Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mission Based Thinking Part Two of Two - Examples Of It Enabling Organizations That Use It

Examples demonstrating how mission-based nonprofit operations best works when it is used effectively by a nonprofit's staff and volunteers are difficult to come by.  As we all know, examples can be very powerful. 

In this post I provide examples demonstrating how mission-based thinking can be used among all people operating a single nonprofit from executive leaders through the ranks to day to day staff or volunteers.

This blog post is the final part of, or part two to my original post, Mission Based Thinking - Why It Matters, Especially Today - Why It Works, And Examples of It Enabling Organizations That Use It in which I explain why more than ever today mission-based nonprofit operations is not just best practice but critical.  It works for a reason for organization of all size all over the world (that's how best practices come to be - it works for other nonprofits that try them).  Here, I am furthering the discussion by providing examples of its use for effectiveness, efficiency, and professionalism in nonprofit operations.

To be clear, I will reiterate that mission based thinking is first putting the best interests of the organization's beneficiaries and the best interests of the nonprofit, itself, given the mission statement, when considering any organizational issue or situation from large operations or oversight considerations to the small day to day business decisions.  The mission statement must be the first and guiding principle.

The Situation
Let's pretend that you and I work for a (made-up), local, fifteen year old, successful, well run nonprofit, Holly Town Holly Shrub Preservation Society (HTHSPS).  It is located in Holly Town, Connecticut - population 100,000, which is a historic district and our local economy relies a great deal on tourism in our region.  The draw to Holly Town for tourists is the beautiful, small, historic district downtown; the lovely historic neighborhoods; but especially the holly shrubs growing in different local homes' yards, business sites, and parks.  Most of the plants are over one hundred years old, and comprised of at least twenty unique varietals of holly shrub of which only six are currently sold commercially, anymore, worldwide.

The town's holly plants are antiques, unique, and of value considering their age, their beauty, and their economic potential for Holly Town's local economy.  Nowhere else in the world is there such a concentration of all of the known species of holly.

Annually, HTHSPS holds: cutting sales of each of Holly Town's holly plant twenty varieties, which are gown in the nonprofit's plant nursery for commercial sale; classes on how to best care for the different various holly shrub varieties to ensure one raises and keeps their plants healthy; an annual Holly Ho Down which includes a holly shrub competition for prettiest shrub and community parade and fair; and HTHSPS organizes and maintains a scientific consortium made up of academics and professionals working in science and through education to document, study, protect, and ensure the future of Holy Town's twenty different holy bush varietals.  Each of these are fundraisers (and the nonprofit conducts others annually like: an annual appeal, memberships at different giving levels, board contributions, and monthly requests using remittance envelopes in its online and mailed newsletters) except the consortium which is not a fundraiser but on of the programs or services that the organization provides.

No other nonprofit locally, nationally, or world-wide focuses on the holly plant and its various known varietals.  Our annual operating budget is $750,000 (which means we know we need to spend $750,000 to operate the nonprofit as planned for the coming year and so we must raise at least $750,000 over the coming fiscal year).  90% of each dollar (or $0.90 of every $1.00) raised is spent only on the nonprofit's programs and services (or, put another way, 90% of each dollar raised is spent only on the mission-based work for the organization's beneficiaries, rather than the overhead costs).  Though the complete twenty varietals grow in Holly Town, our nonprofit's service area is the world as we provide services and programs world wide and to anyone who calls our office requesting our information or services.

The organization maintains an office, downtown, which is open for business five days a week, 8am - 5pm, and is staffed by four full time staff members, and usually two volunteers, daily.  The leadership of the nonprofit includes the executive director (who is one of the four full time staff members) and a board of directors that includes eleven non-paid, volunteer, board members.

