Tag Archives: Strategic Plan

Where’s Your Head At?

Once upon a time I received a free song at Starbucks, called “Where’s your Head at?” At the time, my latte came with an optional little card that gave a free Apple music song code. I don’t even know if I liked the song, but it was played on my Apple rotation for years. And my kids and their cousins did a VideoStar routine to the song, so it is permanently stuck in my head.

If you read that paragraph, and consider today’s context, much has changed. I rarely get coffee at Starbucks when my home coffee maker and grinder are such high quality. Starbucks and Apple no longer give free songs. And both companies would discourage a card that would end up in landfill as often as it is recycled. I don’t use Apple to listen to the majority of my music – we have a family Spotify account. And VideoStar, has long ago stopped being popular and probably doesn’t even work anymore. Times change. And we evolve – whether we want to or not.

This past year has pushed us to make changes faster than ever. Many nonprofits forbid the word “pivot” from being uttered as it only ignites PTSD from early pandemic days. But, as we slowly emerge from crisis in the US, we should take some time to look back.

Ask yourself, where’s your head at?  That means, for your nonprofit, what

  • did you learn from the past 18 months working/volunteering?
  • was a change that you never would have thought of, or had the guts to do, but are so glad happened?
  • changes have had really good results for your organization’s beneficiaries?
  • did you prove will not work at your organization?
  • else would you like to take a chance to do?
  • new or different resources will you need this year to achieve your mission?
  • are your post-pandemic goals? And is your strategic plan the same?

And once you know where your head is at, make sure you have a communications plan. How will you talk to your members, staff, volunteers, and donors? What you are you saying to your donors about all of the above when you don’t know where their head is at?

The song always made me stop and consider – where is my head at – and I hope you will use some time this summer to do the same.

Want to hear the song? Click here Sorry if it is running through your head all day. Know that you won’t be alone.

Feeling Frantic About Fundraising? 5 Suggestions to Help

Feeling Frantic About Fundraising? Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

You are not alone. As we begin to see a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, we have to consider what we need to accomplish in this year.

The time is ticking away.

  • Am I doing enough?
  • Will I be able to retain my new donors?
  • Will my LYBUNTS return?
  • Will I go back on the road to talk to donors?
  • Will other organizations be doing it if I am not?
  • Should I feel relieved or guilty about the strength of my nonprofit right now?
  • Do we need to hire staff to help us handle our new donor base?
  • Will these donors continue to support us so that we can afford new staff?
  • Is everyone feeling frantic about fundraising?

We know we have so much to do, and it feels like it all must be done today. Because it didn’t get done last week when it really should have been done.

Breathe. Or meditate. Or do whatever has calmed you down over the past year. And consider:

Where do we go from here? 5 Suggestions to stop feeling frantic about fundraising

  1. Assess your donors. Look at your donor retention levels for First Time Donors vs. Multi-year Donors vs. Monthly Donors. How do you match up to benchmark statistics? (email me if you want our benchmarks.)          
  2. Assess your donor pool without events. Many nonprofit events are smaller or not happening again this year. Now is the time to use those event hours towards your relationships with individual donors. And see if you can raise more money. In other words, events are often very costly and time consuming to produce so think of the resources you can dedicate to another initiative. (Please note: Events can be great community builders and friend-raisers but rarely offer the ROI of individual donors).
  3. Assess your staff. Do you have the right staff for the future? Do they have the bandwidth to handle your new donors in addition to the job they already do? Is it time to invest in your organization’s human resources?
  4. Assess your systems. Do you have a CRM that works for your nonprofit? Do you have recent prospect research? Do you send acknowledgements out within 24-48 hours?
  5. Assess your strategic plan. A strategic plan in one year might not look the same in 3 years later. Especially around the pandemic. Does the work look the same for your nonprofit? Are your board, volunteer, and staff priorities different? Would your SWOT analysis remain true?

Yes, we are big into assessments. We see it as taking a breath and looking internally before you charge forward into this post-pandemic world. Of course, if you would like us to help with your assessments email me.

And, hopefully, you can stop feeling frantic about fundraising and start feeling confident about moving forward.

Governance At Its Best – Strengthening Your Board and Staff

In many nonprofits, there is not a clear divide between board and staff responsibilities. Then you add in long-term volunteers, founders, and advisory boards and things get even muddier. Who should have the final say on a decision? And, should you have that in writing?

