My colleague, Shoshana Fanizza, posted an interesting analogy in her blog, Specials for What They Buy. Shoshana specializes in audience development for theatres and performing arts, but her insights are definitely relevant to more than cultural institutions.
Her point is that grocery stores and stores like Target send you coupons for what you are most likely to use, based on past purchases. Why can’t venues use their databases of attendees and subscribers to pinpoint specific audiences for special attention?
It made me think about boards and their audiences. While cultural institutions can mine their databases for ‘likes,’ many nonprofit organizations can’t just go to their records and see who likes what, not to mention those potential clients whom you’ve yet to touch. But that doesn’t mean that the concept of knowing your audience has no validity.
Do you know your audience?
How well do organizations really know who their audiences / clients / targets / constituents are? How well do we know what their interests are, or what will be most useful to them (remember, we started with targeted coupons)?
In program evaluation, we are thankfully spending more time looking at impact than merely counting participants. Yet we are still often measuring things which matter to third parties, not necessarily what is important to the constituents themselves. We measure that students graduate from college and are employed. But does that person end up with debt? Does that person end up with a job that doesn’t pay as well as one she could have gotten with a 2-year certificate in plumbing? Maybe she’d rather be working with her hands.
Co-creation of programs requires not just offering ideas and getting feedback from constituents. It means bringing them in at the beginning of any effort, and asking, what is it that you want your life to be like? and what will it take for that to actually become reality? Developing ways to measure your impact means working with constituents to determine meaningful benchmarks.
Then, when you know this, you can offer more like it.
Really knowing your constituents – your “audience” – allows you to effectively tailor your programs and collaborations to their true interests.
Surely, that’s at least as important as knowing when they need to buy more paper towels.
Working on strategic planning with several organizations, I was reminded of the importance of execution – and this post from 2014. Here’s an updated version.
Ahh, the glorious feeling of looking at the month after next on your calendar and seeing whole empty days. How easy it is to be magnanimous and say “yes” when asked to take on a job that isn’t due for two months. So we say “yes,” and put it on the calendar. When another someone asks us to do something in the future, we again check our calendar, see that it’s still pretty empty, and again say “yes.” This happens a few more times, and all of a sudden, the 1st week in December starts looking pretty full.
Then as December 1 approaches, all the things we want to accomplish – long term projects, researching new programs, reading for professional development – have to get squeezed into the unscheduled times, alongside putting out the inevitable fires that weren’t anticipated, calling our parents, and taking our kid to the doctor.
If we’d scheduled the projects, research, and professional development, then that week wouldn’t have looked so free. We might have more carefully evaluated the request, and said ‘no’ to some of them, in order to have time to accomplish our own long term goals.
Almost everyone experiences this phenomenon. Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist who wrote Predictably Irrational, said:
“Because of the ways calendars are created, people actually take more meetings than they should… We have this satisfaction of having our calendar seem busy. We have the satisfaction of not saying ‘no’ to things. But at the same time, we’re chasing away things that are important to us for things that are unimportant.”
When you add together the many individuals on a board or in a department, the problem gets compounded. We all know whole departments and companies that fill their time with tasks and meetings, leaving all the workers wondering if they’ve actually accomplished anything. Similarly, nonprofit boards of directors are often left wondering why their strategic plans are never accomplished.
A strategic plan without concrete, timed, scheduled milestones is a wish list.
Several organizations I’ve worked with want to build a stronger board. The sequence goes like this:
- In 2014, they stated that by the year 2017 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community.
- In 2016, they determine that by 2019 we’ll have a stronger board, representative of the community.
- In 2018, are they going to say that by 2021 we’ll have a stronger, more diverse board, representative of the community?
Probably. Unless they schedule the time to think through what it will take to make that shift. Then schedule the time to execute each step on that newly planned path.
We all have the best intentions in the world to accomplish our strategic plans. Yet without putting them on the calendar, those planned goals are going to get squeezed out by the so-easily scheduled meetings, the inevitable fires, and the daily tasks that we take for granted and therefore forget that they take time.
Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence is famous for the dictum, “What’s measured gets done.” Back in business school, I learned this phrase as a component of Managing by Objective, which requires that these critical questions be answered:
- What are you planning to do?
- Who will be in charge?
- By when will it be accomplished?
The problem is that MBO leaves out the step of scheduling the time to actually work on it. There is still room for procrastination. Even if the objective is accomplished, nothing keeps it from being done at the last minute or squeezed into inconvenient half-hour chunks of time around scheduled meetings. The result is frenetic or burned-out workers and volunteers.
After a recent strategic planning session, a participant approached me and said that it was one of the most intense sessions she’d ever experienced. She really felt that they had the path forward. She said the biggest difference was that they actually set completion dates for every activity, and scheduled when they would work on it.
On the two hour drive home, I remembered Ariely’s column about personal planning. In an aha moment, I realized that while setting milestones may get activities accomplished, it’s:
- Acknowledging that those milestones exist,
- Keeping them in front us, and
- Scheduling the time to accomplish them,
that makes the plan realistic.
