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by Floyd Rumohr

I recently had the pleasure of working with two nonprofit organizations on developing vision, mission, and core values language — essential dimensions of the strategic planning process. One organization is well into its second decade and the other is a start-up.

Neither organization had a stated vision, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. It was hiding behind a lot of what felt like rhetorical slight-of-hand. When describing her work to potential donors, for example, one executive director saw “furrowed brows or eyes brimming with confusion” on listener’s faces. Grasping for the right words, she “would tumble into a monologue – bolting one sentence to the next like a flustered magician searching for the missing bunny in my hat.”

If executive leadership is struggling to describe what the organization does and where it’s going, what must the board, staff, and extended community be going through? The task before us was to make explicit what was implicit to organizational leadership so readers and listeners could viscerally connect and understand the organization’s day-to-day business and longer-term vision.

Bold and energizing descriptions of a nonprofit’s activities are more important than ever. They play a leading role in governing resource development and their allocation, marketing, and communications while clarifying what the organization is aiming to accomplish over the longer term.

Both of the organizations described below approached the initial steps of the process differently. The first convened a staff and board of over twenty stakeholders during an all-day retreat. The second discussed challenges over a more intimate dinner with a few trusted colleagues. Both organizations engaged additional community members to subsequently weigh-in at appropriate times.

Whether yours is a start-up or more established, perhaps these two organizations will inspire a second look at critical dimensions of strategic planning.

Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York (MYO)

MYO is twenty-three years old and started a strategic planning process two years ago, but transitions in organizational leadership and other challenges delayed follow-up activities. A funding application for a governance grant illuminated areas to strengthen, such as a vision for the organization. The vision wasn’t explicitly stated and “lives in the head of MYO’s founder” said Anthea Jackson, executive director.

Over the past couple of years, MYO has grown from 650 to 950+ members, added four new ensembles, and increased the size of the board from seven to eleven members. Anthea described the growth process as “throwing a lot of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.” In this context, the leadership team wanted a deliberate strategic framework for governing growth along with a process to engage stakeholders in moving the organization forward.

“Being relatively new in the community, I wanted to honor the past and envision a future for MYO collaboratively by bringing our staff, board, and music directors into the process,” said Anthea. “It can be challenging to put so many voices in the room, all of them passionate about music education and fiercely proud of the organization. Egos and personal agendas had to be set aside and we were all reminded that we were there for MYO, not just to protect who we are, but to imagine what’s possible for our organization and the long-lasting effect we can have on the Long Island community.”

Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York board/staff strategic planning retreat at the Smithtown Country Club, Long Island.

Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York board/staff strategic planning retreat at the Smithtown Country Club, Long Island. August 30, 2015.

A board/staff retreat focused on getting the key members of the MYO community, quite literally, on the same page. Working teams developed drafts of vision, mission, core values language and established a strategic planning team to further the work with specific, targeted goal dates. A smaller sub-committee of “synthesizers” is whittling at the language until it is ready to share (along with some strategic goals) with the broader community at a public launch celebrating the organization’s renewed energy and direction.

“Putting our vision into words is challenging and we’re not quite there yet,” said Anthea. “We’ll keep nurturing the 3am ideas; the ones where you bolt upright in bed and think ‘Yes, we want every child in Long Island to experience making music in a rigorous and supportive environment!’ and we will keep working together to create our strongest and most audacious language to express that idea.”

A Fresh Chapter

In 2009, Terri Wingham was diagnosed with breast cancer. By 2011, her final surgery was behind her and she found herself grappling with feelings of isolation, depression, survivor guilt, and anger. Through volunteering and travel experiences, Terri began to formulate some ideas for addressing the emotional and psychological aspects of cancer through personally meaningful travel and volunteerism.

In February 2013, twelve men and women joined her for a two-week pilot program in New Delhi, India. While this and other travel odysseys resulted in various “Ah-ha” moments for cancer survivors turned volunteer travelers, she found herself scrambling to find the “missing bunny in the magician’s hat” as she struggled to verbalize a vision and mission.

Over a March 2015 dinner in New York City, Terri, myself, and a few colleagues helped answer a question that haunted her, “How would we grow or become sustainable if I couldn’t paint a clearer picture of who we are and why it matters?” We explored that question through the remainder of the evening. Read more about Terri’s vivid and beautiful odyssey on her blog.

Terri’s take-a-way other than a delightful dessert? Several months later, she shared her now explicit vision and mission with a potential donor:

Terri's Vision Image

“Our vision is a world where the pain and adversity of cancer opens a doorway to new purpose, possibility, and connection in the lives of men and women around the globe. Our mission is to heal the emotional scars of cancer through volunteering and meaningful travel.”

