Sarah was recently a guest on Inspired Nonprofit Leadership where she chatted with host Mary Hiland about the elements of strategic planning. Check it out below!
Intro: 00:07 Welcome to Inspired Nonprofit Leadership where you’ll hear insights and useful strategies as well as lessons learned from other nonprofit leaders and valuable tips from a variety of experts. Here to help you with the challenges and opportunities you face day after day is your host, nonprofit leadership expert, Mary Hiland.
Mary Hiland: 00:25 Hello nonprofit leaders and welcome to your go to place for information and inspiration to help you be even more effective. I’m your host, Mary Hiland, and you’re listening to Inspired Nonprofit Leadership. My guest today is Sarah Olivieri. Sarah is a nonprofit strategist with a passion for helping nonprofits thrive. The founder of PivotGround, Sarah helps human service nonprofits increase capacity, deliver better programming, attract more funding, and make the world a better place. She has over 15 years of nonprofit leadership experience. Sarah cofounded the Open Center for Autism and was the executive director of the Helping Children of War Foundation. She’s the creator of the Impact Method, a business framework for nonprofits designed to help nonprofits thrive in the digital age. Sarah is also a published author who co-wrote “Lesson Planning A La Carte: Integrated Planning for Students with Special Needs.” Welcome Sarah, you have a really broad and varied background. I’m excited to have you as a guest with us today.
Sarah Olivieri: 01:44 Thank you, Mary. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Mary Hiland: 01:47 We’re going to talk about strategy and I know from my own experience that strategy shows up, is struggled with, thought about in nonprofits in a variety of ways. So maybe we can just start with some basics about, from your perspective, what is strategy and why is it important to have strategy?
Sarah Olivieri: 02:11 I think a lot of people overthink strategy and there’s a lot of confusion around it. So as far as what is it, to me, a strategy is the combined set of goals that you’re trying to achieve and the specific actions that you’re going to take in order to achieve those goals. So it’s simple as that, but they can become very complicated because nonprofits often have what I call mission impossible goals. And so there are a lot of steps to try to achieve those goals and it can be hard to measure them or to know if the actions you’re taking are having the effect that you want.
Mary Hiland: 02:48 That’s right. That’s right. And you know, it’s interesting because I read some work by David Lapiana who’s based in the East Bay and in California, and he talked about levels of strategy in an organization. Certainly the highest level strategy of the organization itself, how does it show up to fill its mission and then going down into more programmatic and more operational strategies. So I think there people, it’s complicated as you say, because people think about sometimes they’re on different levels of strategy and they’re thinking one way and someone else’s thinking the other way. And I’ve seen that happen between boards and executives.
Sarah Olivieri: 03:34 One of the biggest challenges that many nonprofits are facing is they haven’t connected their high level strategy through to how it gets implemented on the ground. And if you don’t have those two things connected, it’s really not gonna work. And it, part of that is making sure that it’s written down, but in a way that’s usable. Because if it’s a giant document that’s not usable to people on the ground or carrying out a strategy every day,
Mary Hiland: 03:58 Right. That’s right. So what are the elements of a great strategy, Sarah, from your point of view?
Sarah Olivieri: 04:06 Sure. Well, number one in less, you are actually the only person at your nonprofit and they’re like, you’re the chair of the board and the board and that which doesn’t exist. You need to write down your strategy because if it’s not on paper or on the computer, it’s not written down, then people can’t align to it and they can’t all get on board and start growing in the same direction. So I always ask that question like, Oh yeah, we have a strategy. I’m like, well, is it written down somewhere? No. Like, well, okay, you’re not going to get very far if it’s just in somebody’s head. Another element to having a great strategy is really understanding goals. And this is more complicated I think then a lot of people realize because there are many types of goals, but as broad categories, the two types I like to think of are the outcomes that we want to have happen and usually we do not actually have control over that outcome. So, for example we may want to give somebody mental wellness, but we can’t actually make them be mentally well, but we give them a service that will help them achieve their definition of mental wellness. So that service that we can provide would be what I call an execution goal. There are actually academics who study goals, they tend to call them process goals, but to me, executing on something made sense. So I just renamed them to something that I’d always remember it. So execution goals and outcome goals. And it’s really, it’s an action and a reaction. What’s the action you can take and what’s the reaction that it’s going to have, which is the kind of the ultimate outcome that you want to achieve. So that’s really key in a strategy that you have split those two goals at heart. And especially for nonprofits, because the mission is always almost always it’s an outcome that you want to achieve, but you don’t actually have control over. Taking that a step farther, you want to make sure that all of your goals are pointing towards achieving your mission and are making, giving you a step forward.
