Tools for engaging your non-profit board during planning activities

Planning is an engagement activity, especially when it is done right. This is probably why I’ve found myself signing many contracts with non-profit organizations in the last few years to help them develop long term plans, strategic plans, tactical plans, business plans, board development & governance plans, resource development plans, marketing plans, program plans, etc etc etc.

OMG . . . I think I was channeling Bubba from the movie Forrest Gump there for a moment:

As you saw from that memorable movie clip, this stuff can get a little mesmerizing and rote. When it does, then planning isn’t very engaging at all and begins to feel like Dunkin Donuts’ Fred the Baker. Remember him?

Planning (whatever you are planning) can be frustrating for many different reasons, but two of my all time favorite things that result in tearing out one’s hair are:

  1. when participants don’t understand the issues, strategies or tactics being discussed during the planning process (or they have an incorrect and fuzzy picture of what is really going on at their agency)
  2. when board members don’t want to put their names on any of the action items

I recently found a tool that you might find useful, and I employed a simple exercise that also appeared to work fairly well with helping people better understand and engage in your planning process. I thought it would be fun to share both of these tools with you today.

post it notesExercise: What seat(s) on the bus do you want to sit?

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your resource development committee is writing your organization’s annual resource development plan in a vacuum?

You know what I mean . . .

The committee meets, strokes their chin, pontificates on goals-strategies-tactics, puts it all on paper, brings it to the board for approval, everyone votes ‘YES’ and the illusion of  consensus descends upon the boardroom. Action plans were sketchy and very few people’s names were listed next to any tactics. In the end, you have a plan and the only person doing anything associated with the plan is YOU.

One simple exercise that your resource development committee could use to engage the board simply involves:

  • Larger poster paper
  • Post-It Notes
  • Pens
  • Approx 5 minutes of time on the board meeting agenda

Let’s say your resource development committee has set its goals and now grapples with what strategies it should include in the plan to achieve the goals. It certainly doesn’t make sense to include strategies with which no one plans on volunteering to help. This exercise — albeit simple — helps get a handle on the question: “What seat on the bus do you want to sit in?” Here is how it works:

  1. Label each poster paper with a prospective resource development strategy (e.g. prospect cultivation, specific special events, annual campaign, major gifts, planned giving, special projects, donor stewardship, etc)
  2. Give every board members a stack of standard size Post-It Notes and a pen
  3. Ask participants to put their name on Post-It Notes and place those notes on the larger posters that represent activities where they would like to volunteer their time
  4. Step back and facilitate a short discussion about what they see (e.g. Are there resource development strategies that don’t have any names? If so, what should be done about that? Are there posters with lots of names? What options does that give the committee? etc etc etc)

This exercise gives your resource development committee an opportunity to:

  • Refine and fine tune the strategies in its draft plan (e.g if no one put their name on the annual campaign strategy, you can eliminate it from your plan OR revise your board recruitment plans to find people with that interest OR change the annual campaign model to better fit the skills and interests sitting around your table, etc)
  • Develop leadership prospect lists for various fundraising activities
  • Target specific board volunteers to engage in discussion about action plans and tactics

Kinda simple, but pretty effective in getting people in the seats that they want to sit in on the fundraising bus.

matrix mapTool: The Matrix Map

When planning, I find that sometimes people get all turned on issues pertaining to:

Profitable activities


Impact and mission driven activities

Let’s face it. Sometimes our organizations do things that lose money because our mission calls us to do it or the community impact demands we do it. Likewise, we sometimes do things that have nothing to do with our mission because it brings in money and helps fund other mission-focused activities.

These calculations aren’t intuitive to business-minded people who sit on your board.

One tool I found while reading LinkedIn discussion groups is something called a Matrix Map, and it might be helpful to your board members during the planning process.

Steve Zimmerman recently wrote a great article at the Nonprofit Quarterly titled “The Matrix Map: A Powerful Tool for Mission-Focused Nonprofits“. This link is definitely worth the click if your board members struggle with questions like “why are we doing that?” during a planning activity.

What tools have you used to engage your board or help clarify issues in your boardroom during planning and strategic related discussions. Please scroll down and share your experiences in thoughts in the comment box below. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on July 10, 2014, in nonprofit, Planning and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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