Do you know how to go about strengthening your board and staff?

strengthening your board and staff

It’s easy to offer simple recommendations like whether the board should be fundraising (they should be fundraising, starting with themselves), but you also have to have strategies for:

  • Encouraging your board to respect your staff and their opinions
  • Reminding the staff that coaching strategies may change board and volunteer behavior faster than constant reminders
  • Board learning opportunities throughout the year (e.g. understanding a P & L– spend 15 minutes explaining how to read the statement –and how it represents the organizational priorities – for those who don’t work with them every day)
  • Creating change with buy in from staff and the board
  • Knowing a board president’s strengths and weaknesses. And understanding that is not always the same as the last person to hold that role.
  • No one person can be in charge of everything (whether that is staff, a Board President or a Volunteer). Nonprofits are a group effort, intentionally, so spend time determining how to utilize your resources.
  • Running the board like an organization, and not a family business
  • The size of your board – too large or too small will affect whether you are engaging your board members or leaving them to drift off (among other things)
  • Helping board members or staff see their role in creating the solution to the problems you are facing and that they may be causing
  • Overworking your leadership (volunteer and staff) may help you achieve more in the short term. But, in the long term, staff will leave and volunteers will burn out.
  • Moving forward with a decision when consensus was hard to find
  • Innovating change. Nonprofits can no longer rely on the status quo for support, membership or involvement
  • Engaging everyone in fundraising and development when not everyone is willing to ask others for money

This is not an all-encompassing list, and it is not intended to overwhelm you. Instead, it is designed to create a new dialogue around the staff table or at a board meeting about what you want to see change. In other words, help you in strengthening your board and staff. You may want to initiate a strategic plan or a board retreat to help you focus in on your priorities. But don’t let another year go by without growing as individuals and as an organization.

If you think your nonprofit would benefit from our facilitating this process, email me at abigail@merskyjaffe.com today.

If you would like to work on improving your board without counsel, you can purchase one of our books by clicking here

Originally published in 2017

Can Nonprofits Turn Previous Failures Into Future Success?

Can Nonprofits Turn Previous Failures Into Future Success?Listen to any conference speaker, self-help guru or tech entrepreneur and you are sure to hear about their failures. Of course, they are speaking because they turned their failures into lessons that helped them succeed. Can you imagine going to a funder and telling them that you had to close down your last nonprofit due to lack of money but this time you knew how to handle their 7-figure gift? Can nonprofits turn previous failures into future success? Of course, saying you have changed the way you run your organization is not enough.  You need to “walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

  • Show that you now have a strong case for giving and are only approaching the right people at the right time.
  • Prove you have learned your lesson by talking about your new and detailed focus on acknowledgements.
  • Demonstrate that you understand stewardship for each and every donor and each and every gift.

What are other areas that nonprofits ignore that can be turned around to prove success?

To some this list may seem overwhelming. To others, it will highlight areas on which to focus or tweak in the coming year. Either way, turning previously missed opportunities into growth and prosperity will sustain your nonprofit. And, it will be something positive to talk about to current and prospective funders. Showing that you are learning and growing is something everyone can get excited about.   Please let us know if we can help you improve your nonprofit by emailing Abigail Harmon.

We All Want To Know Why Nonprofit Strategic Planning Is Sexy

Nonprofit Strategic Planning Is SexyNonprofit strategic planning is sexy in the same way nonprofit governance, feasibility study reports and finding the perfect candidate is sexy. Oh wait, I didn’t mean sexy. I meant amazing for my nonprofit or energizing for my organization.

The title of this piece was offered by Portent’s Content Idea Generator.  And I’m pretty sure it shatters the notion that, “there are no bad ideas.”


Your nonprofit may be finding something similar when you are brainstorming for ideas. Whether it is annual appeal letter suggestions from a donor (whom you thought would be helpful), gala ideas from a board member(s), or elements of a case for giving from staff, not all ideas should carry the same weight. Of course, donors (including board members), volunteers as well as staff need to be treated respectfully – whether their ideas are used or not.

Hopefully your nonprofit has criteria to evaluate some ideas.

Establish a:

  • Mission, vision and values statement(s) as an outcome of a strategic planning process. Nonprofit strategic planning may not be sexy but it is a great guide for determining new projects or whether to continue old ones.
  • Theme for your fundraising for the year or season. e. community achievements, the impact of music, the teachers at our core, etc.…
  • Call for ideas in specific areas. Focus in on areas that need suggestions, ways for people to provide their thoughts and an understanding of what you are looking for. This is a great way to see what people are thinking and can be used as a stewardship opportunity.
  • Provide suggestion guidelines. If you are asking for thoughts, a list of general, or specific “rules” the organization follows will eliminate some of the ideas you have to shut down immediately.
  • A committee to make decisions. We don’t want you to create committees ad nauseum. But at times, an ad hoc committee can take the decision making away from an individual. And, help eliminate prickly conversations that can feel personal.

