Posts Tagged ‘planning’

[Podcast] Get more done in your meetings (and your pitches!)

Meetings can be an expensive waste of time if they aren’t led properly. Authors Dick and Emily Axelrod have dedicated their careers to understanding and promoting what makes an impactful meeting in Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done.

The Axelrods explain step by step how to participate in highly effective meetings no matter your role: a leader, contributor or facilitator. The Meeting Canoe is an approach that helps readers understand the importance of order, shape and flow to your gatherings.

Join us for a recent podcast we recorded with the Axelrods about what’s useful, what’s challenging and why people accept bad meeting habits: 

CausePlanet: Thank you for adding the Meeting Canoe framework to the body of literature about effective meetings. It’s a terrific addition. Which part of the Meeting Canoe do most users find most transformational when implementing the approach?

Listen here for their answer or read below: What part of the “meeting canoe” is most helpful?

DA & EA: Welcome, Connect, and Attend to the End. Most meeting agendas call for a perfunctory welcome and do not spend time connecting people to each other and the task. The result is they fail to build a solid foundation to do the meeting’s work. Similarly, most meeting agendas ignore attending to the end. This results in people being unclear about what was decided during the meeting as well as next steps following the meeting.

Failure to spend time discussing how to make future meetings better leaves the group without a self-correcting mechanism. We learned from an architect colleague that how people enter a space and how they leave a space is as important as what happens in the space. We believe this is true for meetings as well. By paying attention to the Welcome, Connect, and Attend to the End parts of the Meeting Canoe™, meeting designers create a complete, productive meeting experience.

CausePlanet: Which part of the Meeting Canoe™ do most readers find challenging to implement?

Listen here for their answer or read below: What is the most challenging?

DA & EA: Attend to the End because they often don’t allocate enough time for it, or if they do allocate time, when pressed for time they skip it. A good ending has three parts:

1.     Review decisions and assignments.
2.     Identify next steps.
3.     Appraise what meeting improvements are needed.

CausePlanet: In your research or client experiences, did you discover why most people accept and perpetuate bad meeting habits?

Listen here for their answer or read below: The Axelrods on why people perpetuate bad meeting habits

DA & EA: The first is that when we asked meeting participants whom they thought was responsible for a meeting’s success, the most frequent response was “the leader.” This habit is an abdication of responsibility for what happens during the meeting, which allows meeting participants to sit idly by while a meeting goes downhill.

We believe another cause is that people have come to think about meetings as painful experiences that must be endured. They do not think of them as a place where productive work occurs. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you begin to think about meetings as a place where people do work, then you can design your meetings using the five proven work design principles:

– Autonomy: the power to influence the meeting’s direction
– Meaning: the meeting has importance or significance to participants
– Challenge: a call to engage in something that tests your knowledge, skill, or courage
– Learning: acquiring new skills or knowledge through experience, study or being taught
– Feedback: information that lets meeting participants know whether a meeting is making progress toward its objectives.

When you apply these design criteria to your meeting, you create the conditions for productive work to occur. 

Bonus answer: At the end of our podcast, Dick and Emily Axelrod shared this interesting anecdote with us about how the Meeting Canoe works in pitches as well: The Meeting Canoe works in pitches, too!

Learn more at and

Learn more about this title and related book summaries at

Image credits: (2),

Leave a reply

CausePlanet’s Choice Awards–Our Top Nonprofit Books for 2015

This is my favorite time of year for many reasons. One of them is our chance to look back at a great year of book choices for our readers.

It’s also the hardest time of the year because we choose books that stand out among the rest. Now, this may seem like an easy task but it isn’t. Choosing from titles that are already among our favorites is like choosing a favorite child. Thankfully, the challenging task is tempered by the fact that we know you love these awards. Thank you for the wonderful feedback when we launched this designation last year.

All our Choice Award titles are chosen based on the following criteria: original insights, inspirational content, well-organized and easy-to-follow format, voice, applicability, and strong evidence of case stories and/or exhibits.

Our Choice Awards for 2015 go to the following authors:

The Sustainability Mindset by Steve Zimmerman and Jeanne Bell
This book not only effectively argues the importance of having financial and programming discussions within the same conversation, but the authors also provide a proven framework designed to guide the process toward sound decision-making. Thanks to matrix mapping, your leaders can leave the guesswork out of strategic planning.

