imperfect metrics

Is Your Nonprofit’s Strategy Only Stating Ambitions Rather Than Solving Problems?

 

Is Your Nonprofit’s Strategy Only Stating Ambitions Rather Than Solving Problems?

By: Eugene  Fram                Free Digital Image

McKinsey & Company in a recent article interviewing author and academic Richard Remelt discusses this strategy question for business organizations.*  Following is my estimation how the article’s information might be applied to the nuances encountered in nonprofit strategy development. 

Strategy Results

In evaluating strategies, nonprofit boards often only use the easier to measure results, for examples, membership size and financial ratios.

But progress for nonprofits often also must be measured in qualitative formats.  “Not being able to afford the time and money to develop excellent qualitative metrics (e.g., enhanced life quality, community commitment), to glean whatever they can from using imperfect metrics.” **

Richard Remelt suggests there is a big difference between strategies developed for actions versus ambitions.  My experiences with nonprofit strategy development suggest that many nonprofits focus on ambition rather than the problems to be solved by the next three-year plan.  He calls a strategy based on ambition “bad strategy.”   “Bad strategy is almost a literary form that uses PowerPoint slides to say, ‘Here is how we will look as a company in three years.’  That is interesting,  but it’s not a strategy.”

For nonprofits, his analysis also relates to the difference between program outcomes and program impacts. For example, A human services strategy can have good program outcomes but fail to have client impacts because basic causes aren’t/can’t be addressed. 

Board Member Motivation

The median nonprofit board member serves a term ranging from four to six years. In contrast, the average tenure for a public board member is 9.7 years.

Assuming this frequent turnover, the nonprofit director/trustee will only be involved with one strategic planning cycle. Even with a board member highly dedicated to the mission’s objectives, the brief tenure structure can dampen motivations to rigorously participate in strategic planning.  

I have seen this evolve frequently, especially when the board approves the performance of a “mind-the-store executive director,” as opposed to an “entrepreneurial” type.  Operationally, the former executive director can be described as one seeking stability over innovation.  She/h can produce modest income increases with balanced budgets, often supported by substantial legacy financial endowments.

Involving Staff in Strategic Planning and Other Insights 

  • Rumelt suggests limiting the number of persons involved in strategic board planning.  For larger nonprofits, this might only include senior and/or division management.  For smaller and midsized nonprofits, this might involve management and some professional staff. Organizationally, in these nonprofits, the two groups may be only one or two levels apart.
  • Ask simple questions like: “If our organization were to disappear, who would miss us?”  “If we were to establish a new agency, who among the staff, would we take with us?”
  • “Boards may not need strategy committees, but they just need a sense of best practice, just as ..(accountants).. have well-established best practice in accounting:”  I agree that nonprofit boards do not need a standing strategy committee.  The development and maintenance of the strategic plan is the joint responsibility of the CEO and Board Chair. Together they can use a simple maintenance device by relating most 
     problem-solving efforts, generated in nonprofit board meetings to the 
     strategic plan. 

* https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/why-bad-strategy-is-a-social-contagion

 

** https://nonprofitquarterly.org/using-imperfect-metrics-well-tracking-progress-and-driving-change/

A Nonprofit Board Has A Problem With A Recently Hired CEO – What To Do?

 

A Nonprofit Board Has A Problem With A Recently Hired CEO – What To Do?
By: Eugene Fram.         Free Digital Image

With some possible variations, is the following scenario one that is frequently repeated elsewhere?

• The nonprofit board had engaged, Joe, an experienced ED.  The prior ED had been in place for 25 years, and was evidently unwilling to move to meet changing client needs. For example, the agency only offered counseling services five days a week, 9 am to 5pm, with hours extended to 8 pm on Thursday night. There were no client options for emergency calls during nights or during weekends.

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How Nonprofit Boards Can Support Management & Staff and Refrain From Micromanaging!

How Nonprofit Boards Can Support Management & Staff and Refrain From Micromanaging!

By: Eugene Fram                    Free Digital Image

The dilemma is common to nonprofit organizations. As start-ups, everyone aspires to do everything. Passion for the mission and determination to “get it right” imbue board members with the desire to do it all. But once the organization starts to mature, board roles shift to focus more broadly on policy and strategy issues. With the advent of qualified personnel to handle operations, there are many overview activities, sans micromanaging, available to board members. Following are some ways that boards can assist and demonstrate support for operations, CEOs and staffs without interfering.

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Once Again: How Should Nonprofits Conduct Board Evaluations?

 

Once Again: How Should Nonprofits Conduct Board Evaluations?

