This is the tenth segment of our strategic planning blog series, and in this final segment, we will discuss overcoming the most common objections to strategic planning.
Objection #1: No one does strategic planning anymore.
Whenever I hear this objection, I ask the person to share the name of one nonprofit that enjoyed sustained growth and impact without a strategic plan. Surely, if no organizations are using strategic planning anymore, then it must certainly be easy to find many examples.
I also note that a lot of organizations have responded to a rapidly changing environment by developing “tactical plans” that are just 12-24 months long. But these tactical plans move the organization toward a strategic direction and are, in fact, an important component of a strategic plan.
Objection #2: We didn’t use the last strategic plan.
The only way to overcome this legitimate objection is to jointly identify the reasons the last plan wasn’t used. After documenting these reasons, work together to develop a plan for addressing the issues. As an example, you may determine that the most recent plan was not implemented due to a lack of tactical accountability. You and the board may then agree that any new plan would have to assign goals and tactical objectives to a specific position within the organization.
Objection #3: We don’t have the time.
Setting an organization’s strategic direction is a core governance function and as important as hiring the executive director or ensuring financial accountability. Just as a board must make time to review the executive director and ensure financial procedures are followed, it must also find the time to establish the organization’s strategic direction.
Objection #4: We can’t afford a consultant to help with strategic planning.
This is a prime opportunity to brainstorm your fundraising options for raising additional funds for strategic planning. Perhaps your most steadfast foundation supporters or major donors can contribute to your planning process. Get the board brainstorming about fundraising opportunities, then ask for their help in executing those opportunities.
Objection #5: We have more important priorities.
Explore the other priorities to determine if they really are more important than strategic planning. If the organization is experiencing a leadership transition or a major crisis, it may be better to postpone the strategic planning for six months. If the “more important priorities” involve a gala in six months, however, then use the response to Objection #3: We don’t have the time.
When you start the conversation about strategic planning, you want to be prepared for objections. While this is not a complete list of all possible objections, it probably represents the majority of objections you will hear from board members and senior staff.
Only the Board Can Hold the Board Accountable
Board service is all about accountability. After all, boards are responsible for holding the CEO accountable; boards are accountable to the organization’s constituencies and to governmental regulations.
Yet the board also has a primary responsibility to hold itself accountable. Other than the rare and infrequent attorney general investigation, there are few outside entities that can hold the board accountable. And no staff member – not even the CEO – can hold the board accountable for meeting its obligations and complying with government regulations.
Boards may side-step holding themselves accountable in two ways. To illustrate these distinct accountability avoidance techniques, let’s use the example of a fictitious board member James. He has served on the board for two years and never completed the annual conflict of interest disclosure document. In January of each year, the board chair distributes the document at each meeting and actually follows up with absent board members by emailing the document to them. Staff are responsible for collecting the completed form from each board members and giving the governance committee a report of submitted documents in the February committee meeting.
#1: A board chooses not to follow-up with board members who fail to follow board policy. At its February meeting, Governance Committee members review the staff report on submitted conflict of interest (COI) statements. At this point, the committee becomes aware that James has not completed his COI disclosure document. The committee discusses the reasons why James may not have turned it in with remarks like
Yet no governance committee member is assigned to follow-up with James to ask why the form wasn’t submitted and set a firm deadline. In the rare instance that the board does speak with James about his COI and set a deadline, it is almost guaranteed that he can serve the remainder of his term without ever submitting the document.
#2: A board delegates its accountability role to staff. After learning that James has not completed his COI and discussing the matter briefly, the committee asks the executive director to follow-up with James. Now the executive director is in the awkward position of holding someone accountable when that person has power over her performance review, potential salary increases, or even whether she keeps her job. The executive director can cajole, remind, and request – but the executive director can never effectively hold a board member accountable. This is so important that it bears repeating “The executive director can never effectively hold a board member accountable.”
