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Proving Your Track Record: Strategic Planning and Execution in Non-Profits
Missed our lunch and learn? Read a recap of the discussion below!
On Thursday, November 19th, we held our first lunch and learn to share how non-profits can prove their track record and successfully execute on their strategic plan in the new year! Did you miss the conversation or want to share it with your team? I’ve recapped my story and tips below.
I joined ClearPoint Strategy in 2018 as Director of Community, supporting the company’s local government practice, following ten years of executive leadership in the non-profit sector – a transition prompted by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
I served and led non-profits such as Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council (SAWDC) and Gulf Coast Renaissance Corporation. As a nonprofit organization, the development of a strategic plan can be one of the most exciting times.
It is a period of engagement with your leadership, stakeholders, and community with a common goal to clearly articulate your organization’s big picture vision, craft a compelling mission that captures what you are looking to achieve, and develop a set of goals that enable you to move the needle on the important work you’ve set out to do. Upon completion, you feel a sense of energy about the direction of the organization and the impact your work will have in this world.
Despite the commitment of everyone involved, however, you find yourself in a situation where your strategic plan is sitting on a shelf collecting dust. You are not alone. It is not uncommon for a non-profit organization to struggle with executing on strategies that were agreed upon. This could be for several reasons – a general resistance to change, difficulty managing existing silos both internally and externally in the community, and the big one – a lack of resources. We spend most of our time just trying to keep the organization afloat.
In my 10 years of leading two non-profit organizations, I learned that to set your organization up for success to accomplish its mission and to attract new and retain existing investments in an effort to scale, you need three things:
- A strong, credible board,
- A clear, strategic framework, and
- A proven track record.
I understand all non-profits are in different places. For now, let’s assume that you have one and two. How can you begin establishing a proven track record if you don’t have the resources to execute on your strategy?
This is where we jump in. The purpose of this lunch and learn is to provide you with a few tips on how to ensure that your strategic plan becomes a living, breathing document and that you establish that track record and position your organization to have a greater impact in your community.
4 Steps To Prove Your Track Record
1. Communicate your strategic plan clearly and often.
In my previous role as a non-profit Executive Director, I joined the organization and spent the first several weeks observing. There was a lot of activity happening – a lot of grass roots efforts underway. And we were lucky to have a set of founding board members who were passionate about the organization’s purpose. It was apparent, however, that we needed a clear, strategic framework. We chose the Balanced Scorecard (BSC) framework and quickly launched into the development of both our Strategy Map and BSC, a four-month process which was facilitated by ClearPoint co-founder, Ted Jackson. With our Strategy Map and BSC in hand, the very first order of business was to make sure we had an effective way to communicate who we were, what we were going to do, and how we were going to do it…and we did this using our Strategy Map.
We posted the Strategy Map in our office for our team (I had it sitting right next to my son’s picture on my desk!) and made it public-facing on our website. We led our board meetings and community-wide meetings with this very effective communication tool.
Success for me was when one of our many stakeholders came up to me before a community-wide regional event and said that he could recite our strategy map in his sleep. I then handed over the stage and he did just that!
Another benefit of folding the strategy map into everyday discussion was that it enabled us to be laser focused. If discussions occurred or ideas were presented that were outside of our framework, they were either tabled or passed over to a strategic partner, who was more appropriately positioned to consider them.
One mistake I believe that is often made is the development of a strategic plan that turns out to be a massive document with a laundry list of action items and activities. This can be overwhelming not just for the teams charged with its execution but also for your stakeholders and external audiences. The ability to showcase your organization’s strategic plan in a digestible, easy-to-understand way proved fruitful in our case and the Strategy Map and BSC were the perfect tools to help us accomplish this.
2. Demonstrate progress towards achieving our goals.
With a new strategic plan, our next step as an organization was to determine how we would measure and subsequently track our progress in achieving our goals. This is a very important step in bringing your strategic plan to life. We limited the number of measures to no more than 1-2 per objective. Because we had very little historical information, we set out in the first year to establish baselines for our measures so that in subsequent years we could see whether we were moving the needle or not and even begin to set targets. We also wanted to make certain that we were identifying the right measures that we knew we could influence over time.
