Almost every executive director I know wants an employment contract, but the vast majority of boards are reluctant to give their executive directors a contract.
You may ask “How does Dolph know this?” The answer is simple: Board Source’s 2017 Leading With Intent report indicates that only 31% of executive directors actually have one.
Let me be clear that I have a strong opinion about this - - - I believe any organization that cares about stability and continuity should have an employment contract with their chief executive. If you are an executive director reading this, I am preaching to the choir. If you serve on a board that is reluctant to give the chief executive a contract, however, this post is for you.
Let’s start by exploring some of the pros and cons of offering your executive director an employment contract. Before I present these, however, let me remind readers that I am not a lawyer or accountant and am not providing legal, tax or accounting advice. If your organization is going to consider a contract for your executive director, it should definitely secure legal counsel.
The table below outlines the five advantages and three disadvantages of an executive director contract:
I believe there are five (and one more) potential advantages of an executive director contract:
In exchange for this, however, boards often get a commitment of an equal amount of notice from the executive director should they want to leave.
Boards will often ask me, “but what stops the executive director from giving us just a month’s notice instead of three months’ notice as outlined in a potential agreement?” Several things do:
(a) the chief executive cares about their professional reputation and
(b) the CEO may lose vacation payouts or other incentives if they don’t give sufficient notice
(c) contracts are enforceable in court; no executive director wants a possible legal battle hanging over their heads while starting another job.
I primarily hear three board arguments against offering a contract. Since I’ve disclosed a bias toward chief executive agreements, I will share the most common board arguments and offer a counterpoint.
As you can see, I am not agnostic when it comes to contracts. I believe they are important to a healthy relationship between the executive director and board, and they dramatically reduce the likelihood of needing to utilize your abrupt transition strategies.
Back when I was a permanent executive director, I found my employment contract to be an incredibly helpful tool. In my last chief executive role, I never felt like the job was a great fit – even though we grew the budget by 25% during the great recession and expanded the organization’s footprint from 28 counties to 42 counties. I gently brought my concern up to the board chair, suggesting that I might not be the right person to lead the organization. While the board didn’t want me to leave, I timed my departure with the end of my contract. I left the organization feeling good about the work I had done and knowing that I fulfilled my obligations to the organization. They had the benefit of ten months’ notice. It was definitely a win-win.
Now that we’ve covered the importance of contracts – and I’ve got that off my chest – our next blog post in this series will be a deep dive on developing your interim plan. It will help you create a plan for how you will actually run the organization without a permanent executive director at the helm.
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:
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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.
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.”
How to Fire a Board Member
In 2015, Ostrich Place invested heavily in board development after determining that the board was largely disengaged board. Before the board development project began, the board struggled to achieve quorum, did not have functioning committees, and rarely met the requirements established in the by-laws.
During the past three years, they have developed reasonable expectations for board service, created a robust recruitment process, implemented an effective orientation, and supported board members in meeting their obligations as board members.
The most recent recruitment process had 11 prospective candidates apply for 6 open positions. For the first time in years, the board could be very selective about those it appointed to the board, and Ostrich Place used this opportunity to thoroughly assess candidates and obtain references from prior volunteer experiences.
As the freshman class of board members began the orientation process, Ted emerged as an outspoken leader. He would often share his strong opinions and insist that the board procedures were wrong. When orientation ended three months later, Ted’s participation in meetings was clearly disruptive. Nearly every time Ted spoke, people rolled their eyes knowing that he was about to:
The board chair and governance committee became aware that Ted was disruptive when not in meetings. Specifically, Ted would show up at the Ostrich Place unannounced, inspect the facility, and demand to see the executive director to grill her and review his “findings”. The program officer at a local foundation also contacted the board chair about some “disturbing news” they heard from Ted.
Since Ted’s first orientation session, the governance committee has attempted to manage and modify Ted’s behavior. A few of their actions included:
The governance committee met to discuss Ted’s behavior one final time. They agreed that, while every board needs a devil’s advocate, Ted’s conduct moved beyond offering an opposing viewpoint in a healthy manner. He was a bomb thrower who enjoyed wreaking havoc in an organization. He was also disloyal to the organization by approaching external stakeholders (like funders) without using appropriate board channels for reviewing issues that troubled him.
They determined that Ted’s service as a board member needed to end, and they discussed various options for firing him. With their by-laws in front of them, they considered the following options:
#1: Don’t offer the board member an additional term. When Ostrich Place first began its board development project in 2015, they often used this technique for long-tenured board members who were not meeting the new attendance requirements. The Nominating Committee would review each board member’s attendance, committee participation, personal giving, and fundraising from the prior year, and they would not offer renewals to board members failing to meeting the expectations. Since Ted still had 21 months left in his term, this was not a viable option. 21 more months of Ted would have driven away most of the productive board members.
#2: Ask the board member to recommit or recuse. The governance committee used this technique extensively when implementing the new board expectations in 2015. Once the board agreed on the expectations, the governance chair met with under-performing board members individually and asked them to recommit to the new expectations, while also giving them the opportunity to recuse themselves from board service without any hard feelings. The governance committee did not choose this option because they had already asked Ted to recommit to more appropriate behavior or leave the board.