These avoidance techniques are common even among governance committees that have business executives known for making tough decisions in their professional lives. While people may join a board with a passion for the organization, almost no one joins a board wanting to be “the bad cop”. And they definitely don’t want to be “the bad cop” with another volunteer. It’s uncomfortable, and many feel that it will drive away current and prospective board members.
So what is the solution?
Just being clear about responsibilities and setting an example, however, will not be enough. The organization will also need to recruit one committee member who relishes being the traffic cop – who is willing to say “that person ran a red light and it’s not acceptable”. Ideally this is a diplomatic person who can also have a few difficult conversations without creating too much drama. This may be the member’s primary contribution to the governance committee, but it is a valuable one.
As a strategic planning consultant, there are two questions that nonprofit executives and board members ask me all the time:
The person typically asks about money first and role second, but I always answer the question about the consultant’s role first. I choose to answer the question about cost second because the role your consultant plays in strategic planning will ultimately determine how much they charge for a quality product.
What is your role as a strategic planning consultant?
Let’s explore the three main models of strategic planning consulting:
Consultant as Facilitator:
The consultant merely facilitates the strategic planning process and a core group does the work. So the facilitator provides a general structure, templates and tools, and project management. The work group is fully responsible for the environmental scan and drafting the final product. This is often the least expensive form of strategic planning consulting because the heavy lifting is done by the work group.
Consultant as Planner:
In this model, the consultant is the primary planner. For this reason, the consultant conducts the environmental scan, prepares for the board retreat, and writes the plan following the board retreat.
In the participatory strategic planning process described in this blog post series, your volunteer work group invests a couple hundred hours in the strategic planning process. Consequently, delegating all this work to a consultant also makes this the most expensive strategic planning option.
While I could make more money doing all of the planning work myself, I don’t ever use this model because it isn’t good for the organization. I believe the Consultant as Planner model does not engage the organization’s leadership sufficiently for them to have ownership of the plan’s success, and it certainly doesn’t not strengthen the organization’s capacity.
Consultant as Facilitator and Planner:
This is the most common type of strategic planning consulting, and it allows the organization to rise to its planning abilities while knowing that a consultant will do the work that the organization cannot.
Many different options exist for assigning work between the consultant and the organization within this hybrid model. For this reason, I typically offer three different work-share options to a prospective client, with a corresponding cost. This allows the organization to determine the work they have the capacity to complete, while leaving the rest of the work for me as the consultant.
How much will my nonprofit organization pay for a strategic planning consultant?
This is without a doubt the most common question I get, and my answer is always “it depends”.
A prospective client recently asked me for a strategic planning proposal that ranged in cost from $13,350 to $21,500. The cost would normally be $15,000 - $25,000, but I knew that this engagement would be made easier because they have a high performing board and staff.
You can review each option below to better understand the work included in each:
Option 1: $13,350*
Option 2: $17,500*
Option 3: 21,500*
*Plus travel expenses if the organization is not within a one-hour drive of downtown Atlanta
The prospective client came back genuinely agonizing over the cost; they knew that they wanted the deluxe package but had also received three other quotes at $5,000, $6,000 and $15,000.
A quick word about the consultants who offer to “do a strategic plan” for $5,000. Ideally, you want a consultant with the skills and abilities to earn a six-figure income as a nonprofit executive. And a consultant with the ability to earn that kind of money as an employee with benefits would be very unlikely to charge just $5,000 for strategic planning. The one exception is someone a consultant was an accomplished nonprofit executive and is discounting work during their first year as a consultant to build a client list and reputation.
In general, however, strategic planning is much like hiring a contractor to renovate your bathroom. First you decide how much of the work you can do yourself. Maybe you want the contractor to do everything, or maybe you’ll save money by pulling the permit yourself, doing the demo, and taking care of the finishing touches like painting and installing towel racks.
Then you look at the skill of the contractor (while also considering the cost). You wouldn’t hire the contractor who offers to renovate your bathroom for $2,500 because you know they won’t do a good job.