From Small Day to Day Decisions to Major Implication Organizational Decisions - Mission Based Thinking In Action

Holly Town Holly Shrub Preservation Society's mission statement is:

So that the public will always be able to enjoy the beauty of, and so our communities have the best opportunity to retain the diversity of and health of each of all twenty Holly Town holly varieties, Holly Town Holly Shrub Preservation Society documents, studies, protects, educates the public about, and promotes the growth and propagation elsewhere of all twenty varietals through: qualified professional study, public education and outreach, plant propagation and public cuttings sales, and the dissemination of information and research findings to the world.

[To be clear, the beneficiaries of HTHSPS are not the holly shrubs, themselves, but rather the general public, world wide, for whom the organization preserves and protects these shrubs for.  If it doesn't seem like this is the case, re-read the mission statement and consider the first phrase therein].

As I said, above, you and I both work for HTHSP.  I am a paid staff member working in the fundraising office and you are a board member which is an executive and volunteer position. 

The board just had a monthly board meeting last week and the executive director placed on the agenda the bullet point item, "Strategic planning for next three years".

It was the last item on the board meeting agenda and as such it was arrived at, during the board meeting, at about 6:30pm, an hour and a half after the meeting started.  Everyone was tired and hungry and ready to head home.  Proposing that the board conduct strategic planning (the data-based consideration of the beneficiaries' needs as they pertain to the organization's mission in order to choose the best programs and services (given the beneficiaries' current but as yet unmet needs related to the mission) in order to shape the organization's future direction by using study findings, recent service statistics, and growth projections to decide upon either continuing current programs and services, ending some, and beginning brand new programs/services) for the coming three years is a big consideration, though, and one no board should either take lightly or avoid doing so.  As it was so late but such a critical and important issue there were a few snide comments from tired board members, some questions about what strategic planning is, and finally a motion that the topic be tabled until the next board meeting.  The motion was seconded and voted for.  Next month proposing a strategic planning project will be considered by the board.


Next, HTHSP's executive director calls you and I into her office this morning and lets us know that a donor who gives annually called her yesterday morning asking if he could send in a $10,000 restricted donation earmarked for our nonprofit to create or genetically engineer for him a holly variety that would survive and flourish and grow electric blue colored leaves.  He likes bright colors and doesn't see why all holly bushes must have the dark green spiky leaves.  The electric blue would be highly unusual and he thinks popular probably with the public, therefore, if we use his funds to develop it, we'll make more money in the long term once we propagate and sell cuttings from the first healthy electric blue colored holly shrub that thrives.

Using these three scenarios we'll take a look at each issue facing each volunteer or staff member, and we'll see how they proceed in considering each issue. 

The board is about to consider whether they should conduct strategic planning in order to best plan the organization's operations over the coming three years.  This is no small order.  Strategic planning while extremely proactive, effective at creating efficiency and reducing costs, and enabling of excellent planning, is time consuming, its own process (requiring additional meetings besides the board meetings), and while the cost is minimal considering the returns - it is somewhat expensive up front.

In the executive director's realm, the offer of a single $10,000 donation can not be taken lightly.  What nonprofit wouldn't want that kind of contribution?  He will restrict it, though, so the contribution would not be an unrestricted $10,000 donation.  It can, by law, only be spent on what he designates and in this case, he wants the nonprofit to genetically create and then propagate electric blue plants.  This issue is internal as the organization views all donors (whether they give $5 or $50,000) as partners in the organization's ability to provide its mission statement.  In other words, the executive director sees the issue as internal because the culture of the organization is to see donors as part of the nonprofit's community or family.

Finally, one of the volunteers,  as she was leaving her shift for the day, suggested placing a sign over the reception area that would state the organization's current fundraising goal, and indicate where incrementally, how much the nonprofit had raised so far.  She mentioned it to the receptionist and the executive director both of whom happened to be standing in reception as she left for the day.  In other words, this is not a major consideration, but rather just a good idea thought up, on the fly, to consider.  Everyone understands that she is suggesting it may assist with fundraising goals and increase donations from walk-ins.  The executive director thanked her for her volunteer work for the day and for the idea, too.  The executive director promised her that she'll quickly pull some staff together to talk about her sign idea when she volunteers next (so she can be a part of the discussion).

