Looking Out & Looking In

Apply Your Research: Visioning (7th in a series of 7)

At a polarizing – perhaps unsettling – time, it may be easier to retreat than confront. When we retreat into the comfort of what we think we know, we miss the opportunity to recognize and confront what has changed.
Fall is a season of new beginnings. This eblast series from Plan A Advisors offers practical tools for research and assessment to help nonprofit leaders consider the environmental changes that might impact an organization or institution, or help it to redirect its energies to address issues or opportunities that might ultimately strengthen it.
These are among the tools that Plan A Advisors employs for strategic plans and business plans but the same can be used outside a formal planning process. Good research and thoughtful assessment should lead to action or even transformational change.

A nonprofit’s mission is the reason it is in business, codified in a succinct statement that rarely changes. A nonprofit’s vision, by comparison, describes the shorter-term impact that a nonprofit intends to have on the population that it serves, and on the challenge or opportunity its mission is designed to address. A vision statement should be reconsidered cyclically so that it remains fresh and responsive to changing conditions; typically, a vision statement is renewed or recrafted with each strategic planning cycle.
Use research you’ve conducted and the analyses you’ve completed – looking out and looking in – to write a vision statement for your nonprofit. It should answer these questions:

  • Who will be affected by your programs?
  • What will change for the better as a result of your programs over the next several years?
  • Why do your programs matter?
You might follow a format like this: [NAME OF NONPROFIT] will be [DESCRIBE THE WAY YOU WILL BE PERCEIVED] by [DESCRIBE AN ACTION] so that it can [COMMIT TO AN IMPACT].
Here is an example of an organization’s mission and vision:
Organization: Providence House
Background: A faith-based, woman-focused agency headquartered in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community of Brooklyn, Providence House provides transitional housing for homeless women and women returning to the community from prison. It incorporates a unique, trauma-informed, mentoring model at smaller, congregate housing facilities scattered throughout New York City. As part of its strategic plan, Providence House recognized that with an increasing homelessness rate and momentum in decarceration at the state and city levels, the organization would have to experiment with its model and scale rapidly to meet growing demand for its services.
Mission: Providence House serves and advocates for women and families at risk of harm, who have histories of homelessness or justice-involvement, and provides a safe community where their dignity is recognized, strengths are enhanced and a transition to stability is achieved.
Vision (from Strategic Plan 2019-22): At a moment when the challenges of homelessness and criminal justice reform are prominent in New York and nationally, Providence House will adapt and enhance its model of providing comprehensive, community-centered, trauma-informed services to serve more women and children at risk of harm.
Happy holiday season from Plan A Advisors! Our next series begins in January.


Analytical Tools: The SWOT (6th in a series of 7)

Take all that you’ve learned from research exercises – such as Interviews, Roundtables, a Peer Scan and Program Portfolio Analysis – and use the data to plan and take action. A SWOT analysis is a good format for summarizing the data you’ve collected. A four-quadrant grid listing Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats helps you make sense of what you’ve learned and highlights areas that merit a response so you can plan for the future, responsively. A SWOT template is available here.
Strengths. List internal strengths on which your nonprofit can build. A committed board, expert staff, convenient location and popular programs are examples of “strengths” to build on (and their absence from the list may be telling as well).
Weaknesses. Be frank about your internal weaknesses because your nonprofit needs to address them to succeed. Limited financial resources, inadequate fundraising, lack of marketing expertise are common examples of weaknesses.
Opportunities. Look externally for opportunities upon which your nonprofit should consider capitalizing. For example, identify any unmet need for services, newly available funding, or evidence of growing interest in your programs and services.
Threats. Pinpoint factors external to your nonprofit that you want to try to mitigate. A projected change in the economy, growing competition, or new regulations might be cited as threats to your success.
Limit the number of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to just the five, six or seven of greatest consequence in each of the SWOT’s four quadrants.
Now the SWOT can be used as a “checklist” to help you develop your nonprofit’s short- and long-range plans. Good planning builds on internal strengths and takes advantage of external opportunities; it works to address internal weaknesses and mitigate external threats or challenges.
In two weeks: Looking Out & Looking In: Apply Your Research – Visioning


Analytical Tools: Program Portfolio Analysis (5th in a series of 7)