While my price points range between $13,000 to about $25,000 for planning projects, most organizations should anticipate paying least $10,000 – and no more than $35,000 for the services of a qualified strategic planning consultant. Again – it all depends on how much work you are willing to do as an organization.
So those are the answers to the two most commonly asked questions: How much will this cost? and What is your role as a consultant.
This post is part 8 of a series about strategic planning.
After all the time, money, and effort you have invested in building your new strategic plan, you definitely want to get the most from it. Obviously, you’ll want to use it as a management tool, but you’ll also want your new strategic plan to enhance your public relations, support fundraising efforts, attract visitors to your website and build your social media base.
Of primary importance, you will want to use your strategic plan as a management tool for staff and a governance tool for your board. The plan is ideally suited for staff management and board governance because it includes quarterly goals. Each goal can be assigned to a staff member (or board member if the goal relates to the board).
To report this information throughout the organization, I recommend creating a one page dashboard that is both easy to read and not cumbersome to complete each month. Like most dashboards, you will color code the items being measured:
When color coding the dashboard, it is important to be honest with yourself and the board about those items that are yellow or red. Every organization experiences speedbumps and roadblocks when implementing a strategic plan, and no one should feel embarrassed or ashamed of missing the goal. Instead, the quarterly will encourage healthy dialogue about how to turn the red to yellow and the yellow to green.
If you only use the new strategic plan as a yard stick to determine progress, you will undoubtedly achieve the majority of your goals. But there are six other ways to derive benefit from your strategic plan (described below).
#1: Send a Press Release.
A new strategic plan is a great opportunity to tell the community about your new mission, vision, and key goals. In addition to sending the press release to local media, also consider associations and niche publications that may be interested in announcing your strategic plan. See the sample press release below.
#2: Share The Plan With Funders.
Share the entire plan with any significant funders who typically ask for the strategic plan as part of the application process. When you send a copy of the plan, also ask to schedule a time so that you can share the plan highlights with them in person. This is a great opportunity to meet with the funder without asking for money.
#3: Share the plan with select major donors.
Invite your major donors to one-on-one coffee meetings with the executive director to discuss the strategic plan. Bring a copy of the strategic plan with you (keeping in mind that you may want to remove some of the financial detail before sharing the plan). Your donors will be impressed that you took the time to share this information with them, and this will be another important cultivation opportunity.
#4: Serialize the Plan On Your Website.
While not appropriate for every section of the strategic plan, you can use the plan to create blog posts for your website. The environmental scan might become four blog posts (one about stakeholder feedback, another about the financial history of the organization, a third about the programmatic outcomes, and the fourth about fundraising outcomes). You can also serialize a high-level overview of the goals and tactics. These blog posts will have SEO-rich content because they will repeatedly use the name of your organization and the key words that people are likely to google.
#5: Maximize Social Media Attention.
As you serialize the blog posts, be certain to link them on social media and tag the key stakeholders you interviewed, as well as your board, key staff, and consultants.
#6: Announce a Schedule For Publishing Your Progress.
Select and announce a frequency for publishing your progress to funders, major donors, the media, and your social media followers. If done quarterly, you will have another series of media hits and your funders will be very impressed with your transparency.
By taking just a few of these steps, your organization can gain significantly more benefit from your strategic planning process. In fact, you’ll likely have foundations and major donors asking to give you money based on the successful implementation of your strategic plan.
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The Three I’s of Board Orientation
Sal had always been a dedicated donor and volunteer of his local community center, and he felt honored when asked to join the board. About a month after being appointed to the board, he came to the Saturday board orientation with a lot of enthusiasm for the center.
Over the next four hours, the board chair and executive director oriented Sal and the other new board members. Reading from power point presentations not changed in several years, they flooded new board members with detailed information:
After the first 75 minutes, Sal was no longer able to retain the information presented, and he began to feel more lethargic than enthusiastic in the final hours. By the end of the orientation, he felt like a glass of water that someone tried to fill with a fire hose.
