Volunteer Burn-Out is a Non-Profit Dilemma

Takeaways: 1) Age demographics and volunteer burn-out are dilemmas for member-based non-profit organizations, 2) Why clear and concise communication is paramount, 3) Why change must be embraced with a revolutionary approach.

Member-based non-profits inherently are subject to the dreaded disease of volunteer burn-out. As I scan the world for member-based non-profits and consider their membership age demographics, two things are crystal clear.

First, the most obvious one is a seriously older demographic, from the few members left of those who were adults in the mid 1900’s to the huge population of baby-boomers worldwide.

Second,  very few of those organizations are working really hard at recruiting and engaging new members of ages 25 to 45. Those that are, struggle to connect across the generational chasm that has generally tripped up humanity for centuries.This has deepened in the last 170 years with the rapid cultural changes brought on by technological advancements.

Balancing planning with action is a common struggle for non-profits, and if they are membership-based, perhaps even more so. This may be more evident among organizations that are 30 years or older, but it also affects those that are newer and have instituted some mature processes and structures.

I am looking at two very worthy member based non-profits. One is experiencing continued success but mild growth in membership. All of its programs are very well received by the communities it serves and its members are overwhelmingly deeply engaged. The other is experiencing membership decline, slow action among its leadership, a lot of activity in planning for the short and long term, and is struggling with its value proposition and member engagement. The first one is over one hundred years old, the other a respectable 15 years young.

A common thread I find in successful organizational development continues to be that of clear and concise communication. Communication of vision, values and goals in a timely and simple manner continue to be the key ingredients to successful member engagement. Why? Because it provides key support and direction to the leaders of the local groups to keep everyone moving toward the same overarching goals.

I see a number of aspects to what I call The Maturity Dilemma. One is that mature member-based organizations generally have a long-established way of doing things that worked for their generation of members. This creates a culture that is comfortable for that age group but likely misses the mark with other age groups. Another aspect is human nature’s normal resistance to change. Throughout our lives we have been taught to seek long-term conformity and stability, in spite of things changing around us all the time. We are not taught to thrive in change and therefore continue to hold this aversion to it. We have not developed the skill sets to thrive in change. So the organizations we lead tend to suffer from the same shortcoming.

Like all systems in the world, yet another aspect to this Maturity Dilemma is entropy. Our member-based non-profits are becoming so comfortable in our “way of doing things” that we simply never respond to the changes taking place OUTSIDE our organization.

I propose that like nearly all for-profit organizations, we must stay more in tune with our “markets” and our external environment. We must establish the processes and structures that will embrace change and help us thrive. We must, in a word, become “revolutionary” from within.

What does that really look like? To me it looks like making change happen fast, like in most revolutions. It looks like planning quickly, acting decisively and being prepared to adjust quickly to the changes we are creating. It looks like we must rapidly evaluate how to leverage the positive results of the changes we make and just as rapidly mitigate the negative results of those changes. It looks like we must not fear failure but instead react quickly to correct it.

I am not suggesting this is easy. In fact it is counter-intuitive to human nature and how we have been taught. We have to be, as author James B. Swartz so eloquently put it, “Seeing David in the Stone”, a reference to the courage displayed by those who pursued a vision without a manual to show them the way. We have many, many tools at our disposal to start us on our way. Planning strategically or tactically is key among them, but balancing that planning with rapid, decisive action is what will win the day. Forcing ourselves to maintain that balance will also drive us to communicate those plans in a timely and concise manner, thereby short-circuiting the entropy that creeps up on our organizations in uncanny mimicry of Alzheimer’s Disease.

If you would like to discuss this topic further, please contact me. My expertise in accelerated change management and deep knowledge of non-profit organizations may be helpful to you!

Strategic Planning Career Takes Focus

Eric A. Denniston, Denner Group International   January 30, 2014

Takeaways: A strategic planning career defined. A possible career path to plan for. What size organizations to seek work in. Valuable certifications to obtain and keep.

Are you already planning to have a career, or switch your career in the direction of Strategic Planning? Make sure you ask yourself what long term outcomes you are looking for and once you are in that career, what becomes possible for you. If you are just beginning to pursue a professional career, ask yourself, what is it about Strategic Planning that spins your jets and what will cause you to pursue such a career with focus, vigor and tenacity. In either case, also make sure you talk to people who are in this career, either as internal practitioners or as consultants and executives who hire these people.

Having an undergraduate degree is a basic place to start if you are planning such a career after or soon after finishing high school. A business degree is more likely to lead to work that is best suited to gaining experience you will need; however, social and engineering sciences can also be very beneficial. This is true because strategic planning in fact requires multi-disciplinary skills.

