For those of you following the last few blog posts, you know that I’m reading “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control“ written by researcher Walter Mischel, which is a book about human behavior, delayed reward and resisting temptation. There are tons of organizational development lessons throughout the book, and there is so much that non-profit organizations can learn from this research.
For example, chapter five — “The Best-Laid Plans” — looks at a concept researchers labeled “hot stimulus” (aka temptation), which is one important factor in the entire delayed reward equation at the root of the marshmallow test. In this chapter, they looked at strategies that children were asked to use in order to improve the amount of time they spent on a project before caving in to a distraction or reward.
One of the strategies that seems to work well is creating “If-Then Plans.” The way this works is when a child is presented with a situation like a foreseeable distraction or temptation, they automatically do something that helps insert their self-control. Here is how Mischel talks about this phenomenon on page 98:
“With practice, the desired action of an implementation plan becomes initiated automatically when the relevant situation cues occur:
- When the clock hits 5 pm, I will read my textbook;
- I will start writing the paper the day after Christmas;
- When the dessert menu is served, I will not order chocolate cake;
- Whenever the distraction arises, I will ignore it.
And implementation plans work not just when the IF is in the external environment (when the alarm rings, when I enter the bar) but also when the cue is your internal state (when I’m craving something, when I’m bored, when I’m angry).
When I read this chapter, it got me thinking about how powerful IF-THEN planning can be and has been for countless numbers of smart non-profit organizations. The following are just a few examples:
- IF our executive director resigns or leaves some day, then we will a) hire an interim executive director, b) form an executive search committee, etc.
- IF our largest funding source cuts or stops funding our agency, then we will cut XYZ from the operating budget and immediately access X% of funding from our reserve funds and raise Y% of funding from a special appeal to select major gifts donors.
- IF our capital campaign feasibility study comes back with news that we can raise less than expected, then we will scale the building project back in the following ways: X, Y, and Z.
Developing IF-THEN plans for your agency on a variety of different issues can help your organization get through tough situations like executive turnover. More importantly, it will help you avoid distracting shiny-object-types-of-issues that are endemic to most crisis situations.
Has your agency developed a succession plan or anything else that qualifies as an “IF-THEN” plan or strategy? Please scroll down and share your thoughts and experiences in the comment box below. I would love to hear about your successes and your lessons learned.
Here’s to your health!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC
As I explained in last week’s post titled “Should you administer the ‘Marshmallow Test’ to new non-profit board prospects?,” I’ve been traveling a lot lately, which means I’m looking for good books to read at the airport and on the airplane. The newest eBook on my iPad is “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control“written by researcher Walter Mischel. This book is all about individual human behavior, but I find myself thinking a lot about non-profit organizations while turning the pages.
For example . . . let’s look at Chapter 6 — “Idle Grasshopper and Busy Ants”
I’m sure most of you know Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ant, which is all about the virtue of hard work and planning ahead. Mischel uses this classic story to frame his Marshmallow Test work around immediate rewards versus future rewards and what it tells us about people and their future.
While reading this chapter I couldn’t help but think about non-profit boards and the decisions they make pertaining to saving for a rainy day and building a “rainy day fund“. I’m sure this idea is top of mind for me because a number of my current clients use “number of days cash on hand” as a key performance indicator (KPI) to measure their agency’s financial stability. In fact, right before cracking this chapter of the book, I was visiting with a client who has less than a month of operating cash in the bank, and they are working through ways to grow that number.
Whenever working on issues like “number of days cash on hand,” my thoughts often wander to questions like:
- Why do some board volunteers make decisions in the non-profit boardroom that they wouldn’t dare make in their own corporate boardroom?
- Why does building a rainy day fund of 3-, 6- or 12-months feel wrong to so many boards?
- Why are some non-profit boards so focused on today and less focused on tomorrow?
THEN IT HIT . . . after reading the following sentence on page 61:
“There’s no good reason for anyone to forego the ‘now’ unless there is trust that the ‘later’ will materialize.”
I read this sentence over and over again, and then I wondered the following things:
- Could this mean that your non-profit board of TODAY doesn’t want to save for a rainy day because they can’t visualize (and don’t trust) the agency’s non-profit board of tomorrow?
- Could it mean the board doesn’t have faith in their policies, processes, procedures and practices for bringing on the next generation of board members? Will the future board be good stewards of the rainy day fund?
- Could it mean the board doesn’t have faith in who the next executive director will be and whether or not they will see the rainy day fund as an excuse to relax fundraising efforts?
Wow! It is all about trust and the uncertainty of the future. DUH!
Of course, this begs the question: “What can we do TODAY to build trust among board members in what future boards look like and how they will act?”
I believe the answer is as simple as evaluating what “The Ant” would do if they were a member of your board of directors.
I think The Ant would build a strong Board Governance Committee that would take the following roles/responsibilities very seriously:
- Board Roles and Responsibilities
- Board Composition
- Board Knowledge
- Board Effectiveness
- Board Leadership
I think The Ant would invest in development of policies to help guide future boards such as:
- investment policies
- resource development policies
- board development policies
I also think The Ant would roll policy development into planning projects such as:
- long-range plan
- strategic plan
- board development plan
- resource development plan
- succession plan
Reading this chapter also took me back to what I said in last week’s post about administering The Marshmallow Test to prospective new board volunteers. For example, I’m left wondering how many “Ants” versus “Grasshoppers” sit on your board of directors? Does your board governance committee look at this dynamic when conducting its annual gap assessment? Should it? If so, how?
Please scroll down and use the space below to share your thoughts and experiences with regard to the questions I just posed in the previous paragraph. We can all learn from each other.
Here’s to your health!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC