Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Favorite Quotes About Planning (and what they mean to me)

WE'RE ON THE CUSP OF THE NEW YEAR, A TIME WHEN I try to use the next few days to do some reflection and personal mission review and goal setting. Sounds very serious, but I assure you that it's not so much that as it is reinvigorating. Taking a bit of reflective time puts me back in touch with some basic ideas that are foundational to my work and to my outlook on life.

I thought I'd begin the process this time around by sharing some quotes with you that have particular meaning for me:

Eleanor Roosevelt: It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan. When I first came across this quote, I wrote it right down. It clicked with me, because I've worked with so many organizations whose dreams seemed to far exceed their capacities to fulfill them. Or one person has big, vocal dreams, while everybody else is either not yet in dream mode or is completely clueless. No matter whose dream or how big, without an articulated plan to achieve it, it almost certainly will remain just out of reach. An organization needs both, so why not do both?

Immanuel Kant: The best way to predict the future is to invent it. This is the quote that pops into my head every time I hear folks talk about all the stuff they believe is out of their organization's control -- "our city doesn't recognize the good things we do for it's image", "other organizations won't collaborate with us", "we're destined to second class status because we're a nonprofit", "we'll never achieve the operating budget we really need". Just because you're a nonprofit doesn't mean that you're not steering your own ship. You can consciously shape an organization's future with wishes supported by plans and actions.

Peter Drucker: Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work. I love this quote because it exposes an unvarnished truth: no amount of planning will achieve a desired future unless you're willing to work for it. There are so many nonprofits that go through a planning process just to get that sheaf of paper they can wave in front of funders, but they have no idea how to work that plan to reality (or no intention of doing so). Plans need to include fairly detailed and timeframed implementation steps that begin immediately.

Brian Tracy (motivational coach and author): A clear vision, backed by definite plans, gives you a tremendous feeling of confidence and personal power. This is the payoff! And what a feeling it is to be steering your organization's future rather than drifting along, susceptible to the whims and schemes of others.

Happy New Year and Happy Planning!

Photo: Yeah Happy New Year...Now Who's...from Expatriate Games

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Who Writes a Plan?

IT SEEMS TO ME THAT THE IDEAL PLANNING PROCESS includes many voices along its way from inside and outside the organization. Casting as wide a net as possible for stakeholder opinion and insight can help the plan’s developers frame questions they might never have thought of asking, which can lead to the creation of important criteria by which to filter possible future scenarios. It’s also a way to gain broad buy-in to a final plan, because many people will have had an opportunity to put a point-of-view, an idea, or a warning on the planning table.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

In practice, few organizations are able to take on as much opinion gathering as they or their consultants would like. If truth be told, all that surveying, benchmarking and focus-grouping is time-consuming work requiring as much (or more) coordination as the actual writing of a plan. But it can be so richly rewarding! Organizations that short-circuit this “research” phase of the process, however, go into planning with only internally generated information – necessary, but skewed by the fact that it’s coming from one source.

There does come a point in the planning process when many voices must become one. I believe that transition should begin to occur at some point shortly after the board and staff have had the chance to absorb the external research and generate a number of future scenarios. Many organizations will then turn the process over to a smaller planning team to draft a plan that blends the best scenarios into a cohesive, doable program of action. Some organizations turn the drafting over to staff leadership, while others may turn it over to one or two individuals.

Is there the threat of losing broad support for a plan if it is ultimately drafted by a small handful of people….or by one person? Only if no one else has had a chance to participate in the process at points along the way. The bottom-line success of any plan is that it is cohesive AND doable, and here is where staff and board leadership are critical to its drafting. While built on a broad base of input, the best plans embody focused courses of action on a limited number of strategic targets that have been chosen for their ability to significantly advance the organization toward mission and vision.

Photo: Hands typing on home laptop...from brownstock

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Organizational Resolutions

AS WE NEAR THE END OF ANOTHER YEAR, I offer up this post of organizational resolutions, which I wrote in 2008. As I re-read them, I think they hold up pretty well for the continuing financial uncertainties most cultural nonprofits face in 2010, although two are particularly salient right now: become financially literate and get comfortable with change.

Financial literacy is more than being able to read a monthly or quarterly statement, although that's a basic skill everyone should be taught. To me, financial literacy is being able to draw conclusions about how the numbers support mission and make an impact on the audiences you serve. That entails understanding how the numbers relate to each other, such as all annual income raised from individuals, as well as what among them are your organization's key financial and operational indicators. Every organization needs to have a handful of key indicators that will help boards and staffs track financial health. The recently released 2009 Museum Financial Information from the AAM Press is a great place to start benchmarking your organization's financial activity.

Getting comfortable with change is the mantra for the nonprofit sector. Economic downturns are important catalysts for strengthening good-to-great organizations, fostering innovation, and otherwise weeding out the herd. While hunkering down to weather out a storm is our default approach, those who do may one day emerge from the trench to find they've been left in the dust. Hunker down as you feel most comfortable, but remain flexible enough to take calculated risks along the way.

Photo: Happy New Year !!! from Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton

Monday, December 28, 2009

V is for Value

"A COUPLE OF BOARD MEMBERS HAVE BEEN ASKING questions recently about the value of our organization. I realize I have to do more than become angry and come up with something that answers the question with a business-based answer."

That was the substance of a recent email from a heritage organization board member.

There are some things in professional life that continue to confound me – even pull me up short – despite the fact that I know they exist. For me, these “professional surprises” run the gamut from an organization’s unwillingness to ask for community input to the downright failure of some boards and staffs to recognize, or understand, that a nonprofit organization’s reason for being is the public benefit it provides. Knowing all that still didn’t prevent my heart from skipping a beat when I read that email.

