Sally has enjoyed a successful six-year tenure with her organization, but she’s ready to take on new challenges. Over coffee with her board chair, Sally shares that she is looking for a new position and anticipates leaving in the next three to six months. The board chair thanks Sally for her candor and for significant advanced notice that allows the organization to prepare for the transition.
This is a board’s dream – an executive who has decided to resign and even plans for her own departure without another job lined up. But it is also a day dream that rarely comes true. Unless they are retiring, it is both unreasonable and unrealistic to expect that an executive will set a date to resign without having another job offer. After all, the chief executive’s job is also how they provide for themselves and their family.
When creating a succession plan, the board needs to prepare for the four types of transitions described below:
Short Term Absences: A short-term absence has definite beginning and ending dates, and the length typically ranges between one to six months.
Permanent Departure: A permanent departure – sometimes called a defined departure, is the resignation, termination, or retirement of the executive director.
Abrupt Departure: In my world view, an abrupt departure is any exit with less than a month’s notice, though only having one month to prepare for the departure of your executive director is not a lot of time.
Planned Departure: A planned departure is one with between one and nine months’ notice. As a general rule, I don’t suggest that an executive director announce their departure more than nine months in advance simply because chief executives do start to become lame ducks during the transition period. I know this from personal experience because I once gave ten months’ notice before leaving an executive director position. During my final few months, it was clear that the board, staff and funders were postponing big decisions until the next chief executive director started.
In drafting the departure section of your plan, your organization will have a lot of questions to consider, including:
In a future bonus break, we’ll talk about actually developing your interim plan to manage the period with an executive director. But the next post will be a good opportunity for us to discuss executive director contracts and the role they play in transition planning.
About the Author:
Read Dolph Ward Goldenburg's Bio
Having served in multiple paid and volunteer roles in the not for profit sector, I developed a deep appreciation for the board treasurer.
As an executive director, I always valued the treasurers who helped me focus on internal controls and future forecasting. They could review the financial statements and cash flow projections with a “fresh eye” and point out some issues that I had not identified. Answering their questions or explaining an issue would often require “extra work” from me, but it was usually well worth my efforts.
As a board chair, I sought to work with treasurers who didn’t just report what happened in the past by presenting the income and expense statement. I wanted a treasurer to serve as the board’s eyes and ears in our finance department and be a leader who would sound alarm bells if there were issues with internal controls.
Over time, I learned that a great treasurer is not only essential for a strong organization but also builds trust with donors, funders, and the broader community. I also learned that great treasurers share these six traits:
#1: Great Treasurers Dive Into the Numbers
A great treasurer doesn’t just look at the bottom line on the income and expense statement (sometimes called a profit and loss statement). Instead, they really comb through financial statements to identify trends and determine the organization’s financial health. Great treasurers will typically compare the actual YTD financials with budget projections and the same period for the prior year.
When great treasurers finish reviewing the income and expense statement, they turn their attention to the balance sheet, accounts receivable, accounts payable, and cash flow projections. They seek to fully understand the organization’s financial health by fully understanding these financial statements.
And the very best treasurers also ask to review the bank statements!
#2: Great Treasurers Ask Hard Questions
While none of us like to be in the hot seat, great treasurers ask executive directors and CFOs hard questions (diplomatically, of course). After all, it’s not unusual for management’s projections to be optimistic, and great treasurers sometimes offer a reality check for management.
Great treasurers may dig deeper to find out why a revenue line item is below budget or an expense line item is significantly over budget. They also ask tough questions about receivables and the cash flow projection. A few questions that great treasurers have asked me include:
#3: Great Treasurers Take the Audit and 990 Seriously
Great treasurers understand that an auditor’s review of the organization’s financials will be more thorough than the Finance Committee’s periodic reviews. Consequently, they will work with the audit committee (or finance committee) to carefully select the auditor, considering their experience and expertise. As part of an audit committee, they will also meet with the auditor before the engagement and share any questions they hope the audit will resolve. They will also meet with the auditor at the completion of the audit, and ask lots of questions about any weaknesses, deficiencies and recommendations the auditor may have included in the letter to the board.
Great treasurers will also ask management to give the finance committee regular updates on resolving any weaknesses or deficiencies noted by the auditor.