The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook by Jayne Cravens and Susan Ellis
Cravens and Ellis do a wonderful job of addressing how volunteering has changed so dramatically over the years that calling out the notion of virtual volunteering is no longer necessary because this form of giving has meshed with traditional volunteering. This thorough guidebook is the resource for anyone managing volunteers.

Global Fundraising: How the World Is Changing the Rules of Philanthropy edited by Penelope Cagney and Bernard Ross
Cagney and Ross create a rare and fascinating look at what types of fundraising are working all over the world. In a telescoping society that’s facilitated by technology, nonprofits’ reach is farther than ever before. This book helps you gather context for your fundraising efforts and consider what’s influencing your donors outside of traditional boundaries and borders.
On behalf of the CausePlanet team, we would like to thank these authors and the company of authors they share who’ve contributed so much to the sector in which we work. We hope our Page to Practice™ book summaries have inspired you to engage in deeper reading and make better book choices. Don’t forget—December is Read a New Book Month. Choose one of these titles or any of the great recommendations in our book summary library and work smarter in 2016.

See also:

The Sustainability Mindset: Using the Matrix Map to Make Strategic Decisions

The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook: Fully Integrating Online Service into Volunteer Involvement

Global Fundraising: How the World Is Changing the Rules of Philanthropy

Leave a reply

Ten characteristics of great nonprofits and the four critical skills that empower them

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.”

Three guiding principles are at the core of high-impact nonprofits

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 of the book, is based on three philosophies that have informed Brinckerhoff’s entire career of 30 plus years: “Nonprofits are businesses.” “No one gives you a dime.” “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.

Dangerous assumptions, four critical skills and 10 characteristics of great charities

Brinckerhoff also broaches the dangerous assumptions that have surfaced in our sector over the years, such as foundations controlling nonprofits after giving them money and nonprofits needing to take a “vow of poverty.” He gives four essential skills for mission-based managers and introduces the 10 characteristics of successful nonprofits.

The four skills include the ability to:

1)     balance the needs of the community with the organization’s available resources;

2)     innovate as a social entrepreneur, taking reasonable risks on behalf of the organization’s beneficiaries;

3)     lead the organization by example and motivate the staff, board and community; and

4)     communicate effectively the mission to the staff, board, public and stakeholders.

Brinckerhoff then covers the 10 characteristics of a successful nonprofit in the rest of Mission-Based Management, each chapter tackling one characteristic.

The section below lists each characteristic he discusses in depth:

1)     A viable mission: The mission is why your organization exists so utilizing it to the fullest extent is your first priority. The author recommends reviewing your mission statement at least every three years when you write your strategic plan in order to make sure it is accurate.

2)     Ethics, accountability and transparency: “There is nothing more important to your mission success than [ethics, accountability and transparency]. Nothing.” Mission comes first and values follow.

3)     A businesslike board of directors: Brinckerhoff provides a list of desirable characteristics in a board, a list of items that prevent effectiveness and a list of responsibilities surrounding the three general functions of a board—preserving the trust, setting policy and supporting the charity.

4)     Leading your people: People usually work for a nonprofit for the mission and respect, not for the money. Brinckerhoff uses the inverted pyramid of management to illustrate how best to value and keep your people.

5)     Embracing technology for mission: Technology serves some important purposes for nonprofits, namely for education, volunteers, new employees, transparency and development.

6)     Creating a social entrepreneur: Brinckerhoff emphasizes the need for nonprofits to return to their start-up, entrepreneurial phases in terms of increased flexibility, willingness to embrace and shape change, and inclination to take risks.

7)     Developing a bias for marketing: “Of all the business skills you can put to work for your mission, marketing is the most applicable in the most areas.” The author emphasizes this slogan, “Everything that everyone here does every day is marketing.”

8)     Financial empowerment: Using financial skills and concepts from the business world can help you achieve your mission without always having to comply with the restrictions traditional funders place on you.

9)     A vision for the future: Strategic planning is essential to have purpose, coordinate all other planning (budgets, staffing, fundraising), delegate more effectively, be flexible, and exhibit good business and stewardship.

10)  The controls that set you free: For a leader to delegate (an important skill for a leader in order to free up time to be a visionary), controls must be in place in areas such as bylaws, conflict of interest, financial, human resource, media, volunteers, disaster, program and quality assurance policies.

