Nonprofit News

Alternatives to Strategic Planning

Blue Avocado - Mon, 03/14/2011 - 19:14

In Part 1 of this two-article series, we discussed some of the ways in which strategic planning processes have served nonprofits poorly. One key reason is that strategic planning is the primary organizational change process that nonprofits know about, that boards are comfortable with, and that funders will fund. In this article we give some alternatives, in part because it's helpful just to have choices when facing organizational decisions.

Strategic planning -- when done appropriately for your organization -- can be exactly the right tool for the job. But too often strategic planning is undertaken for reasons that would be better served by other methods: "engaging" the board, "getting everyone on the same page," getting buy-in from stakeholders, and so forth. And sometimes when boards are unhappy with their executive director, the one thing they and their executive can agree to is to undertake strategic planning.

Different processes are better for different types of decisions and challenges. Here are some tips to strengthen any process well as some specific alternative planning processes.

Focus on the questions that need answers

Begin a planning process by asking this: What are the four or five questions to which we must have unambiguous answers by . . .

Categories: Nonprofit News

An Earthquake Named Desire . . . editor notes issue #62

Blue Avocado - Mon, 03/14/2011 - 13:51

With what sadness and shock we view the terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, feelings that we know well from Katrina, Haiti, New Zealand, Chile, Indonesia. And many of us nonprofit folk have another feeling, too: internal turmoil about disaster giving.

On one hand, we're happy that so many people and governments are giving. On the other hand, we can't help but be aggravated that they don't give as much -- money or thought -- at other times.

On one hand, we know that Doctors Without Borders and Red Cross do good work. On the other hand, we know that there are surely local nonprofits that are doing great work and that will be there after the disaster is "over," but we don't know who they are.

Mika Nakahara, a longtime nonprofit activist in Tokyo, commented this morning in an interview that, "Japan is a developed country. We are not used to getting international aid; we are used to giving aid to other countries." But she added, "It is a new feeling to see that other countries care about us, even countries like Korea, China and Russia where we have political conflicts. Goodwill from abroad means a lot to us!"

When we asked where people could give donations directly to Japanese nonprofits, she said ruefully that Japanese nonprofits don't usually raise money overseas, so their websites are usually only in Japanese and are not set up for international donations. She herself is giving to Shanti Volunteer Association which has those characteristics.

In the meantime, all disasters remind us of the power and spontaneous generosity of volunteers who in Japan are everywhere setting up aid and reconstruction stations of all kinds. Our hearts go out to the people suffering in so many places in the world, and to those among them who are finding the strength to help one another.

(Photo credit Japanese Red Cross)

* In this issue we're pleased to have two pieces on strategic planning: one is a rebuttal to last issue's critique of strategic planning, and the other is a continuation of that article with ideas for alternatives to strategic planning. Ask Rita in HR takes on the question of discrimination in favor of people with disabilities, and the Board Cafe discusses where everyone should sit -- yes, sit -- at the board meeting.

And take a 3-Minute Vacation to the land of Peeps (the marshmallow ones, that is). Thank you everyone for your continuing involvement with Blue Avocado: through donations, posting Comments, and writing to us at editor @ --Jan Masaoka

Categories: Nonprofit News

Nominate Now and Often for 2011 Just Awards

Blue Avocado - Sun, 03/13/2011 - 23:02

The 2011 Just Awards are coming up, and it's time to nominate that infuriating foundation and that ridiculous news article! Last year you'll recall that the winner for Most Narcisisstic Foundation was won by the Rockefeller Foundation and President Judith Rodin, an award cheered more people than those who agreed that the movie Crash should have won over Brokeback Mountain.

Nominations are now open at, or by sending an email with the relevant info to editor at

For last year's winners, see here, and for how the Just Awards changed the world and notes on the runners-up, see here.

Nominate now and often! As a reminder, Award 1 is for for Narcissism in a Foundation and Award 2 is for Abominable Press Coverage of the Nonprofit Sector.

