is the subject of one of our webinars, Cultivating Stakeholders, and relates closely to two of our e-letters, #1: Why Planning is More Critical in Challenging Times and #2: The Secret Life of Surveys.

The first group that needs to be engaged is the governing board. Success in planning and its implementation is dependent on the board feeling that they own the process. Following the meetings and interviews of the preparation and assessment phases, a board meeting or preferably a retreat should be the first step of the engagement process. The retreat agenda typically offers discussion of the work done to date and solicits thoughts about mission, vision, values, critical issues, opportunities, threats, strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the specifics of the situation, the session can go only as far as open-ended brainstorming, or it might go a way toward defining the outlines of the plan.

Effective conduct of a retreat typically requires an outside facilitator, especially when there are any contentious issues or tensions among any of the parties. Organizations that conduct their planning on their own often bring in an experienced, neutral party for the retreat.

Once the board has had the opportunity to set a direction, other constituencies can be consulted. This can be done through open meetings, small discussion groups, and/or surveys.

Many nonprofits resist consulting with their stakeholders about mission, core values, or even program content because they think they might be opening fundamental and nonnegotiable issues to debate. When done well, however, there are only positives in this communication. Talking about mission and values does not need to suggest that they might be changed by majority vote; its does however, acknowledge the importance of understanding and discussing differences of perspective. Respectful listening and inclusiveness offer learning opportunities of one sort or another for all parties.

Respectful listening, of course, includes the requirement to respond. We recommend frequent communication throughout a planning process about what has been heard, what has been learned, and what might be done differently. If stakeholders feel that their comments and concerns are being heard and considered, they are very flexible about how close any resulting action needs to be to their initial positions. Ongoing communication inspires confidence and trust, and strengthens the organization.

For more on the importance and benefits of involving all stakeholders, see the e-letters Why Plan? and The Secret Life of Surveys.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Structure of Planning: Process, part 2

Once the planning process infrastructure has been defined and structured through the initial preparation work described in the previous post, it’s time to move to the second of our five activities:


Meaningful planning is built on a thorough understanding of the organization.

First there is a preliminary definition of the major issues to be addressed. At this early point, they are best stated in broad and conditional terms, but they give a starting point for the exploration. They will be tested, probably reshaped, possibly changed, and certainly refined as the process evolves.

One source for the initial major issues list is a round of interviews with staff and board leaders. Whether the process is being led by an outside consultant or an internal committee chair, it is important to review assumptions, expectations, and perceptions of needs with the organization’s primary leaders. This may give you an initial consensus to test, as well as a sense of where differences may have to be navigated.

Another source is a review of relevant documents. Primary candidates would be any past plans, minutes of board meetings; committee and staff reports; the narratives in grant proposals; and for organizations that are accredited, the self study prepared for an accreditation review. This is also the time to think in terms of an integrated plan, drawing in an understanding of related planning of a different scale or nature (program, development, business, technology and facility plans, for example). A strategic plan is different from these efforts in several ways (see our blog post, website and webinar on Integrated Planning), but it needs to be fully informed by all of them.

The next, broader action is the gathering of any available relevant data that might inform the process. Externally, this could be demographic or economic trends, and benchmark data from comparable organizations, if that is available. Internally there are, ideally, some performance measures that the organizations tracks, along with other, historical, data.

As the final piece of assessment, transitioning into the engagement phase, we typically conduct a board self assessment. Self assessment puts the board in a reflective frame of mind conducive to thoughtful inquiry. It offers an opportunity to consider organizational strengths and weaknesses in the context of inclusive mutual responsibility. This helps to get trustees thinking first in terms of fiduciary role and personal commitment rather starting with an externalized sense of what others (the chief executive or staff) need to do.

Meaningful self-assessment requires the a tool appropriate to the situation and needs. BoardSource offers an excellent online service that we have used effectively with two types of clients—mature organizations with a need to fine tune, and independent schools, for which there are enlightening comparative data from comparable institutions. For other clients we have often found it better to develop our own tool to explore a more customized set of issues.