Large Organizations Provide Platforms for Skill Building

Becoming effective as a planner involving strategy requires significant experience in tactical activities, and getting to know at least one organization of a few hundred employees or more extremely well. This can be accomplished by working in a number of different areas of a company, or a similar company in the same industry, say banking, manufacturing or insurance. Understanding how all those departments interact will lead to good insight for leading planning activities later on. Typical roles that will enhance your career include being a project leader or a department manager, and getting involved in process improvement.

Along the way, skill building will come through practice; and finding mentors, both inside and outside your company, will help immeasurably as well. You should also pursue general and specific education opportunities. A master’s degree in management is a good choice, if possible focused on strategic management, which is a growing area of discipline. You should also become certified in one or more of the following: Strategic Planning and Management (ASP), Project Management (PMI), Business Analysis (IIBA) and Enterprise Architecture (TOGAF). Each of these certifications leads their respective areas of discipline. Going through the training provided for each one will expose you to materials, knowledge and thought leaders that will give your career opportunities a substantial boost. Obtaining and keeping these certifications requires an ongoing commitment. Staying certified demonstrates to others your level of commitment to being among the best in the business.

Larger organizations provide amazingly rich platforms for working at and practicing the different disciplines that lead to being an effective strategic planner. The variety of challenges and problems that occur produce a rich environment for considering how tactical and strategic solutions can be applied to overcome them, and when to use both. Understanding how these complex living systems function and how their various parts interact is key to developing the insights necessary to succeed.

As your career progresses, seek more and more involvement in planning, whether it is department budgets, or planning and leading projects. Understanding the roles different levels of management have in planning will lead to deeper involvement as you prove your skills. Seeking leadership roles in higher and higher level strategic planning initiatives will help as well. Eventually, you may lead the strategic planning or strategic management team, or move on to Change Architecture, which is a natural extension of Strategic Planning and Management.

What’s exciting about work in strategic planning is seeing the broad view of a business while helping to create and execute successful long term plans, and the sense of value that comes from assisting large numbers of people to jointly reach shared goals. This occurs in organizations of all sizes. Job titles include Strategic Planning Manager, Chief Strategy Officer, Program Manager, Portfolio Director and Change Architect. These are all valuable and growing areas of management in organizations worldwide. Global firms present even more challenges generally rooted in the cultural aspects of managing strategy. If you wish to pursue a global career, mastering a second language and spending time in a culture to know it well is a sure way to both enhance your career and your life in general. Gaining a masters’ degree in Global Management is also a plus.

Overcoming Planning Mistakes

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International  11/18/2012

Takeaways: Overcoming planning mistakes requires some strategic thinking up front to ensure all the possible outcomes and issues have been addressed.

I recently had the opportunity to address a group of folks who are undergoing some community-wide leadership training. The topic I was asked to focus on is strategic planning and I tied some leadership issues into the process. I am about to describe a couple of examples of planning mistakes that were takeaways from this session and offer some possible lessons from them.

Imagine you are a coordinator for public services. This could be related to municipal waste management, child protection services or perhaps court administration. You are informed that a new building is being constructed and are told which departments or activities will be moved to the new building. To that end, the people in charge of the planning interview you and your teammates to gain insight about the best use of the new spaces where you will be working. You provide the input and everyone involved walks away with the impression that all the needs and details have been adequately handled.

The new building goes up and suddenly you realize that the way the spaces have been laid out –  in the way of room size, number of rooms and layouts – actually produces a large amount of wasted, generally little-used space.  In addition, the types of users of those spaces and the number of users were not really considered. The planners and designers made some assumptions along the way that were incompletely informed. Their intent was good, just not fully informed.

What do you think went wrong? What may have been missing from the process? Who should be held accountable?

Clearly defined vision is needed

Here are my suggested learnings from this example:

  1. It seems highly probable that a key missing element may have been a clearly defined set of desired outcomes for the public that will be served at that location. Basically, keeping the customer in mind, always.
  2. Not enough time was devoted to laying out the process and the structure for the planning. A little more time devoted to this might have resulted in keeping all the stakeholders, including you, informed, involved and engaged by asking why you thought certain things should be a certain way, all the way up to the end of the project.
  3. Once the initial consultation with you had taken place, the leader of the planning process could have held a brief meeting for the express purpose of laying out how you and the other stakeholders could continue to provide input. Those responsible for executing the project have ultimate decision-making authority but their decisions could have been better informed.

Accountability is subjective, to some degree of course. However, if you are coordinating public services, are you not accountable for how they are delivered and aren’t the facilities an integral part to how effectively those services are delivered? Consider for a moment that you might be engaged in coordinating services for family mediation.