There it was, the “V-word” (not to be confused with the other problem “V-word” – vision). Articulating the "value" issue plagues many cultural organizations, yet it’s the life-blood of what an organization does. If an organization’s own board members struggle with the “V-word” is the organization doomed to failure? On some levels, I would say, most likely, yes – particularly when it comes to making opportunities and seizing those offered by others.

Part of the struggle resides in the fact that there are many ways value can be measured – educational and economic are two that come immediately to mind. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, comments in this post, we might do our organizations a world of good by learning to value them for the reputation, access, and ideas they embody. Brown identifies and defines six values criteria: network, brand, social, knowledge, meaning and monetary.

And in this post, Terrie Temkin makes a strong argument for determining mission impact. How would you take on her challenge?

Another part of the "V-struggle" is slogging work: collecting and analyzing the data that illustrates whatever values or impacts your organization deems critical to delineating its public benefit. But collect and analyze you must or be relegated to vague, squishy descriptions of worth.

So, my emailing board member has some work to do before a case is made that the organization does have a “business based” impact. I suggested that determining the amount of money visitors to the organization spend in the community as a result of their visit would be a place to start. Combining that with how much the organization spends on local goods and services, on salaries and sales tax should result in a fairly impressive dollar amount that no one has heretofore given much thought to.

Photo: Measuring tape sphere (large) from Nick Sayers

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Your Nonprofit as a Wind-up Toy

I SUPPOSE THIS POST MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING TO DO with the gift-giving time of year, or perhaps it's the phone conversation I just had that touched upon the phases of organizational growth. I don't know, but I'm going to put the two together for today's post and see what I can make of it.

I actually want to concentrate on the founding stage of a nonprofit -- those early, heady years of excitement and energy fueled by a gratifying sense that one is creating something important and needed. I got to thinking about organization founders: community activists, groups of friends, lone rangers -- passionate people, all. They have a vision and often the power to make that vision reality. They utilize their networks to accomplish their vision. And they may easily embrace others into their vision or they may not.

The most enlightened founders know that organizations are living, breathing, dynamic things, with changing leadership and funding needs. These founders understand that someday they will need to let their organizations go. Here comes the toy analogy: Founders have the wonderful job of winding the organization up and setting it on the floor. But they, along with their boards and staff, also have an obligation to make sure the organization doesn't dissipate its energy by running all over the place and getting stuck under the couch.

We can guide the course of organizations just as we can a wind-up toy and we can do it by establishing pathways or boundaries with planning, measuring and evaluating accomplishment, and communicating objectives, success and failure.

I think the wind-up toy might be a pretty good analogy, because most organizations do require a re-wind every so often as they progress along their paths. That's another lesson for another day, I suppose, for founders and young organizations.

Photo: watch him go from girlhula

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Mission Statement Wrestling Match

A CLIENT OF MINE IS WRESTLING WITH REVISING ITS mission statement. And wrestling is a good word for it. Writing a deceptively simple, but truly meaningful, statement is not easy. So many mission statements are mired in the what's and how's of an organization's activities that they barely acknowledge an audience or rarely talk about the whys of their existence. (Hint: audience and the whys of existence are the two most important things.)

I've written (and spoken) a lot about this here. One of the connecting themes to all those posts is about digging deep to taste and savor meaning; to layer in texture and color; to make the statement connect on some emotional level with the people who read it. In fact, the mission statement is not so much about helping the folks within the organization decipher what the organization is, as it's about helping folks outside the organization discover your power and purpose.

Here are some of the words from the image above that came from a mission brainstorming session: "design dialogue", "forge", "nurture", "weave", "enable", "facilitate relationships", "outreach", "galvanize". These are the people words of an organization. These, and other words like them, are the connective tissue that is so often missing in the "official" statements organizations use when talking about themselves.

I'll use my client's example (with names changed, of course) to show you what I'm talking about. The current mission statement is this:

The mission of the Old House Museum is presently to preserve the Smith family home in Our Town, interpret its history between 1740 and 1880 and educate the public.

Really grabs you, doesn't it? The focus is squarely on preserving that old house and talking about its evolution. Oh, yeah -- and educating the public. "Educating the public" reads like an afterthought to me.

So, they're thinking they might want to revise the current statement to this:

The mission of the Old House Museum is to preserve the Our Town home of the Smith family, prominent merchants and heroic patriots, who lived here for many generations, and to engage the community by sharing their history through educational programs and exhibits.

But, frankly, it's just a longer version of what they already have. Would this make you want to visit or become involved any more than the mission statement they already have?

What if the museum were to put the community engagement piece first? What if the mission is about bringing you into the story of how one person, one family, can have an impact on the course of community and country? The dynamic starts to change. Regular folks can start to see themselves in that mission -- you've opened the door to your organization for them.

So, here are three suggestions for revising your lackluster mission statement today:
  • Write a mission statement for the person who doesn't know anything about you.
  • Focus the first phrase or sentence of your statement on your audience.
  • Let readers see themselves in the story of your mission by connecting the whys of what your organization does to their lives.
Can you help my client by redrafting their mission statement?

Photo: Mission Statement Brainstorming from design_bridge_do

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Key Questions" Post Receives Kudos

I'M REALLY PLEASED THAT MY POST, “Key Questions for Board and Senior Staff”, received some high praise from readers at It was voted one of the best ten stories for Leadership in November 2009! is a website sponsored by, a subscription-based blog “for volunteers, webmasters and administrators of associations and nonprofits. We discuss issues and trends in web technologies that help your organization do more with less.”