#4: Great Treasurers Care Deeply About Risk Management
Great treasurers understand that risk comes in many forms (such as potential staff malfeasance, executive transitions, lawsuits, storms, looming recessions, etc), and they work with management to ensure these risks are managed appropriately.
An organization’s internal controls are among the best ways to manage the risk of staff malfeasance and executive transitions. Great treasurers understand the importance of producing written financial procedures and ensuring they are followed. These procedures not only make it easier to detect possible malfeasance, but they also provide a training tool when accounting or executive staff change.
As part of managing risk, great treasurers also ensure that the organization reviews its insurance policies at least annually and determines if the organization is adequately covered.
#5: Great Treasurers Focuses on the Future
Most treasurers understand the importance of reviewing past financial performance (the income and expense statement), but great treasurers are focused on the future. They will, for example:
#6: Great Treasurers Make Their Own Board Report
Great treasurers have sufficient familiarity with the organization’s financial statements, budgets, and internal controls to give the finance report at the board meeting, and they don’t delegate this important task to the CFO or executive director.
I have been lucky to serve with some truly great treasurers, and they have always made the organization stronger and helped me improve as a professional or a board member. I’ve also worked with a few underperforming treasurers, and my next blog post will share traits of underperforming treasurers.
Last month I was speaking with an executive director who shared that he hadn’t taken a full week off in over 18 months. I’m certain that I cringed when he said this despite my best attempt to have no observable reaction.
All too often we are so busy taking care of our organizations and our families that we fail to take care of ourselves. As months of continuous work stretches into years, passion and zeal slowly drain from us and we begin to resent our work. I learned the hard way this fact the hard way; In fact, I used to be one of those people who never took a vacation, then I burned out pretty bad.
Since experiencing my own severe career burn out, I now take at least one extended trip every year where I completely unplug from work – no email, no voice mail, no check-ins.
When I ask someone why they haven’t taken a vacation, it normally comes down to two factors: Some say they can’t afford to lose the time at work; Others say they don’t have the financial resources to take a trip; and a few say they can afford neither the time nor the cost.
If this sounds like you; If it’s been more than 12 months since you’ve taken a real vacation without working or checking email, then this bonus break is for you. I’m going to share some ideas about finding the time and the resources necessary to give yourself a break.
#1: Pick a Date
It’s always easier to plan your trip at least a few months in advance; In fact, My husband and I plan our big trip where we unplug from the world and reconnect to each other about a year in advance.
So the first step to actually taking a vacation is to pick a date in the future and lock your vacation plan in. Once it’s on the calendar, tell your friends, family, work team, and board or boss that you’ll be unavailable during that time. With enough lead time, you can start to figure out how everything will get taken care of without you; They might be work-related like “who will be trained to process payroll” or it might be personal like “who will visit Mom at the nursing home on Saturday night”.
Most important – you have to plan around the trip and protect your vacation dates. A few months before your trip just gently remind people in meetings and conversations when you will be unavailable. Since not everyone at your office is going on vacation with you, people will suggest planning meetings or events when you are on vacation. When this happens, don’t feel like you have to cancel your trip. Instead say, “That sounds like a really important , and I wish I could be there. But I’m scheduled to go to on this amazing trip. During one-on-one check-ins with your supervisor or those who report to you, also remind them of an upcoming trip. Since it’s not their vacation, it’s easy for them to forget you have planned one.
Finally, I would also recommend not scheduling anything the day before you leave or the day you return; This will enable you to have a lot less stress on both ends of your trip.
#2: Book your tickets
Back in February, my husband and I decided to take our annual trip to Morocco around Thanksgiving because it would only cost him 8 vacation days (Tgiving and the day after are holidays at his office). So we bought our plane tickets in March as soon as he confirmed with his office that he take the time off. That’s right, we purchased tickets a a full eight-months in advance because buying a ticket is a commitment device.
Tickets might have gotten cheaper in a couple months, but buying the tickets is a commitment device. Once we spent money on tickets, we are far more likely to protect the days we’ve chosen from being eaten up by other responsibilities.
Now we haven’t booked a hotel or planned other activities, but I know we will go to Morocco and have a great time. Do you know why? Because we bought our tickets.
#3: Get creative with finances
The other primary reason that people don’t take vacations is their personal finances. I’ve been fortunate to take some very expensive trips and also some very inexpensive ones. So let me share my tips and tricks for very inexpensive vacations:
Save on lodging:
For many people, the number one trip expense is lodging but it doesn’t have to eat your entire budget.
