Build your nonprofit leadership capacity with development programs and learning communities

In recent years, forward-thinking capacity builders have learned that they could build the leadership capacity of the nonprofit sector not just through direct individual consulting, but also through the design and delivery of leadership development programs and learning communities. These professional development modalities provide an intensive learning opportunity, usually for executive directors, structured on a peer-learning model. Through these programs, small groups of executives commit to working and learning together over an extended period, often a year, or, in the case of a learning community, longer. The groups are supported by consultants/trainers who are experienced in organizational capacity-building, leadership development and the nurturing of learning communities.

The goals of these programs include:

Enhancing participants’ management and leadership skills;

Creating networks of nonprofit professionals that can sustain and develop their members; and

Developing each participant’s awareness of the impact of his or her personality upon his or her leadership style.

Leadership development programs

Leadership development programs, which are more formal than learning communities, often work from a core curriculum, which is customized for each cohort and timeframe, and generally covers the following areas:

The role of the executive director—leading the organization

The relationship of the executive to the board—getting the most out of the board

Understanding and managing strategic issues—growth, competition, new ventures

Managing people—volunteers, staff and interns

Communicating your message—internal and external communication strategies

Developing a nonprofit that people want to support—fundraising strategies

Leveraging resources—board members, consultants, peers

Setting and measuring goals—you don’t have to be a research wonk to do it

Developing a lifelong, sustainable approach to leadership development

Leadership development programs usually combine a small amount of reading with discussions and role playing, as well as group and individual projects. The group leader ensures that key concepts are communicated in each meeting, using discussion among peers as an important learning tool. The leader seeds conversations and presents cases for discussion by the group. Group members are encouraged to contact one another between meetings—enhancing the peer-to-peer approach to learning and support.

These programs can also contain informal communication vehicles developed to facilitate between meeting contact. For example, a program might utilize a Web site that is accessible to group members only, where members can post their respective strategic plans or other documents, ask one another questions, etc. These sites can be quite simple and bare bones, or they can become much more elaborate “knowledge management centers.”

Currently, most leadership development programs are designed for executive directors. However, both funders and nonprofits are increasingly asking for similar programs aimed at other organizational leaders and mid-level managers (e.g., the chief financial officer, chief operating officer, program director, development director, etc.), who may be future executive directors. In this way, the current management structure can be deepened as the future leadership pipeline is strengthened.

Of course, the curriculum for these leaders is somewhat different. In place of the leadership development program’s heavy emphasis on the challenges executive directors face working with boards, there might be somewhat less attention to this still critical area, with the addition of a section on “managing up,” or how to manage from the middle of an organization.

Learning communities

Learning communities have similarities to more formalized leadership development programs, but differ in a few meaningful ways. For example, learning communities usually do not have a pre-determined curriculum, but instead are composed of a group of peers, usually executive directors (although this too is changing, with aspiring leader learning communities also on the rise), meeting regularly to discuss issues of mutual concern. The topics for consideration mirror those in the curriculum of a more formal leadership development program; however, they emerge naturally from discussion.

Learning communities are often used as a sustainable follow-up modality to a leadership development program, since they can be self-managed and continue for as long as the members have interest. In creating a variety of leadership development programs and models, and in facilitating various learning communities, I have learned that three elements are essential—not just to the overall success of each program, but also to the individual success of each meeting or session. These three elements must be present for participants to get the most learning out of their participation and to come away with a perception that their time was well spent.

The elements are:

Hard skill development: Participants must actually learn something new and useful at each session, such as how to run a better board meeting, read financial statements, manage a troublesome staff person or develop a personal performance plan.
Networking with peers: Participants need time and opportunity to connect with their peers in the group, through activities, discussion, exercises or other means.
Self-reflection: Participants must be given an opportunity to see themselves as others see them, in order to both build on their strengths and minimize any weaknesses in their self-presentation, communication style or other behaviors.

Well organized and ably facilitated, leadership development programs and learning communities are useful tools for capacity building. Not only do they help participants to develop skills and networks that will improve their job performance, but they are also generally reported to reduce stress and burn out, which may lead to longer tenure in their current jobs. For a board wondering how to keep its high-flying executive director or development director motivated and engaged, these tools might be something to consider.

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CausePlanet’s Choice Awards–Top Books for nonprofits from 2014

Here they are — our favorites from 2014. We read so many compelling, insightful books last year on a variety of essential topics, but the final choices came down to originality and applicability.

Each of our Choice Book Awards had either a fresh perspective on an imperative competency or broadened our thinking by tackling new territory. Additionally, all the authors brought their content to life through helpful case stories, exhibits, tools and evidence. These favorites are sure to help you work smarter; we hope you delve into them soon.

CausePlanet’s Top Five Choice Awards from 2014:

1) Fundraising the Smart Way: Predictable, Consistent Income Growth for Your Charity + Website by Ellen Bristol

Bristol gives you an innovative, concrete way to track and monitor your donors’ progress toward making donations. No more guessing about a prospect’s ability and desire to give means you can confidently meet and surpass your fundraising goals. Learn more about the author, book and Page to Practice summary.

2) The Money-Raising Nonprofit Brand: Motivating Donors to Give, Give Happily, and Keep on Giving by Jeff Brooks

Brooks shares an unvarnished, refreshing look at how to captivate more donors with accessible ideas that specifically work for nonprofits. He delivers new ways to connect your brand with your donors in a manner they won’t forget. Learn more about the author, book and Page to Practice summary.

3) The Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development Guide by Tom Adams

Adams establishes an irrefutable link between effective leadership and organizational impact. What’s more, he comprehensively illustrates numerous advantages and opportunities bestowed upon nonprofits that engage in proactive training, succession planning and transition management. Learn more about the author, book and Page to Practice summary.