Look critically and objectively at your organization’s current program lineup to determine what to keep, what to sunset, and what to modify. Effective decision making about a portfolio of programs considers both the financial cost of a program as well as its impact. There are three steps to completing a Program Portfolio Analysis, described here. A more detailed set of directions is available by clicking here.
Rate your programs for impact. Each program run by your nonprofit should be analyzed on a scale of 1 (low impact) to 5 (high impact) against a set of meaningful criteria such as: a) alignment with core mission; b) excellence in execution; c) number of people served; d) depth of service. You might also measure whether the program e) fills a gap in services in the community; and f) leverages financial or other resources that benefit your nonprofit.
Determine each program’s profitability. Every program run by the organization should then be evaluated for its profitability. Does it generate a surplus or is it a drain on resources? Make sure to include personnel and overhead costs when evaluating profitability.
Plot each program on a grid. Show profitability on the X axis and impact on the Y axis to spark discussion about the strategic value of each program run by your nonprofit:

  • High impact, high profit programs: Keep growing these programs!
  • Low impact, low profit programs: Consider phasing these out.
  • Low impact, high profit programs: These may not be mission-critical but they may be worth keeping because they’re good for the bottom line.
  • High impact, low profit programs: These programs become the focus of your philanthropic pitch.
Have a tough conversation. Are there programs or services you offer that no longer impact your constituents? Are there programs that no longer further your nonprofit’s mission? Are there programs or services that should be revamped or eliminated because they’re unlikely to reach profitability or strengthen your organization’s impact?
In two weeks: Looking Out & Looking In: Analytical Tools – The SWOT


Conduct Research: Gather Available Data (4th in a series of 7)

Take a close look at data readily available to you in order to better understand emerging trends that might impact your nonprofit, or that offer an opportunity. There’s a lot of data out there to digest.
Demographic Trends. Track changing demographics using publicly available data from the Census Bureau’s American FactFinder (https://factfinder.census.gov). This easy-to-use online tool allows anyone to select a locale and view detailed data on demographics, economics, housing, and other factors. Develop assumptions about projected changes in your community by comparing multi-year data. You can automate trend analysis by acquiring a modestly-priced data-visualization software, such as Tableau (https://www.tableau.com/). This software will help you to create maps with data overlays drawn directly from the Census Bureau. You may also be able to find community studies around commercial, residential and environmental trends – commissioned, for example, by a local development corporation, business organization, regional nonprofit or philanthropy.
Environmental Scans. Identify trends in the community you serve through methodical observation. Catalog the types of new businesses that have opened in recent years and their distinguishing characteristics. Observe patterns around those that have closed as well. Note the types of housing units in development, and where the real estate market has been “soft.” Reflect on local political trends and the issues raised or debated in recent elections.
Mystery Shopping. Make anonymous site visits to similar nonprofits to assess their operations. Use a visit protocol that focuses first on pre-visit preparation (How easy was it to use their website to prepare for your visit?) and then on the visit itself (comment on parking, signage, the appearance of the facility, how you were greeted…and so on). Record your observations in writing so you can readily compare impressions with others doing the same.
Mine your data. Visualize your nonprofit’s available data in a bar chart or line graph. Often visual representation will help you see trends that might be lost in the raw data. Look at overall financial performance; fundraising by program or source; visitorship, membership, program attendance, circulation or enrollment; web stats; client incidents; and staff turnover, to name a few.
Produce data. Some questions can only be answered by conducting research directly. Consider conducting an online survey using simple tools (e.g. Survey Monkey). You can answer questions you have about your audience (visitors, users, patients, students…you name it) by asking them. You can also conduct “intercept surveys,” which involve utilizing volunteers or staff to greet and query visitors to your nonprofit. Keep in mind, any opt-in form of data collection is not a reliable “random sampling,” but can be useful, nonetheless.
In two weeks: Looking Out & Looking In: Analytical Tools – Program Portfolio Analysis


Conduct Research: Roundtable Conversations (3rd in a series of 7)