By: Eugene Fram    Free Digital Image

 Data from BoardSource show that only about 58% of boards have had “formal, written self-assessment of board performance at some point. Only 40% of all boards have done an assessment in the past two Years,” a recommended practice. With the rapid turnover of directors that nonprofit boards traditionally experience, this seems inexcusable. As a “veteran” nonprofit director, following is what I think can be done to improve the situation.

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What Makes A Great Nonprofit Board Member?  Some Unique Suggestions!!!

What Makes A Great Nonprofit Board Member?  Some Unique Suggestions!!!

By: Eugene Fram          Free Digital Photo

Viewers may question my taking time to develop this post when a Google search, using the above title, shows about 302 million listings recorded in 0.63 of second! The answer is that I located a board article with a few interesting insights, relating to for-profit boards, that also can be useful to the selection of nonprofit directors. * Following are some of the unusual ideas.

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The Nonprofit Dream Team: a Board/CEO Partnership that Works!

The Nonprofit Dream Team: a Board/CEO Partnership that Works!

By: Eugene H. Fram    Free Digital Image

Rebalancing and maintaining important relationships in a nonprofit organization can be important to its success. Do various players fully understand and accept their specific roles? Is there mutual trust between players? Are communications open and civil?

I encountered an association CEO who complained that his board wants to judge him without establishing mutually agreeable goals, outcomes or impacts. He felt what is needed is a partnership arrangement where the board does not judge the CEO and organization based on political or personal biases but overviews performance in terms of mutually accepted achievements. This, he contended, forms a substantial partnership between board and CEO and staff. If the board thinks it can judge management without these measures he stated, it generates a personal political type of evaluation unrelated to performance. As an example he pointed to an unfortunately common nonprofit situation where a CEO is given an excellent review and fired six months later because there has been a change in the internal board dynamics.

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Are Your Board and Staff Ready For Change?

Free Digital Image

Are Your Board and Staff Ready For Change?

By: Eugene Fram               Free Digital Image

“Ideally, change takes place only when is “a critical mass of board and staff want … it. A significant … portion of leadership must realize that the status quo won’t do” * Based on my experiences, this ideal is rarely achieved because:

  • The CEO needs to support the changes being suggested and/or mandated by a majority of the board.   But, if not fully invested in the change, he/s can accede to board wishes for action but move slowly in their implementations. The usual excuse for slow movement is budget constraint.

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NONPROFITS NEED A BRAND THAT RESONATES!

NONPROFITS NEED A BRAND THAT RESONATES!

By: Eugene Fram       Free Digital Photo

How do people see your organization? Is your nonprofit clearly perceived, and the unique nature of its work, fully understood in the community or industry?

Nonprofit board members occasionally talk about the organizational brand image but rarely take tangible steps to define it. Yet the creation of a strong brand is a major factor in generating public respect, support and significant funding sources. Potential donors need to believe implicitly in the impact of the nonprofit on its clients. They also need to understand the realities implied in the brand image that fail to match the realities of the organization’s operations. For example, some family services agencies (actually multi-human service groups), have long struggled with a brand perception that they offer only family reproduction services.

Following are some guidelines that may help improve a current image or further clarify the mission which fuels the dedicated efforts of boards, staff and volunteers:

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Questions For Nonprofit Board Meetings—And Why They Are Needed 

Questions For Nonprofit Board Meetings—And Why They Are Needed 

My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions. – Peter Drucker 

By: Eugene Fram    Free Digital Image

Knowing the right questions to ask at a nonprofit board meeting is a critical part of a board member’s responsibility. Following is a list that, as a nonprofit director, I want to keep handy at meetings. * I also will suggest why I think each is important in the nonprofit environment. Compliance and overviewing management alone do not guarantee success.  

  • What is our one sentence strategy?: It needs be short to convey the essence of the impact the organization is creating—a brief abstract of your mission that is easy to understand. Example from my experiences: “We serve the homeless and seniors by helping them to sustain their lives with healthy food, housing and other support services.”
  • What is our organization’s 10-to-15 year dream?: Not a question frequently asked, but needed to fashion strategies in the intervening period. Traditionally board and management feel that such dreams don’t have practical applications. They do if passed to future generations of boards and managers. To foster continuing discussion, a good idea is to initiate a simple process, which is implemented every few years, to determine whether or not these “dreams” are still relevant and being accepted by board and staff.  
  • What are the non-negotiable core values that dictate how we behave?: Something that needs to be reviewed annually by a group of more visionary board people and management. In rapidly growing nonprofits these may not have been communicated to new managers and employees
  • What are the key priorities we need to focus on in the next three to five years?: Needed as a motivation to asses the impact of strategic planning. Too often operational issues instead of strategic items dominate meeting agendas.  
  • What are the key metrics or key performance indicators we will use to measure our progress? Both quantitative (e.g., financial, clients served) and qualitative (e.g., advocacy, community impact) need to be addressed. Qualitative impacts are much move difficult to access, and often they are not developed for the annual review. **
  • What kind of cash flow do we need to sustain and grow our organization?: A key indicator for both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. The importance of strong cash flow is encompassed in the adage “cash is king.” Having cash puts the nonprofit in a more stable position with better buying power. While the nonprofit can borrow money at times, cash affords the organization greater protection against loan defaults or foreclosures. Cash flow is distinct from cash position. Having cash on hand is critical, but cash flow indicates an ongoing ability to generate and use cash. Nonprofits that include in-kind donations in their revenue streams have an obligation to separate cash vs. in-kind income for financial analysis. and annual reports to stakeholders.