She didn’t see in her listener a furrowed brow of confusion as before but an expression of wonder. An invitation to elaborate! “When participants step beyond the borders of their cancer stories, they see that struggle is universal and new dreams are possible.”

The response of her potential donor? “Boom! That’s a great elevator pitch. Tell me more.” This same friend has a friend in Cape Town who now wants to support upcoming program activity. Terri attributes her success to the “lesson on clarity I learned in March.”

Magicians and Visionaries

Are you a magician searching for the missing bunny in a hat? Or a visionary who energizes your community with a bold, vivid, and audacious description of your world after your mission has been accomplished?

I think that organizational leaders tend to be a bit of both at different times during their leadership tenure. However you describe yourself, strategic success is shaped by the degree to which organizations can find the clarity that Terri is talking about and the courage demonstrated by Anthea, who is developing a vision for her organization in its twenty-third year after being in her position for no more than two.

Such vivid descriptions, ironically, can act like magic upon potential stakeholders. They can melt hearts, galvanize enthusiasm, quickly identify the like-minded, and inspire investment from those who say, “Tell me more!”

Ah! The magic of courageous clarity.

More information:

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Human resource management and strategic planning topics appearing in the Rumohr and Clarke Nonprofit Blog are listed below — all in one place so you can easily find the information when you need it. The topics have also been compiled into two free guides.

Title 2.3 in the Video and Template Library.

Title 2.3 in the Video and Template Library.

Strategic Planning

1.  What Is Strategic Planning?
2.  Vision and Mission
2.a. Magicians and Visionaries: A Lesson in Clarity *
3.  Core Values
4.  Goals and Objectives
5.  Environmental Factors Affecting Nonprofits
6.  Competitive Advantage
7.  Logic: Ins and Outs of Enterprising Nonprofits
8.  Evaluation: Bridging Inputs With Impact
9.  Alliances and Partners
9. a. Is it Time to Realign? *
10.  Strat Plan’s Relationship to Development and Fundraising
11.  Tips for Creating Your Plan
12.  Get the Free Guide! *

Titles 3.10 and 4.4 in the Video and Template Library.

Titles 3.10 and 4.4 in the Video and Template Library.

Human Resource Management

1.  Introduction
2.  Hiring Process Stages
3.  Purpose of Interviews
4.  The Hiring Manager
5.  High Inquiry Interview Questions
6.  Focusing Questions
7.  Multiple Perspectives in Hiring
8.  Evaluating Interview Candidate Responses
9.  Onboarding
9.a.  Employee Performance Review *
10.   Get the Free Guide! *

* This topic is not included in the Guide.

TV GraphicPrefer to watch a video? Many of the HR topics above are also available in the Video and Template Library. Click here to go there.

Strategic planning topics of the Rumohr and Clarke Nonprofit blog have been compiled into the free booklet, Strategic Planning for Small Nonprofits and Emerging Leaders, available for download at the Video and Template Library.

The nineteen page guide is ideal for in-service nonprofit professionals, entrepreneurial start-up founders, or anyone who wants a “crash-course” on the fundamentals of strategic planning.

This free online resource furthers Rumohr and Clarke’s mission to strengthen small nonprofits and emerging leaders through comprehensive consulting services, coaching, and online content.

Post your comments, questions, and discussions on the blog!

by Floyd Rumohr

Here are seven tips for emerging leaders and managers of small nonprofits to consider for a strategic planning process:

#1 Collaborate on the creation of the plan: Jeanne Bell of CompassPoint suggests “Rather than stepping back or working clandestinely behind the scenes, I believe the planning process is best served by executive directors modeling for all on staff and board the qualities that are most likely to lead to transformative decision making: courage, condor, pragmatism about competitive advantage in the marketplace, and financial savvy” (Bell).

#2: Share your plan: write it up, turn it into a living online document, or broadcast your vision through a short film. Elegantly use photos, quotes, and impact data for stakeholders to feel and connect with your work. See “Framework for a Basic Strategic Plan Document for a Nonprofit” by Carter McNamara for frameworks and templates.

#3 Progress report: many strategic plans fail because they’re not managed once they’ve been developed. Report on your progress to internal and external stakeholders in a graphically engaging way using charts, dashboards, and images so it is appealing to the eye. Remember that staff, board, and volunteers are stakeholders, too, and internal reports don’t have to be dull.

#4 Celebrate and share successes: recognize key players who help achieve strategic goals or who grow significantly through the process. These days it doesn’t have to be done at a party. Tweet it or share a photo op on your company’s Facebook page.

#5 Failures can be teachable moments: it’s easy to get discouraged if you don’t reach a strategic goal. Reflect on why you didn’t get there. Be frank and honest. Lead by example. What could you have done differently or what did you learn from the experience? Model for your teams what you want to see in them.