The board orientation that Sal endured at the community center is often called a “fire hose orientation.” The fire hose orientation provides too much information in only one session and does not use experiential learning activities. Essentially, the new board member is seated in a room and subjected to a torrent of information. Even on the rare occasions that this orientation effectively informs new board members, it almost always fails to initiate and inspire them.
To ensure your new recruits become high-performing board members, every board orientation should Inform, Initiate, and Inspire. Together, they form the “Three I’s of Board Orientation.”
Board orientation activities must provide the information necessary for board members to do their volunteer job. This includes understanding the governing documents, programs, financials, organizational history, and board operations. The vast majority of board orientations inform board members, though splitting these topics into manageable 60 – 90 minute sessions would be helpful for retention.
While a few frat boys have given initiation a bad name, we should embrace the initiation aspects of orientation. During a board member’s first few months, they should receive support in doing the activities required of all board members. This may include making their first donation, liking the agency’s social media pages, completing required documents, representing the organization at an event, attending their first committee meeting, etc. As part of initiation, the organization can provide a list of all activities necessary to complete orientation, provide an experienced board member as a mentor and celebrate completion of the orientation process.
By the end of the orientation period, new board members should be even more enthusiastic about the organization and its mission. For this reason, orientation activities should inspire new board members to excel as governors, ambassadors, and cheerleaders. Activities that help inspire new board members include meeting former clients, shadowing program staff, touring the facility during operating hours, and leading a project for a volunteer group. While doing every one of these activities would be too much for a single board member, you can offer a variety of inspirational experiences for new board members can select from as part of their orientation.
The bigger picture
By designing an orientation process that Initiates, Informs, and Inspires board members, your organization will benefit from a more engaged, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic board. Of course, a successful board orientation also requires a robust and careful recruitment process, as well as a system for ongoing board member evaluation.
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In the prior blog post of this strategic planning series, we reviewed all the steps for having a great strategic planning board retreat. Now with the board retreat behind you, it’s time to draft your actual strategic plan.
Of course, if your work group and board have completed all the steps outlined in the preceding blog posts, the strategic plan pretty much writes itself. So this blog post provides tips on structuring your strategic plan, detailed information on each section of the plan, and the ideal length of a strategic plan.
Structure Your Strategic Plan Like a Snow Man:
As with any writing project, you want to start with a structure and outline in mind. A good rule of thumb is to structure your strategic plan like a snowman. And not one of those short, two-snowball figures. I mean a three snow-ball figure like the one below.
The head of the snowman is the smallest but actually defines the figure as being anthropomorphic. Inside the head, you will include an executive summary on the first page and a table of contents on the second page. The executive summary should list the new mission, vision, core values, big bold goal, and strategic annual goals in a pleasing and easy to read format. The table of contents should list the sections inside the other two parts of the snowman.
In the middle – or torso – of the snowman, you will summarize all of the work done by the work group (and the board at the retreat). So you’ll explain the planning process, thoroughly explore the results of your environmental scan, unveil your big bold goal, and the high-level annual goals.
And the base of the snowman will include the work you completed since the board retreat. This work is typically done by the work group with a lot of help from the consultant, and it includes the tactical plan for achieving your goals, a realistic timeline, a multi-year staffing plan, a multi-year projection of income and expense, and an outline of how you will raise the money necessary to implement the strategic plan.
Length of Your Strategic Plan:
Most of the strategic plans I draft are typically very detailed and about 25 to 30 pages. And the snow man structure – with a small head, mid-size body, and big base - accurately describes the amount of real estate devoted to each of the sections in my plans.
The majority of consultants believe that the plan should be just your goals, strategies, and tactics for achieving those goals, and this approach is a lot less work for the consultant. This simpler plan is sufficient if strategic plans were only internal documents, but most foundation funders, many government funders, and a few major donors will ask for a copy of your strategic plan.