Categories: Nonprofit News

In Defense of Strategic Planning: A Rebuttal

Blue Avocado - Sat, 03/12/2011 - 13:32

Mike Allison is one of the leaders who defined strategic planning for the nonprofit sector, and he continues to expand and develop his thinking and practice in the area. We're delighted to have his rebuttal to the article in the last issue of Blue Avocado, Strategic Planning: Failures & Alternatives:

I am an unapologetic advocate of traditional strategic planning.

I have to admit I am not a disinterested party in this debate. As a consultant with nonprofits for the last twenty years, much of my work has been done under the umbrella of strategic planning. I continue to do this work because I believe strategic planning is both necessary and provides a unique contribution to nonprofit organization effectiveness. In this piece and from this perspective, I respond to some of the major complaints about strategic planning that were outlined in Blue Avocado's critique.

Strategic planning is made irrelevant by major shifts in the environment.
Funding was cut for some of my clients by 20% to 40% in 2009. In the cases where these clients had recently completed strategic plans, they had frameworks that were incredibly helpful in making a series of very difficult decisions in a short period of time. Why were these frameworks so helpful? Because . . .

Categories: Nonprofit News

Can We Discriminate in Favor of People with Disabilities?

Blue Avocado - Sat, 03/05/2011 - 22:35

Dear Rita: Our agency serves clients with mental health needs, and we like to provide employment opportunities to individuals with mental illness. Can we create the position of peer counselor and in the job advertisement say that the applicant should have a mental illness? We are doing this not only to provide employment opportunities to individuals with mental illness, but also so our clients can better relate to our counselors and the counselors will better understand the challenges facing their clients. Is it lawful to give preference in hiring to applicants with disabilities? Signed, Confused

Dear Confused:

The short answer is yes, if you're careful. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) only protects . . .

Categories: Nonprofit News

Mama said there'd be days like this . . . editor notes issue #61

Blue Avocado - Mon, 02/21/2011 - 21:13

The articles in this issue address difficult, thorny, seldom-addressed topics. There's Firing the Executive Director, Court-Ordered Volunteerism, and the Failures of Strategic Planning. No wonder we added an article on why nonprofit folks should be in therapy. :)

As an executive director I often felt that my emotional well-being rose and fell exactly in sync with our income statement. And I keep thinking that my frame of mind shouldn't be affected by the weather as much as it is. So here's a toast to net revenue and to the sunny days of spring! Oh, and to the Year of the Rabbit as well. --Jan Masaoka

Categories: Nonprofit News

Court-Ordered Community Service: Volunteers or Prison Labor?

Blue Avocado - Mon, 02/21/2011 - 00:41

Each year, hundreds of thousands of court-ordered community service workers are placed in nonprofits to fulfill their sentences. Although the image is typically a teenager sentenced to picking up litter, court-ordered volunteers perform a wide variety of roles in nonprofits. The very smart Susan Ellis discusses why and why not to accept such volunteers, and how to do it right.

Scene 1: You've just been caught embezzling from the auto body shop where you work as a bookkeeper. You're dreading having to do jail time, but it's your first offense, so maybe they'll go easy on you. Your attorney surprises you by suggesting that you ask the judge to sentence you to 500 hours of community service instead of 10 days in the county jail. Should you do it?

Scene 2: A finance director at a nonprofit that helps low-income women get jobs, gets a call from the volunteer center. The pitch: you'll get a volunteer, former-embezzler bookkeeper for 500 hours, no pay required, but you'll have to complete paperwork every week for her probation officer. Should you say yes?

(See the end of the article for the true-life answer.)

Alternative sentencing

For the last 30 years, courts have experimented with "alternative sentencing." An offender is given the option of completing a set number of hours of unpaid work in a nonprofit organization in lieu of a fine or spending time in prison, or as an adjunct to probation or parole.

Courts like alternative sentencing because it can reduce the costs of . . .