4) Fundraising with Businesses: 40 New and Improved Strategies for Nonprofits by Joe Waters

The organization of this book is what really caught our attention. Waters gives you specific cause (pronounced “khaz” by Waters) marketing strategies, how to implement them, ideas you’re encouraged to steal and success stories at every turn. His approachable format is chock-full of applicability. Learn more about the author, book and Page to Practice summary.

5) The Abundant Not-for-Profit: How Talent (Not Money) Will Transform Your Organization by Colleen Kelly and Lynda Gerty

Kelly and Gerty reveal a transformational method for utilizing your community’s expertise. At the center of this transformation is a new breed of volunteer—a “knowledge philanthropist.” The abundance model will revolutionize your use of talent, cultivate a renewable resource and be a welcome relief on the budget. Learn more about the author, book and Page to Practice summary.

Thank you to all our authors who give us reading pleasure and professional inspiration every day. It’s a pleasure to promote your smart advice at CausePlanet.

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CEO Survival: Thou shalt not get (too far) ahead of thy board

It’s the first commandment of nonprofit CEO survival: thou shalt not get ahead of thy board. At least, not too far . . . But you do need to be a little ahead of them . . . Just not so much that they notice and get offended.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Most veteran nonprofit CEOs have a sack full of stories about interactions with their board. One of the mistakes that is most frustrating — and potentially damaging — is getting too far ahead of a board of directors. The result is the collapse of a seemingly promising idea or policy change, and possibly a severe dent in the CEO’s credibility.

What follows are some thinking points to help negotiate this always treacherous interpersonal whitewater. The central premise of each approach is simple: Ideas and concepts are easily discussed and changed, and this is the proper role of leadership, including the board. Plans are also easily changed, but the effort that goes into them increases the commitment to their plans. Stick with ideas in the boardroom, plans outside of it.

Too far out on growth (Egos and economics)

Two of the most powerful motivators swirl around the intersection of the CEO and the board: ego and economics. By tax law, neither board members nor executives can have a private ownership stake in a nonprofit. But the executive (and other staff) have a potential economic interest, in the form of salary and benefits, financial stability, and improved systems. They also have an ego investment in the form of pride of performance. Together, these constitute a compelling package. This is one of the many reasons why executives will be more likely to propose growth strategies than will board members.

Board members can only invest their egos, so when presented with plans for growth their biggest ego investment can often be summed up in the question: “What if it fails?” This is one of the reasons why board members will be more likely to oppose growth than will executives.

To avoid getting too far out on growth, the CEO can frame the proposed expansion in terms of organizational ego. This approach might use arguments such as “this is an extension of what we already do well” and “if we don’t do this, [another organization] will, but we’re much better at it.”

Too creative (Divergent and convergent thinkers)

During the 1960s, a researcher named Joy Paul Guilford suggested that people think in two different ways — divergent or convergent. Divergent thinking is creative in nature, while convergent thinking seeks the “right answer.” Most individuals are instinctively comfortable with only one of these approaches.

Nonprofit CEOs, because of the nature of their pro- scribed roles, are more likely to engage in creative thinking. Boards are more likely to prefer discovering the “right answer.” This also tends to be true because the CEO is usually more knowledgeable about the field than the board as a whole, since board members are typically volunteers without extensive opportunities to learn about the sector. This tendency of boards to seek the “right answer” also explains why so many motions are passed unanimously.

The creative (divergent) CEO will sometimes have a difficult time with the board because of this difference in thinking styles. When the CEO is too creative for the board’s taste, outsiders such as authorities, respected peers, and consultants can often be a buffer. Note that the board doesn’t necessarily want to diminish the CEO’s creativity – which they probably respect. They want to find independent reassurance that they’re on the right path. Convergent thinking is often done in stages. We drill down to the first correct answer, then the next one, then the next. Bringing the board along might also need to happen in stages.

Acting before deliberation (Getting it done versus deliberating over it)

CEOs are in charge of getting stuff done. Boards are in charge of deliberating about stuff. The tension is obvious. Putting these two approaches carelessly together can result in wasted time, hurt feelings, and worse.

While taking action and deliberating policies are about as different a pair of activities as it is possible to have, a little role clarity will help things go more smoothly. Translation: with a little mutual candor, the CEO won’t always be trying to jump ahead while the board won’t always be trying to slow things down.

At the risk of oversimplification, boards make choices and executives make decisions. Individuals tend to be good at sizing up a situation, making a decision, and carrying it out. Groups, on the other hand, are simply better at refining and improving ideas, plans, and strategies. The CEO will not get dangerously in front of their board if they build in the opportunity for its members to sincerely try to improve the quality of the CEO’s decisions.

This is not second-guessing. It has been proven that groups  that  emphasize  collegial  conversation  and  can evaluate  themselves  honestly  make  better  decisions than  do  individuals.  The inevitable problem is process and time required to get there. Researchers have also shown that people tend to have an exaggerated sense of their own individual capabilities, which is why the CEO/board split can be particularly intense.

The ideal situation exists when an executive’s approach to an issue is vetted by the board in a supportive way. This fits the expected roles — the CEO by definition has to be the public face of the organization, while the board should concentrate on the quality of the outcome (the choices above).

Too risky (Lead with ideas, not plans)

It will come as no surprise to veterans of nonprofit board rooms that CEOs can get too far out in front of their boards on all matters involving risk. This is a structural inevitability — the CEO (as well as other executives) is almost required by the uniqueness of their position to be the designated risk-taker.

The real challenge from a risk management perspective is how quickly the CEO can bring the board around to their position. Considering the baked-in conservative nature of most nonprofit boards as described earlier, this could take some time.

One good way to gain board support for a strategic risk is, again, to lead with ideas, not plans. This is one of the reasons why good strategies, as opposed to strategic “plans,” are not filled with details such as assignments, dates, and activities. Most boards go through three stages of reaction when confronting new ideas for the first time: learning, analysis, and acceptance. Committing to details too soon disrupts this flow and can waste time.