And this isn’t even venturing into the pressure nonprofits feel from donors referenced in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy Article. From sexual harassment issues to donor suggestions that are clearly off-mission but will provide the donor a benefit, nonprofits are finally realizing that not every idea is a good idea.

Look for a less sexy, but more thoughtful, strategic planning piece in the near future.

Lessons Learned While Prepping for a Strategic Planning Board Retreat

Strategic Planning Board Retreat Exercise

I recently offered to help a friend, Jen, plan her nonprofit’s retreat. We met for coffee and she explained that she had decided to start off her term as board president by holding a 3-hour strategic planning board retreat (replacing the second board meeting of the year).  The executive director suggested she wait until the spring (Lesson 1), but she wanted to start her term with board-wide, consistent organizational priorities and had everyone reserve an upcoming Sunday afternoon.

Right away, she wanted to talk about what she wanted to include as content (Lesson 2) and how she should present it. But the more she explained, the more I realized she also had to focus on:

  • How to get people excited about where they were headed – even if they were not convinced this was the right path forward (Lesson 3).
  • The importance of engaging board members without conflicting with committee work (Lesson 4).
  • How to incorporate different learning styles (Lesson 5).

What follows are the six lessons that can help you plan your next Retreat (Lesson 6).

Lessons Learned:

Lesson 1: It is easy to feel like you can take on the world when you are starting a leadership role. But, don’t let the excitement of taking on a new position, trump the reality of a situation. If an executive director suggests you hold off, hold off. They will understand the dynamics from an organizational standpoint, much better than anyone else. For the record, she has told me that she regrets not listening to the ED.

Lesson 2: As it turned out, she didn’t really need help with content. Jen needed help in structuring the retreat. She needed help figuring out how to talk about the topics she had already highlighted. Planning a retreat was not in her wheelhouse, so she didn’t realize what she needed to feel confident was a plan of how to engage and excite the board. And, a few nonprofit board retreat techniques.

Lesson 3: Major decisions – capital campaigns, shifts in focus, new membership strategies will excite some board members and anger others. Your job, as a volunteer leader, is to encourage everyone to find their way past their personal reluctance and back towards helping the organization move forward.

Lesson 4: Committees do not want to feel pointless, and that is what happens when board time is used to rehash committee work. To avoid this, use board time to highlight their decisions and bring recommendations up for a vote. If board members have strong opinions about the committee decisions, encourage them to join the committee.

Lesson 5: The differences among us provide balance on a nonprofit board. So, remember that not everyone will vocalize their opinion in a large group.  Some people are visual thinkers and others auditory ones.  Leadership and good ideas come through many different paths. A retreat is the time to value differences by using alternate strategies to bring out the best, innovative, useful ideas from everyone. Think creatively and strategically about how you can do this.

Lesson 6: Calling this a strategic planning board retreat was a mistake. A strategic planning board retreat is used when you are trying to determine the direction of the organization for the next 3 or 5 years. Every board retreat has a different purpose, so try not to confuse people by picking the wrong name.

Click here to read more about Mersky, Jaffe & Associates’ Strategic Planning

Email me to learn how we can help you with your next Board Retreat

Achieve Your Vision With A Strategic Planning Process

Prevent Insanity with Strategic Planning ProcessIn the past week, I have spoken with two organizations who have realized they need a new strategy to accomplish their vision.  They both have a clear understanding of what they want to achieve – growth in one case and an increased endowment to supplement annual spending in the other. But, each came to understand that keeping their current ways of doing business would not allow for growth and fundraising, respectively.

They were wise coming to this conclusion. If you want to dramatically increase fundraising, shift programming priorities or improve board governance issues it will require you to do something drastically different. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is a perfect example of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Speaking to various board members at each of these organizations, similarities become apparent. They both know:

  • they need a major shift in mindset to achieve their vision(s)
  • their current fundraising strategy will not suffice
  • the board has to be united in determining how to get to their goal

That is where the strategic planning process comes in.