Brinckerhoff establishes in the introduction of his book that much has changed since he wrote the first edition of Mission-Based Management in 1994. His effort to keep pace with change in our sector is a bellwether for nonprofit leaders to match his ongoing pursuit of what defines a successful mission-based nonprofit. Brinckerhoff challenges you to embrace the good business practices that can be adapted for mission-based management. He tempts you to strive for a profit because that margin will empower you to be financially viable and sustainable. He invites you to recognize that donors are paying for service—you earn everything you get.

See also:

12: The Elements of Great Managing

Building Nonprofit Capacity: A Guide to Managing Change Through Organizational Lifecycles

Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World

Image credits:,,,

Leave a reply

What makes nonprofit failures useful or useless? FailBetter authors answer.

“Not all failures are useful. The key is to enable the productive ones. You’ll need to know what makes some failures worthwhile and others useless.”

Authors Anjali Sastry and Kara Penn have recently published a new book to help you make the most of mistakes. They claim that, “Failure is not necessarily bad. Accepting that it’s inevitable, and maybe even desirable, sets the stage for a more nuanced discussion of learning, failure, and success.”

Today we’re building on our recent introductory post and featuring an excerpt of our interview with the coauthors to give you a better sense of how mistakes can be a path to great efficiencies rather than a source of regret or frustration.

More about the book’s premise

But first, let’s review a little bit more about the book’s premise. Sastry and Penn explain that “smart leaders, entrepreneurs and change agents design their innovation projects with a key idea in mind: ensure that every failure is maximally useful.” In Fail Better, the authors show you how to create the conditions, culture and habits to determine what the most effective solutions are by:

1) launching every project with the necessary groundwork,

2) building and refining ideas, products and services through iterative action, and

3) identifying the learning moments and embedding the knowledge.

Launch, iterate, embed

In other words, the book discusses how to address failures and make them beneficial before (launch), during (iteration) and after (embedding) the project’s work. You will learn an invaluable skill you may never have developed before: how to distinguish “preventable, wasteful and uninstructive failures” from helpful ones you can incorporate into your process.

Interview with the authors

CausePlanet: Where do most people “get it wrong” when they’ve failed? Which part of your model tackles it?

Penn and Sastry: There are so many areas to choose from! Fail Better addresses common failure modes at each step—whether at the outset of a project when the seeds of a failure may be sown in failing to identify faulty assumptions that underpin the rest of the project’s actions or a needed skill set or resource is never secured (the Launch Phase of Fail Better aims at addressing this), or at the end of a project when many a manager and team member rushes into the next project without extracting, sharing and translating into changed behavior the lessons learned (the Embed Phase tackles how to do this).

People often “get it wrong” when they miss opportunities to prevent more costly failures in exchange for smaller, more informative, more affordable mistakes. And they get it wrong when they march to the end of a project on the back of a single monolithic approach, without testing and experimenting along the way. Not much can be done to improve an outcome at the end of a project, so if a faulty path is pursued with determination, larger, more public and more costly failures are bound to be the result. Fail Better’s Iterate Phase intervenes here.

On a more individual level, once failure has occurred, two critical pitfalls often await:

First, failure makes each one of us feel so uncomfortable, that often examining the causes of that failure are avoided and written off to circumstantial issues. This is a coping mechanism, but it’s the exact sort of thing that contributes to repeating similar mistakes. Fail Better works hard to help implementers avoid this outcome by creating the space and structure for reflection and behavior change in a safe way.

Second, there is a temptation as a manager to hide failure stories instead of owning them and crafting a narrative that shows why a course of action was selected, what was learned and what will be done differently going forward. A smart failure that drives learning and positive change and a response that demonstrates resilience and action is highly valued. And it is much better to craft our own failure stories than to have others, who may not know the nuances or intentions, do it for us by default.

CausePlanet: What makes a failure useless? What makes it useful?

Penn and Sastry: Our starting point is the idea that the right kind of failure—small-scale, reversible, informative, linked to broader goals, and designed to illuminate key issues—paves the way to success. Such failures are in service of a larger vision or goal, are stepping stones to refined and improved ideas, and create a platform of understanding and learning. In short, a better failure moves you forward. The wrong kind of failure entails waste, leads to discouragement, reflects rigid thinking, “bets the farm,” and contributes to reputational damage.

See also:

Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Repeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change

Image credits:,,


Leave a reply

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.