Leading with ideas also makes it possible to work through various scenarios without committing resources. If the dialog is genuinely open it enables the board to safely explore the risks abstractly before encountering them in real time. Note that all parties must be sincere about this process. It can lead to long board meetings, but the offset is that board members will be more committed and will usually report greater satisfaction in their roles.

Another way to avoid getting too far out front is for the CEO to anticipate and cope with real risk as a regular practice. Dealing with a board’s fear of risk is a different problem. This should happen anyway, but doing it routinely helps the CEO establish their conservative bona fides.

The first commandment of CEO survival is to never to get too far out in front of the board of directors because they too have a responsibility to shape the future. But the CEO doesn’t want to be behind the board, because their job is to lead. It’s a structural dilemma, but most of the pathways to success are based on the second commandment of CEO survival: Lead with ideas, then talk about plans.

See also:

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership: Building High-Performing Nonprofit Boards

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

Super Boards: How Inspired Governance Transforms Your Organization

Reprinted with permission by The Nonprofit Times and Thomas McLaughlin.

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Checking in on 10-year predictions for the New Year

Kicking off a New Year seems like a perfect time to recommend our upcoming addition to the CausePlanet summary library. Frankly, any time is the ideal time to pick up this book. Peter Brinckerhoff has written not one, not two, but three editions of Mission-Based Management, which should give you a sense of its value to nonprofit readers.

Author, writer and consultant Peter Brinckerhoff claims it’s an exciting time to be in the nonprofit world. He asserts, “There are more challenges, more opportunities and more ways to respond to the increasing needs in a community.”

The third edition of Mission-Based Management bestows on the reader a comprehensive look at what today’s nonprofit managers should prioritize in order to model the best high-impact nonprofits.

The premise?

The book is based on three philosophies that have informed Brinckerhoff’s entire career of 30 plus years:

  1. “Nonprofits are businesses.”
  2. “No one gives you a dime.”
  3. “Nonprofit does not mean no profit.”

He convincingly demonstrates the truth in each of these points throughout the book and in each of the management competencies he explores—from leadership, governance and finances to marketing, mission, ethics and more.

We invited Raylene Decatur of Decatur & Company to participate in our guest interview about the book. Since 2004, her firm has provided strategy and leadership transition services for nonprofit organizations ranging from start-ups to complex, mature organizations.

CausePlanet: What do you think about Brinckerhoff’s ten-year predictions? Are there any you would modify, emphasize or add?

Raylene Decatur: Brinckerhoff was brave to present his ten-year predictions and prescient regarding the future. From our vantage point in 2015, I would emphasize the following of his predictions:

Role of Government: Brinckerhoff was very accurate in his assessment of the diminished resources that local, state and federal governments would be investing in programs implemented by the nonprofit sector. For many nonprofits, especially in the health and human services sector, diversification of funding streams and reinvention of their business models will continue as trends for the foreseeable future. (Read more in our Page to Practice™ summary of Super Boards: How Inspired Governance Will Transform Your Organization)

The Impact of Generational Change: The baby boomers continue to age and have maintained greater longevity on boards and as organizational leaders than might have been anticipated five years ago. The generational change is much more complex and multifaceted than the compelling math of aging and its impact on the transfer of power. The values of a new generation of leaders and funders are raising questions regarding all aspects of nonprofit sector operations and outcomes. The recession stimulated change, and the generational transfer impact will create new and perhaps more challenging dynamics for the examination of sector practices. (Read more in our Page to Practice™ summary of Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement)

Cost of Services: Brinckerhoff notes the increased cost of providing services to a population of clients who have greater and more complex needs. More competition from both nonprofit and for-profit companies in an environment where it is more expensive to serve will accelerate as a challenge for the sector over the next decade.

Impact of Technology: As Brinckerhoff observes, the nonprofit sector must make the investments necessary to fully utilize technology to accelerate progress on mission. The transformation of client, donor and stakeholder expectations has evolved even more quickly than could be anticipated five years ago. Today, many nonprofits are facing almost insurmountable challenges related to reporting outcomes and results because their investments in systems and technology have failed to keep pace with these new norms. (Read more in our Page to Practice™ summary of Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission)

CausePlanet: If you could consult on a fourth edition of this book, what topics(s) might you envision adding?

Raylene Decatur: Talent is one of the greatest challenges facing the nonprofit sector today and in the foreseeable future. How will the sector transform its capacity to attract, retain, train and reward the people who are essential to achieving mission outcomes? This is not a new topic, but there is urgency in reimagining our assumptions regarding both paid and unpaid staff.  (Read more in our Page to Practice™ summary of The Abundant Not-for-Profit: How Talent (Not Money) Will Transform Your Organization)

In the spirit of Raylene’s final answer about resources—specifically talent—I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotations from Brinckerhoff: “A charity views its resources as a combination of four things: people, money, buildings, and equipment. … A mission-based business also has the same combination of four resources: people, money, buildings, and equipment. But it looks beyond just those four and also considers business tools in performing mission.”

See also:

12: The Elements of Great Managing

Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World

Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability

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Build on your organization’s strengths when developing strategy

This is the second part of a two-part article on strategic planning. Part 1 was “Get back to basics with first principle of strategy development.” Part 2 continues with the next two principles: building on your strengths and making decision-making criteria explicit.

My last article covered the first principle in strategy development – Know Thyself – and provided questions to ask to make sure that nonprofit board members and managers share a fundamental understanding of the organization.

Building on that base, organizations should consider two more principles when developing strategy.

Second principle: Build on your strengths

Knowing Thyself is important for many reasons, but the most important benefit is to guide the organization in making major decisions by doing more of what it does best. Human nature is often to fret over our weaknesses. But individuals are more energized, and organizations more successful, when they focus on their strengths. We all know the energy we get from completing something we are particularly good at – the actor at the end of the show, the athlete at the end of the race or the teacher when a struggling student finally aces a test. The principle is no different for an organization – nonprofits come alive when they focus on what they’ve learned to do best.

