November 1, 2011

Good Groundwork, Finding Balance – Part 1: Planning Process Recommendations

Very few of us have the focus and vision to pull together a worthwhile and highly functioning non-profit organization without significant, documented planning. A surprising number of organizations reach the seek-funding stage and even the service-provision stages without having well orchestrated business documentation in hand. This seems to be because most people who engage in providing valuable community services by establishing non-profit organizations are strong in their field of service delivery, but do not always have the expertise to craft solid business plans and other documents used for funder, client, and partner communications. They have a heart that is authentic and empathic. They are passionate about their work and very good at it, but they have not balanced that heart with a head for strategy and coordinated action.

The result is that most organizations have reached a solid consensus that lets them state their goals clearly in good ‘elevator speeches.’ But the details are not fleshed out yet. Organization leaders have the vision to bring people together, but your board, staff, community partners, and funders need goals, budgets, and policies to be presented in concrete ways to achieve that vision.

This isn’t to say that if you write a plan that you can count on it working flawlessly. There will always be unforeseen obstacles and unpredicted circumstances you will be called upon to deal with effectively. But when you have put in valuable forethought and add a good dose of daily flexibility, you can bring yourself back to your direct path when you wander. You can see ways to work with shifts in circumstance, funding, and policy and personnel changes that might otherwise evade you. A few recommendations to get you off on the right foot:

Include at least one linear person on your planning team. You can be an organic thinker or a linear one, but by having one linear person on your team, they can function as the ‘idea secretary and treasurer.’ You need someone who thrives on detail and organization. They should be someone who intimately understands financial data and budgets and can research organizational requirements. They are going to be the glue that ensures all your efforts come to fruition instead of being just fragmented ideas. If you do not have access to such a person on your own program staff, consider finding one external to your organization with whom you can work.

Use available resources. There are many online resources for document templates, budget formats, business plans, and so on. Two of my favorites are NorthSky and United Way of Central New Mexico. The Panel on the Non-Profit Sector has downloadable reports available on its site that give good board practices guidance. Your state’s Attorney General’s office may also have succinct publications with guidelines and legal requirements applicable to your type of organization.

Establish working community partnerships. People are resources too. Again, surprisingly, this may not be immediately obvious in the planning stages. Not only do funders demand multiple partnerships to maximize the use of resources, but involving community partners in your process from the beginning will yield exponential results compared to involving them only at later stages of your work. You will get a good feel for what the community needs, in what form it will be most effective, and how you can build on existing resources by making early connections.

Be frugal but effective. Don’t hire an accountant when you need a bookkeeper, or a lawyer when you need a good secretary, and visa versa. Commission studies if necessary.

Keep your primary goal in focus throughout your planning and building process. In Part 2, we will provide information on the business documents needed to improve your organization’s planning, implementation, and success, so that you can realize your vision effectively.

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