None of these are public relations issues.  In other words, not one of these issues is a threat of a lawsuit, for instance, or something like discovering that an executive or staff member has been stealing money from the nonprofit's coffers.  All three of these issues, depending on how they are handled, can and may become public relations issues - but not one of them need be.  In fact, aside from the strategic planning suggestion, neither of the other two situations are particularly unusual (except that maybe it's not everyday that a donation of $10,000 is offered - but donations are received daily so the scenario (aside from the larger increment amount) is not unusual, operationally).  The strategic planning suggestion is not unusual but rather not considered or conducted annually, so it is (operationally) not day to day normal business.

Even seemingly mundane day to day office considerations like 'should we hang a sign over the reception area that states the organization's fundraising goals for the year?' can be answered using mission-based thinking. 


The key to success using mission based thinking, which we'll see is used to consider each of these three scenarios, is that there be open and honest constructive consideration given or if in a group - a discussion considering - the mission in relation to any issue that arises small or large putting the organization's and the beneficiaries' best interests first.


Mission Based Thinking - Step By Step (Or Reasonably So)

Do whatever the organization's set procedures require always.

As is appropriate (according to both nonprofit, professional, best practices and the organization's own set procedures) a mission based decision can of course be made by a single individual (such as a staff member making a call on a day to day business issue that pops up but falls within his job description and does not require executive input).  Some organizations will be more trusting of its staff and volunteers while others may have procedures in place that even the smallest day to day call has to be brought before the executive director. 

Sometimes, only a staff member and the executive director or the executive director and a department's staff need consider a problem or challenge.  Mission based thinking is more of a group effort, then.

When a group, quorum, or committee's input is appropriate in considering a larger issue (again, if a set procedure is pertinent then it must be followed such as perhaps taking notes at meetings, for example):

Be inclusive (all relevant stakeholders that should be involved should be invited to be involved).

Assert at the beginning of the meeting that the best interests of the organization's beneficiaries and the best interests of the nonprofit, itself, given the mission statement should be the guiding principal when considering the current issue or situation.

Allow dialogue to go where it may as long as it is: professional, on point, and constructive.

Allow everyone involved in the discussion time to digest what everyone involved has suggested or said.

Return to the topic on an agreed upon time and date, if a simple short ten minute break is not enough time for this, that everyone involved can make, and keep that meeting time/date.

Restate that mission-based thinking is required at the beginning of the second meeting.

Revisit the discussion and allow for further dialogue using the same dialog rule from above.

Ask for motions or final thoughts and then follow through to arrive at a vote or decision as soon as possible without stifling voices, or discussion, or controlling the floor.

Watch Mission Based Thinking in Action

So, beginning with the proposed fundraising benchmark sign, after the volunteer and other daily staff arrive the next morning and get settled in, the executive director asks everyone for ten minutes at the conference table to consider and discuss it.  One staff member asks the receptionist if he thinks it will clutter the front entryway to the office.  He doesn't think it will.  I (being a development staffer) suggest it might raise money from walk ins but there could be a better use of the money it will cost to have the sign made to be put towards some other fundraising effort that would make more money.  The executive director understands my response but guesses the sign might cost forty dollars, at the most, to have it made so it's not a large expense and that cost would likely be covered by the new extra walk in donations in at least a week's time (based on the rate of donations given by walk ins right now (without having the sign)).  She thinks the sign might inspire higher walk in contribution amounts if they see visually that a goal is being achieved and how they can help to get to it.  Finally, one of the programs managers suggests that we make a nice looking handmade poster to test the idea and see if it's fruitful.  If it brings in more money than recent walk in contributions have (over the course of say a month) then we should invest in having a professional sign printed up - maybe one we can manipulate enough so that it can be re-used year after year.  Fortunately, I track which contributions the nonprofit receives from walk ins, so it's possible to monitor the rate and amount of donations received after the make-shift sign goes up to compare to the previous donation rate and increments. 