The best approach to developing strategy is to use the fundamental organizational identity discussed in the first principle – composed of mission, geography, programs, customers and funding – as a guide to select among strategic options. The option that best fits your current identity – that takes advantage of what you’ve already developed as your area of expertise – is often the best choice.

One piece is still missing, however. Another part of self-knowledge is knowing how your organization is distinct from others or how it is unique in your field. In the for-profit world, this is known as the organizational differentiator or, in a term I find particularly useful at challenging nonprofit assumptions, the competitive advantage.

Nonprofit board members and staff are often reluctant to think about competition because a premium is placed on cooperation. Indeed, nonprofits do and should cooperate. But understanding when and how you compete will give you a real lead in achieving your full potential. To put it bluntly, you don’t deserve to stay in business if your mission is not important enough, or your execution not sharp enough, to attract the resources to carry it out.

Nonprofit competition is different in key respects from for-profit business competition. Both sectors have to consider direct competitors (those doing exactly what you do), as well as indirect competitors (those doing something different, but similar, such as a movie theatre compared to a live theatre). But nonprofit organizations also face resource competition for funding, staff, media attention and board members.

Once you get used to the idea of competitors, then think about your competitors’ strengths. Do they have a program that no one else operates? Have they developed a skill and reputation for working in a community that has been particularly hard to reach? Then ask the same questions of your organization: What is the particular strength we have that differentiates us, makes us unique and helps us make the case that others should support our work? Once you know what your competitive advantage is, do more of it!

I know of several organizations – all in different communities – that had developed particular skills in working with the Latino community. Although the types of services they offered were often similar to those offered by others – health education or leadership development – they were able to develop new strategies that leveraged the trust they had built with the local Latino population by partnering with other organizations. Through this approach, they have been able to generate additional revenue and exert a greater impact in their field.

Although the second principle is to Build on Your Strengths, it wouldn’t be fair to pretend that you should never try to improve where you are weak. At times, organizations must move into a new area to be most effective or to remain financially viable. The point of this principle is that any move to go beyond your basic identity or to develop new core strengths should be driven by the greatest possible necessity and supported by more extensive planning.

Third principle: Make decision-making criteria explicit

Many great leaders make brilliant strategic choices without ever talking about the thinking behind those choices. I’ve heard middle managers in one organization describe a kind of strategic chaos – they do not understand why one program is emphasized over another, or why new programs are taken on. But the CEO and senior managers are credited by everyone in the organization with making remarkably prescient choices. The factors that go into major strategic decisions are somewhat opaque for many in the organization. As a result, the organization has thrived – driven by the decisions of senior managers – but seeds of serious challenges around staff cohesion and succession are readily apparent.

By taking time to identify and communicate the fundamental criteria for decision making, rather than assuming everyone understands these factors, you can build a more cohesive organization and address the latent frustration described by mid-level managers and staff when faced with changing assignments or increased work stress.

These three principles are perhaps simple, but they reflect a lesson we all learned from Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music: “Start at the very beginning.” By naming organizational fundamentals, you can move forward with cohesive guidance for making decisions on a day-to-day basis – or, at the very least, communicating the factors for major decisions throughout the organization.

See also:

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

Building Nonprofit Capacity

Nonprofit Sustainability

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Using Real-Time Strategic Planning to evaluate nonprofit partnerships

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Many nonprofits are considering the spectrum of strategic restructuring options, such as partnerships and mergers, as potential strategies to enhance financial viability and achieve greater sustainability. With more than a decade of experience in this area, I have learned one crucial lesson for those seeking a successful partnership: It must be considered within the context of a broader organizational strategy.

In this time of economic uncertainty, organizations may seek a partnership out of expediency without considering how the partnership may advance, or derail, their organizational strategy. Nonprofit leaders may lack the time, resources and data to undertake strategic planning while exploring potential partnerships. La Piana Consulting has developed a research-based and field-tested methodology called Real-Time Strategic Planning (RTSP) that allows organizations to consider their strategic focus effectively and in a fraction of the time required by traditional strategic planning.

RTSP and strategic restructuring

Within the context of a merger or partnership, nonprofit leaders should refer to the following elements of the RTSP process.

Business model

The term “business model” can overwhelm many nonprofit leaders by conjuring thoughts of corporate executives plotting money-making schemes. However, RTSP provides a simple way to think about your nonprofit business model to turn it into an effective tool for decision making. When considering a partnership, nonprofits can define their business model into easily understood and efficiently analyzed themes:

Who you are – your mission and brand;
What is your scope – the geography, activities and clients served;
What is the source and distribution of funding – where funding comes from and how it’s spent.

Once you have a clear understanding of your current business model, it is important to consider potential gaps and opportunities that a prospective partnership may impact, i.e. new geography, clients, funding, or more efficient operations.

Market awareness

Understanding your business model will make it much easier to understand where you “fit” into the market. Therefore, conduct an honest assessment of your market. Ask yourself, is demand for your services growing or shrinking?

Other key considerations include: Who else is providing similar services? With what organizations do you compete or collaborate? What are their strengths and weaknesses relative to your organization? What do they bring to the table that strengthens their position in the market? Look at these competitors and analyze how they compare to you.

Answering these questions will help you better understand your own market position, as well as how a partnership can strengthen your organization and better fulfill its mission


As described above, a large part of market awareness is recognizing your organization’s competition. Although the concept of competition may not be commonly referred to in the nonprofit sector, nonprofit leaders must address competition in order to ensure an organization’s success. Consider the various types of competition your organization faces, including competition for funding, staff, board members, media attention, clients, etc. Understanding competition is a stepping stone to understanding your relative strengths as an organization, and being able to leverage them in support of your mission.


