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