That's a pretty normal sounding discussion right?  That's all that's required as long as the people involved in it are focused on the best interests of both the organization and the beneficiaries.  And they wrapped it up with a mission-based decision in ten minutes!  This was a last minute quick meeting - not requiring formality or even stating the mission before everyone discussed the idea.  It is in the organization's best interest is to raise what new additional money it can and all they were talking about was spending was $40 to do so (if that - they're going to test their idea out to see if it will be fruitful before spending the $40).  To some organizations, of course, an expenditure of $40 may warrant bringing the suggestion before the board for it to decide.  This organization operates on a $175,000 annual operating budget, remember, so $40 is safe for a day to day operations decision.  Also, this nonprofit does not have any restriction in its procedures on the executive director.  This organization's executive director is empowered to deal with day to day decisions and bring only the organizational oversight, planning, and direction considerations to the board (their job description and purview). 

No one, here, cast the consideration in the best interests of a person or some one's insecurities or ego.  No one in this discussion brought inter-personal or organizational politics to the situation.  There was no battle over territory (perceived or real).  The volunteer who made the decision just had an idea and everyone found it worth discussing because it is in fact in the best interest of the beneficiaries and the organization, given the mission statement.  She wasn't trying to assert some personal agenda or making a power grab.  When, though, a nonprofit's executive director require that he or she be both the executive director and the board director and that he or she is permanently in that position - not only is the organization then limited to the leadership that has installed itself (for instance, what if there is a better qualified, experienced, and talented person that would lead the organization into better success, more growth, better fundraising, and so on?), but everyone involved thinks that keeping him or her happy is the point of day to day operations and major organizational decisions instead of focusing on the mission and the best interests of the organization.  Once the organization's board comes to the founder and says, for example, "You know the community and we are grateful that you started this organization but your permanent leadership is not healthy for this organization's best interests as no one feels free to do what is right for the organization, first.  First, everyone is worrying about you and your interests and we need to change this." then they have begun putting the organization's beneficiaries and the nonprofit's best interests first perhaps for the first time, but it is an important step in a more professional direction that will yield better results.

The executive director next asks the volunteer who came up with the idea (who happens to have creative and artistic talents) whether she would like to make a nice looking temporary sign to be used to test the fundraising idea and she agrees to.  The executive director now returns to her own office to consider the large donation offer and the restriction tied to it.

She knows that there is no program or project the organization provides that has to do with developing genetically engineered shrubs.  Furthermore, she knows from the organization's mission that the nonprofit's efforts are focused on the twenty varietals that exist.  There is no suggestion that the nonprofit's work is to develop new varieties.  After thinking all of this over the executive director decides she must call the donor back and inform him that while the organization is grateful that he brought his idea to them, and while they remain grateful for all of his previous support, the nonprofit stands with its mission of doing its work for the existing twenty varieties.  So, they cannot take the donation as he is wishing to restrict it to genetically engineering new varieties.  She says she is sorry and remains grateful for the opportunity.  In fact, she is so clear about the organization's work and grateful for his past contributions that he says he would like to send the $10,000 in to HTHSP, unrestricted, and will look to develop his electric blue variety elsewhere, with other money, perhaps in the private sector.  She can not thank him enough, and he shares his own gratitude with her.  He appreciated her being forthright, being so timely (she got right back to him the next day), and he appreciates that she is so clear about the organization's reasons for its work, and of course, he loves holly shrubs.  He'd like to see these twenty varieties get the best chance to be around for future generations.  Due to its successes, he sees that HTHSP provides that.  So, he's mailing the $10,000 check that morning.

Finally, the board starts their next board meeting beginning with whether or not to conduct a strategic planning session for the coming three years.  The following facts are shared with the board.  The strategic planning session will require, total, no less than twenty hours of the board members' time (in addition to the already set board meetings and other committee meetings); will require a quite successful and reputable consultant to lead the board through the strategic planning process whose estimated costs came in at $15,000; and will involve a lot of reading (recent studies' findings, economic forecasts, feasibility studies, and so on); and may involve a board retreat for one weekend (depending on how available each board member is for the process).  Everyone groans when they hear that last possibility but everyone regroups and the floor is opened to discussion.