Scheduling the time in which to accomplish the milestones forces you to acknowledge that accomplishing these goals will take time. It makes it a lot easier to say ‘no’ to a request that will divert your time away from the agreed upon goal.
What gets measured gets done. True. What gets scheduled gets done more sanely.
If we don’t plan our own future with the things that matter to us, then we relinquish our future to the obligations of others.
Will your plan be accomplished on time? Will your board and staff stay sane in the process? Let me know what you think! Post them here or you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Colleague Kay Keenan and I were having coffee this week, remembering times when we have spoken truth to power. Many people are advisors – consultants and coaches like Kay and myself, Interim Executive Directors, parents, teachers, co-workers. We are all in a position to tell powerful people things they don’t necessarily want to hear.
The question is whether these same powerful people turn to their advisors and ask for the truth.
A trusted advisor not only speaks truth to power, but is also to whom the powerful turn for truth.
The trusted advisor has to earn that position, by being transparent, open, and yet discreet; by mutually sharing personal history with the advisee; by always acting and speaking with integrity. By taking the time to earn that trust. By listening to the whole story, not just the immediate challenge. By asking questions that lead the advisee to finding the answers themselves.
With trust comes responsibility
With that trust comes responsibility. Those who are powerful are in a position to act on the truth they receive. The trusted advisor can be the voice that changes the outcome of a situation.
Who are the trusted advisors of the Chair and CEO of a nonprofit? The chair or president of the board of a nonprofit is powerful. So is the Executive Director/CEO. They are in positions to influence the direction of the entire organization, affecting their clients, their staff, their supporters – the entire community.
Do they speak truth to each other? Are they trusted advisors? Do they have others to whom they turn for truth?
Many people can speak truth.
A trusted advisor is one who is sought out for that truth.
When the CEO and Board Chair become trusted advisors to each other, your entire organization benefits.
In recent years, a lot of nonprofit board education has focused on sustainability. Discussions frequently focus on finances: How are we going to maintain our programs? What happens if we hit another recession, or if our major funder disappears?
More sophisticated discussions include sustainability of the physical and governing infrastructure: What can we put in place so we have the board members we need to keep us going? How do we manage succession planning? How do we ensure our roof won’t leak in 5 years?
However, there is an inherent conflict between sustainability and some of the fiduciary responsibilities of the board. The triumvirate of fiduciary responsibility are Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty and Duty of Obedience. Grantspace gives these succinct definitions:
Duty of care: Board members are expected to actively participate in organizational planning and decision-making and to make sound and informed judgments.
Duty of loyalty: When acting on behalf of the organization, board members must put the interests of the nonprofit before any personal or professional concerns and avoid potential conflicts of interest.
Duty of obedience: Board members must ensure that the organization complies with all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and that it remains committed to its established mission.
These duties are almost always refer to the organization. In most materials about fiduciary responsibility the word sustainability doesn’t appear. Not in Grantspace, nor in this Guidestar blog post on fiduciary responsibility, nor in this Bridgespan article. The National Council of Nonprofits references sustainability, but doesn’t define its relationship to the organization.
And that leaves us with a question of potential conflict of duties. The Duty of Loyalty says to put the interests of the nonprofit ahead of personal or professional concerns, and Duty of Care says to make sound and informed judgments. Both of these imply that sustainability revolves around the institution – finances, infrastructure, community goodwill.
At the same time, the Duty of Obedience says you must remain committed to the mission. Therein lies the potential conflict. What if keeping the lights on means accepting a grant that takes you away from your mission? What if another institution is better at ensuring all the children in the neighborhood have winter coats? Do you compete against that other institution for a grant that will provide the coats?
If you do, are you fulfilling your Duty of Obedience to the mission?
What happens when the best decision that could be made for advancing the mission is one that means the organization forgoes a grant needed to keep the doors open?
This is an extreme question, but as the call of sustainability becomes louder, the conflict becomes more evident. Indeed, there is no doubt that every organization will encounter some form of the conflict between sustainability of the nonprofit and obedience to the mission. We all know of institutions guilty of mission drift, as they ‘chase the money’ by creating programs solely for the purpose of getting grants.
What then? What can a board do when confronted with this conflict?
Perhaps a redefinition is in order. Conflict implies they cannot coexist. Perhaps a better word than conflict would be tension.
Tension is not a bad thing. It implies an awareness of differences or awareness of an imbalance. Tension can be addressed in a way that affirms the Duty of Obedience while maintaining the Duties of Loyalty and Care.
This tension can only be addressed if it’s acknowledged. When boards isolate discussion of the budget from evaluation of program impact, they are siloing the Duty of Care from the Duty of Obedience. Similarly, discussion of the impact – or cost – of one particular program without the context of the entire organization risks dropping a highly efficacious program due to cost, or keeping a minimally efficacious program solely because it is inexpensive or brings in dollars.