No one can predict the future, but having a general understanding of the trends facing nonprofits, and your organization in particular, is critical. Consider trends in demand for services and funding. Many nonprofits find themselves in the unpleasant situation of seeing their financial support (from government, donors and foundations) decline at the very time the demand for services is increasing. Nonprofits facing this dilemma should consider how partnerships can enhance their ability to serve more people in the most efficient way possible. Partnerships can offer potential funding opportunities if they are well designed and well promoted.

Competitive advantage

Competitive advantage in the nonprofit sector is defined as “your organization’s ability to produce social value using a unique asset, outstanding execution, or both.” By gaining an understanding of your market, competition and the trends that impact your work, you will be better able to hone your organization’s unique strengths. Again, understanding your competitive advantage and those of your competitors and collaborators is the first step to considering how to build on your strengths or mitigate any weaknesses. Furthermore, combining the strengths of two or more organizations and aligning competitive advantages can significantly enhance an organization’s ability to compete, and minimize each organization’s weaknesses.

Strategy screens

In considering a partnership, your nonprofit organization should create explicit criteria to help guide decision making. A strategy screen is a set of criteria that are applied to any potential strategy to help determine its appropriateness. The decision-making criteria in such a screen are rooted in your nonprofit’s business model and competitive advantages; in fact, you should look for partnerships that build on what you currently do well. A strategy screen can help you to determine the relevance of potential partnership strategies. Strategy screens can also be used as a quick way to determine the appropriateness of a potential organizational partner. 

Putting it all together

Use these concepts when considering a strategic restructuring partnership, whether it is a merger, administrative consolidation or joint programming effort. Like any organizational strategy, partnership development needs to be carefully considered and not just pursued because an exciting opportunity crops up.

Moreover, the initial exploration with a potential partner does not have to take up huge amounts of time or resources. The RTSP process is designed to be quick and efficient, usually taking one or two days of facilitated discussion, with basic information gathering prior to the session.

Wherever you are in the partnership development process – assessment, negotiation or even integration – the Real-Time Strategic Planning process can help you determine if the partnership supports your nonprofit’s organizational strategy and advances the mission.

See also:

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

Building Nonprofit Capacity

Nonprofit Sustainability

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Get back to basics with the first principle of strategy development

This article is Part 1 of 2. The second article continues with the next two principles after Know Thyself: building on your strengths and making decision-making criteria explicit.

We all carry unexamined – or unstated – assumptions with us. When organizations initiate strategy development processes, these unexamined assumptions can lead to unsatisfying results: mis-communication along the way, time wasted gathering information you don’t need, or agreement to words that merely paper over differing understandings.

Many of these pitfalls can be avoided by beginning any strategy development process with three principles.

First principle: Know Thyself

Whether as individuals or as organizations, we often forget to remember who we are. For individuals, this might mean spending time with an old friend or a sibling, someone who brings you back to your fundamental self. For organizations, this means reviewing the most basic questions of the organization.

At the beginning of any strategy process, be sure to spend time up front reviewing a few deceptively simple issues with both board and management.

Mission. This is, of course, a common starting point for assessing an organization’s identity, and for good reason. Focusing first on mission reminds us why we have dedicated so much of our time, and even so much of our lives, to a nonprofit cause. Rather than just repeating the words of the mission statement, exercises that describe the mission or the hoped for impact can be more inspiring and also more accurate. Explaining benchmarks your organization will achieve in five years, or on what will change in the world because of your work, are simple ways to refocus on the meaning of the mission.

Geography. How would your board, executives and staff describe the geographic area served by the organization? Sometimes this is an extremely simple question; more often than not, it uncovers nuances about how the organization is focused that are vital to moving forward. For example, in my work with one health care organization, we found that while its literature described a “metropolitan” service area, in fact nearly all their clients came from a handful of inner city zip codes.

Customers. This question can be answered in different ways. First, most nonprofits can describe direct customers: patients in the example of a health care organization above, patrons for arts organizations, recipients of service for social service organizations and so on. However, it’s good to make sure you understand the secondary customers, or audiences, your organization must serve: funders of programs, local political leadership, nonprofit collaborators and more. For nonprofits, defining customers means understanding who you are accountable to – and speaking to those audiences.

Programs. Programs are, of course, the primary vehicle for achieving organizational mission. I have served on the board of a small nonprofit organization for several years, and during that time I have experienced the regular occurrence of a board member reacting in surprise at a board meeting: “Oh!  I never knew we did that!” It can be notoriously difficult for some organizations to educate board members about the details of program work, but it is essential that board members understand the basic category, or “buckets,” of program work before considering questions of strategy – since considering strategy often means redirecting existing programs or establishing new activities.

Funding. Many board members and managers are familiar with their organization’s overall budget, but may be less familiar with the relative importance of different funding streams. A basic analysis of revenue by category – government grants, fee for service, foundations, general contributions – is essential knowledge for nonprofit leaders.

When I work with nonprofits, I sometimes worry that these questions are too simple. But again and again, as we talk through these fundamentals, I discover that they offer a clear definition of an organization’s basic identity. On top of that, I have never once been in a situation where the entire board and management team involved in developing strategy began with a shared understanding of these fundamentals. Walking through this discussion may be elementary for the executive director, but it can be illuminating for board members.

Another way to think about the Know Thyself principle is that for an organization, the entire leadership must be self aware.

See also:

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

Building Nonprofit Capacity

Nonprofit Sustainability

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Arts and culture mergers: Trends, challenges and benefits

Mergers and other forms of partnerships between nonprofits have been on the rise for the past decade, particularly in the last five years. The reasons for this trend are numerous and include cuts in foundation and corporate funding, as well as in individual donations; a desire on the part of nonprofits to have a greater impact, which is often easier to do by joining together; and the retirement of many executive directors and the difficulty of finding replacements, which leads to organizations merging with others that have strong EDs and/or boards.