Engage larger groups in research by hosting roundtable conversations with invited participants who represent key constituencies. Roundtable conversations are most productive when they focus a group on problem-solving rather than problematizing, imagining the future rather than critiquing the past. Like a “focus group” but without the proverbial two-way mirror, roundtable conversations can be used to test a group’s response to a new program or direction.
Audiences. Think about who you want to hear from in order to better understand your constituents and their needs. The makeup of each gathering determines the type of information you collect. Groups that are heterogenous in composition can bring a variety of perspectives that offer broad insights helpful to problem-solving; homogenous groups can offer insights from a particular perspective when they are organized by age, gender, profession, or interest.
Invitations. Be selective in your invitations so the roundtable groups are carefully composed and likely to work productively together. Have the personalized invitations come from a known and respected individual.
Format. Roundtables tend to draw more RSVPs and better attendance when they’re held in a non-institutional setting such as a private home. Eight-to-twelve participants make an ideal group. Some key elements: comfortable seating, a flip chart, an objective facilitator and an exercise designed to inspire conversation.
Topics. Start by sharing information that you’ve learned from interviews, observations or data – like demographic trends, usage, attendance or membership. Have the group a) respond to the data, b) consider its implications, c) imagine an institutional response, or d) develop several possible responses. Encourage debate between participants. As the group talks and works together, the facilitator captures the conversation’s essence without judgement – for analysis later.
Acknowledgment. Thank participants immediately following the roundtable. Let them know why their time was valued.
In two weeks: Looking Out & Looking In: Conduct Research – Gather Data


Conduct Research: Peer Scans (2nd in a series of 7)

Learn from similar organizations by conducting a peer scan to understand how similar nonprofits have addressed issues and put in place practices that you might adopt or adapt. Find the parallels and capitalize on observed best practices in program, administration and governance. When members of the board and senior management participate together in the process, you invest both your voluntary and professional leadership in the research and in the decisions drawn from what you’ve learned.
Peer list. Identify a group of nonprofits that perform a similar function to yours and that you admire. Look for peers in communities where the demographics are not dissimilar to your own who will willingly aid a peer nonprofit. Narrow your list to just five. Ask their CEO or board leader to participate in an interview with a formal request from your nonprofit’s leadership.
Interview protocol. Develop a sequence of a dozen open-ended questions, mostly around how a peer nonprofit addresses a common challenge. You may inquire about program delivery, reaching tough-to-reach populations, board development and function, fundraising, marketing and more. Ask for examples of how things work, whether the nonprofit has made changes in recent years, any resistance they faced and how they overcame it.
Interview format. Assemble a small team to conduct the peer scan interview and orchestrate the interview process with them (phone, teleconference, meeting). A mix of board and staff can work well. Everyone hears information differently, and everyone will learn something that will contribute to the conclusions you reach from the interviews.
Site visit. Consider making a formal group site visit to see and experience the peer nonprofit in-person, arranged with the CEO. Bring a small group of senior managers and board members. Begin with a facility tour using a prepared list of suggested observations (the visit protocol). Then sit down with the host organization’s management for a conversation using the interview protocol.
Data download. No matter the interview format, assign someone to take active notes on a laptop so there’s at least one thorough record. Follow a group of peer scan phone interviews or site visits with a summary session to download everyone’s observations and learnings. Focus on comparisons of areas relevant to your nonprofit, such as the portfolio of programs, management and governance structures, marketing and fundraising.
Acknowledgement. Thank your contacts immediately following the peer scan interview or site visit. Let them know why their time was valued.
In two weeks: Looking Out & Looking In: Conduct Research – Roundtable Conversations


Conduct Research: One-on-One Interviews (1st in a series of 7)

Learn from those who know something about your nonprofit, the population you serve, and about your field. Use a formal interview process to pose questions to a group of people whose opinions you value to gather feedback and insight, and to generate ideas around new approaches to mission that you might consider.
Interview list. Identify a long list of individuals who offer a unique point of view or valued perspective on your nonprofit, its programs and services, its governance and management, and the larger environment in which it operates. Key board members, key staff, colleagues, elected or appointed officials, and representative funders can all offer insights. Then narrow the list to just 12 interviewees. (Although, you’ll probably learn most of what you need to know from the first five.)
Interview protocol. Develop a sequence of a dozen open-ended questions. For opinions about your nonprofit’s programs don’t ask: “How are we doing?” but ask instead: “How do our programs compare to other nonprofits with which you are familiar?” and ask for illustrative examples.
Interview format. Ask for participation from prospective interviewees with a formal invitation from your nonprofit’s leadership. Conduct each interview one-on-one, in-person or by phone. Record what you hear by typing directly into a document rather than handwriting. Accuracy around data capture is better and you save time.
Coding and summarizing. Return to the interview notes and highlight themes and quotes that capture important insights or suggestions. Use colors or thematic codes that enable you to surface ideas that recur across interviews. Ask: “What did we hear consistently?” “What are the big ideas that emerged?” “What came from left field but deserves our attention?”
Acknowledgement. Thank each interviewee individually. Let them know why their time was valued.
In two weeks: Looking Out & Looking In: Conduct Research – Peer Scan