Mary Hiland: 06:13 That’s so important. And you know, it’s interesting because I often see that mission statements are more the process goal. You know, it’s more of the process outcome. They haven’t really thought through the impact outcome and aren’t articulating in the mission or they’re articulating the impact outcome and the strategies and process type of things that they do. But they don’t always recognize that if that’s in their mission and they want to do something different than they have to change the mission. But anyway, I don’t want to derail us here into a different line of talking, but all these things in a nonprofit relate to each other, the mission statement, the written strategies, those things. So are there any other elements that you have to talk about?
Sarah Olivieri: 07:06 I would just second to the mission. I mean that’s one of my tests. If the mission isn’t ready to be used in a way that it is an outcome that you’re trying to achieve and it isn’t specific enough, then you’re not ready to build a mission driven strategy and you need to start by really getting clear on your mission. And I actually do some work on mission soon because a lot of times people are trying to make their mission statement do all of their strategic planning and all of their marketing and that is asking too much of a mission and I can tell you from a marketing perspective, no marketer needs your mission statement to be a marketing tool. They can write another version that communicates what you do that will be a great marketing tool and you should let your mission be that key outcome goal, your ultimate mission impossible. That ultimate outcome you want to achieve. Once you have that, yeah, the strategy will fall in place.
Mary Hiland: 08:01 Yeah. That is so important because I’ve seen that, I’ve heard boards and executives struggle with that, where they’re saying it, particularly the marketing point because that’s out there saying, you know, your mission statement has to be distinctive and say how you are different than everyone in the world. And it, I’m, I’m so glad you’re going to do something on that because there’s a lot of mixed messages out there for nonprofit leaders about, about mission. So what else Sarah?
Sarah Olivieri: 08:31 I would say coming, you know, as far as the great strategy, one thing I really learned about strategy is, is the way you build a strategy and the way you make sure a strategy is like a good enough strategy and then the way you view your strategy to use it to actually follow it requires different, it’s different ways of thinking and you need kind of different ways of looking at your strategy. So we don’t put strategies down like in a word document. It’s not like paragraphs with sub tabs like you might some strategy. We actually build strategies usually using digital tools that give us different ways of looking at the strategy. So we have one view where we actually build out goals like in a mind map so that they are physically, there’s a physical line drawn to the mission statement, which prevents us from starting to take on activities that really don’t align with our mission. But then we need some other goals, other views, sorry, to really tell us if our strategy is workable. So one common mistake is I like to divide up kind of the phases of what you’re going to do into do first, do next and build capacity to do. It’s basically just what order are we going to do these things? Like forget about what month they’re going to happen, just what has to be done, how can we do this, right? What’s the order? And so then we look at this view, how many things did we say we were going to do first? How many things did we say we’re going to do next and how many things we’re going to build capacity to do. Now our tendency is to think that we’re super humans and we can do everything first.
Mary Hiland: 10:08 Oh, we never see that in nonprofits. No, and I love your, I love your statement build capacity to do because I see that often in having these discussions, whether you call it strategic planning, whatever you call it, and I know we’re going to talk a little bit more about that. I find that the concept of capacity gets left out so often.
Sarah Olivieri: 10:32 It does. And you will fail. I think the number one key to creating a strategy that will actually get carried out is that you, I talk about, you know, I like to help nonprofits thrive and and kind of my secret that I share with the world is you have to continually be balancing strategy and capacity. So you need both great strategy and great capacity and it wouldn’t be a great strategy if it didn’t meet you at your current capacity and have activities in it that take you to your next level of capacity. Most times I see nonprofits come to us and they’re basically stuck. They grew and now they’re stuck and they know they need to do more, but they can’t figure out how do we actually start that fundraising department or how do we actually do this thing that we need to do to grow, but we have no capacity to do it. If you don’t start by understanding the capacity you have and you don’t continually monitor that, you will get stuck. You won’t be able to achieve that strategy. And I think it’s, it makes me sad when I see there are a lot of nonprofits consultants doing strategic planning and they build these lofty plans that the nonprofit, there is no way to get from where they are today to where they need to be in order to even essentially start that strategy built into the strategy. And I think that’s probably the number one reason why a lot of strategic plans get made and not executed.