While these factors impact the nonprofit sector in general, sub-sectors have been affected to varying degrees and differ in their proclivity to enter into partnerships. As a result, mergers, in particular, have been more prevalent in some sub-sectors than in others. Until recently, most mergers were in the health and human services sub-sectors, which for many years have been severely challenged by competition from for-profit entities and by a decline in government funding. The arts and culture sub-sector, on the other hand, has been slower to embrace mergers. However, in the past few years, we have seen an increase in mergers among arts organizations.

What are some of the factors underlying this trend, as well as the unique challenges faced by arts organizations seeking to establish such partnerships? What are the factors for success, and which factors can potentially derail a partnership? This article looks at the trends and challenges of mergers, and provides examples of negotiations that resulted in a successful merger and of situations where a merger was determined not to be the right option.

Factors underlying the trend

The reasons for the increased interest in these partnerships are multiple and include:

A significant decline in government (federal, state and county) funding for the arts, which has come to rely heavily on these sources of income.

Similarly, a decline in corporate funding due to mergers and acquisitions in the business sector, as well as tighter profit margins for small businesses; typically, local businesses have provided significant support to artistic and cultural programs in their local communities.

Natural disasters, such as the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, which have drawn funding from individual donors and foundations that might have otherwise gone to the arts.

Economic challenges in general, which have led to a shift in giving and funding priorities to basic health and social services.

The increased pressure on the educational system to raise academic standards and test scores, leading to reduced emphasis on arts and other “non-academic” programs.

Aging of the population that forms the core audience for traditional arts programming (ballet, symphony, musical theatre, etc.), coupled with a decline in the development of younger audiences for this programming—which leads to less demand and, in turn, less earned income.

Other forms of entertainment have proliferated, and the quality of this programming has increased dramatically due to technological advances, as well as affordability and accessibility.

In general, the public has less leisure time and more options for how this time is spent.

Challenges for arts organizations in considering a merger

These trends are converging to create a crisis of sorts in the arts and culture sub-sector—and to push the sector to consider creative approaches to addressing these challenges in order to remain sustainable. However, these approaches are sometimes difficult to embrace, regardless of the necessity to do so.

Stumbling blocks include:

One of the greatest challenges is in aligning and/or defining “arts and culture.” There are many definitions, and organizations feel very strongly about their particular emphasis.

Related to this is “artistic direction”: An arts organization is defined by its artistic direction and may feel that it will lose its identity and unique branding in a merger. It’s not an absolute, but arts organizations that have the most difficult time in negotiating a merger are often those that are involved in “direct” provision of art (e.g., performing arts, visual arts, etc.), as opposed to those that are advocacy and/or educational in nature.

The “culture” of merger, in particular, is alien to many arts organizations. While they are used to collaborating, they may view a merger as a competitive strategy in the sense that it excludes others.

Unlike health and human services, where government funding is the major form of support, arts organizations rely heavily on individual donors and foundations. A fear exists that when two organizations become one, these funds will be reduced. To alleviate this fear, organizations need to cultivate and communicate with donors and funders to help them understand that the motivation for the partnership is not to have to do more with less.

Mergers typically do not involve a significant reduction in staff positions, other than needing only one ED. However, positions may also be consolidated in arts organizations that provide direct services where each has an artistic director. It can be difficult to overcome resistance to this.

When a merger was not the best option

A merger is not always the optimal partnership option. This is often revealed through the process of considering a merger. So, while the decision may be to not proceed, the process is beneficial and avoids the cost of moving forward—only to discover problems after the fact. In addition, these discussions often lead to forming other types of partnerships, such as administrative consolidation, which can result in significant cost savings, without incurring the cost, bad feelings and negative publicity of trying to force a merger that wasn’t meant to be.

The well-publicized merger of the Jewish Museum San Francisco and the Magnus Museum is a case in point. Despite the significant potential benefits of a merger, the organizations were unable to implement their decision to merge due to a lack of compatibility in artistic direction and significant cultural differences between the organizations. Unfortunately, these problems did not emerge as barriers until the merger was implemented.

Another example is the potential merger of the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall. Among the factors leading to the decision not to merge were the perceived loss of the Philharmonic’s identity and the potential decrease in donations from supporters of both groups.

Falling short of a merger, the recently publicized consolidation of the back-shop and box office operations of the San Jose Repertory Theatre and the American Musical Theatre is viewed as a possible first step towards a closer working relationship between these financially-challenged organizations. At a minimum, this partnership should help stabilize their operations.

Successful arts mergers

Despite the obstacles, arts organizations are increasingly finding the benefits of a merger to be greater than the challenges. Some of the most successful arts mergers that we have observed are those between advocacy organizations. In general, the objectives of these organizations are to increase visibility and funding for the arts and help the arts to have a greater impact on society in general. Recently, the Michigan Association of Community Arts Agencies and ArtServe Michigan merged. Although they had some differences in their areas of emphasis, these nonprofits realized that their missions were basically compatible and that a merged organization would have greater visibility and impact—and, therefore, better outcomes for art, artists and the public at large.


The desire to grow and make a greater impact is a prime motivation for many nonprofits to merge. In general, organizations that have similar missions and that serve similar stakeholders, but that operate in different geographic areas, find a merger to be a cost-effective way to achieve this outcome. This was the case for Young Audiences of San Jose & Silicon Valley and Young Audiences of the Bay Area, which merged in mid-2004 to form Young Audiences of Northern California. In part, this merger reflects a general trend in the sector for chapters/affiliates of national nonprofits in contiguous service areas to merge.


Although arts and culture nonprofits have lagged behind other types of nonprofits in embracing mergers and other formal partnerships, trends in the sector in general and those specific to this sub-sector are putting these options in a more positive light. When the partners are well suited for each other, these partnerships can have significant benefits both to the individual organizations and to society as a whole.

See also:

Nonprofit Mergers & Alliances

The Nonprofit Business Plan

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

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Five staff responses to change you can’t afford to overlook

As a nonprofit leader, chances are at some point you’ve been involved in either instituting or supporting change in your organization. The question is, if the need for change is so obvious to you, why isn’t the rest of the organization jumping up and down with excitement?