If you have kids:
With a bit of planning and some creativity, you can break through whatever barriers are preventing you from going on vacation. But most importantly get the f**k out of your office and your city; reconnect with yourself and the person you love the most; and enjoy life for a bit.
Essentially, you can brand any item. With so many choices, how could you choose? It’s best that you consider what items are consistent with your nonprofit mission. For example, if your nonprofit focuses on increasing education for youth of vulnerable populations, it might distribute branded backpacks. Below are examples of unique and exciting branded items that may be consistent with many organizations’ missions.
Under each description, click on the link to get prices on the described branded item from my trusted brand provider, ZippyDogs. While we recommend you buy from ZippyDogs, we don’t receive any payment from them when you do. We just have mad-respect for this women-owned business.
Ultimately, branded items should be consistent with your organization’s mission. Thus, when deciding on which branded items to use, think of how you can engage your donors by creatively materializing your mission. It is very easy to do this when you think of branded items as your organization’s accessories.
Giving your staff, volunteers, or board members branded items builds team spirit which further helps each person be a brand ambassador for the organization. For example, distinguish accomplishments and anniversaries of your staff, volunteers, and board members with branded items. Unify your organization by using branded items to celebrate a milestone, complement a tradition, or enhance an event.
Below are branded items that could help any work environment build team spirit.
Distributing branded items is an essential component of outreach, marketing, and team building efforts. Many successful nonprofits distribute branded items to creatively cultivate donors when you find the right balance between price, uniqueness, usefulness and quality.
Each item signifies the bond between your organization and your donor. Branded items allow your organization to deliver customized gifts to donors that can’t be found elsewhere, and this limited accessibility tells each donor how sincerely you value their time, efforts, and loyalty. Also, branded items are great for rewarding and recognizing your team.
Top reasons to use branded items:
If you are still uninspired about branded items, listen to author of Dollar Dash, Otis Fulton, who explains the role of branded items in peer to peer fundraising. In our next blog post, we will review ways to use branded items to build team cohesion with your staff, board, and volunteers.
About the Author:
Read Brianna Ohonba's Bio
Since we just finished up our Strategic Planning series last week, I thought it might be worthwhile to explore the questions you should ask a consultant.
Whether your nonprofit is about to begin strategic planning, board development, or some other major project, choosing the right consultant will be your most important decision. For this reason, it is crucial to thoroughly screen prospective consultants and choose the one you believe will best position your organization for future success.
For this reason, I offer 14 interview questions that will help ensure you find a good consultant in your local market:
Your team has an open position, and you are responsible for filling that position with the right candidate. Like all hiring managers you receive a flood of resumes from interested candidates after you advertise the position on Idealist, Philanthropy.com, or one of the other nonprofit job sites.
Of course, about half of the applicants aren’t qualified for the position and are easy to remove from consideration. Examples of dead weight candidates who are easy to eliminate include:
Even after eliminating candidates the dead weight candidates, you will likely still have a dozen or more candidates who appear qualified. Occasionally, however, none of these candidates will impress you. They seem “okay” but not a perfect fit for the position or the organization.
You now face the age-old question: do you hire the “best candidate” who is not a perfect fit or leave the position open?
As a supervisor, I’ve been in this position multiple times and can attribute my biggest failures and successes as a manager to my decision at this point.
When it comes time to make this decision, there is a lot of pressure to settle for the candidate that seems sufficient but not stellar. A few of these pressure points include:
It’s human nature to take action that makes our pain go away, so the easy “solution” is to hire the candidate who is sufficient but not a good fit. This solution is only easier for the short term, however, and the decision actually causes us more pain in the future. Here’s how:
I have learned the hard way that it is better to leave a position unfilled and continue looking for the right candidate. Of course, I often need to double my recruitment efforts to find good candidates for the position the second time. This may include:
While the position remains unfilled, you and your team will feel pressure from the pain points outlined earlier in this post. There are a few ways to decrease the short-term pain, though many of them require long-term planning:
Leaving a position vacant can be a tough call, and you will feel pressure to fill the position quickly. It’s always better, however, to say “We can’t take the next step in this initiative/program/organization until we fill the position responsible for its achievement.”