Awareness of the tension opens the path to collaboration among organizations that have the same mission and vision, rather than reinforcing competition or becoming territorial.
Zimmerman and Bell provide one way to address this tension, but the first step is to acknowledge that it exists. It is then up to the board and administration to research and agree on how to address it.
Ultimately, the goal has the same name: sustainability. But it encompasses so much more.
Board retreats, all-staff meetings, strategic planning, community convening – any time people get together to accomplish a goal, it’s important that the work gets done.
But getting the work of the meeting done doesn’t mean that the results of the meeting will get executed once everyone leaves. If the participants didn’t really participate, there’s a good chance they haven’t bought into the result. If the facilitator is busy worrying about running the meeting, she doesn’t have a chance to express her own views. Worse, she deliberately refrains from expressing her own views for fear of influencing the group.
Just as important as getting the work of the retreat done, is that each participant believes in the result and can support it. An external facilitator brings important skills to the process, and makes it possible for every person in the room to participate fully.
An external facilitator can see and hear things that have gradually become part of the organization culture, but have not been acknowledged.
An external facilitator can acknowledge the roles of each participant, without the participants having to stand up for themselves or toot their own horns. While board members and staff may be reluctant to talk about the extra burdens of a decision, a facilitator can ensure that both strengths and challenges are acknowledged.
An external facilitator does not have to worry about the effect of any particular discussion on themselves. By bringing objective decision-making tools to the group, facilitators acknowledge, and then mitigate, emotion-laden arguments.
Attention to Tension
An external facilitator can help the group attend to underlying tensions, because they are not a part of the tensions themselves. Noticing and acknowledging the tension is part of their work, and their neutrality allows them to gain trust from each party.
Each organization is unique; the people involved have individual personalities and experiences. An external facilitator brings to the group their experience in gaining trust and accomplishing goals with many different personalities and situations.
An external facilitator stays current on plans and tools for assuring that meetings and retreats accomplish their goals. From interviewing participants, to crafting agendas, to managing the meeting, and facilitating decisions, the facilitator brings discipline to the process of decision-making and planning.
This is the season when plans are being made for board retreats, summits and community convening. Who’s going to facilitate YOUR meetings?
It’s easy to dive into pressing board business immediately after bringing the meeting to order. Urgent matters float to the top of every agenda.
But there’s a difference between urgent and important. And the important stuff isn’t addressed until it becomes urgent.
Board Education is Important
Each board member has a lot of knowledge, but they don’t all know the same things. When it comes to board responsibilities, there are frequently gaps in their knowledge – and they’re not the same gaps.
It’s like people who are self-taught. They don’t know what they don’t know. They’re very, very good at what they do – until they reach something they didn’t know they needed to know.
A healthy board has a mix of experienced and new directors. If you’ve been on the board for a while, it’s easy to forget that newer members don’t have your institutional knowledge and experience. It’s also easy to forget that as society changes over time, what you know may need updating. new directors may have great ideas and community experience, but little knowledge of board responsibilities.
What happens? Board discussions go around in circles. Individual gaps in knowledge create confusion and misunderstanding. Directors assume they agree on definitions, when each defines the topic differently.
All of a sudden, board education becomes urgent.
How do I get my board to fundraise? How do I get my board members to stop dwelling on the past? How do I get my new directors to listen to the wisdom in the room? How do I get older directors to listen to the new ones? How do I get my board members on the same page?
Why wait until it’s urgent?
Based on a quote from President Eisenhower, Urgent and Important are very different:
- Important activities have an outcome that leads to us achieving our goals, whether these are professional or personal.
- Urgent activities demand immediate attention, and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. They are often the ones we concentrate on and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.
Since you know that you have a great variety of talents and experience around the table, why not conduct board education with intentionality. Get in front of the Urgent, by paying attention to the Important.
It is important for board members to all have the same language and understanding when talking about decisions. It saves time, avoids misunderstanding, and improves the relationships. The net result is greater peer to peer responsibility. It avoids ambiguity, and frequently avoids creating urgent situations.
Sit down with the governance committee and consider what each board member needs to know and to have in order to be a strong contributor to the work of the board. It may be specific skills – like reading the financials. It may be in-depth understanding of the strategic plan and their role in it. There are a lot things that go into being an effective board member.
How to Introduce Board Education
At the start of each year, consider the knowledge, experience and skill sets of your board members. What gaps are there? What knowledge do some have, but not others? Where do there seem to be problems with communication? What knowledge do new members bring to the table that returning members could benefit from? What knowledge do returning members have that would help acclimatize new members?
You’ll likely find that there are a lot of gaps. The exercise provides a foundation for introducing the idea to your board, giving directors a solid rationale for regular board education.
Then schedule regular board education, instead of waiting until it’s urgent.
Build a culture of continuous improvement. You do it for your programs – now introduce it to your board.