During a strategic planning process you can:

  • Understand organizational priorities. While some people may want to focus on additional programming and others want to add staff. Either way, it’s essential for everyone to look at how their personal priorities fit into the larger picture.
  • Help your board and staff find a cohesive path forward. You know those lively conversations (read: disagreements) are important to have, but you need to be able to find common ground to move forward. Strategic planning can help ensure everyone feels heard.
  • Recommit board members. Sometimes, board members need to be reminded of why they joined this board. Of course, you don’t want to create a strategic planning process just for this purpose, but it is a nice side effect.
  • Look at your growth strategy. Are you planning on staying the same size in the next few years? If not, do you want to be larger or smaller? Do you want to expand your organization’s reach within your current community or expand to a second location? Is your decision based on a strategic decision or a financial one?
  • Strategic planning is not “one and done.” Strategic planning is something that needs to be revisited on a regular basis for most nonprofits. Whether it is on a three-year, five-year or even ten-year cycle, don’t ignore the importance of what this process. As new board members cycle on and off and staff members turnover, priorities subtly shift with each change. It’s smart to have a check in from time to time to make sure everyone is on board with it.

If you would like to speak with us about initiating a strategic planning process, email me today.

If you want to make change with a Mersky, Jaffe & Associate Strategic Plan click here

10 Pieces of Paper That Will Strengthen Your Nonprofit

  1. Documents to Strengthen Your NonprofitVolunteer packet – Volunteers can be incredibly useful when it comes to ways to strengthen your nonprofit and incredibly time consuming.  Automate some of the systems by creating a packet for volunteers.  You can learn about their interests, explain your priorities and areas of need, and establish a standardized set parameters for all involved. Specifics can be worked out once you understand where their enthusiasm lies but this will help you avoid the initial in-take from becoming a time-suck.
  2. Your calendar – plan out your day – Yes, this may be on your computer or phone, but consider – what are you going to accomplish today?  If you fall from one reactive exercise to another, you will never move forward enough to strenthen your nonprofit.  Schedule a time to answer emails, attend meetings and return calls.  But also schedule your focused work time.  And be somewhat firm about it.  You don’t want to anger your co-workers, but ultimately, you are responsible to do your work and you have to find the time to do it.
  3. Personalized office stationery – The costs are relatively low but the benefits can be extremely high. You can use it to write a personal note to one donor a day for the next month. Thank someone for the great conversation last week.  Add a personal note into an invite for an upcoming event.  You may not have the time to make 28 additional coffee meetings this month, but how can you resist a way to touch 28 people when it only takes 5 minutes per person?
  4. Board manual – If you don’t have one, you should.  This is the place were expectations from time commitments to fiduciary responsibilities are clearly stated.  A clear picture of the organization is offered.  And the formality reminds both parties of the nature of the relationship – a business partnership.
  5. Strategic plan – If you don’t know where you want to be in the next 2-5 years, how can you explain it to anyone?  A set document, even if it always remains a work-in-progress, will ensure everyone is focusing on the same goals and help strengthen your nonprofit.
  6. Board-approved job descriptions – Often, when a board complains that they love the ED but there are major items not getting done, it is simply a matter of conflicting priorities.  In many organizations, leadership is overworked so, for your sake and theirs, get on the same page. Whether you think major donor stewardship should be 20% or 70% of the time commitment – make sure you all agree.  Or be ready to be continually disappointed.
  7. Fundraising collateral materials – Too obvious?  Maybe, but having the right materials at hand can be helpful when introducing anyone – donors, new staff, volunteers, etc. – to the organization.
  8. Donor strategies – I was hesitant to put this on the list because it is usually a print out and not a set paper documents but it would seem to be missing the mark if it was not included.  Individualized donor strategies, including upcoming steps, should be reviewed and acted upon on a continual basis.  If this is not yet a part of your day/week/month, pull out your calendars mark it in red.  This is essential.
  9. Case statement – If you have a case for giving – use it.  Make the calls, get the appointments, and don’t miss a great tool to speak with your potential and current donors.  Get them on board with the organization’s focus, and money will always follow.
  10. Your to do list – Motivate yourself to do something new today.  Get one project started that has been on your list for more than a week (month or even year).  You will feel good when you cross it off, or when you determine the reason it was such a low priority is that it wasn’t worth much and should come off of your list anyway.

Want to see other lists that can help your nonprofit?

Attention Board Members: 2 of 3 W’s Is Not Enough

Knowing How to Listen Can Improve Fundraising

How do you improve your solicitation, acknowledgement, and stewardship systems?

Note: this post was originally published in 2010












Common Strategic Plan Implementation Mistakes

wellness checkupMy children do not go for a yearly doctor’s appointment. They, in fact go for annual wellness checkups. This idea that they are seeing a professional to ensure they are growing, developing and staying on a healthy path is a better message and a strong reminder of what is important.

Nonprofits, on the other hand, often go for years without internal reviews. The excuses – everything from “we are too small” to “we are too overworked” to “we have a retreat and review some aspect of our agency each year” are just that – excuses.