#3: Leave of absence. Last year, a board member’s performance went from “stellar” to “cellar,” and a governance committee member asked the board member if everything was okay. Board members usually know when they are underperforming or engaging in counterproductive behavior, and they will usually explain that work or family has demanded more of their time and emotional energy. Ostrich Place Board offered this underperforming board member a three-month leave of absence, during which time she was not responsible for attending meetings, participating in committees, or other board-related duties. At the end of the 3-month leave of absence, she decided that her family issues would not allow her to continue and resigned from the board. Since she made the decision to resign (instead of being asked to resign or being terminated), Ostrich Place continues to be her favorite charity. Based on Ted’s history, however, the governance committee decided this option was not feasible for him.
#4: The Legal Route. The governance committee ultimately decided that the only effective option was to recommend terminating Ted’s board membership using the process outlined in the by-laws. They fully understood that this is the most painful option – for the board, for the organization, and for Ted. But they also felt that Ted would continue to speak poorly of the organization even if he remained on the board. In consultation with a pro bono attorney, they outlined the ways in which Ted had violated his duties as a board member and prepared a formal termination recommendation for the board. The governance committee informed Ted that it recommended termination and called a board executive session to deliberate and vote. The executive session had only one agenda item, and the governance committee structured the meeting to efficiently consider and vote on the motion. At the session, the governance committee briefly spent five minutes to present its findings about, and Ted was given fifteen minutes to add any information he wanted. The board then invited Ted to leave the meeting, letting him know that a board member would contact him tomorrow to share the outcome of the vote. The board unanimously voted to remove Ted. The following day, the governance committee chair invited Ted to meet for coffee, but Ted refused. Ted wanted to receive the decision immediately, and the chair informed Ted that the board had voted to remove him from effective immediately. The chair started to thank Ted for his service and express regret that the situation did not work out when Ted hung up on her. Following the phone call, the chair mailed a letter to Ted informing him of the board’s decision.
This is an “extreme case” where Ted was a pariah who threatened to destroy the board and the organization. Some organizations have less extreme cases where a board member just isn’t a good fit or not meeting expectations. In my experience, the best course of option for those cases includes #2 (ask the board member to recommit or recuse) or #3 (leave of absence). Each of these starts with a conversation, and it’s important to be empathic and caring throughout the conversation. A good structure for the conversation might be:
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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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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.
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.
1. Begin every meeting with a generative question. Generative questions typically have no “right” or “wrong” answer but instead open the door to further inquiry and stimulate creative thinking. Here are a few examples of good generative questions:
It’s also important to have two ground rules to ensure the generative question doesn’t take up a third of your meeting. First, ask each board member to take no more than 30 seconds to answer the question (and time them using a screen clock). Second, be clear that participants are answering a generative question to stimulate thought but aren’t discussing the answers. [Total time – 8 minutes]
2. Build community. Every meeting is an opportunity for members to build community among themselves. Facilitate community building by always having food and celebrating (or commemorating) board member’s milestones. Sing happy birthday, express genuine condolences, sing the happy anniversary song from The Flintstones. While I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, there’s a reason that churches ask everyone stand up and sing - - - the act of singing together builds community even when we’re off-key. While you likely want to serve food before the meeting, celebrating milestones and singing is a great intermission at the midpoint of your agenda. [Total time spent – 5 minutes]
3. Share the work of your organization through a client presentation. Staff have a front row seat and backstage pass to the life-changing work of the organization, and you can give board members this same opportunity by asking a successful former client to share their story with the board. If the client is okay with a public photo, it’s also a great social media opportunity for the organization (though always get permission first). [Total time spent – 8 minutes]
4. Use a consent agenda. Your board undoubtedly has routine activities at meetings, such as approving minutes, reviewing reports, approving bank resolutions, etc. A consent agenda enables the board to bundle these routine items into one agenda item that is approved as a group instead of individually. [Total time saved – approximately 15 minutes].
5. Eliminate the Executive Director’s Report. Too many boards substitute an executive director’s operational report for the heart of the meeting. Some CEOs spend an entire day (or more) drafting a multi-page executive director report that they essentially read to the board. [Time saved – approximately 30 minutes]. Instead use item #6 below.
6. Distribute a Dashboard. A dashboard is a simple one-page tool that gives the entire board a quick snapshot of the organization’s programmatic, financial, and operational health. Give board members the opportunity to ask any questions about the dashboard. [Total time saved – approximately 30 minutes]
7. Expect board members to prepare for the meeting. It’s obvious if a large portion of board members haven’t read the meeting materials. You can tell by the questions they ask (or sometimes by their complete silence while flipping through pages). When this occurs, a member of your Governance Committee needs to say “I did my homework, and I feel betrayed when people show up unprepared”. They shouldn’t call out individuals in the meeting, but the Governance Committee needs to manage the expectation that everyone prepares for the meeting.
8. Assign a deep dive on one topic. Each meeting should focus on a specific area of governance by allotting 30 – 45 minutes for discussion and action by the board. If an organization has six meetings a year, you might consider the following areas of focus (this example assumes that the fiscal year ends December 31):
Of course, each meeting will include other business, but dedicating 30% to 50% of the meeting to one topic enables the board to do a strategic “deep dive”.
9. Set a 90-minute limit. The reason plays and symphonies almost always have an intermission is because most of us have an attention span of 55 – 90 minutes. If your board holds its meetings after work, the average attention span may actually be a bit shorter since people are tired (and hungry if you aren’t serving food). This is one more good reason to (a) serve food and (b) create an intermission by celebrating board member milestones. But, please, for all that is good and holy in this world, do not allow meetings to last longer than 90-minutes. Give your board members the opportunity to get home early enough to kiss their spouses and children goodnight.