#6 No sacred cows: get rid of them! Successful 21st century nonprofits will let go of old ideas that don’t work or those ideas that have grown immune to analysis. You might have to reconsider how you do what you do and embed resources in the budget for professional development of board and staff in order to remain competitive.

#7 Adaptive change: endow your teams and the plan itself with permission to change, evolve, live, and grow. Have courage to make midcourse corrections based on credible evaluations. That doesn’t mean changing strategic goals just because they’ve grown inconvenient! Reflect on why you didn’t achieve the goal or celebrate when you do but don’t change the goal post until you and your teams have had a hard look at the game plan. Change can be hard but it is going to happen today more rapidly than ever before. Successful strategies embed opportunities for change.

References and recommended reading:

by Floyd Rumohr

Why should organizations take resource cultivation cues from overall organizational strategy instead of the other way around? The reason is simple.

If an organization allows the fundraising process to determine the overall strategic direction then it is implicitly suggesting that funders determine the organization’s course.

While funders and other supporters are important stakeholders, handing over the leadership reins can feed a “chasing money” syndrome in which the organization is tempted to do something they wouldn’t normally do because of an RFP or other resource – not good leadership in my view. In this case, the organization might create projects and programs and find itself up an absent resource river when the money dries up and the organization is left trying to sustain something it should never have started. What if, for example, an organization succeeds in obtaining grant money that is antithetical to its core values and loses several key staff members in the process?

It is different if the impulse to begin a new project or program comes from a thoughtful strategic planning process at the organizational level and it sees an opportunity, such as an RFP, and seizes it. In this case, a strategic planning process would identify resources over which development aces could go to work. Funders can and should be involved in those conversations as responsible citizens of the social enterprise.

Nonprofits have an opportunity to lead dialogues that include instructive conversations between funder and nonprofit. It’s a relationship in which some funders don’t know what they don’t know and benefit from thoughtful and discreet teaching and learning about the fields they’re supporting.

The organization is the horse. Not the cart. They need each other to go anywhere but knowing who and what is driving the vision, mission, and everyday operations is essential to identifying, cultivating, and sustaining appropriate resources.

Next up: tips for creating a plan.

by Floyd Rumohr
A partner can help meet strategic goals and advance a nonprofit mission in ways that are not possible when going it alone.

A strategic partner is any person or group that can help meet strategic goals. If your after-school literacy program aims to help 1,000 more students read above grade level within the next twenty-four months, then reading teachers, parents, book publishers, and PBS are examples of possible partners.

Partnerships exist along a continuum from collaboration to group structures and finally merger:

Collaboration → strategic partnerships → joint programming →  administrative consolidation → mergers/acquisitions

Less integration of administration and programs is required along the left and more along the right of the spectrum. The left side is more like dating. The right is like marriage. A strategic partner on this continuum, then, is one that will help achieve a particular goal without having to…get hitched! LaPiana Consulting, a national firm with expertise in strategic restructuring, is a great resource to learn about the different types of alliances and integrations.

The partnership between Stages of Learning, where I was founding executive director for fifteen years, and Queens Theatre in the Park (now Queens Theatre) is a case study along the above continuum:

Fiscal Year Children Served Expenses Cost Per Child
Threat indicators escalate → FY06 1,680 $682,433 $406
Possible strategic partners sought → FY07 2,072 $763,465 $368
Collaboration began → FY08 1,488 $525,299 $353
Administrative consolidation → FY09 2,800 $412,547 $147
Dissolution of Stages of Learning → FY10 2,968 $371,651 $125

The partnership dramatically reduced costs by 70% between FY07 and FY10 without affecting program quality according to the organization’s internal evaluations. The recession earned its “greatness” during the partnership, however, as nonprofits around the country began to feel the effects. Queens Theatre, struggling with challenges unrelated to the acquisition of Stages of Learning, no longer had the capability to sustain an education program and the Stages of Learning board chose to separate and dissolve the organization. We believed that the environment could no longer support the quality services for which Stages of Learning had become known.

Despite the dissolution of an organization that I loved and built, the goals of reaching more students while lowering administrative costs were ultimately achieved because of the partnership.

Stages of Learning is not an isolated case. Thomas A. McLaughlin, founder of Massachusetts-based McLaughlin and Associates, has said that now is the single most intense time in mergers and alliances among charities — a perspective shared by Bob Ottenhoff, outgoing president and CEO of GuideStar in Washington, D.C. who said “We’re on the verge of something happening if the economy doesn’t pick up. We’re going to begin to see…mergers and acquisitions become more prevalent. But it’s on people’s minds like it wasn’t five or ten years ago. The golden age of funding and those days are over” (Hrywna).