Next post: Engagement

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Structure of Planning: Process, part 1

There are many reasons to plan and many effective ways to go about the planning process. There are also some common ways that planning goes wrong. This post is the first in a series about how a well-conceived structure can tilt the odds toward success.

In our work we divide a planning process into five activities: preparation, assessment, engagement, plan development, and implementation. They are sequential, with some overlap (e.g. once it starts, engagement keeps going for the rest of the process). We have found this framework to be an effective starting point for thinking about the requirements of any planning process. It is a deceptively simple organizing principle. Thought of in the negative, most planning goes wrong through failure to address adequately one or more of these activities.


Preparation begins with the design of a process that is attuned to the nature, needs, situation, culture, and experience of an organization. A well-designed process will engage issues and stakeholders in a way that will lead to a relevant, meaningful and strategic plan. A formulaic process that may have worked beautifully for one organization may well fail miserably to meet the needs of another.

It is important to develop a clear work plan and timeline. If the organization is using a consultant these issues will likely have been included in an initial agreement, but conditions evolve, and they should be discussed and adjusted throughout the planning process. If the process is being run internally, an explicit work plan and timeline are, if anything, more essential. One of the things a consultant can offer is discipline. On your own, there can be a subtle and dangerous tendency to drift.

If the impetus for planning did not come from the governing board, it is critical at this point to get full board commitment to the planning process. If they don’t feel they own the process and the plan, they probably will not follow through to monitor implementation, and the plan will fall flat.

Also part of preparation is selection of a planning committee chair with the needed leadership and management skills, and a capable committee. This may be the first thing to do, or depending on the roles of chief executive, board chair and possibly a consultant, the committee may be assembled after the initial phases. The job descriptions of the chair and the committee will vary greatly from one organization and its process to another, as may the timing of their appointment, but for the process to result in success, the right fit can be critical.

Next post: Assessment

Monday, February 8, 2010

Identity, brand and image

This week's Wednesday Webinar is What is a brand; and why does it matter to nonprofit organizations?. Here are some related thoughts.

The term identity may sound like misconceived corporate jargon when used to describe nonprofit organizations and institutions. Actually, it is an incredibly useful and important concept.

An institution’s identity is a lot like an individual’s. It refers to who you are in your entirety. As such, it is difficult to grasp or represent, but is nonetheless essential.

The identity of an institution is established through mission, values, actions and achievements. Once established, the challenge for an institution is to take this identity and represent it, internally and externally, for various vital purposes (admissions/subscriptions/participation, fundraising, public relations, staff morale, etc.), and to convey it through strategies, messages, interactions, communications, and facilities. You might call it substance distilled.

Identity is the essential nature of the institution, its reality; brand (or somewhat confusingly, brand identity) is this essence as it is perceived. It is, essentially, the projection of an institution’s mission into the marketplace.

Brand, like identity, is often reduced to its use by graphic designers, to mean the last (and least) stage in developing brand identity, the logo, signage, and other packaging. Even for consumer products, brand identity is about more than the cereal box or the candy wrapper—it is the summary term for all that distinguishes one product from another, real or imagined. For non-profits the concept of a brand offers a framework to communicate vision, mission, programs, and services.

Frequently confused with identity or brand, image is just the surface reflection of them—the popular perception at a specific moment. (The challenges of teenage life might put these all in perspective.)

Why are these distinctions important?

Substantive outcomes of a well-articulated identity are a clear basis for institutional strategy, a better understanding of the achievability of the institution’s mission, increased revenues (through such means as programs, grants, public support, and fundraising), possibly cost-efficiencies, and a more secure future.

The more robustly one defines identity and brand to encompass institutional character, values, unique assets, and all of the messages to be conveyed by all of the means available to convey them, the more the idea can be used to tie together institutional strategy in a meaningful and powerful way. It can help an institution to focus on the most important issues in context, keeping in sight the broad strategic directions that all actions and messages should support.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Trustee Handbook

The trustee handbook—or board manual—is an essential document for the sustainable nonprofit. After a brief description of its contents, we’ll take a glance at the role it plays in each of the five fundamental responsibilities of a nonprofit board (fundraising, strategic planning, hiring and evaluation of the chief executive, fiduciary responsibility, and self-perpetuation).