When you feel the pressure from direct reports, subordinates, and supervisors, repeat this mantra “Our long-term success depends on finding the right candidate for this position.” Trust me, you will always regret attempting to move the initiative or program forward with the wrong candidate.
As an aside, I think the philosophy “an empty seat is better than a bad hire” also applies to the Board of Directors. Don’t fill a board seat just because “we have a vacancy and this person is better than the others we’ve interviewed.”
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.
About the Author:
Read Dolph Ward Goldenburg's Bio
This sixth article in our nonprofit strategic planning blog series is about the board retreat. Since only a portion of the board serves on the strategic planning work group, the board retreat is an incredibly important opportunity to ensure board members share feedback and feel ownership for the emerging strategic plan.
In this blog post, we will discuss:
• Your board retreat agenda
• Structuring a retreat to ensure members have buy in
• The role of the work group members in the retreat
• The role of the strategic planning consultant in the retreat
• Agenda items that can derail your entire retreat
Building Board Ownership
The primary challenge of the board retreat is to help the board feel like they’ve been part of the strategic planning journey. After all, over 200 hours of work have gone into preparing the information for this retreat, but you have a comparatively short amount of time to communicate this information to the board.
In case you are surprised by this 150 to 200 hours number, let’s do the math. Let’s assume you have 7 work group members, who participated in 6 bi-weekly work group meetings leading up to the retreat, and each did about two hours of work every week. The equation looks something like this:
7 people x 12 weeks x 2 hours each week = 168 hours.
And don’t forget the 50 or 60 hours that your consultant has invested in facilitating and assisting the work group. Now you can see there are over 200 hours of interviewing, analyzing, organizing and deliberating in order to reach the retreat.
As a strategic planning consultant, I design a retreat schedule that helps board members feel like they have been part of the strategic planning journey from the very first work group meeting. Toward this end, I typically recommend a very simple retreat agenda, that looks something like this:
Opening Ritual (9:30 AM – 9:45 AM)
Morning Session (9:45 AM – 12:30):
Afternoon Session (1:15 – 3:30):
On this agenda, we start the retreat with an opening ritual or “check in”. This is typically a generative question such as, “One year from now, how will we know this retreat has been a success?” In offering this question, it is very important to limit each board member’s response to 1 or 2 minutes or the check in can quickly eat 45 minutes of your retreat. To help enforce the time limit, I bring a cheap stop watch, and the person who just answered the question is responsible for timing the response of the board member sitting beside them.
The Morning Session
At the retreat, the morning session is essentially a report out by the strategic planning work group. I’ve helped them produce a power point presentation that is heavy on graphics and light on text. This presentation distills all of the information gathered during the environmental scan: stake holder interviews, financial analysis, program analysis, fundraising analysis, and board evaluation. The power point presentation must be tight and without a lot of text because each slide is simply a visual support for a work group member who has become a subject matter expert over the past twelve weeks.
When I lead a strategic planning process the work group is usually presenting about 90% - 95% of this “report out” presentation and I am maybe only doing 5% or 10% of it. This is a time for work group members to shine by sharing their planning journey with their board member peers.
Typically, each work group member presents on a specific topic from the environmental scan. So one work group member will explain how the stakeholder surveys were conducted and share the high-level trends from those interviews. Another may review the multi-year financial analysis, while a third work group member might walk the board through the program analysis. Every work group member has a speaking role in the presentation, and the entire work group takes board questions after each slide. The opportunity to ask questions is a critical component to the board feeling genuine ownership of the data being presented.
Mission, Vision, Core Values
You may recall that the work group also reviewed and proposed revisions to the organization’s mission, vision, and core values. Many board members begin the board retreat feeling a strong commitment to the current mission, especially specific phrases or sentences that detail specific constituencies or services.
For this reason, I developed an exercise to help board members let go of the current mission and embrace the stronger, more impactful proposed mission. This exercise has the added benefit of allowing board members to get up and walk around after about 90 minutes of sitting and listening.
We divide the board into two groups and give each group a word scramble. One word scramble includes all the words of the current mission, while the other scramble includes the words of the work group’s proposed mission (which, remember is 10 words or less). Each group has to unscramble the words to assemble the current or proposed mission. The groups are also informed that this is a timed, friendly competition.
The group unscrambling the current mission is often looking at a jumble of 40 or 50 words like this:
The group unscrambling the proposed mission has a much easier task, as you can see with this example:
The group unscrambling the proposed mission typically completes their task in about 45 to 90 seconds. This group now has the proposed mission laid out on a table so that it can be easily read.