Demonstrating progress towards reaching our goals was also a function of how our projects were moving forward, and the outcomes from those projects typically fed into some of our top level measures.
3. Leverage your champions and build new ones.
You likely have champions on your board or in the community that are passionate about the work you do. You can take advantage of their investment of time by allowing them to “own” a part of the strategic plan.
One way of doing this is through the structuring of your board. Even when you have good people all around on a non-profit board, the structure of the board and committees is important to the health and sustainability of the organization. The primary standing committees for a board are typically executive, finance, governance and nominating committees and we typically organize our board agendas around these committee reports. However, you may want to consider expanding your committee structure to allow board members, stakeholders or even strategic partners to assume the role of “goal champion” and even revamp how you run your meetings to center around your strategic goals (moving all other standing committee reports to a consent agenda item).
Taking it outside of the board room, one of our goals was owned by a 30-person steering committee that consisted of voting and non-voting council members, key partners, and volunteers. Without this determination and commitment to succeed, we would not have been able, as a five-person staff, to execute at the level that we did.
We all know that there is a disconnect between organizational goals and operational realities (i.e. financial and human resources) in the non-profit world. Strategic partnerships like these are critical and can make a big difference in how much work your organization can accomplish. Everyone wants to contribute; often they just don’t know how and offering them a way to tangibly and formally make a difference will foster goodwill and lead to bigger and better outcomes.
4. Stay focused but be nimble.
- You have a clear strategic framework that is communicated broadly and in a way that your stakeholders can understand and get behind.
- You are routinely demonstrating progress towards reaching your goals through an effective performance measurement strategy.
- And you have a structure to deliver on your strategic plan that engages your board and the broader community.
It’s important to revisit your strategic plan and direction on an annual basis. This is what we call a strategy refresh. We set time aside as a board and staff in an afternoon workshop to drill down on the progress we made and how we could simplify our strategy to be even more laser focused. This is especially important as board members transition in and out.
One important note on staying focused. One of our key objectives related to our financial perspective was leveraging “mission-driven” grants. We were very focused on this to prevent “mission creep.” Most of us spend a tremendous amount of time and energy managing grants with a significant number of reporting requirements that can be onerous. We tell ourselves “well, this comes with the territory.”
Because of this importance, once we established our strategy, we only pursued those opportunities that aligned with our mission as an organization. We recognized that pursuing funding opportunities outside of our framework, while it may have brought much-needed resources to the table, would prevent us from achieving our goals by syphoning resources to activities that were outside of our established framework.
Question and Answer
How important is the role of leadership?
It is probably the most important leg of the stool. It can really make or break an organization. I think back on times when I had a passionate board chair, in particular, who really was supportive of our team, who understood the mission, was passionate about it, and carried the torch in the community. Those were the times that our organization really thrived.
What were the most critical challenges that you faced and how did you manage them? If you were to do it over, what would you change?
Relationships are so important and nurturing relationships with your board members and in your community should be a priority. I often found myself tied to my desk because of the amount of reporting required to retain funding just to keep the organization afloat. It’s a major challenge in the non-profit arena and there’s this balance that is needed.
This is where ClearPoint comes in and why I’m so passionate about the work we do here. If your organization does have the resources to invest in a reporting software, it can save you a tremendous amount of time so that you can focus on those relationships and scaling your organization, which is ultimately our goal.
What is one last piece of practical advice you can give to the participants on the call today?
It’s important to get plugged into a network of your peers for support and just learn from each other’s challenges and tackle problems together. Change is inevitable in the non-profit world - resources ebb and flow, board members and community champions come and go… I’m sure it keeps you up at night as it did me for so many years. It is a heavy burden to manage a non-profit organization and getting plugged into a network of your peers to lean on can be energizing.
Prove Your Track Record with ClearPoint
As I shared, as a non-profit, you can find yourself stuck creating reports as opposed to executing on your mission. ClearPoint removes that stress to give you time back to scale your efforts. Talk to a strategy expert today to learn how ClearPoint can help you gain time back in your already busy day!