Is it not really valuable to the family attending a counseling session that the environment they are in during such a session be of an appropriate size and have the right furniture to ensure a comfortable and safe environment?

Here is where leadership is also part of the conversation. You are experienced in coordinating these public services and understand the needs of your customers because you are on the front lines, right? Your leadership could be in play by setting up your own structure to stay involved in the planning and execution of the new building so you can keep asking the question “ Why?”, making you accountable to yourself for ensuring a good delivery of services to your customers. Others don’t need to ask you to do it, you just do it as part of your job of being a high performer.

That’s the first level of leadership – Self – followed by One-to-One, Within Departments, Between Departments, Organization-Wide, and then the Organization’s Environment.

Now for another example…..

Let’s say you operate a real estate brokerage with four employees and two months have gone by since you created a strategic plan. This plan outlines the broad strategies that your business is to follow over the next three years. You have established a vision for your business, assessed how the future environment may affect your business, established some key success measures, assessed the current state of your business, outlined those broad strategies, and now must define the major action items that will help you close the gap from today’s reality to your future vision.

Again, I ask: What do you think is going wrong? What may have been missing from the process? Who should be held accountable?

  • First, what strikes me as missing is actually typical of many long-term planning efforts, but probably more common in smaller organizations. Let’s acknowledge that planning takes time and in a small business this means time away from DOING the business, or time away from maintaining a balance in your life. You feel you have created your plan and that’s enough, it’s time to get back to business, right? I say “NOT YET!”
  • You still should spend some time putting the structures and processes in place that clearly outline the expectations and accountabilities of everyone involved in working the plan.
  • The structures could simply be a calendar of meetings that everyone agrees are mandatory.
  • The processes could simply be the owner sharing a series of agendas that the meetings will follow and assigning roles to the staff, like someone to send out reminders, someone else to take minutes of the meeting and someone to gather input from the others on specific topics before the meetings.

Essentially what is going wrong is there is nothing in place to make the plan sustainable. It’s two months after the planning session and you still don’t have action plans and a calendar to follow up. Do you agree with this? Do you sense the plan is already forgotten?

Now, what do you think the next steps are after the long-term plan is completed? Is it complete? I propose it is missing two key parts. One already mentioned is that the major actions are missing that need to be acted upon over time to keep closing the gap toward the vision. These actions are supported by the key success measures also previously mentioned, but they must be clearly written out to serve as references and checkpoints.

Another missing piece is what you can call a Yearly Map of Implementation. This is a schedule of meetings and actions that the business owner or CEO must set up as the strategic planning “retreat or meeting” is concluded. This Yearly Map includes the periodic meetings of the staff (to formally check progress against the plan and make adjustments), specific tasks the owner/CEO must do monthly to hold him/herself accountable to the plan and to check in with, mentor and coach the employees in staying true to the plan.

If your plans, short term or long term, seem to fall short of achieving their stated outcomes you might consider reading more of our articles and exploring how our customized coaching and consulting services can help you improve your organization’s performance. Just contact us to schedule a no obligations interview to determine your needs and how we might help.

Whether you are a non-profit seeking to maximize your fund-raising, an auto-repair shop facing challenges in growing the business, a department or a division of a larger organization or a thriving organization looking to sustain a high level of performance, we can help. Our passion for long-term, sustainable, high performance in managing organizations can help you save money, make your employees and customer happier, and your organization’s future more controllable.

Why is Business Planning So Difficult?

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International 2-20-2-13

Takeaways: Business planning requires strategic thinking and analytical thinking skills. It’s important to understand the difference between the two. Best practices include having clarity about where your business is going, keeping the planning process simple, and involving your staff in the planning.

Nearly all small businesses struggle greatly with most everything having tPlanning mazeo do with planning for their business. The most obvious obstacles are the basic resources of a small business: time and money. I have no doubt that the two most overlooked obstacles to business planning are the lack of management commitment to planning and the lack of skills in planning. Planning skills are not a subject generally taught in school at any level but perhaps graduate degrees and beyond which mystifies me.

So much really good material has been produced about best practices in business planning but it’s not emphasized enough. If you, dear reader, agree with me, read on. If not, you may be among the few who are well-practiced in the disciplines, skills and arts of business planning.

Discipline and Concentration Required

Most small business owners, naturally, wear many hats. This has the effect of preventing one from devoting the discipline and concentration to actually doing the planning, and much more importantly, to establishing the processes and structures to support the execution of those plans. So, what can business owners and managers do to effectively and efficiently introduce profitable planning activities to their organization?