For this reason, the final strategic planning document should support your fundraising efforts by fully demonstrating the process and assumptions in creating the plan. It should also include the planned revenue, expenses, and income for implementing the strategic plan so that funders can assess your implementation progress from year to year.
A more thorough strategic plan also becomes an important part of your organization’s transition plan. After all, newly recruited leadership can study the plan to better understand organization’s history, finances, programs, and long term goals.
With this in mind, here is a brief explanation of each
section of the strategic plan:
The planning process description provides detail on the work group members, the role of the work group, and of course the stages of the planning process. Essentially, this section summarizes the prior episodes of this bonus break series in about two pages.
Environmental Scan Results
This section thoroughly explains the methodology and results of the environmental scan. Just as the environmental scan fully informed the planning process, the description of the environmental scan should help the reader understand the organization’s history, strengths, challenges, and opportunities. Since the environmental scan is data-rich, this section of the strategic plan will include a number of charts and graphs to help the reader easily absorb this information. These visual graphs can often be copied from the power point slide deck presented at the retreat and pasted directly into the plan itself. Your funders will be impressed by a strong presentation of environmental scan data.
Strategic Goals, Objectives, Tactics and Implementation Timelines
These sections go from the 40,000 foot level (your big bold goal) to the granular level on the ground (quarterly timelines). An example is below:
The strategic goals are often summarized in just one page, and represent the big bold goal as well as the annual goals that lead to achieving the big bold goal. The objectives are big targets you need to meet in order to hit those annual goals. While these high-level goals and objectives were finalized at the board retreat, all of the tactics – those small actions necessary to achieve the bigger goals – were not developed at the board retreat. So the bulk of the planning work in this phase involves a creating quarterly tactical plan that outlines the specific actions to be taken in each quarter.
No strategic plan is complete without a thorough understanding of the staff needed to implement it. This staffing plan outlines all of the positions in the organizational chart over the life of a strategic plan. So, if the strategic plan calls for eliminating a program in 2019, that program’s staff positions would be eliminated from the staffing plan in 2019. Of course, the opposite is also true: if the strategic plan creates a new program in 2020, then the staffing plan would include the positions necessary for the new program.
The staffing plan isn’t about the people you have now, it’s about the positions you need to succeed. Sometimes, a work group will discuss who among the current staff will fill new positions, and I will have to remind them that the executive director is responsible for making those decisions. Leadership volunteers are responsible for determining the positions necessary to achieve the plan, but the executive director is responsible for selecting staff.
As part of the staffing plan, we will often conduct some basic salary research to ensure that the current and new positions are compensated in a competitive manner. After all, the organization wants to compete for the best talent possible if it is truly committed to its plan.
Revenue Plan and Fundraising Strategy
The final – and critically important component of your strategic plan is the revenue plan and fundraising strategy. This is a multi-year financial pro forma that outlines specifically how the organization will generate revenue and spend funds to achieve the strategic plan. In addition to existing expenses that will be continued, the revenue plan needs to account for any new facilities, new staff, and new program expenses. Much like the staffing plan, this often requires researching the cost of new facilities, specific consultants, and other resources needed for implementing the plan.
As part of the revenue plan, the plan should also include a fundraising strategy. While not as comprehensive as a full-fledged fundraising plan, the fundraising strategy offers a high-level overview of the fundraising campaigns and sources necessary to fund the growing organization.
Final Board Approval
With a final draft of the plan, you are ready to present the strategic plan to the board for review and approval. Give the board members ample time to review the final draft of the plan and offer a 60- to 90-minute question and answer session prior to the board meeting. This is one of the most important decisions a board will make, and they need to be able to deliberate before approving the strategic direction for the next several years.
Next Blog Post
The next blog post in this series will focus on making the most out of your strategic plan once the board has approved it.