Meanwhile the group unscrambling the current mission is still organizing words after about two minutes. Now keep in mind the members of this group have heard the mission, read it on organizational documents, and may have even helped draft it. Often, the group that finished unscrambling the proposed mission will try to help their counterparts actually finish putting together and unscrambling the current mission.
Ten minutes later, however, the current mission is often still not fully unscrambled with people being uncertain where specific words or phrases fit into the structure of the mission. This exercise helps every board member understand that the long mission does not really work for them as an organization.
As we discuss the exercise as a group, every board member becomes willing to abandon the current mission and is open to reviewing and finalizing the proposed mission. During the review, it is quite common for the board to make the mission even tighter by removing a word or replacing two words with a single, more impacting one. Now the board has full ownership of the proposed mission.
The work group presents the proposed vision as a word scramble, but this time it is not a competition. Since every board member understands the importance of a succinct vision statement, we ask them to unscramble the proposed vision as one group. Once unscrambled, the board discusses, reviews, and refines the proposed vision statement.
Finally, the work group presents the core values and gets feedback from the full board. The value statements almost always change through this process, and this is a healthy sign that the board is owning the work group’s results.
At lunch, I will offer a short activity for all board members. Sometimes this activity is simply speaking with another board member about their love story with the organization; other times we ask board members to write a phrase of their choice about the organization on a white board and take a photo of them beside it. The lunch is designed to be a complete break from strategic planning and typically lasts 45 minutes.
Some organizations will ask if they can hold a board meeting during lunch, and I regret the few times I agreed to this. In fact, holding a board meeting at any point during the day is a tremendous mistake that impacts the tone of the entire retreat.
There are two reasons why boards should not have a board meeting as part of their strategic planning retreat. First, it switches every board member’s mindset from “strategic” to “tactical”; once their frame of mind has switched to the everyday tactical work of the board, board members often have a difficult time transitioning back to strategic. Additionally, board meetings always take more time than allotted on the retreat agenda. So now the important strategic planning work becomes rushed.
Afternoon Session: Big Bold Goals and Mind Maps
After lunch, the board focuses on reviewing (and revising) the big bold goal. Keeping in mind that a small organization should have no more than one big bold goal, and a large organization should have no more than two, a key role in facilitation is helping the board revise the goals without adding additional goals (or sneaking them in at the end of a big bold goal).
Now once the big bold goal has been refined and tweaked by the board, it begins to mind map the goal. If there's only one big bold goal, the board as a whole works on a mind map of how to achieve it. If there are two big bold goals, we divide the board into two and have each group work on one goal.
The mind map is simply a graphic representation of everything you need to achieve your big bold goal. As an example, if the big bold goal is “end child hunger in greater Houston by 2025”, the board will map out all of the resources and inputs necessary to make this a reality.
What do you need to end child hunger in your community? Obviously, you need access to food but where do you get it from? The mind map might show partnerships with grocery stores, food banks, local farmers, local gardeners, etc. If you have food, how do you get it to those in need? To answer this question, the mind map might include vans (and drivers), transit passes, and local pick-up points in food deserts. What staffing do you need? The mind map will delineate not just program staff but management and fundraising as well.
This is an exciting process that fully engages board members. After all, they joined the board hoping to work on high-level issues and it also helps them envision what the organization can actually achieve. They typically leave this process understanding why an organization really should grow even bigger, stronger and more impactful.
Preparing the mind map will often take 90 minutes or more, and if there are two mind mapping groups the retreat should allow for reporting back to the whole board. Once done, we roll up the mind map for use by the work group in writing the final plan.
In the final 30 minutes of the retreat, we outline the next steps for the board and have a short closing ritual. This closing ritual is often another generative question that helps the board understand its role in overseeing strategic plan implementation.
Now that the strategic planning retreat has ended after a long day of hard work, I always suggest the boards have an opportunity for social time at a happy hour or a dinner. And I also encourage them to invite spouses. This social time with spouses is critical because it allows board members to get to know each other, and it also helps board spouses feel more connected to the organization.
We’re starting to wind down this nonprofit strategic planning series, and we only have about three more articles left. Our next installment in this series will outline how to use the information from the environmental scan and board retreat to draft your actual strategic plan.