Categories: Nonprofit News

Strategic Planning: Failures and Alternatives

Blue Avocado - Sat, 02/19/2011 - 18:23

Here is Part 1 of a two-article series on strategic planning and alternatives to strategic planning.

Strategic planning swept into the nonprofit sector in the mid 1980s. Nonprofits were becoming seriously interested in management techniques, and strategic planning -- along with meeting facilitation and fundraising training -- was a focal point for that interest. Twenty years later, today no organization would dare say it doesn't have a strategic plan.

As the recession deepens, many nonprofits now have strategic plans that they can't move forward on. Those plans aren't helping them figure out what to do instead.

And even before the economic crisis, there has been widespread grumbling about strategic planning. Too often dozens of meetings fail to produce new insights. Nonprofit staff are often frustrated that "the strategic plan is never used," while many board members feel the strategic plan is simply a validation of what the staff is already doing or has decided. Executive directors often get going on new ideas long before the strategic plan is adopted, and by the time the document is finished, it can feel like old news.

Organizations often undertake strategic planning "to get board members engaged" or "to get everyone on the same page," objectives which could be reached in much more efficient, productive ways. Meanwhile, consultants make money (one nonprofit consulting firm charges $200,000 for a strategic plan), and foundations -- for whom the plans are mostly written -- read the plans with eyes glazing over.

This is not to say...

Categories: Nonprofit News

Queries & Communiques 2.22.11

Blue Avocado - Wed, 02/16/2011 - 21:10

We've been trying to figure out when Avocado Month is. Turns out that June is Avocado Month in the U.S.; July is Avocado Month in the U.K., and August is Avocado Month in Canada. So just make some guacamole?

Blue Avocado donors: please be patient just a little while longer. A heartfelt hank you.

Come meet Blue Avocado writers:

For an upcoming article, what are your experiences with casino giving? We're interested in hearing from you if you've gotten (or failed to get) donations from big casinos (like Harrah's), from independent casinos, from riverboat casinos, or from Indian gaming. We'd especially love to hear from you if you work in charitable giving for such an organization. Please click here and include your contact info so our writer Rick Cohen can contact you.

Categories: Nonprofit News

3-Minute Vacation: Best News Pictures of 2010

Blue Avocado - Tue, 02/15/2011 - 02:55

While not a "vacation" to view, these challenging yet beautiful Best News Pictures of 2010 are haunting reminders of the world beyond our immediate day-to-day, and an important reminder that we must bear witness to what happens around us.

This photo by Canadian Ed Ou shows Somali refugees resting in the desert on their way to Yemen.

Categories: Nonprofit News

Firing the Executive Director

Blue Avocado - Mon, 02/14/2011 - 01:01

Boards of directors tend to fall into one extreme or another when it comes to dissatisfaction with the executive director. Some boards let their dissatisfaction simmer for years without resolution. Other boards are too hasty and fire an executive at the drop of a hat or, more often, abruptly conclude a long period of silent dissatisfaction with a sudden termination. Sometimes just knowing more about how boards fire their EDs can help you relax into working more proactively with yours.

Sometimes it's necessary for a board to fire the executive director. In instances of embezzlement or unethical behavior, the need to terminate is clear to everyone. More often it’s a little fuzzier: board members may get indications over time that the ED is either not doing her job or . . .

Categories: Nonprofit News

Get Thy Nonprofit Self Into Therapy!

Blue Avocado - Wed, 02/09/2011 - 17:31

For those who are interested in learning more about psychotherapy, Elizabeth Sullivan provides a good overview of the assistance it can offer. It's important to remember that there is a wide continuum of what people need or get from therapy and that results and timelines, of course, vary by person. It may not even be therapy, but, for example, coaching or mentoring, that's more appropriate to your needs. But that's a different article all together.

I worked most of my career in nonprofits, but I experienced so much dysfunction -- including my own! -- that in 2007 I decided to train as a psychotherapist.