Over the years, The Management Centre has carried out a significant body of research on, and change work with, a wide range of nonprofit organizations. And we’ve found that there are five core reactions to change that we call the 5 Cs. To be an effective change manager, you need to understand these five reactions in your colleagues so you can anticipate them and adopt appropriate strategies to deal with them.

The 5 Cs: Responses to change and how to handle them

We tend to sell organizational benefits when planning change. But not everyone judges the impact of things through organizational perspectives. To be successful, it’s essential to reflect on how individuals in the organization will react or respond to your change announcement. Be prepared, and plan an approach for each of the 5 Cs:


Champions – perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the total – are those who are prepared to stick their necks out, run with an idea and own what happens. After announcing the change you propose, these are the people who’ll crowd around you smiling and shaking your hand.

Tempting as it is to embrace their enthusiasm, you need to treat champions cautiously. The advantage of their unstinting support for the change is balanced by some serious disadvantages. For one thing, champions generally champion everything – even painting the office in stripes. Their enthusiasm could give you a false impression of how everyone else is feeling. And champions won’t question you closely on the merits of your proposal. You need some challenge to ensure your idea has rigor.

Give champions something practical to do which absorbs their energy. Be careful about using them as advocates; they’re likely to be treated with skepticism by others.


Chasers – 15 to 20 percent of the total – don’t immediately respond positively to your proposal for change. At the end of a briefing, they look around to see who’s signed up. They want to discuss your idea with others before forming a judgment, and will generally look to a key opinion maker or “trigger” person for guidance.

The great advantage of chasers is they give you a more accurate view of how your proposal is going down. When they join, you’re making progress and, once committed, they’ll stay. And the disadvantages? Well, you’ll have to convince the right trigger person to convince the chasers. And that trigger person may well be someone who has social rather than organizational power in your organization. So, you can’t tell them to back your idea. And still, chasers won’t come on board immediately – they may have their own very specific concerns; for example, if you’re going to restructure, what will be the impact on their team?

Identify the trigger person at different levels in your organization and brief them in advance, so that they encourage the chasers to sign up to your project.


At 30 to 40 percent of the total, converts are the biggest single group in your change audience. They listen in silence to the proposed change and don’t ask questions. But don’t confuse their silence with negativity. Converts want solid evidence in favor of the change in order to come on board. They’ll also need reassurance about what impact the changes will have on them. Their passivity means you often have to ask questions on their behalf and then answer your own question – FAQs. They want the answer, but they’re not happy to ask the question.

Converts have two advantages: First, bringing them on board tips a sizable majority of people into the “mostly positive” camp and ensures your change proposal will be adopted. Second, although they can be slow to adopt a change, they are equally slow to let it go. Once they’re convinced, you have momentum.

The main disadvantage with converts is that they may take so long to come round that your initiative loses momentum.

Think about and try to address converts’ concerns before launching a change process. That way you’ll be able to bring them on board more quickly. Try producing a list of FAQs in advance – it shows you’re thinking about the individual as well as the organization.


Challengers – 15 to 20 percent of the total – ask difficult questions initially and then … continue to do so. Their approach is to confront and be awkward, because they have a strong stake in the outcome.

It’s a personality trait not a personal attack, so don’t treat it as an attack. Because challenging is a personality trait, it’s unlikely you can convince challengers that the change will be a good thing. What’s more important is that others will be watching how well you handle the challenger’s interventions.

Despite appearances, there are advantages to challengers: Their questions force you to be rigorous in your thinking. And, because they ask the questions others merely think, addressing their issues may enable you indirectly to reassure others.

The disadvantages are twofold: Challengers can carry on asking difficult questions beyond usefulness. They may also ask questions on areas not up for discussion.

Handle challengers’ queries fairly, however irritated you feel; others are watching. Be firm with them about what’s “off the agenda”; provide ground rules and stick to them.


Changephobics – 5 to 10 percent of the total – will not ever be convinced. They can slow down or even derail change. They cause dissent and are essentially immovable. Changephobics are tough. However, if you’re seen dealing with them honestly and fairly, you’ll gain brownie points from others for being evenhanded. And, however hard it is, keep in mind changephobics don’t oppose because they’re bad people, but because they feel you’re destroying something they hold dear.

Changephobic disadvantages are legion – doing their best to stop your initiative, providing unstinting opposition, significantly lowering morale.

The harsh reality is that you have to get rid of changephobics as quickly and effectively as you can, whether it’s to another department or out of the organization.

When you lead your change process, you will need to consider how you might deal with the 5 Cs. Think about all the different stakeholders in your organization – staff, volunteer, boards and even users. Which of the 5Cs would they fit into? What can you get the champions to do so they feel positive, but stay out of your way? Who do you need to convince to get the chasers on board? What questions do you need to answer for the converts? Who are the challengers? What flaws might they spot? Who are the changephobics? How can you get them to leave or help them go?

As we all know, implementing change is no walk in the park. Preparing for the individual responses to change will certainly help you leap ahead of some of the inevitable stress – if not all of it.

See also:

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster Moving World

Buy-In: Saving Your Good Ideas from Getting Shot Down

A Sense of Urgency (How to Overcome Complacency In Your Organization)

The Six Secrets of Change

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Strategic planning: Is your board focusing on five external forces?

Strategic planning often gets a bad rap. And it’s easy to see why. Usually, we have a board retreat or take the staff off site and hold a big meeting. Much is said and brainstorming is vigorous, but little is written down and less is quantified. We return to the office on Monday, with few decisions made. The retreat or meeting didn’t help your organization change anything.

In order to be successful, organizations, teams and individuals must plan and set a defined course for change. How does planning focus energy, change outcomes and result in greater job satisfaction for the board and staff? In the end, the insights gained during planning should influence the hundreds or thousands of individual actions that take place in an organization on a daily basis. Sounds good, but how do you do this, and what does it look like in daily application?