Mary Hiland: 11:55 That’s right. Let’s, I’d like to ask you a question about capacity before we continue our conversation about strategy and strategic planning. We have nonprofit leaders listening. I’m assuming both board members and executives and even others. When you say, when we talk about capacity, what should they be thinking about? How would you define it? What are the elements of it? We don’t have to dig too deep, but I think that it’s just, okay. Capacity. People often have a very narrow view of what that could comprise.
Sarah Olivieri: 12:30 Yeah. And I think oftentimes nonprofits, they go right to money. We don’t have the money. And that’s one element of capacity. Sure, if you had extra money, things might be easier. But the truth is if you’re not good at the other elements of capacity, getting more money isn’t actually gonna solve your capacity problems. So most of the other elements in capacity have to do with your people and I like to break those down. So like do your people have enough time in the day? There’s lots of ways you can rearrange your staff jobs and roles and just the way you work from day to day to give your people more time in their day. That can make a huge difference. Another element is expertise. So if you don’t know how to do something then and you try to do something that you don’t know, your capacity to get it done is significantly less than someone who is very good at it. So if you’re thinking about doing something that you don’t know how to do, you want to say, is this the kind of thing that is worth investing my time to learn how to do because I’m going to have to do it again and again, it’s part of my regular job? Or is this the kind of thing that it’s a full time job just being an expert. Then you should hire an expert and you may be thinking, oh well I don’t have money to hire the experts. But the truth is it’s scrape and scrounge to find that money because the experts can know what you don’t know and know to ask the questions that you don’t even know to ask. And there are many things, especially on the Internet these days, that it is a full time job to be an expert. So expertise, time, of course you could have a physical capacity issue. That’s not usually one that I see hold people back. Although sometimes I like to remind people sometimes spending more will reduce your overall cost on delivering your mission. So yeah, so time and expertise I think are like two things that I really like to hone in on because there’s so much that can be done.
Mary Hiland: 14:36 Well, great. Well this is a wonderful conversation, but we’re going to take a little break right now to hear from our sponsor
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Mary Hiland: 14:47 Today’s episode is being brought to you by Hiland Consulting, which I created to assist people like you, executive directors, board members, and other nonprofit leaders. So you’ll unleash your potential to advance the missions you care about so deeply. I’ve been an executive director, board member, and now I’m a consultant and coach. I know your challenges and opportunities firsthand and I want to bring information inspiration, encouragement, and support to you to be the best you can be. I created a free gift for you, six steps you must know to unleash the potential of your nonprofit board. Please grab your free copy by going to my website, hilandconsulting.org or you can click on the link in the show notes. Thanks for signing up today.
Mary Hiland: 15:43 Okay. We are back and Sarah, let me invite you if there’s anything else on capacity, but then I want to hear your thoughts about traditional strategic planning in your experiences with that. And what do you think?
Sarah Olivieri: 15:59 Yeah, I have, I have a lot, a lot to say about that. I think starting with the tradition of strategic planning came from a time when data was hard to gather. And so actually if you think about that in terms of capacity, gathering data was very labor intensive and hard and required a certain level of expertise. And so it really made sense to hire someone who is an expert at gathering that kind of data. And then the data was relatively predictable, it was good for several weeks. And so you could then take that data, take your time to gather it and then make a plan lasting for say three years or five years. It was more common, five years and then became more like three years. We are just not in that world anymore.
Mary Hiland: 16:47 No. And when I started in nonprofits, and I hate to reveal, you know, my longevity here, but there were actually at a time when we were doing 10 year plans, which is remarkable.