The very dynamics that motivate us to change the world can also create unnecessary personal, psychic suffering and result in a need for psychotherapy for some. Many of us hold ourselves to an ethic of sacrifice and self-deprivation as well, often stemming from some variety of guilt or survivor guilt. Of course, we have clear, ethical, intelligent reasons to change the world. But we need personal freedom in addition to social freedom.

Top 7 reasons nonprofit people may find therapy helpful . . .

Categories: Nonprofit News

3-Minute Vacation: See Birth and First Steps of Baby Giraffe

Blue Avocado - Mon, 01/31/2011 - 20:11

If you're snowed in today, watching the latest weather forecasts with increasing dismay, consider this: at least you aren't giving birth to a giraffe.

Okay, this isn't a tropical 3-minute vacation, but a 6-minute video showing baby giraffe Zahra being born, struggling to stand up, and finally succeeding. WARNING: this video isn't for everyone.

At birth (October 2009, in Indiana) Zahra weighed 137 pounds and stood 6' 1". Her mother Zuri was pregnant with her for 15 months!

So compared to Zuri and Zahra, are you having a tiring day? :)

Categories: Nonprofit News

Where Should the Board Chair, the ED, the Staff Sit?

Blue Avocado - Sat, 01/29/2011 - 21:23

Sounds like a trivial question, but where everyone sits not only reflects organizational philosophy, it sends a strong, visual message to everyone about authority, participation, and the role of the board. (Bonus: cartoon about nonprofit boards at end)

How is a board meeting affected by where the board chair and the executive director sit? Where each sits, particularly in relation to each other, sends a message and influences how the meeting goes. Some board chairs and execs make a point of sitting next to one another at the head of the table: a clear signal about their authority and their partnership.

Reader M.K. Wegman of the National Network is even more detailed: "The board chair sits between the CEO and the COO at the top of the U." And executive director Roger L. explores the idea but rejects it: "Most board presidents have wanted me to sit right next to them so that I could provide tidbits of information as necessary or write a brief note regarding another member's comments. I have always found these activities a bit disconcerting. . . I prefer . . .


Categories: Nonprofit News

What's Love Got To Do With It . . . editor notes issue #60

Blue Avocado - Sat, 01/29/2011 - 21:04

What is the most valuable, scarcest resource in most nonprofits? Answer: the attention and time of senior management.

The time and attention of the executive director and other managers is a precious organizational resource: one that we must try to use as intentionally as we use other resources.

As nonprofit managers, though, it's easy to be careless with our time, and we allocate this large resource incrementally, on the fly. But when we make a decision to go to a coalition meeting instead of finishing a grant proposal or talking with volunteers, we are not just choosing which to do, we are choosing where to invest an organizational resource.

This is not to say every minute has to be intentional, productive, strategic . . . that would be a futile, frustrating goal. We can pause for a moment, though, when we face a choice about what to do, and reframe the question: not "Should I do this?" but "Is this the right way for me to invest the organizational resource of my time and attention?"

* For Valentine's Day we pair some HR advice about office romances with some heartwarming stories about nonprofit love (awwwww). This issue also has How to Hire Your First Development Staff, written as a Days Of Our Lives script: admit it, you're not going to find that anywhere else but Blue Avocado. We offer some alternative approaches to the board's approval of the budget in Meaningful Budget Work By the Board, and a trip to the zoo.

* Blue Avocado donors: we're experiencing a major confluence of transition-to-new-software problems and pneumonia. We hope to get back to all of you very, very soon, and oh, we feel very bad about it. Thank you for being so patient.

Thanks to all of you for the valentine-like messages of appreciation and encouragement you send all year. It means a great deal to us to hear from you -- including those criticisms and suggestions! --Jan Masaoka

Categories: Nonprofit News

The HR of Nonprofit Romance

Blue Avocado - Mon, 01/24/2011 - 14:25

Dear Rita:

At our organization, two members of the executive team are married to one another. I've been tasked with updating our Employee Handbook. Many of the sample handbooks seem to have anti-nepotism or conflict of interest policies which prohibit employees from dating or being in a relationship with co-workers. Are we legally required to prohibit office relationships? Signed, In a Quandary Over Love

Dear In a Quandary:

Love may be a many splendored thing, but love is a battlefield, too. And therein lies the rub for every employers' HR practices in this area. This is one of those topics where employer policies are all over the map, especially in the nonprofit world where it is not uncommon for agencies to be founded by families or spouses. So unfortunately (or fortunately!) there is no one-size-fits-all policy. However, there are some legal principles and practical matters to consider as you decide what policy best suits your agency in dealing with these real-life "love connections."