Image credits:,,,


Leave a reply

Online surveys: Capture data beyond the vocal minority

Too often, marketing is a one-way street, an avenue for organizations to merely “talk at” their members and supporters. Smart marketers, heads of development and executive directors understand that it’s just as important to know what their constituencies are thinking about all the issues that impact their favorite causes. Ignoring constituent feedback, or only sporadically collecting input with no real plan or intent to put that feedback to use, is a risky proposition that can cause you to become disconnected from your most vital audiences and severely impact your organization’s mission.


Online surveys are an effective tool for gathering feedback from the widest range of your constituents, not just the most vocal minority. Spending time with volunteers, talking with members and connecting at events is a great way to stay connected. However, those casual conversations are too often seen as a replacement for understanding the thoughts and concerns of those you serve. An online survey program lets you accurately understand the point of view and opinions of every constituent who spares you the few minutes it takes to complete a survey. Additionally, the anonymous component of an online survey is a draw for many members to share feedback that they may not otherwise share.


Determine your focus


The first step in creating a successful survey program is to decide what you would like to learn from your members. A regular series of surveys can be a roadmap for your communications, but only if you know where to turn. Are you looking to expand your membership, get closer to your donors, increase donation or inspire more volunteers? A survey can help determine your direction. Some popular topics for regular surveys include:


Membership satisfaction

Donor loyalty

Membership needs assessment

Fundraising feedback

Post-event attendee satisfaction


    Once you’ve identified the main objective for your survey, the next step is to write your questions. Use the following list as a guide to help you craft your survey questions, and you’ll be well on your way to creating an effective survey that delivers results you can act on immediately.


    1. Write questions that are easy to understand and to the point. The goal is to write a question that your members can easily understand, without having to reread it. Use simple language and phrase the question as if you were talking to a friend.


    2. Reduce ambiguity. Avoid words and phrases that are left to the survey participant’s interpretation. Words like most, numerous, many, several, etc. mean different things to different people. You want to use words that are more commonly understood, such as almost all, a majority of, almost none and a few, to get better results.


    3. Limit the number of ranking options. When you ask your respondents to rank items in order of preference or importance, try not to surpass six items. Asking them to rank a long list can result in an abandoned survey. If your list is longer, think about breaking it into two questions to help ensure completed surveys.


    4. Avoid questions that could have two meanings. It’s easy to do this without realizing that you’re actually asking for one answer to more than one question. Here’s an example: “How much would you be willing to donate or spend on an auction item at an event?” This type of question is problematic because it asks the respondent to give one answer for two different questions. In this case, someone might be willing to spend more money on an auction item than a straight donation (or vice versa). By asking two different questions, you will get a much more accurate answer.


    5. Offer an “out” for questions that don’t apply. Some members can’t or won’t answer certain questions because they don’t have the experience or aren’t really sure how they want to respond. For these situations, you should offer a “Does not apply” or “Don’t know”

    option for them to select.


    6. Have some fun! Of course, the goal of your survey is to gain valuable information from your membership to better the actions of your organization. But your survey does not have to be all business. Include at least one question that will help you to understand the personalities and other interests of your membership. This, in turn, may help you determine future events or topics for your member communications. For example, consider asking what kind of social gathering members prefer – a wine tasting, art gallery reception or outdoor event, for example.


    Once you’ve completed the questions in your survey, match them against the list of best practices above and keep in mind your original reason for gathering feedback. Focus on the information you hope to gain from your members, and eliminate questions that don’t lead to answers supporting your main goals. It’s also worth it to have a colleague review your questions for tone and ease of reading, and let this person test the survey before sending it out to make sure it works properly.


    Once you begin receiving regular feedback from a broader segment of your constituency, you’ll begin to understand how you can best serve everyone, including those that care and matter but aren’t vocal enough to make their opinions known otherwise. Incorporating the feedback you receive into action will foster a sense of belonging in your members, increasing overall involvement and excitement in your organization.


    See also:


    Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message

    Level Best: How Small and Grassroots Nonprofits Can Tackle Evaluation and Talk Results



    Image credits:,,

    Leave a reply

    Creating a new habit: Incorporating program evaluation into your daily operations

    You are already busy enough. In fact, you’re busy running your programs. You don’t want to steal time away from actually doing the work and spend it on evaluation. Let’s face it: evaluation takes staff time, some expertise and money.

    At the same time, you know that evaluation is at the very least a necessary evil. I’ve been hearing this comment repeatedly, “More and more funders are demanding information about outcomes, not just outputs.” And, in your heart of hearts, you know it can be a force for good if you use it to improve your program.