A case study

Let’s assume you are the CEO of a large nonprofit with international operations scattered across the globe. Your staff and volunteers work with people who have enormous health, education and economic needs in some of the most challenging places on the planet. Information cascades into your organization daily—from the Web, news reports, donor feedback and field reports. Last year, you, your staff and your board worked hard on a five-year strategic plan. What difference is that plan making today on how you face challenges?

An effective planning process begins with rigorous advance preparation. The quality of the end product is directly correlated with the development of comprehensive external and internal scans. An external or internal scan represents a quick check by a planning team of trends in key areas of the environment.  All organizations risk losing touch with those key trends, internally or externally, that signal major changes ahead for the organization. These environmental scans create a context for the dialogue during the planning process. The process focuses the board’s attention on strategic thinking and the forces that are shaping the organization’s future. Which of the rapidly changing forces in this organization’s environment will have the most significant impact on the organizations results in the future? The outcomes of the strategic thinking dialogue are then used to define the organization’s strategic direction, goals, objectives and, ultimately, action plans and budgets. The key is to identify the right questions for the next business cycle of the organization.

The board of this nonprofit focused on the strengths, limitations, opportunities and threats in the external environment. Five forces of change were identified that warranted the board’s attention, not just during the planning retreat, but in ongoing discussions during board and committee meetings for years to come.

The five forces are:

Demographic upheavals
Rising expectations
Explosion of new technologies
New forms of organizing work

Based on the deliberations of the board and staff during the retreat, the specific strategic drivers and key questions for this organization to address over the next five years were identified as:

The world is flat. How does globalization impact the structure of our organization? What new competitive forces will impact our ability to attract the talent and people we need in the regions we serve? How could we organize our work differently and employ technology more effectively to serve targeted populations? How do we, as a board and staff, stay informed and proactive in rapidly changing environments?
Security of operations. Security has the single greatest impact on effectiveness of global operations. There is no service to targeted populations if operations are removed or restricted. Security is an issue for the safety of an organization’s people, capital resources, equipment, programs and technology. How do we enhance our efforts to monitor and adapt quickly to changing security issues? Can our organization be more nimble?
Competition for support. Trends indicate that government support in all forms will be reduced for non-governmental organizations and all other nonprofit organizations in current and future years. This will result in greater competition for remaining government funds. How can this organization compete most successfully to sustain the largest percentage of government support possible, while simultaneously diversifying private support from individuals, corporations and foundations? What are the expectations of our existing and new donors?

The progression from a broad external scan to forces of change to key strategic drivers clarified for board and staff where they should be focusing their attention. Rivers of information are now sorted by how they impact the nonprofit’s structure, staffing, security and fundraising. There were many other worthy issues to focus on, but these priorities emerged as the key ones for this organization over the next five years. The CEO identified opportunities for board and staff to monitor these issues on an ongoing basis, in order to make decisions and take actions to positively impact the result this nonprofit strives to achieve.

Internal environmental scans focus on the core components that are essential to every organization. Regardless of its structure, stage of organizational development or field of activity, every organization consists of five essential components—without which it cannot come into being, sustain its existence or grow.

These five components and their definitions are:

Market. Anyone who uses, or has the potential to use or fund the programs, products and/or services created, distributed or funded by this organization.
Program. The content and methodology an organization creates and distributes through products and services to define audiences.
Organization. The network of structures and systems through which an organization creates and distributes programs, products and services to its market.
People. The human resources available to an organization to create and deliver programs, products and services to its market.
Capital. The non-human resources available to an organization to create and deliver programs, products and services to its market.

Growth comes when an organization energizes one or two of these components. Sustained capacity building depends on an organization’s effort to balance the development of every component. Organizational stress is a signal that the development of one or more components is lagging behind the development of the most energized component. Alignment among and between components can propel an organization to the next stage of its organizational lifestyle (i.e. from start up to growth mode), or a lack of alignment can stymie an organization’s development for years. This analysis of internal capacity must be measured against the challenges this organization will face to achieve success, however success is defined.

Based on an internal scan of this nonprofit, the following key opportunities were identified:

Cultivate new donors while retaining existing donors to raise net contributions and diversify funding sources.
Build development/fundraising/outreach/communications functions and systems to cultivate lasting relationships with funders and collaborators, while raising more money to support the mission.
Coach, develop and grow capacities and skills of the executive management team to build the capacity to deliver on its mission and support the work of the organization.
Clarify goals and quantify objectives for vice presidents to further develop their skills as self-directed managers.

The board and staff identified many ways that this organization could improve performance on the five components. The four opportunities sited above are the ones that are central to the growth and development of this organization during the current business cycle.

The three drivers resulting from the external scan and the four drivers resulting from the internal scan formed the basis of a Statement of Strategic Direction, which captured the seven priorities for this organization over the next five years. There were other worthy priorities, but these seven were critical to the organization’s future growth, development and ongoing success.

The staff took the next step and crafted five-year goals, supported by quantified objectives. The board reviewed and approved these goals and objectives. The staff writes annual detailed action plans to support the outcomes defined in the objectives. The action plan development dovetails with the creation of an annual budget.  The systems are in place to support the desired outcomes.

The key issues are clear: Every board of directors’ meeting must include time for discussions about security, competition for support, growing the capacity of staff, or how the systems support the desired outcomes in donor relations. The board has a greater awareness of and growing knowledge of the most important strategic issues. The staff feels empowered to sort the incredible amounts of information that bombard them daily and use the most relevant information to address the core issues for their organization. Most importantly, the CEO, in conjunction with the board and staff, fosters the ability of the staff, volunteers and key stakeholders to see what truly exists today and, perhaps more importantly, fosters the capacity to see what will exist tomorrow.

See also:

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

Nonprofit Strategic Positioning

Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability

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