If you have taken the time to create a strategic plan and have not planned for implementation (your wellness checkup) you are, in all likelihood, wasting large parts of that valuable process.

Sure, you may have incorporated elements of the plan into your nonprofits day-to-day operations. But all too often, the pieces that seem too difficult, too time-consuming, or too off-strategy from what staff thinks should be the priority is left behind to gather dust. And the failure to implement the plan fully and regularly evaluate progress creates resentment among the leadership who spent their time and energy developing the plan in the first place.

What can you do to avoid these all too common strategic plan implementation mistakes?

  1. Incorporate a timed list of priorities at the end of the planning process so that everyone is aware of what may will get done in year one, what will get done in year two and three of a five-year plan.
  2. Ask the staff to evaluate the plan and consider what time frames they think would be appropriate for each element of the plan that requires changes.
  3. Establish a routine check up or check in at the time the plan is created. Determine who will do the evaluation, who will provide the information and where it falls on your calendar. This will ensure the participants will have the necessary time to prepare for the assessment.
  4. Consider your specific nonprofit and the players involved before establishing hard and fast rules. Determine what would ensure the plan will be followed, measured as well as achieve success for the organization.

We know that each organization is unique and while there are general rules to follow, always make sure that you are tweaking the specifics to help motivate participants and ensure success. If you feel that you are too close and could use a consultant to help evaluate your plan or how your plan will be used, please email Abigail Harmon today.

Contingency Plans

Nonprofit contingency pie imageRecently, I was with an organization that was concerned about a budgetary deficit for 2009. They were confronting questions like, “What if we have fewer members this year?” And, “How will we handle our finances if we have to offer services to 10% more people with no additional funds in sight?” Essentially, the question they were asking was – how can you know if you are heading towards trouble when so many aspects of fundraising and financial security are dependent on others? The answer is a contingency plan.

A contingency plan should be part of your strategic plan. And that plan should include the expectation that the finance committee or the Executive Director should monitor performance, particularly in volatile times. A healthy organization understands the need to have snapshots at set intervals to help predict major changes before it is too late to do anything about them.

How Does It Work?
In its essence, you determine if by Month X, we are down Y%, we need to do Z. Z is not necessarily something you ever want to do, but may be essential to keep the organization afloat. This means, if you normally raise 30% of your annual funds through a direct mail campaign in April to pay for operating costs, you might say, “If by May 31st we have less than 24% or our necessary annual funds, we will need to reduce 20 administrative staff hours per month.

There is no doubt that reducing the hours would affect the efficiency of the organization and add to the workload of other people who already feel taxed. But, this may be determined as the best way to reduce costs while keeping everyone employed and maintaining programs and services. Tough measures for tough times.

These “if, thens” are not random thoughts on what you might do if you think you need help. These are concrete measures to avoid a large shortfall at the end of the year. In addition, these plans can avoid forcing you to make more drastic decisions at a later time when you have eliminated many of the possible options available to you if you had seen the specific concern sooner.

A deficit in April will not be aided by hoping your November campaign raises an extra 6%. Those additional results could come, but only with a major shift in the way you run your campaign and you had better determine a precise method to increase those numbers. And if you know of a precise way to increase your numbers by 6% – it’s probably worth doing before you need a contingency plan put into action.

What You Should Know
Time. Creating a contingency plan is time-consuming. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. You can hire a consultant to aide you in this (like Mersky, Jaffe & Associates), have board members take it on, or have your CFO or bookkeeper help but it will take time.

Who Should Create The Plan?
A person (or people) leading the endeavor should understand the organization and the budget, know the meaning of objectivity and possess a bit of creativity. It is one thing to say we need to cut $40,000 from operating costs and another to say we can cut $30,000 by eliminating two paid internships in exchange for ones that offer college credit, and one program that serves less than one percent of your population. Everyone’s goals should be to retain as much of the organization as possible without sending you down the path of desperation.

You Can’t Do It In A Bubble
All decisions will require the buy-in of everyone involved. This includes the board, senior staff, the development team, even some major donors. If a donor were to hear about budget cuts through the grapevine, instead of a meeting explaining what has happened and why, they may decide you are desperate and worry that their investment in your organization may be wasted. That, of course, would only compound the problem.
Uncertainty Breeds Fear. The reality of the situation should not be forgotten. You are doing this because in an uncertain economic climate you want to ensure the longevity of the organization. You may need to be a bit more bare bones for a few years, but it will ensure that you will still be around serving the public for years to come.