"Can we afford to spend $15,000 right now in this economy?"  Bitsy asks.

"Do we need to do strategic planning to best decide how to plan out the coming three years?" Bruno asks.

Willy suggests his cousin might be a good consultant to help with strategic planning.  He doesn't do much nonprofit consulting but once read a book about strategic planning a year or so ago and will probably cost much less.

Sophia and Shadrack suggest shopping consultants if HTHSP is serious about doing strategic planning.

Otis asks when the organization last conducted strategic planning.

Bitsy looks at the record and discovers it has not been done for five years, now.

Otis and Willy say they think it's probably time to do it again since it's been a long time.  The three of them would like the organization to do it.

Shaniqua asks if maybe they shouldn't make the period planned for five years instead of three.

"Do each of the board members know they have the extra twenty hours to spare right now?" Sandip asks.

Jamal, Lucinda, and Buster have the time and would also like to see the board conduct the strategic planning.

Sandip points out that the findings from the most recent beneficiaries' survey (taken six months ago) indicate that the public would like to see more care, propagation, and maintenance courses being offered for the twenty varieties of holly shrubs, and the attendance at the Ho Down has dwindled over the past three years indicating it may be time to retire that event and take up a new one.

After Sandip reminds the board of these facts, everyone agrees it is important that the board consider conducting strategic planning now or soon.

This is just the beginning of the discussion but everyone is being honest, professional, remaining on point, and considering what is feasible, viable, and also good management for the beneficiaries best interests and the organization's best interests.  No one person's or one group's agenda is being put first.

Eventually the conversation becomes a bit more specific.

Willy's suggestion is appreciated but the majority agrees that if the board is to do this work and spend the organization's money at all they want to do it with someone extremely reputable and well regarded with an impressive track record successfully conducting nonprofit strategic planning sessions with other nonprofits.

They consider both Shaniqua's question and Sophia and Shadrack's suggestions.  They decide that yes, no less than five strong potential consultants should be considered and that Shadrack would write up a Request for Proposal explaining that HTHSP is looking to do strategic planning and e-mail it out to known consultants, a local professional nonprofit consultant affiliation to disseminate to their members, and to colleagues working for other nonprofits who have recently done strategic planning (to ask who they liked working with and why).  Shaniqua's question puts time and timing before the board.  They discuss this and decide they should come up with a three year plan but that they should put the strategic planning off one year from now so they have time to find a talented consultant and so that they can raise the $15,000 (additionally to all other already planned fundraising) over the year.

Sandip points out that he and his wife have a brand new baby and that time is hard to come by for him, right now.  In a year, though, they should have a routine and he should have an extra twenty hours to give to the process beyond the board and committee time requirements he's already committed to.   So, he likes putting the process off for a year.

Bitsy proposes that they table the topic for now in order to move on to other topics they need to discuss and Willy seconds the motion.  Jamal will type up the notes from this meeting and e-mail them to everyone for the board to consider before their next meeting where (they agreed by vote) they will finally decide whether HTHSP will do strategic planning and if so, when, and to create a plan for how many years.

This discussion is just the beginning as this is a big deal, but it demonstrates, again, that the best interests of the beneficiaries and the organization being put first in considering (in this case a large decision) anything enables everyone at a nonprofit to not only be on the same page but on the page of the reason everyone and anyone that supports this nonprofit (however they might: donors, volunteers, community partners, attendees or participants, etc.) does so.  This is a step towards not just integrity and professionalism, but also lends towards transparency (all interests really are in the organization's welfare).  Anyone who really investigates this organization (looking into its public record, at financials or the annual report, looking into its success rates (ala the mission), or asking volunteers or staff what they think of the organization and how it's run) will feel confident in it (why shouldn't they?).  It will pass the sniff test.

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