About Dr. Gary Kelsey

Dr. Gary Kelsey is a faculty member in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Walden University. As a consultant, he has also provided assistance and training to more than 350 nonprofit, philanthropic, education, and government organizations.

Strategic Planning – Timing, Steps, and Expectations When Creating a Roadmap for Your Organization’s Future

Nonprofit Strategic Planning AdviceOver the years, the term “strategic planning” has become so commonly used (and misused) that it has practically lost its meaning. Strategic planning—creating a roadmap for an organization’s future—is a critical process. It’s important to determine if and when it’s the right time to start the process; what the key components, steps, and benefits are to creating a successful plan; and who should be involved in the process.

Timing Is Everything

As is true in many things, proper timing is essential to the strategic planning process. While it can be tempting to want to conduct strategic planning when a crisis hits, this is the worst time to consider it. It does not make sense to plan an organization’s future through the lens of a crisis when its immediate future is in question. It is best to conduct crisis planning (ideally before a crisis hits) and consider the longer term future when your organization is back in steady waters. Going through the strategic planning process to fulfill a grant requirement can also be problematic. Not only can it bring into question the integrity of the process, but it is also not mission-based, which is a fundamental component of successful strategic planning.

Strategic planning has two main purposes: to determine what an organization intends to accomplish in the future and to figure out how to get there. This process is best undertaken when an organization is stable and has the time, resources, data, and stakeholder buy-in to fully complete the process. In addition, it is essential that the leadership intends to follow through on the recommendations. There is no sense in creating a plan that will never be properly implemented.

Timeline: What’s Realistic and What’s Not

So, how long does it take to create a strategic plan, and how long a time period should it cover? The size and complexity of an organization are significant factors in determining the amount of time it takes to create a strategic plan, but in general, you should be prepared to spend several months creating a framework. If you take significantly longer than that, the plan can lose relevance, momentum, and stakeholder interest.  Given the amount of time they take to create and implement, most strategic plans cover a time period of 3 years—long enough to allow time for the plan to be enacted and show results, but not so long that the data and goals should change.

Day-long and weekend retreats dedicated to strategic planning have become popular for many organizations, but ideally, the process should be spread over several months, so that true perspective and adequate time can be given to data collection and mapping out the future of your organization.

Who Should Take Part in the Process?

Exclusivity is critical to effective strategic planning. Gathering input exclusively from top management and the board of directors will not give you the breadth and depth of information that you need, nor will it create ownership among varying stakeholders. It is best to put together a core group of people that represents a cross-section of the organization to work through the strategic planning steps. An ideal planning group has 20 or fewer individuals, but that does not mean that you cannot reach out to other groups and individuals to get their perspectives. Ultimately, you want and need a vision for your organization that bubbles up, not one that is top-down.

Benefits of Strategic Planning

When done well, strategic planning can have many benefits for your organization. It can create focus and direction for the future, provide goals and objectives that can be evaluated and measured, build teams, give individuals and leadership a sense of control, assist in prioritizing activities, and create scenarios where you can be proactive instead of reactive.  In order to achieve these benefits, you must be conscious of the time, resources, and buy-in that are needed to successfully create and implement a strategic plan. Your organization’s future is depending on it.


Behavior Counts: Putting Your Nonprofit Board on a Positive Path

Board members come to nonprofit organizations with varying skills, understanding, and expectations. Though many are accomplished professionals with expertise in finance, law, marketing, or another area of great value to the organization, they don’t necessarily know what it means to be an effective board member.

nonprofit board adviceThis is reflected in the behavior of some nonprofit board members. For example, they might not regularly attend or participate in board meetings, or may fail to follow through on commitments. In other instances, they might be domineering in board meetings, micromanage staff, or speak in confrontational or negative ways.

Yet no one should bash the board or gnash their teeth when a nonprofit organization encounters this behavior. Instead, when people overstep or underperform, there’s an opportunity to help them become better board members. An organization can clarify roles and boundaries, address the issues, and ensure that future board members understand their responsibilities from the start.

Create Clarity for Board Members

Imagine some worst-case scenarios. Though they may seem extreme, they’re all taken from the actual experiences of nonprofit organizations I’ve worked with as a board member or consultant.

In one instance, a board was grappling with a contentious issue and brought the decision to a vote. The measure passed, but barely. Then one board member, still unhappy with the outcome, voiced dissatisfaction publicly. Unfortunately, the board member happened to share his negative feelings with the nonprofit’s single largest donor, which is never appropriate.

What happens in a board meeting should stay in a board meeting. Members also need to recognize that when they join a board, they represent the entire organization, not just themselves. This means they must support decisions made by the board as a whole, no matter how much they may disagree.

Nonprofit organizations can help their board members understand what is and what is not appropriate by creating and sharing a written code of conduct. This document informs board members that donor and client information is always confidential. It also makes clear that gossiping in the community is never acceptable.

In another case, a board member met someone from a nonprofit with a similar mission. They talked about potential collaboration between their two organizations and agreed a partnership would go forward. But the board member was in no position to make this promise: The decision belonged to the nonprofit’s executive director with board input or approval if the collaboration impacted policy. Only if the executive director asked for board input or the decision had an impact on organizational policy would it be appropriate for anyone else to be involved.