Everybody Loves a Winner
In 2013, the Houston Astros lost 69% of their games, resulting in the team's worst season history. That year, the team averaged just 20,394 fans at each home game. Just four years later, the Astros won 62% of their regular season games and enjoyed average attendance of 29,675. That’s a 45% increase in average attendance as a result of the team’s 2017 winning season (which included winning the World Series). It’s a simple fact: sports teams experience better paid attendance when they have a winning season.
Just as baseball teams have more fans when they are on a winning streak and fewer fans when they are on a losing streak, your not nonprofit organization has more financial supporters when you demonstrate successful programs, sound management, and prudent governance. The reverse is also true: your charity has fewer financial supporters when you communicate that your programs, management, or governance is in distress.
You Might Be Saved But You Won’t Be Respected
Every few years, I will see a fundraising letter that starts “If we do not raise $25,000 by next month, we will be forced to close our doors”, and these letters stab my heart with pain. The solicitation letter tells me that a financial crisis is endangering programs, but the letter rarely provides a forthright examination of (a) how the organization reached the point of crisis and (b) the organization’s long term plan for overcoming the crisis.
This desperate plea for help may raise the $25,000 necessary to keep the doors open but it does not improve the long term prospects of the organization. In fact, the nonprofit is quite likely to be in the same position during the next cash crisis. Additionally, once major donors and foundations make contributions to prevent bankruptcy, it will be many years before they will . . . .
. . . . consider the organization a prudent investment for capital gifts
. . . . feel comfortable making undesignated funds
. . . . include the organization in their estate plan
If You Really Are In Trouble
If your organization has a sudden need for $25,000 to remain viable, it is okay to approach major donors and foundations for support if you follow these rules:
#1: Create a plan
The plan doesn’t need to have the complexity of a full strategic plan, but it should thoroughly and candidly outline the factors causing the crisis, the proposed steps for overcoming the immediate crisis, and the plan for avoiding a similar crisis in the future.
#2: Carefully select the people to solicit
This is likely not the appropriate time to broadly solicit donors by mail or email. Instead, brainstorm the major donors who might be willing to consider a gift and develop a gift pyramid. If you need to raise $25,000, for example, your gift pyramid may look like this:
Keep in mind that you probably need to brainstorm twice as many prospects as gifts at each level. As an example, in order to get two gifts of $5,000 each, you may need to start with four donors that have the capacity to give at that level.
In selecting these prospective angels, choose people who care deeply about your mission, will keep your solicitation confidential, and are willing to provide candid and honest feedback.
#3: Meet with the prospect
Meet with the prospect, and treat them like a major investor in your organization (because they already are or you are about to ask them to become one). Be forthright about the organization’s strengths (such as strong program outcomes) and the weaknesses (perhaps fundraising or cash flow management). Treating them like a major investor also means you will share the plan and ask for their candid feedback. It also means you will listen to their advice and consider ways you can incorporate it into the actual plan.
Like a major investor, the prospect may point out how some of the assumptions in your plan are unrealistic. While this may be incredibly difficult to hear, don’t get defensive about it. Instead ask the prospect how they would change the plan’s assumption and resolve the pending crisis. It’s a tried-and-true fundraising maxim “If you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice”.
Toward the end of the meeting, ask the prospect if you can share the revised plan in a week and gauge their level of support.
#4: Incorporate your prospect’s advice
Using the free consulting advice received from your prospects, incorporate their advice into the plan and develop a final document.
#5: Solicit your donor
When you share the revised plan with the donor, it is also time to solicit them. Since you are asking the donor to help the organization during a difficult time, clearly state how the organization will operate differently to avoid another crisis and share how you will report progress back to your donor.
#6: Follow through on your commitments
Call or meet with your donors at the intervals promised to give them frank updates on the organization’s progress. Since all plan implementations face obstacles, also share those roadblocks and ask for advice on navigating around them. By the end of the six or twelve month plan, you will have a stronger organization and even better relationships with your major donors.
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