    So, what to do? Simply start asking yourself two key questions on a regular basis. For any and all of your programs, new or ongoing, ask yourself:

    What are we trying to achieve with this program?

    What will I see and hear that will indicate to me whether we’re achieving what we want to achieve?

    Let’s take an example from my home life. If I were planning a yard sale and I asked myself the first key question (What did I want to achieve?), I would tell you that I wanted to

    a) get rid of all my useless stuff,

    b) make a little spending money,

    c) accomplish (a) and (b) without driving myself nuts and wearing myself out in the process.

    If you then asked me the second key question (What would I see and hear that would indicate that I was achieving my desired outcomes?), I would say that at the end of the day, I would see an empty yard and a full cash box, and I would not be exhausted from the process. As far as quantifiable outcomes, I might tell you that 80% of my stuff would be gone from the yard and there would be $50 in the cash box.

    So, what is the significance of these two key questions, and why are they so powerful when it comes to incorporating program evaluation into your day-to-day operations? Simply because program evaluation is, above all, more than using surveys and interviews and focus groups to measure outputs, outcomes and impacts. Program evaluation is a mindset. Program evaluation is a manner of thinking in evaluative terms. When you start asking yourself about achievements and predicting what you will see and hear that will help you understand your achievements, you are thinking about–-no, you are actually doing–program evaluation.

    At this point you may be wondering, “What good is a mindset when my funders are asking for numbers and touching stories about how we are changing lives? And more numbers?”

    There are two advantages of having and practicing a mindset:

    Without it, program evaluation is pure tedium, and besides, you’re probably doing it wrong and thus wasting your resources.

    With a mindset of evaluative thinking, you are on the right track to the reliable numbers and valid touching stories that your funders want.

    To start practicing right away, ask yourself the two key questions in the following situations:

    at a staff meeting as the season’s work begins.

    at a board meeting when considering which program(s) to cut and which to grow.

    with a funder who shows you an RFP for a potential program which may be a good fit for your organization.

    with your colleagues in social situations while you’re brainstorming ways to change the world for the better.

    by yourself on a weekend when you can’t help wondering why a particular program feels stale and another one animates you whenever you think about it.

    I guarantee that if you begin asking yourself these questions on a regular basis (this means at least a couple of times each week), evaluation practices will naturally follow. Without any additional drudgery on your part, you’ll find yourself doing things like…

    debriefing programs with your staff by asking specific questions such as, “What did you see and hear, and what does that tell you about whether we’ve achieved what we wanted to achieve?” These are even more powerful than the excellent common question, “What worked and what didn’t work and what should we do differently next time?”

    building a budget for a proposed program that allocates 11 or 12 hours per week of your program director’s time instead of 10 hours, so that he or she has some additional time to think evaluatively.

    designing and distributing quick surveys at your events. There’s a strong possibility that you already do this, and it’s equally likely that your current survey isn’t asking the questions that get at what you really want to know. Once you’ve asked the two key questions about any program, you’ll naturally refer back to those questions and your surveys will become significantly more useful.

    Before you know it and without any sense of resistance or undue burden, you’ll be doing exactly what you need to do to make your funders happy and gather useful information to improve your program.

    So, start incorporating program evaluation into your day-to-day operations today. Place the two key questions on your computer desktop so that you’ll see it every day. Then, take a minute to focus on one of your programs and begin your new habit by asking yourself, “What are we trying to achieve with this program?”


    If you would like to participate in an online Google Doc forum to help build the habit of asking yourself the two key questions, go to, then go to the Links Page, then follow the link to the Google Doc.

    See also:

    Level Best

    Leap of Reason

    Leave a reply

    Four trends will impact your financial management

    Many of us wish we had a crystal ball for strategic planning and financial forecasting. Marc Chardon, CEO of nonprofit software provider Blackbaud, came close to this wish in his article earlier this year, “Peering into the Nonprofit Crystal Ball.” He identified four key trends that will have the strongest impact on the nonprofit sector this year based on his observations and conversations with leaders in the nonprofit sector. These trends were also formed by conducting research at Blackbaud.

    At Execute Now!, my staff is often in the position of helping nonprofits forecast their financial positions in order to improve their organizations’ strategic decision making about important funding matters. As a result, I thought I would share my interest in Chardon’s view of how nonprofits will be impacted by these 2013 trends.

    1. Increase in charitable giving will not be dramatic: Considering the tough economic times we are currently experiencing as well as post-regulatory uncertainty, giving will be flat, says Chardon.