Sarah Olivieri: 17:04 So if you’re still doing 10 year plans, please stop. If you’re doing five year plans, please stop. And if you’re doing three year plans, you need to stop because the world has changed dramatically because of the Internet. And two kind of key points that have changed are, one is data is now very, very easy to get. It’s so easy to get. And there’s two types of data that are important to us, the data about the people we’re trying to serve or our communities, things like that. And then there’s our own data that we can now track, how people are interacting with us because so much about the internet now is about two way communication and we can very quickly get a sense of when we put something out, how are people reacting to it? And we can use that data to make decisions. And we can have that data in very quickly. One, we no longer need to take a long time to gather data and two, because the internet has sped things up, we’re in a world where basically the best approach to figuring out solutions to problems or trying something new is rapid prototyping. It’s why three d printers are so popular now. But that’s just in the physical world. It means trying something, getting your program out there, getting your fundraising campaign out there and testing it, looking at your own data and then making adjustments. Many for profit businesses figured this out a while ago. They’re running on a quarterly schedule, which is very common. I highly recommend it. At PivotGround, we actually work on a 60 day cycle. So we plan out, we have, you know, kind of, we have a good sense of what we’re doing for the year. To think beyond a year just doesn’t make any sense because we’re, it’s just too much is going to change anything we’ve planned far beyond. We usually put a three year target, but we adjust that three year picture every, sometimes in six months.
Mary Hiland: 19:02 Okay. I want to make a comment about that because as you’ve been talking about don’t do three year, I have to say that isn’t a message that I’m giving and so I’m, I’m challenged by your thinking on this. But what you just said is that three year target. I think from my perspective it’s important to have the conversation about what do you want to create, what do you want to have be different and to have a vision or a perspective about that a little further out in the future than one year. Because I think it can be like your north star and I have seen nonprofits think, oh we can’t get there. I mean they can’t be really so out there. They’re ridiculous about it. But I do think it’s that stretch goal concept that there is a role for that in exciting people and getting them engaged in working on something. But then to your point, you really got to focus on a year horizon to get something done that goes in that direction. So that’s kind of my 2 cents on that.
Sarah Olivieri: 20:12 So having a three year vision depending on like what kind of thing you’re working on, you could have a 10 year vision, but the difference to me is that is not the goal. Like you’re going to use that as a vision to align everybody around and that actually builds capacity. Everybody knows, okay, this is where we’re going. Unlike making that the central goal that you’re going to like backtrack all the steps that you’re going to do to get there, you should revisit it every year and say, hey, we learned all this stuff this year. We try lots of things. We probably got some clarity, you know, because each time we move into the future we can see that the next steps into the future. Is that still our vision or did we change our vision? And if we change, let’s make sure we all know that and put it on paper again and share it. Because too often people’s vision change, but they don’t actually formalize it and communicate it.
Mary Hiland: 21:06 I agree. You’re right. And it’s that attention in some ways to detail and making the time to come together and have the conversations again that sometimes I know boards and executives say, well, we already have a plan. We’re just going to work the plan. And they don’t stop and pause and reevaluate the way they should. I think I agree with you on that.
Sarah Olivieri: 21:32 So we like to look at like that three year or 10 year picture every year at least. But then really we kind of have a rough plan for the year and every two months we’re feeling out in great detail. So we usually, you know, we’re then moving along everything that due first we know we’re doing like at least some of it in the next two months. And maybe some of those do first items are big and they’ll take the whole year, but we’ll keep plugging away at them. And then for that, for that two months, we then have a very, very detailed version of the plan where we actually break down the major activities we’re going to do. And then usually I’d like to have those divided, which activity are we going to do these two weeks in the next two weeks? And the next two weeks and so we break it down into one 60 day cycle, basically that’s four, two week chunks. And then that feeling of being in a nonprofit and being overwhelmed and wearing 20 hats is gone. You sit down, these are those three things or five things, tops that I need to do in the next two weeks and our brains can handle that. And we can tell ourselves everything else that’s trying to get my attention. It’s in the plan. It’s just for the next two weeks, not this two weeks. And I’m not going to get distracted by it or I won’t complete this step and I won’t get to the next step.