First, I suggest you recognize that planning skills are learned mostly through practice.  However, in addition to courses at your local colleges, a great resource is a local or online consultant that can also more easily tailor some instruction to your needs.

Second, also recognize there is a learning curve that might delay your progress in planning. This you can overcome by hiring a consultant to facilitate some planning sessions for you. The big advantage here is that you can learn along the way. A good consultant trains and coaches you through the planning process so you and your staff can build the skills your organization needs.

Third, become serious about having discipline in your planning programs. Keep it simple at first, but plan on building your programs to an optimal level for your organization. When you set schedules for planning meetings, stick to them. If you don’t, you are telegraphing to your staff that planning really is not that important to you as the owner or manager. And insist on attendance at the meetings. Make it part of staff evaluations to participate in planning meetings.

Best practices to implement immediately

> Gain clarity on the distinction between strategic planning and operational planning. Strategic planning is creating a Vision and a Mission, defining the values that guide the organization’s behavior, and determining what positioning the business wants to have in the eyes of the customer, not in your eyes. Strategic planning is also about laying the general route of the journey the business is on to reach its vision, defining the key success measures you will use to know you are still on track. It is about having clarity on where the business is today and what its strength and weaknesses are. It is about defining the core strategies you will follow and the key action items to implement to achieve the vision. And finally, it is about constantly scanning the external future environment your business operates in to better address the changes you’ll have to make in the future on your way to your vision.

By contrast, operational planning is concerned with the tactical issues of running a business. Budgets, meeting schedules, action plans to support the strategies, setting policies, defining roles and tasks, outlining market segments and pricing, hiring, firing, advertising, etc., all are part of your operating or business plan.

Recognize then, that you should have two separate plans – a strategic plan and a business or operating plan. And develop them in separate sessions, with the strategic plan first. Also, more importantly, recognize that each planning process actually involves thinking very differently. This is a distinction that schools should teach.

 

Most of our schooling is in how to think analytically or tactically, therefore, we are under-prepared to think strategically or systemically. This means we need to make sure we build up our strategic thinking skills. Much has been written about this so you can search the internet for books, articles and courses on this. But, you can also learn while you do the work, which often is the most productive way to do it. Consulting firms like ours help you do just that.

> Another best practice is to keep it simple. Just the idea of a planning session will make most business owner and managers roll their eyes as they think of how of their employee’s time is tied up in doing this. A carefully laid out plan that accounts for how your business and employees must operate is an important factor in efficient planning. The skills a consultant brings can help enormously. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I have yet to find an entrepreneur who did it all himself or herself. They found good help along the way so don’t be bashful about asking for help.

> A third best practice in keeping it simple is to use a framework tool that I know works in all sizes of organizations. Called the EABC model for planning developed by the Haines Centre for Strategic Management, this model has you answer five questions in this specific order:

  1. What are your desired outcomes –  your future desired state?
  2. How will you know you are on track to reach them?
  3. What is your current state, which can easily be achieved with a SWOT analysis?
  4. What do you need to do to bridge the gap from where you are today to your future desired state? and
  5. What will be occurring in the future that will affect your achieving your future desired state?

If you would like a free copy of this model, please visit our website to download a copy.

Best practices in planning also include an understanding of the time required to draft a plan. And don’t forget, the time to establish the structures and processes to make sure the plan(s) are implemented or executed. Too often, once a plan is drafted, nothing happens because this crucial step is overlooked or ignored. We actually recommend a brief,initial “Plan to Plan” session to set the stage for success before you implement. This allows you to identify the personnel, financial and time resources required to truly achieve a successful planning program.

If you are conducting your first strategic planning process, I recommend two full days in an environment that eliminates distractions. A retreat is a good idea, but what is important is not being distracted. A good, experienced facilitator can make this happen in one day but what will be missing is some training for the staff on the planning and implementing processes and structures required.

Also, be inclusive with your staff. Let them know what is going on and be prepared to involve and engage them in the planning process. Again, an experienced facilitator can be very valuable in coaching you on how to engage staff, keep them informed, and on what to engage them in.

To wrap up, let’s remind ourselves of some key practices in planning.

  • Set a schedule and stick to it.
  • Be inclusive and keep people informed.
  • Build planning skills any way you can.
  • Understand the distinction between strategic planning and operational planning and do them separately using the appropriate way of thinking.
  • Establish the structures and processes to ensure your plans are executed and measured efficiently.

To speed up or simply make the planning happen, don’t be bashful in asking for help. A few hundred or thousand dollars for a consultant’s help could mean 10 to 100 times return on your investment, and likely more engaged and productive employees in your organization.