Are you going it alone? Maybe it’s time to to look around for friends and collaborators who can advance goals and ultimately the mission of organization(s) with which you work.

Next up: relationship to development and fundraising.

References and recommended reading:

by Floyd Rumohr

Imagine a world without valid judgment: doctors unable to evaluate x-rays. Drinking water deemed safe just by looking at it. Judges drawing conclusions based on how they feel about a case rather than from standards and laws. Sounds like chaos.

Disorder at nonprofits isn’t always imaginary. It can be embedded in one organization’s culture and be a momentary lapse in judgment at another. Regardless of how often it appears, chaos is almost always certain to ensue if decision-making lacks valid reasoning and credibility, which is the degree to which judgments and conclusions are trusted and believed by others. Credibility is undermined when nonprofits make unsubstantiated claims about their work or if outputs alone are considered “impact.” The number of tickets sold at a theater performance is an output, for example, while the degree to which the audience is affected by that same performance is the impact. 

Sean Stannard-Stockton defines outcomes as “observed effects of the outputs on the beneficiaries of the nonprofit.” Impact is “the degree to which the outcomes observed are attributable to its activities.” Knowing how inputs and activities are causally connected to organizational impact is essential if nonprofits want to understand what’s working and what’s not, improve performance, and back-up claims. That’s where evaluation comes in.

Two basic kinds of evaluation are described by Dr. Jens J. Hansen of the Woodhill Park Research Retreat:

  • Formative evaluation is a kind of “stock-taking.” It can and should be done at regular intervals and provides vital information from which midcourse corrections will be made. Assessment and research play a big role here. Teachers often use formative evaluation and assessment methods to monitor how well students are learning and to make changes to the instructional methods and content depending on how those assessments come out. Focus is on the process.
  • Summative evaluation is the “final test” and demonstrates what has or has not been achieved in the strategic plan. “Here evaluation rigorously interrogates organizational performance with respect to whatever goals and objectives are nominated in the strategic plan.” A standardized reading test for fourth grade students is an example of summative evaluation. Focus is on outcomes.

Both approaches play a role in strategic planning because one provides information during which course corrections at the program level are made (formative) and the other generates credible information for broader organizational decisions (summative). Both reflect evidence-mining processes that characterize learning cultures and help to connect an organization’s inputs (causes) to its outcomes/impact (effect) — otherwise known as the logic model.

The logic model is not about simple math. You can’t “prove” it no matter how sensible it is. “The term ‘scientific proof’ is a misnomer: proof is a concept germane to mathematics, not science…Scientists, including social scientists, develop hypotheses about how the world works and then gather evidence to support or undermine those hypotheses. Whereas proof is black-and-white, evidence has shades of gray: it can be strong or weak, circumstantial or conclusive” (Moss).

Put more simply, there are degrees of evidence for claims about impact but not proof of those claims. For a small nonprofit, this process of evidence gathering is a significant investment especially if outside researchers are involved. Research grants from funders can be so highly competitive as to put them out of reach. So how does a small nonprofit with limited resources credibly gather such evidence?

Start with the organization’s logic model. What are the inputs and activities? What are the outcomes and impact of those activities? How do you know the impact is a result of organizational activities? If the organization has several outcomes described in its impact statement, it’s probable only one of them can be tackled at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once. Credible evidence in support of one outcome or strategic goal can be a good road to take when resources are limited. Independent researchers and evaluators are a helpful “outside eye” and more financially accessible to small nonprofits when evaluative activities are focused.

Like it or not, persuasive impact statements are here to stay. Emerging philanthropists with voracious data appetites will be looking more and more for credibility behind claims in public presentations on Guidestar, in grant proposals, and web sites.

If your organization relies more on fiction than on fact to describe its impact, it might be time for some research, evaluation, or assessment.

Next up: alliances and partners.

References and recommended reading:

  • A Strategic Planning Template for Dummies” by Dr. Jens J. Hansen, Woodhill Park Research Retreat: a helpful guide for nonprofit organizations with a comprehensible summation of evaluation in the context of strategic planning.
  • In Defense of Logic Models” by Ian David Moss, Huffpost Arts & Culture Blog: unpacks logic models and explains theory of change/program theory from arts organizations’ perspectives.
  • Getting Results: Outputs, Outcomes and Impact,” Stanford Social Innovation Review by Sean Stannard-Stockton.
  • Charting Impact: BBB Wise Giving AllianceGuideStar USA, and Independent Sector developed Charting Impact as a common presentation that allows staff, boards, stakeholders, donors, volunteers, and others to work with and learn from each other.
  • Stages of Learning Research Study” by Jane Remer and Floyd Rumohr: this four-year study at PS 145, Brooklyn, postulated research questions that provided an evidentiary basis for subsequent organization-wide summative evaluation.