Mary Hiland: 22:55 You know, this brings to mind a book by Darren Hardy called “The Compound Effect.” And it’s exactly what you’re talking about. And it’s not new. It’s that thing where you get, you’d say, okay, if I give you a penny and I multiply it every time, would you rather have that or would you rather have, you know, this amount of money. And the reality is, is that when we take these incremental steps and we’re very focused on those, that the impact we’re creating compounds over time. So I totally agree with this approach. I think that it, it requires discipline, but it is very freeing when you’re in an overwhelmed mode. So I think that’s a great point for our listeners to hear from you, Sarah. Where does, and you may have more to say about the planning and the process, but where does the board fit in all of this? Do you have a way of talking to the board about its role in the execution of the plan? Or how do they fit in, in this process of setting the goals?
Sarah Olivieri: 24:06 Yeah, that’s a great question. I think partly, you know, I just like to, it depends what type of nonprofit you are. So if you’re a fully volunteer-run nonprofit, then your board is really your administration, like an executing firm. So don’t count yourself in what I’m about to say if you’re in that situation, cause there’s like a slightly different reconfiguration in roles in that case. But if you have a paid executive director, that’s how come what I think of as like a professionally-run nonprofit, when someone’s hired to run it. And I think this more rapid kind of strategy and execution has also required a shift in the roles that a board plays versus what an executive director plays and I think that that means that the board is probably, and it really depends on the relationship with the board should probably be signing off on the major outcomes that the organization is going to try to achieve once a year, but should really let the executive director have the authority and at the same time I like to talk about accountability, right? Cause that means you’re responsible for doing it, but you also have the control or power that it takes to actually make it happen. And if you don’t have both of those things in place, then no one is actually accountable. You can say, oh, you’re responsible to do it, but you have to do it this way and maybe you don’t like, you’ve just basically cut your own legs off when you do that. I really encourage boards to let their executive directors have the final say over what are the actual activities that we’re going to do. And that’s really because the executive directors are the ones who can manage the capacity of the organization. They can pull those capacity leavers and that is going to what’s gonna make or break your ability to achieve those outcomes.
Mary Hiland: 26:03 Right. Yeah. I do think it’s so important for the board too, and actually the executive needs to practice this with his or her own staff is to match that responsibility and the authority together and have that alignment. I do think that boards have roles relative to the goals of the organization and that sometimes, well frankly a lot of the time the board does this sort of pass off to the executive and says, you know, you go do it and we’re just going to have oversight. Well, the board within its governing roles, and this is where most of my work occurs, but within its governing roles, there are a lot of things board members could be doing that are consistent with governing and their roles. Things like advocacy. We always debate in the sector the role in fundraising, but there is a something there at least the relationship building, the stewardship, the cultivation, but also to ensure resources, even if it isn’t about fund raising, it might be some other kind of innovative way or some other financial model they have for bringing in resources. But the board has a role in how do we engage the community with what we’re doing and how do we build the resources and how do we build the capacity. So the board, and there’s a lot of other things, but that’s not our topic for today, but I think that the board should have the reflective activity also in saying, over this year, what results are we going to accomplish to move us for that goal? You know, what’s our job here? And then to your point, what’s our accountability going to be and who and how are we going to be accountable to each other because we need to be accountable in some way. Even though there’s, there’s sort of the buck stops here entity in the nonprofit.
Sarah Olivieri: 28:04 Yeah, I think that’s an absolutely great point. I think where boards roles can get confusing is I think there’s, being a board member has kind of two sides. One is kind of this legal accountability that you have to the organization and where you have a lot of control, you are governing, which means that like if you’re making mostly monitoring, but if something goes wrong, you do it, you’re the one who has to make sure it doesn’t or find the solution. You are kind of accountable, but then there’s this other role where you don’t necessarily have a lot of power or you shouldn’t try to exercise power, where you are a super volunteer, you are there to give of yourself to the organization. And I think if you can separate those two roles and realize that when you are governing, you are in this position where you have accountability at highest level and when you are volunteering, you are supporting the operations. In which case the person who’s accountable above you is the executive director. You no longer have, you’re no longer sitting in a seat of accountability when you’re volunteering for the operations of the organization.
Mary Hiland: 29:16 That’s right. That distinction is so important and comes up over and over and over again.
Sarah Olivieri: 29:22 And if you try to exert your power as a board member, as a governing board member, when you’re really doing, you know, supporting the executive director or the functions of the organization, you are undermining the core capacity of the nonprofit and actually doing probably more harm than good.