A generic outline for a trustee handbook might look like this:

  • Board documents
    • Board responsibilities (job descriptions for board officers and committees; committee and task force protocols and policies; description of oversight of chief executive)
    • Trustees (job description; individual service plan description and form, list of current and past trustees)
    • Board policies
    • Board meetings (pre-meeting preparation; meeting protocol; meeting calendar)
    • Board development (processes for recruitment and nomination; orientation; ongoing education and training; leadership development)
    • Board self assessment process
    • Current information (list of current trustees with terms and capsule biographies; minutes of board meetings; recent reports, including those from the chief executive)
  • Organizational strategy
    • Mission statement and related documents
    • Strategic plan with updates
  • Organizational context
    • Brief written history and fact sheet
    • Organizational chart and staff directory
    • Annual calendar
    • Legal documents (articles of incorporation, bylaws, IRS determination letter, insurance and risk management information, conflict of interest policy)
    • Operations (descriptions, policies, procedures for functional areas, such as advancement, finance, human resources, programs)
  • Fundraising and finance
    • Prior-year annual report
    • Current annual budget and financial statements
    • Current fundraising plan
    • Most recent audit report

This collected and organized information is useful for giving trustees context for discussions of fundraising. Your trustees need to be effective ambassadors and solicitors. The trustee handbook serves as a briefing book so that even new trustees can have a sound and comprehensive basic knowledge of the organization.

The handbook is even more central to informed evaluation of the organization’s strategy and the performance of its chief executive. Nonprofit boards often fall short in these areas because trustees are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the organization to engage the judgment that made them attractive to the board in the first place. Hence the definition of a nonprofit board as an ineffective group of effective people.

However, it is in the other two responsibilities of the board that the trustee handbook serves its most critical purpose.

It is difficult to understand how a board can exercise its fiduciary responsibility (stewardship of the mission and of the financial and legal obligations of the organization) without easy and organized access to documentation of the situation, strategy, policies, compliance, and history of the organization. Yet many boards simply don’t pull this information together. Trustees who would have much to offer to deliberative discussions actually tune out for lack of knowledge of the background of the issues.

Finally, to sustain a nonprofit over time, a board has to attend to its own strength and renewal. While this is a subject that could easily take us into a much larger discussion, suffice it to say that the fundamental document for effective recruitment and orientation of new trustees, and development of the capacity of existing ones, is a comprehensive trustee handbook.

The irony of the rarity of comprehensive, current and accessible trustee handbooks is that much of the material already exists. Sometimes even in the files of trustees. It’s just not organized and maintained in a way that makes it accessible. Ideally the handbook will be accessible online so that it can be updated easily and always at hand for trustee use.

This post is one of several follow-ups to Critical Issues #4: On Boards.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Individual Service Plan

As noted in Critical Issues #4: On Boards, the Individual Service Plan (ISP) is a simple but powerful tool to focus the capabilities of trustees on their fiduciary responsibilities.

Nonprofit boards typically under-use the capabilities of their members. Trustees are asked to spend their time on things that do not add value (e.g. sitting through meetings filled with reports that they could have read beforehand, or serving on committees that neither draw on their particular skills nor enhance their knowledge of critical aspects of the organization). However they are often not asked for the kinds of assistance that makes the best fit between their assets and the organization’s needs.

This is where the ISP comes in. It is an agreement between the board chair and each trustee based on a discussion between them about expectations for the coming year—and observations about the past year.

Of course, this conversation will be more effective if it does not come as a surprise. Mutual expectations are best set before a candidate joins the board, through discussions with the nominating committee and with the board chair, reinforced by an orientation and a trustee handbook. However, if these conversations have not been conducted, and an orientation and handbook have not yet been developed, the ISP may be more tentative, but an important first step.