People looking for a simple solution may advocate a complete no-fraternization policy. But this strident viewpoint ignores the reality of work/life blending supported by a 2010 survey that found 37% of workers have dated someone they met at work and 30% of them have married a workmate. Rather than . . .

Categories: Nonprofit News

How to Hire Your First Development Director

Blue Avocado - Wed, 01/19/2011 - 02:25

The only thing worse than not having  fundraising staff is having bad fundraising staff. To help you avoid the mistakes many others have made in hiring development staff, we’ve stolen a script of a scene with consultant Leyna Bernstein as she talks with an executive director contemplating hiring fundraising staff for the first time.

Olivia (the ED), in a tired voice: As you know, I'm the executive director of a nonprofit, and we've decided we need to hire a development director. We don't have any dedicated fundraising staff right now, and I spend too much of my time raising money. I just can't keep this up.

Leyna, eyebrows raised: So . . .

Categories: Nonprofit News

Grantseeker's Guide to Foundation Affinity Groups

Blue Avocado - Tue, 12/28/2010 - 20:45

Like the mysterious Freemasons and their Grand Lodges, foundation affinity groups feel open and warm to insiders, but to outsiders they seem to be secretive, cloistered societies with their own coded languages, titles, and hierarchies. Rick Cohen first tells us about the lodges -- er, affinity groups -- then gives practical advice on how to make this knowledge work for your nonprofit:

You can't be a member of a foundation affinity group unless you are on the staff or board of a foundation. Their conferences are forums where grantmakers discuss what they should be funding . . . but you can seldom go unless you're a foundation person.

Why should you care? Because knowing how to work within their circles is an important way to get insider information about foundations and to get your organization a positive profile among grantmakers . . . in short, to help you and your cause raise money from foundations.

First we'll discuss the different types of affinity groups, then give some specific tips on how to make the most of them for your nonprofit, including ways . . .

Categories: Nonprofit News

Finding the Right Next Board to Join

Blue Avocado - Tue, 12/28/2010 - 13:36

If you aren't on a nonprofit board yet, you should be (especially if you are a nonprofit manager)! And if you are already on a board, there's another board in your future. First we have questions to ask yourself before seeking a board, and then how to find the right next opportunity for making a difference:

Imagine you were about to make a major donation, say $100,000. You would start by thinking about which areas mean the most to you -- perhaps care for the elderly, or civil rights, or the environment. After settling on a cause, you might then look into several different organizations in that field and investigate ones that seem to have high impact and where your donation would mean a lot.

Contrast this with how we often choose which board to join: someone asked us! While on a board you'll be making a huge donation of time, attention, and your heart (and maybe money). It's worth being proactive.

Questions to ask yourself:

Categories: Nonprofit News

Stick With Old Media: Not Cool But It Works

Blue Avocado - Mon, 12/27/2010 - 17:57

In the age of social electronic media, media expert Holly Minch dares to defy the Twitter evangelists and makes the case for the power of traditional print and radio:

There's tremendous strategic value in traditional media . . . yes, still! Three reasons why writing press releases and pitching reporters are still worth it:

1. Third-party validation. As pithy as your latest tweet is, as fun-filled as your latest Facebook update is, there's one thing that social media simply can't give you: third-party validation. Don't forget that more than 58 percent of people get their news from television and 34 percent read the newspaper. Face it: an article about you in the Chicago Times will impress your funders and donors; a post on your Facebook page won't.

2. A reach . . .

Categories: Nonprofit News
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