    2. The nonprofit sector will go through a revaluing process: A nonprofit will be evaluated on the basis of its tax status as it relates to its business model. Millennials securing nonprofit degrees and Boomers leading organizations as a second career will change the sector climate.

    3. Technology will play a major role for both nonprofits and their supporters: Chardon predicts a tipping point for nonprofits using technology in 2013. Mobile devices in the sector will more than double in 2013. Nonprofits will use technology in donor services, mission delivery and a more comprehensive approach to constituency relations.

    4. The world is shrinking and philanthropic borders are broadening: Competition for donor support will broaden as we see wealth shift to developing countries. Technology has made it easy for donors to engage with causes no matter where they are around the globe.

    So what does this mean for nonprofits as they head into 2013and beyond?

    Enable responsiveness. It’s never been more important to make financial leadership apriority within your organization. You need strong administrative systems and a sophisticated financial infrastructure that will allow you to successfully respond to the changes ahead.

    Give new models financial care. You need to reexamine your funding model and understand that once you undergo a potential change, it’s an evolving process. You need someone at the wheel, either through employment or outsourcing, who can help you monitor the new model’s outcomes and assist with adjustments and new directions as needed.

    Worldwide causes’ increased competition for donors and a forecast for flat giving in 2013 require all nonprofits to ask the relevant question: Is your mission rooted in a “must-have” space that compels donors to give? If not, and your organization falls within the “softer services” silo, consider your options for alternative revenue sources or earned income. As you consider these options, do so with an eye on technology to determine how it can help you reach your goals.

    See also:

    Leave a reply


    Big changes start with small steps

    It has been almost two years since the release of “Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector.”In that piece, my colleagues and I looked at how the combined effect of demographic shifts, technological advances, increasing emphasis on working via networks, evolving norms around civic engagement and volunteerism, and the blurring of boundaries between sectors was putting enormous pressure on nonprofits to think differently and work differently–to become true “futurists” in pursuit of mission advancement. Much has changed in two years (put down that iPad–you can check responses to your organization’s Twitter feed in just a few minutes), but one thing has stayed the same: the “future” is a moving target. Keeping current can feel like drinking from a fire hose, and adapting is hard.

    The response to “Convergence” was fascinating from the start. Even in 2009 there were organizations saying, “Of course! We’ve known this for ages and we’re on top of it.” Much more commonly, however, the following reaction has occurred: “Where do we start?” Or, “We’ve started, but just barely.” And, “We’re strapped. What can we realistically do now? How do we move forward, even in just one or two areas?” Prolonged economic battering has made a difficult task next to impossible for many organizations, especially those that were under-resourced to begin with.

    So where can you start, if you’re not one of the fortunate few setting the pace for the rest of the sector? The following questions can help focus your efforts:

    1.    What do you want to do differently? Reach out to a broader audience via as-yet-untried social media tools? Engage more supporters in ongoing strategic planning? Shift from a traditional membership model to one that encourages broader participation from a wider network? Build (and truly leverage) a more diverse board or staff team? Consider a multi-sector partnership? Engage in some spirited discussion about where the need for change is most pressing?

    2.    Why? How will making that shift help your organization to better advance its mission? What is the change imperative that will drive your organization and its staff, board members, and volunteers to truly do things differently?

    3.    How can you take the first steps forward in each area? What information do you need and how will you get it? What “baby steps” can you take to start down the path (or paths) you’ve identified?

    4.    Who can take the lead? Is there a champion for this change? Who will do the actual roll-up-your-sleeves work of making things happen? Is this something a volunteer or one staff person can handle? Perhaps a team? Or are you looking at the need for a culture change throughout the organization?

    5.    When and how will you evaluate your progress and its effect on your organization’s ability to advance its mission? There are a thousand, even a hundred thousand, things you can do to step further into the future–you must choose carefully and learn from each success and failure.

    Of course, taking time for this type of conversation isn’t always easy, nor is sustaining the momentum generated when you do. Ideally, questions like this are a regular feature of your board meetings, staff retreats and planning sessions. If they are not, think about where you might be able to introduce them. We encourage our clients to commit to a protected piece of time on both board and staff agendas at least once a month for truly strategic discussions. Wrestling with how to respond and adapt to the rapid changes facing everyone in the sector certainly warrants the time and attention.

