A small organization called for strategic planning help. They had once been staffed but had gone through a series of crises. If there were a nonprofit soap opera, they could have starred. Their long time executive director and founder died. The board, used to the founder taking care of everything, was disengaged. They were hit by a lawsuit. The caretaker for one of the properties they owned was dealing drugs from the property.
Cleaning up the mess
A motivated board chair stepped into clean up the mess. She made great strides.
They were just emerging from these series of events and getting themselves back on their feet, when she called to engage in consulting.
We were able to design a process that was useful for the board and the organization. Through conversations with internal and external stakeholders, we were able to get a clear picture of the organization's strengths, perceptions of it in the community and the level of commitment of the board. I designed and facilitated a one-day retreat for the board where they were able to make some important short-term strategic decisions.
When the time is right
They were not ready, however, for engaging in strategic planning. They were out of utter crisis mode but not completely. The organization’s future was still tenuous and the board’s commitment to do what it would take to turn it around was not clear. Thus trying to engage in a longer-range visioning process just was not called for.
Our brains in crisis
When we are faced with a threat or a crisis, our vision and thinking narrows. Our brain does this to help us focus on the most immediate challenge. The threat does not need to be a saber tooth tiger. Our brain reacts to social threats in the same way as a physical threat. Thus a threatened brain is literally fixated on the short-term.
When is the time right?
Timing is important for strategic planning. The organization needs to be stable enough to be able to think longer term creatively. Does the organization have enough capacity to dedicate the time and energy needed to engage in strategic planning? Is the leadership committed to supporting changes that emerge from new and creative thinking about the organization’s future? Or will be the process be just going through the motions?
Strategic planning is a powerful process to shape the future path of your organization. Thinking about timing when you are going to launch a process is an important factor to consider.
Need support with the strategic questions your organization is facing? Inquire about a coaching call.
Nonprofit organizations are frequently under pressure to scale up their programs. Scalability and replicability are assumed to be a natural goal. When your program is having a positive impact on the people it is designed for, why would you not want to reach more people?
Yet there are some big assumptions built into this model. The first is that growth is always good. Our culture worships growth. The economy is only considered healthy when it is growing. A successful career is one moving up in responsibility and scope. A website wants to grow its readership. A podcast wants more listeners. Yet should this always be the goal? Are there alternatives to growing larger in scale? What about going deeper?
Are nonprofits like machines?
Another is that nonprofits and their programs are like machines. The basic assumption for being able to scale and replicate is that the program is essentially similar to a widget. You should be able to document the basic elements of a program, train new people to deliver it, create it in a new location and the logic follows that you will then get the same outcomes in the new environment.
Can you franchise a nonprofit program?
Many nonprofits follow this model -- Habitat for Humanity, City Year, Teach for America. It borrows from the for-profit sector concept of a franchise. Yet can a nonprofit really be franchised? Can you standardize the program and deliver equivalent outcomes in the new arena? Can you really just hit copy and paste when you are dealing with people?
Nonprofits as Human Systems
Yet nonprofit programs are not machines. They are inherently human systems. They are built with people with certain skills, talents and abilities to deliver a program. Delivering that program happens in a particular social context. The original participants bring a specific set of circumstances, attitudes and abilities. These all interact to create a unique mix. They have more in common with the uniqueness of snowflakes than widgets or hamburgers.
Another analogy that comes to mind is a play - each performance is unique even though the script and the players are the same. Similar, sure, but unique.
Usually the goal of these types of program is some type of transformation. To transform people's lives in some way -- Such as building young leaders or increasing educational attainment or creating self-sufficient home owners of low income families. Transformation has little to do with creating new exact copies of the original (widgets, hamburger, t-shirts).
What has your experience with scaling? What has worked and what hasn’t?
To discuss the strategic issues your organization is facing, inquire about a free coaching call.
This is the fourth part of a series of posts on the mistakes organizations make in strategic planning. In previous posts, I have explored a number of mistakes that organizations make. These include plans that:
Not Allocating Enough time
Some organizations make their process and plan too complicated. While others go in the other direction by under estimating what is needed for a strong planning process. They do not allow enough time and do not allocate enough resources to support the process. This can lead to a rushed process that results in a superficial analysis. This often ends up with business as usual – even if there is a grand vision – because there was not sufficient thought put into the implications of the plan.
Not really wanting to change
Rushing the process can also be a symptom of the most fundamental reason a planning process will fail – not really wanting to change. If influential stakeholders do not really want to make the changes that some are advocating for in the organization. Or if they are not willing to make hard choices, the plan will likely fail.
Are the stakeholders are truly bought in to the new vision? Or alternatively – people want change and yet are not willing to do the things that would get them there. The desire is not enough. It is like saying, “we want to be innovative, we just don’t want to do anything new.” There may be lip service to change but underneath the commitment is not there.
Often times people bemoan ‘resistance,’ demonizing the people they label as resisters. There is often talk of how to overcome resistance. A better approach is to investigate what is motivating the resistance. Approach those who are working against or just not working towards the envisioned changes and talk with them. Learn about what is going on with them – what are their fears and hopes? There often are good reasons for their resistance and addressing their concerns can strengthen the plan. There may be more common ground than you realize.
So what will increase your likelihood for success?
Want to talk about how you might apply this at your organization? Book a coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.