As this example illustrates, board members may not understand their role or realize the delineations and boundaries between the board and the executive director. Clarifying matters helps them know that their role is to govern, while the executive director manages day-to-day activities and directs staff.

A strong board chair who has a good working relationship with the executive director can help ensure that board members understand their role. Developing a written job description for board members is also an effective way to make expectations clear and provide a reminder if a problem arises.

In reality, board members usually have the nonprofit’s best interests in mind and often realize they’re acting in ways that challenge the organization. Once they’re made aware of the behavior and its effect on the rest of the board and the nonprofit as a whole, it typically doesn’t happen again.

Retrain, Reassign, or Replace

Sometimes, however, it takes more than a conversation—or even written policies and job descriptions—to change troublesome behavior. Fortunately, when it persists, nonprofit organizations have additional ways to deal with board members.

One option is retraining, either individually or as a group. When I’ve worked with nonprofit organizations, we’ve held board retreats to review the role of members. This is the time to remind people what is expected of them and go over the code of conduct and appropriate policies for boards.

Coaching is another useful approach. I like to involve the board chair because this presents an opportunity for peer-to-peer coaching. The executive director can also participate. Talk about the situation that’s troubling the organization. If the issue is a domineering board member, discuss other ways the person can express opinions.

Coaching is closely related to counseling. Ask the board member whether the role is still a good match. Also find out whether circumstances beyond the board are affecting the person’s behavior. Someone in a stressful situation may want to take a temporary leave, and suggesting this option shows support for a board colleague.

Sometimes a person is simply in the wrong role. Instead of being a board member, someone might prefer to help with a specific activity or program. Reassigning a board member to a different, more enjoyable role resolves problem behavior and keeps the person close to the organization.

If all else fails, nonprofits should be able to fire a board member. When behavior can no longer be tolerated and retraining, coaching, and counseling haven’t worked, it’s time to vote for removal. Though this rarely happens, when it does, it is important to be respectful. Also be certain to have strong documentation of the behavior that led to dismissal, which should reflect the organization’s board personnel policy. Thank the person for serving on the board and end the relationship.

Although dealing with a difficult member can be challenging, the experience often creates a greater sense of community on the board. Afterward, I’ve seen board members grow closer and become friends. The result is not only an effective board that works well together but also a stronger organization.

Recruit to Prevent Problems

A targeted and thoughtful approach to board recruitment can help organizations avoid many of the kinds of issues I’ve described. There’s far more to consider than a person’s willingness to serve.

Nonprofits should start by taking a snapshot of their current board, evaluating the strengths and interests of its members. Comparing these with the organization’s strategic plan will point out gaps to fill through recruitment. For example, if fundraising is a priority but only one person has an interest and experience in this area, look for this expertise in a new board member. Also consider board representation and whether there’s an opportunity to diversify based on geography, gender, or another characteristic appropriate for the organization and its mission.

Aim to identify more candidates than there are openings on the board. Vet these prospective board members internally and have someone on the nominating committee speak to them directly. This way, there are enough candidates to choose from if some are too busy to become board members, but it isn’t necessary to accept everyone.

Send candidates a job description, and outline the function of the board. Remember, if people are simply asked to join a board, they won’t know what to expect.

Next, I recommend that the executive director and board members interview interested candidates. This will provide a sense of the person’s motivation to become a board member. For example, is the candidate focused on a single issue or prepared to place the organization’s priorities above a personal interest? Through the conversation, someone’s past experience with nonprofit boards and communication style become evident. Often, red flags about a prospective board member’s behavior will arise during this interview.

Good recruitment may not eliminate all the surprises later, but ensuring someone understands a board member’s role from the start certainly lessens the likelihood of bad behavior. That, in turn, creates a more positive experience for everyone in the organization.

Getting Enthused About Fundraising: What Nonprofits and Board Members Need to Know

Fundraising Ideas for Nonprofit OrganizationsIt’s a scenario I’ve seen time and time again as a consultant to nonprofit organizations: board members are told to come to their next meeting with the names of 10 people who can be asked to make a gift to the organization. They nod in agreement, but their expressions tell me that this is something they don’t want to do. Sure enough, a month later, the board members return without the names.

I can explain why this happens: people have a fear of asking for money. In my experience, nonprofit board members are far more likely to describe fundraising as “begging” than to say they enjoy it. Their hesitancy to ask for money makes them uncomfortable in their fundraising role. This makes them less successful than they must be in order for the organization to have the necessary resources to operate and fulfill its mission.

The economic downturn has only added to these anxieties about fundraising. Board members, who may be worried about finances themselves, may be reluctant to ask someone else to support the organization for fear the person might not have the funds available to give.

Nonprofits are also struggling to recruit new board members, which can further hamper their fundraising efforts later on. In uncertain times, people are often hesitant to make new commitments. Prospective board members, like many other people, may be piecing together two or three part-time positions or working longer hours to keep their full-time jobs. With less free time, they may be concerned about whether they’ll be able to fulfill the duties of a board member.