Mary Hiland: 29:40 Well, and technically, and we don’t need to get into this, but technically when you look at the legal duty, I mean, no individual board member has any authority at all. So that’s an important message for people to know when they get on a board is that it is only the collective action of the board that has power or, you know, decision making unless the board delegates it of course. But not too often does that happen particularly to an individual, maybe to a committee.
Sarah Olivieri: 30:08 It’s like the three legged race, your legs are tied together, you move as one thing and not fast.
Mary Hiland: 30:16 That’s good. So Sarah, as we’re coming, can’t believe it, we’re coming to the end of our time. What other words of wisdom do you have for the nonprofit leaders listening and then I want to go to how to best find you or contact you if they want to have a further conversation with you.
Sarah Olivieri: 30:37 I think, you know, when it comes to strategy, especially this new way of doing strategy, if you hear other people talk about, we’re often talking about like iterative planning. That’s kind of one of the key words. Iterative. Is that a lot of nonprofits aren’t doing this yet. The tech industry has like really figured this out. They were the first ones to figure this out. And so a lot of stuff that we’ve learned about strategy and rapid execution, and data all comes from them. In fact, they made this world of the Internet. So, but it can be scary because it’s new because there are not so many people are talking about it, or not so many people are doing it. And so it can be hard. You look to your left, you look to your right you’re like other nonprofits, they have their three year strategy and they’re doing their galas and all these things, but just because they’re doing those things doesn’t mean they have a measurable impact on their mission. Cause a lot of nonprofits are not really measuring that impact. They haven’t really clarified those outcomes. And so it can be really scary to do something differently than you see a lot of nonprofits. So I’d say be brave is probably my number one word of wisdom and really think, I mean you know that nonprofits have that ability to be brave because they set out be like this is an impossible thing to change in the world and I’m going to do it. You just have to use that same power to say like, this seems like an impossible level of organization, but just be brave and trust that it’s actually going to unlock you. It’s going to eliminate the overwhelm. It’s actually gonna eliminate your money problems. I really believe that as much as nonprofits feel that having money is the solution that is not, if you haven’t addressed these other issues, no amount of money will save you.
Mary Hiland: 32:40 That’s right. And I’m guessing here that you have seen a lot of success stories in applying this.
Sarah Olivieri: 32:50 We see great success and at all levels. I think you know, this from the smallest nonprofit to very large nonprofits can benefit from this. Larger nonprofits are slower to turn, but they can start seeing great success right away. Smaller nonprofits can, especially new nonprofits would have the advantage of not having to make the mistakes of past generations, so yeah.
Mary Hiland: 33:15 Great. Well, this has been a delightful conversation, Sarah, and I want to make sure that our listeners, if they want to learn more about you, I do have a website here, but you correct me if it’s not the right one. I have https://pivotground.com. Is there anything else you want to share about how to connect with you?
Sarah Olivieri: 33:44 Yeah, you can connect through our website, you can find us on Facebook or LinkedIn. If you’re a larger nonprofit, we work with larger nonprofits one on one. We teach them the impact method where we do this kind of strategizing and teach people how to actually implement in an iterative way. If you’re a smaller nonprofit, I’m really excited we have a new group coaching program, where we, it’s less hands on, I won’t do all the work for you, but I’m gonna teach you how to do it and provide lots of guidance along the way to get you going. So that’s brand new if you, if, depending on when you’re hearing this, you might find that on our website, if not, because we don’t have a lot of information up right now about it, you can just reach out and say I’m interested in the group coaching program for smaller nonprofits. That’s really exciting for me because a lot of smaller nonprofits really need that information.
Mary Hiland: 34:37 That’s great. Yeah, I love that you’re reaching out to that group because it’s so hard for them to get access to the kind of resources and people like us who are there to support them but not as volunteers of course. Well, thank you so much Sarah. I just hope that our listeners will learn more about you and I think also that you have given them a lot of food for thought. This is a complicated issue, but I think this is a really fresh way of looking at it and clearly it’s, it’s one that works. So thanks so much for the work you’re doing, serving the community. And thank you, our listeners, for all that you do to make our communities better and we look forward to chatting with you next time.
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