The ISP process draws on several aspects of human nature, organizational leadership and common sense:
• Setting expectations for trustees is not the job of the CEO, who works for the board. Only the board chair is in a position to do this.
• Expectations need to be clear if they are to be met. Much apparent dysfunction or underperformance is simply the product of a failure to communicate effectively. By establishing a regular annual ISP process (perhaps following the annual board self-assessment), the necessary communication is given a structure, and thus is easier for both parties.
• Actually, expectations are a two-way street. Typically the reason trustees have been invited onto the board is that they have a combination of wisdom, expertise, and/or resources to offer. These strengths may not be fully utilized once the trustee is in place. In conversation with the board chair much can be learned by both parties, all to the benefit of the organization.
• There is often a substantial gap between the work of the organization and the life experience of trustees. The ISP process, along with the annual self-assessment (which does not generally involve a one-on-one discussion with the board chair) can identify and clarify issues that need to be discussed by the board as a whole.

There is no one formula for an ISP, but it is best distilled into a single sheet of paper that covers general expectations of all trustees (participation in meetings and board development activities, orientation of new trustees) as well as specific commitment to work assignments, a stated level of financial support, and outreach tasks.

There is no magic to an ISP. It doesn’t do anything very arcane. It just gives structure to an important area of leadership and governance that is usually given short shrift.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Planning as Cultivation

On Wednesday (1:00 EST) we’ll be offering our next Wednesday Webinar, Cultivating Stakeholders, which makes the case for an inclusive strategic planning process in nonprofits.

There are lots of good reasons for planning in nonprofits, including
  • external pressures (such as changing circumstances that require new ways of thinking or perhaps a need to build a compelling case for fundraising) and
  • operational improvements (for instance, focusing efforts on mission or developing measurable goals).
In the typical nonprofit experience, though, the most compelling benefits often come from developing the strength of internal resources.

Trustees, volunteers, staff, and other stakeholders all know the organization in a different way. Their limited individual perspectives offer both strengths and weaknesses. The strengths involve the value that comes from challenging assumptions. The obvious is often wrong, even if it started out right in different circumstances. Getting everyone out of their comfort zones to consider different points of view can lead to important changes in goals or means.

The vulnerability of a nonprofit comes from its reliance on many individuals deciding to support it with their time, money and influence, and the need to sustain that support. My favorite definition of strategic planning for nonprofits is the development of consensus around mission. This distinguishes strategic planning in the nonprofit world from the process of the same name in business. Nonprofit board members often have a knowledge of business planning that can distort their understanding of its purpose and power in the nonprofit world. In nonprofits, success comes not through the economic self interest of employees and customers, but through the voluntary efforts of trustees, volunteers, donors, and other constituents. With many competing worthy causes, a nonprofit’s success hinges on the degree of engagement it inspires in its stakeholders.

An inclusive planning process builds connection and enthusiasm, enhances self-awareness and mutual understanding, and develops strategic thinking and informed leadership. In the webinar we’ll look at the basic structure of an effective planning process, ways of adapting it for individual organizations, the roles of various stakeholders and how to engage them, and some specific tools to use in planning.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Board self assessment

I mentioned board self assessments in two of my Critical Issues e-letters (The Secret Life of Surveys and On Board), and promised a bit more detail.

The obvious reason to conduct a self assessment is to step back and identify areas where the board might need to correct weaknesses or oversights. But a self assessment can also spark a broader conversation about the board, its practices, and its potential.

Unless a board already does an annual self assessment—which should be standard practice—we insert one at the outset of a strategic planning process. It is important to have trustees reflect about their own role (as a board and as individuals) before attempting to evaluate the organization as a whole.

There are many board self assessment tools. BoardSource offers one that is predictably thorough, and it can be customized to some extent. I have found it especially useful for independent schools, since the National Association of Independent Schools offers comparative data for a substantial pool of prior users.

For relatively new organizations, or ones with particular issues, though, it can be better to come up with a far more individualized instrument. The focus and questions may vary, but the categories, typically, are:

  • Mission
  • Advocacy
  • Fundraising
  • Fiscal oversight
  • Planning
  • Board operations and policies
  • Oversight of the organization
  • Other considerations
  • Individual self assessment

Even for a small group, the most efficient and effective way to conduct the assessment is through an online survey tool. Online tools such as SurveyMonkey (which is the one that I use, but I’m sure there are others equally good) offers easy access for the responders and aggregation for analysis.

As with any good nonprofit stakeholder survey, the assessment plays multiple roles:

  • It educates and informs by means of the questions it asks and the context in which it puts them.
  • It leads the responder to reflect about issues and roles in new ways.
  • It produces valuable information about conditions, perceptions, attitudes and intentions.

Used wisely, a self assessment can lead directly to productive change.

We’ll look at self assessments in our upcoming Wednesday Webinar on nonprofit governance.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Wednesday Webinars for Nonprofits Winter/Spring 2010 (free)

Beginning this week, a new series of (free) Wednesday Webinars: 20 presentations by 13 experts on issues important to nonprofit trustees and staff members—strategy, planning, governance, branding, marketing, fundraising, human resources, finance, operations. For sescriptions and registration click the individual links below, or for descriptions of the whole series, click

All webinars are at 1:00 pm Eastern / 10:00 am Pacific on Wednesdays, except as noted.

1/13/2010 (2:00 pm Eastern / 11:00 am Pacific)
Effective Marketing Communications on a Shoestring
Michele Levy, brand strategy consulting

Cultivating Stakeholders: A Strategy of Inclusion for Challenging Times
Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership

Will Your Nonprofit’s Executive Compensation Withstand Scrutiny by the IRS, Public and Media? Part I Overview
Lindalee A. Lawrence and Richard M. Lucash, Lawrence Associates

Don’t Get Left at the Altar: Getting to a Favorite Candidate, and Getting Them to Yes!
Laura Gassner Otting, and Alison Falk, Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group

2/10/2010 (2:00 pm Eastern / 11:00 am Pacific)
What is a brand (and why does it matter to nonprofit organizations)?
Michele Levy, brand strategy consulting

Nonprofit Boards and Effective Governance
Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership

How are Nonprofits Responding to Scrutiny of Executive Compensation by the IRS, Public and Media? Part II Strategies and Responses
Lindalee A. Lawrence and Richard M. Lucash, Lawrence Associates

Exploring the Use of Virtual Tools to Manage Remote Teams: What we have learned as a virtual firm and some tips and tools for organizations to use as they build their virtual environment
Katherine Jacobs, PhD and Erin DeCurtis, MBA, Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group

3/10/2010 (2:00 pm Eastern / 11:00 am Pacific)
Getting the most out of your branding and communications efforts
Michele Levy, brand strategy consulting

Beyond Strategic Planning: The Case for Integrated Planning
Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership

Using the Leadership Transition Process to Improve Your Organization—Beyond the Role of the Executive Search Consultant
Christian W. Dame, Non-Profit Transitions LLC

Linking Income to Outcomes
Rebeka Mazzone, CPA, Accounting Management Solutions, Inc.

Building Organizational Capacity through the Search Process: Using Your Search as a Tool to Improve Your Reputation, Staff Morale, and Board Engagement
Laura Gassner Otting and Allison Kupfer, Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group

Ten Steps to Creating a Fundraising Plan: Save time & money by planning ahead
Tina Cincotti, Funding Change Training & Consulting

Opportunities & Pitfalls in Facility Planning Part 1: Overview
Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership

Opportunities & Pitfalls in Facility Planning Part 2: Options and Decisions
Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership and Randall Reaves

Modernizing Executive Search for a New Economy: Making the Process of Key Hiring Leaders Cost-Effective
Laura Gassner Otting and Katherine Jacobs, PhD, Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group

Building Donor Loyalty: How to keep your donors giving in any economy
Tina Cincotti, Funding Change Training & Consulting

Strategic Planning as Organizational Development
Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership

How to Hire Like a Search Firm 101
Laura Gassner Otting, Tracy Welsh, and Erin DeCurtis, MBA, Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group