All of these questions need to be reviewed annually, but in my experiences they rarely surface in board discussions.   

*https://mahlab.co/blog/associations-are-you-asking-your-members-the-right-questions/

**https://nonprofitquarterly.org/using-imperfect-metrics-well-tracking-progress-and-driving-change/#:~:text=To%20be%20more%20precise%20about,or%20cannot%20be%20precisely%20replicated.

Can Small Experiments Test Nonprofit Strategic Validity?

Can Small Experiments Test Nonprofit Strategic Validity?

By: Eugene Fram        Free digital image

When given a series of potential mission changes, modifications or opportunities, most nonprofit boards take the following steps: (1) Discuss alternatives (2) Develop working plans, board/staff presentations and funding proposals (3) All three usually are packaged into a three or five year strategic plan for implementation. Typically the process can take about six months to “get all stakeholders on board.” When something new is suggested, the conservative board and nonprofit management immediately respond, “Great idea, let’s consider it in the new strategic plan.” Results: It can take three to five years to implement the idea, assuming the plan actually gets off the shelf, not an unusual occurrence for nonprofit organizations!


Another alternative being implemented by some nonprofit is to use a rapid experimentation approach called Lean. “First developed for use in the for-profit world,(especially startup ventures) … the method focuses on new ideas for products/services through iterative experiments. Lean practitioners build simple prototypes ‘called minimum viable products/services (MVPs),’ …move quickly to get feedback on these items from constituents/stakeholders.” * As long as they have some positive iterations they continue to full product development.

Example:  The small software division of a larger firm suggested a program that it felt certain would have great marketability because of it perceived uniqueness.

As an initial part of a  Lean process, the software developers were required to present it personally to a small group of potential customers. As a result of the interviews, both marketing and development executives dropped it.



How Can Nonprofit Boards Utilize Lean Experimentation?

These lean experiments can be conducted at minimum costs and with small samples that initially may not be statistically significant. (For example, in the software case cited above, there were only four customers in the sample, but they were significant ones.)

Not being able to afford the time and money to develop excellent metrics, nonprofit boards, especially in assessing ambiguous and qualitative impacts, need to initially glean what they can from the use of imperfect metrics. (http://bit.ly/OvF4ri). The metrics can be anecdotal, subjective, interpretive or qualitative. For most nonprofits, it is a great leap forward from doing nothing or taking years to implement action. Also losing time invested in offering a client centered opportunity? The most critical requirement is that the directors and management agree that the process is reasonable and that outcomes from each experimental iteration constitute fair and trustworthy information.

A Current Example

There seems to be a growing body of knowledge of how to apply the art of lean in the nonprofit environment. * The use of lean to assess the proper venues to select social media by which to communicate with donors and other stakeholders is an example. All agree that the use of various social media venues is difficult to assess for both for-profits and nonprofits.

Here, as an example, is what might be done to obtain some directions on using social venues to reach millennials. Charitable nonprofits are seeking ways to communicate with this group as potential volunteers and future donors. Instead of a board waiting to take action on a broad social media strategy before taking some action on social media, it might start with some small-scale, low cost experiments. The information it obtains from one or two MPVs would be useful in backing into a comprehensive social media strategy when a new strategic plan is needed. But an early MPV also might provide some information for immediate action.

Summary: Like any management process lean is not a panacea for either the business or nonprofit sectors. It has its advantages and disadvantages and will not replace more rigorous process, when required–longitudinal studies and strategic planning. However, its experimental design feature can help drive the nonprofit decision process to be more effective and efficient. That alone can help to recruit more able directors, who because of time-compressed lifestyles, now are impatient with the traditional pace of nonprofit decision-making.

* For a robust report on the use of lean in the nonprofit sector see:  (http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_promise_of_lean_experimentation)