    Don’t let the enormity of the topic intimidate you. It’s easy to dive into “what” and “why” and find yourself back to the question that brought you to the discussion in the first place: Where do we start? Start small. Identify your top three questions and go find answers. Test your idea. You may fail, but you’ll learn from it. Be specific, and be willing to check in and articulate the next three steps when you reconvene.

    Change is never simple. External change can be overwhelming, and internal change rocky. Starting with the basics–what, why, how, who and when–can help make it more manageable.

    See also:

    The Nonprofit Business Plan

    The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

    Image credit:

    Leave a reply

    Nonprofit strategy: Who’s in the driver’s seat?

    A few years ago, I discovered a framework for evaluating foundation strategy developed by Peter Frumkin that draws attention to three critical features of strategy: its soundness, the quality of its implementation, and the results it produces. The framework has proven to be immensely helpful to me as I work with foundations and has transferred nicely into my work with other nonprofits.

    The truth is I work with a number of nonprofits that operate under strategies that appear to be…well, less than sound. Either the elements of the strategic plan itself do not seem to hang together or the actions and decisions of the organization do not fall into a discernible pattern. Lacking anything beyond my observations and intuition, however, I could say nothing more than soundness was lacking because I didn’t see evidence of it.

    So, what exactly is that evidence we should look for in assessing soundness of a nonprofit strategy? What is it that holds a strategic plan together or gives coherence to a set of discrete decisions?

    I have concluded that soundness of strategy rests on two essential features. The first is the clarity of the organizational core, a definitive statement encompassing the essential who, what and why of the organization’s work. The second feature of a sound strategy is the presence of a strategy driver. Whereas the core is the starting point for strategy development, the driver is the mechanism that ensures that decisions and actions – whether to strengthen the core or expand beyond it – are intentional and consistent.

    The Organizational Core

    To help clarify the essential elements of the organizational core, I devised the following definition for use with clients:

    Your strongest competencies aimed at the highest priority needs of your targeted      population within your defined domain.

    To illustrate, consider the organizational core of Second Chance, whose mission is to reduce recidivism among ex-offenders by preparing them to acquire and retain gainful employment:

    Strongest competency – teaching and training

    Priority needs – skills to acquire and retain gainful employment

    Target population – recently released inmates

    Domain – the local criminal justice system.

    Once clarified, the core provides the basis for the development of an organizational strategy. It is at this point that the second feature of sound strategy comes into play: the primary strategy driver.

    Strategy Drivers

    The strategy driver, in essence, defines the nature of your business and consequently provides the lens through which program decisions and resource allocations are considered. I present nonprofits with three possibilities: a client-driven strategy, a service-driven strategy and a domain-driven strategy. While all three considerations come into play, a sound strategy utilizes a primary driver as its guide (“what prompts us to act”) and the other two to set boundaries (“how far we will go”). To illustrate, consider the choices facing Second Chance.

    A client-driven strategy is based on the specialized needs of the target population and leads an organization to seek additional opportunities to address those needs. For Second Chance, this means deciding which specific needs of former inmates it will – and won’t – address (the service boundary) and where they will go to reach additional clients in the target population (the domain boundary). A client-driven strategy might lead to the development of services to help new inmates and their families prepare for reunification.

    A service-driven strategy builds on the organization’s content expertise or specialized knowledge. For Second Chance, this would mean offering its core expertise – preparing individuals to secure gainful employment – in new places or to new groups of people. The boundaries are defined by which groups it believes can benefit from that core expertise (theclient boundary) and where those new groups can be found (the domain boundary). A service-driven strategy might lead Second Chance to develop a training program for displaced workers from local manufacturing plants.

    With a domain-driven strategy, the organization responds to the changing needs or preferences that occur within its “sandbox” as it has defined it. For Second Chance, this would mean building on its relationship with the local criminal justice system to address additional issues or concerns related to recidivism. The boundaries of the strategy are defined by which people it would serve (the client) and how it believes it can best meet their most pressing needs (the service). A domain-driven strategy might lead to the addition of recovery programs for inmates with alcohol or drug dependency.


    By identifying the organizational core and the primary strategy driver at the outset, boards and executive staff set the framework for discussions that are far more likely to produce a strategy that is focused, relevant and consistent over time.

    See also:

    The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

    Nonprofit Strategic Positioning

    The Nonprofit Business Plan

    Image credit:


    Leave a reply

    Welcome! Please provide your log-in information below.
    Forget your password?
    Enter your email or user name and your log-in information will be sent to the email on file.