The challenge to recruit board members and their hesitancy to ask people for financial support has a direct impact on the ability of nonprofit organizations to fund their operations. Many nonprofits are overly dependent on grants or events as a revenue source. But weathering the ups and downs of the economy calls for a more diversified portfolio. It requires gifts from individuals as well as board members who are willing partners in facilitating these gifts.

As a result, it’s more important than ever for nonprofits to pursue strategies to strengthen board engagement and involvement. It’s equally important to understand the psychological and societal barriers to asking for money. Only then will nonprofit organizations and their board members be fully prepared to achieve their fundraising goals.

Understand Money Matters

Nonprofits should start by looking at why board members are hesitant to take on a fundraising role. For many people, fear of fundraising has its roots in childhood. From a young age, we’re socialized to believe that money is private. We don’t talk about it, and we certainly don’t ask other people to give it to us. We’re told that money doesn’t grow on trees and that we should save money, not give it away. The messages communicated to us, both spoken and unspoken, are strong and lasting. It’s understandable, therefore, that board members feel uncomfortable about fundraising. They hold a deeply ingrained belief that it’s inappropriate to talk about or ask for money.

These perceptions about money need to be acknowledged early with board members. The time to begin is during the recruitment process. Nonprofits should interview prospective board members about their attitudes toward money and asking for money. They should also provide a written job description explaining that board members are expected to make a gift that’s meaningful to them, in an amount that’s meaningful to them. Taking these steps lessens the likelihood that board members will be surprised when they’re asked to participate in fundraising.

Similar conversations with current board members are also necessary. A retreat setting is a good place for individual and group meetings about issues related to money. Giving board members an opportunity to share their societal and family messages about money allows nonprofits to better understand and address their specific concerns.

Having these conversations impacts board member satisfaction. Remember that board members are in many ways like any other volunteers. They need to feel comfortable in their role and be willing to continue to fulfill it successfully.

Most of all, nonprofits need to remind board members why they ask people for money: it enables individuals to invest in the work of an organization and accomplish something extraordinary that they could not do themselves. Rather than equating fundraising with begging—a dynamic that pits the powerful against the powerless and produces discomfort on both sides—board members should realize that they’re creating a mutually satisfying relationship.

Find the Right Roles

There is, however, more to fundraising than asking for money. Nonprofit organizations often view fundraising as a two-step process of identifying a potential donor and then asking for a gift. But fundraising can also be seen as a more holistic process—one of development—that includes five key steps rather than two: identification, cultivation, education, solicitation, and appreciation. Looking at fundraising in this way allows board members who are hesitant about fundraising to engage in it without asking for money. It also leaves room for nonprofit organizations to recruit a diversified board, including those whose capacity to contribute extends beyond their financial means.

Board members can help nonprofits find potential partners whose values and interests are aligned with those of the organization. They can assist in cultivating a relationship between these individuals and the nonprofit, and in educating people about its activities. This could involve meeting someone for coffee, serving on a special events committee, adding a personal message to a fundraising appeal or writing a thank you note to a donor. Board members who are comfortable asking for a gift can, of course, participate in the solicitation stage.

Looking at the responsibility as development rather than fundraising allows board members to take on tasks that will bring them satisfaction and success. It enables everyone who supports the nonprofit—including board members hesitant about fundraising—to participate in ensuring the nonprofit’s capacity to thrive.

Provide Opportunities for Engagement

The work of a board can be somewhat removed from the daily work of the organization. Yet engaging board members with a nonprofit’s programs and services will help them become more informed, motivated, and effective fundraisers.

Nonprofit leaders can choose from a number of strategies to increase board members’ engagement. Plan a board action day to directly involve them in activities with clients. Encourage board members to invite the executive director to speak about the organization at a community group meeting, or to make a presentation themselves. Or ask clients to write letters to the board that describe how they have benefited from the organization’s work.

Board members need to hear the stories that bring a nonprofit’s work to life. Be sure they know how the organization’s services and programs impact an individual’s well-being or enable people to do extraordinary things. Ask staff and volunteers to make short presentations at board meetings that tell the powerful stories behind an organization’s facts and figures. These are the stories that board members can later share with prospective donors.

Also prepare board members for the moment when they will ask someone for money. Fear of rejection often accompanies hesitancy about fundraising. Board members must realize that “no” is not personal. Rather than rejecting the person or organization asking for a gift, the prospective donor may not yet know enough about the nonprofit to be ready to contribute or has already allocated this year’s charitable funds elsewhere.

What matters most in this situation is to remain gracious and respectful. When someone declines to make a gift, board members can encourage a continued connection by asking whether the person would like to receive the organization’s newsletter, annual report or event invitation. Increased involvement may lead to a gift in the future, transforming “no” to “yes.”

When board members are engaged, motivated, and aware of their feelings about money and rejection, they have a more positive board experience and a greater impact. As I’ve observed in my work with nonprofit organizations, board members who understand their fundraising role, and are comfortable in it, are also more capable of raising money. That’s another outcome of engagement—when people realize they can make a difference in the lives of others, they often become amazingly generous.


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