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Feb 10, 2021
Posted Under: President's letter       Tags: strategic planning

For me, February is the month I think about in “almost” terms. Almost more daylight. Almost embracing the new year. Almost fewer super cold days. And now, almost one year since our lives shifted in the most dramatic and unexpected ways. It is easy to simultaneously feel the weight and energy of this time. This is also the month we have placed on the calendar to do things we should be doing every day – recognizing Black history as America’s history, and declaring or reaffirming our love for one another with a valentine.

February has me thinking about the weight and energy of work we all have in front of us. The deep and continuous work to understand what equity means in our country and in our work, while also taking conscious steps forward. The deep and continuous work to reaffirm our relationships and connection to one another. And the deep and continuous work to keep our missions surviving until they can be thriving again.

So how do we embrace all this work and find our way forward? In a world of “almost,” is it even worth trying to forge ahead? In a word – yes. Sure, it might seem strange to think about planning right now when the frenzy of COVID response is still palpable every single day and public policies are shifting under our feet. But, in fact, the act of pausing and collecting ourselves into a team to reaffirm our relationships – to grapple with the weight and the energy of digging deeply into our commitments – this is just the gift that is needed right now, even if we don’t know it yet.

Those of you who have been following our conversations for the last decade about living in a VUCA world might question how we could possibly recommend planning as we navigate this world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. You would be right if the planning you are considering is deep in minutia or full of prescriptive action. But to be clear, that is not what we are recommending, nor have we ever practiced. Instead, what I have seen this past year is nonprofit board and staff leaders who are saying, “we have done the hard work to know who we are, and we share a definition of what the future looks like if our mission is truly making a positive difference in our community.” These leaders are finding the ability to adapt, respond, and emerge from the volatility and uncertainty in a very different way from their counterparts. And so that is why I strongly encourage all of us to stop, pause, reflect, and recommit.

You have learned so much in the past year and so has the world around you. Maybe the learning was personal or professional, or both. Maybe it was global or local. Maybe the very reason your nonprofit was created has taken on richer, deeper resonance in the community where you work, or perhaps it is becoming clearer that the work in front of you requires a different response from the one you were poised to work through. As we continue to chart our way forward, I invite you to consider what tool you are using to capture this learning so you can focus on what matters most. I invite you to reflect on whether you or your team is getting lost in the details because you either have not defined the larger journey or you have not shared it.

Importantly, taking the time to plan is as much about coming together, being together, and listening to one another as it is about writing things down. The very act of listening, sharing, and reflecting is the gift we can give ourselves and each other to ensure we are taking our learning forward together.

I hope your group will do this work in the context of your own values and culture. That means that if you serve on multiple boards, or you wear lots of hats, this experience isn’t just another Zoom call. Instead, I urge you to create a space that is as authentic as possible given a commitment to health and safety of all involved.

You might ask yourself these questions as you consider bringing your team together:

  • Who needs to be in the room? This has some obvious answers like the board and the executive director. If you are tackling large, complex issues, we encourage you to engage other essential partners, especially people directly affected by the decisions so that you are doing the work WITH them, not AT them or FOR them. The mantra “nothing about us without us” is important if you are striving to live in a more just and equitable world. Since most nonprofit boards do not represent the diversity that would get us to this place of “WITH,” your invitation to others will take some conscious conversations and intention. Additionally, you might consider others who are “touched by the work,” meaning other nonprofits, government, and business partners who can help strengthen and inform the conversations. These partners can help us explore deeply held assumptions about how we see the world through our mission’s eye.
  • How much time should we take? Being online or on the phone for this experience is so very different from being in person, but that is the way most of us spend our days now. And it has caused us to become more keenly aware of the digital divide and the power it holds for those who have access compared to those who do not. So as you begin to plan out your time, always start with the people. Does everyone have access to the forum you are suggesting? What are the real technological or other barriers to participation? How can we come together in a way that is inclusive not exclusive? Then you can consider the total amount of time to commit to the process and how many ways you can break that time into bite-sized pieces – or if you can do it all in one marathon adventure. One last note on time – everything now in this “blursday” world takes more time than you think. Slow down. This is as much about listening and sharing as it is about goal setting or some other tangible output.
  • What are some topics we could cover? From the first day we started crafting the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model, we have felt certain that at the very minimum the journey of sustainability and the effort to thrive not just survive is deeply rooted in knowing what is core. This is a process to firmly articulate and ground in the truth of your DNA – your core purpose and the core values that motivate and weave through every decision and every aspect of your people and your work. We also strongly encourage you to spend time focusing on understanding the difference between the DNA of “who you are” as opposed to “what you do.” The truth that “who you are” is so different from “what you do” was tested this past year as we were forced by circumstances to shift and change what we did and how we did it while staying true to our core. Even as organizations shifted so much that they had to close their doors or dramatically expand, the ones that knew their core are still thriving in the largest sense. So if you do nothing more in your time together, get grounded, celebrate your values in action, feel the glue that holds you all together as a team. Then the second part is about looking ahead. If you are tempted to look into the past, do it with an eye on what you learned and what you want to take forward. Your weaknesses can be your strengths and your strengths are what will lead you. So part two is about finding your envisioned future together. Where you are going is far more important than exactly how you will get there. Again, this COVID time reminded us every day that how we thought we would get somewhere was just a set of assumptions that provided a false sense of security. The “how” is much less important than the “where” and the “why.”

Other experiences you might consider will vary in time and topic. Below are a couple of options:

  • For those of you who are engaging deeply in any level of complexity and took the steps to invite a wider group of people into your space, know that this work requires uncovering and breaking through old assumptions. Anything less will only keep you on the same path where you started. Complexity is a large umbrella that can include the topics of systems change, equity, true collaboration, and so much more. In this work we strive to focus on community value and see the adaptations and understanding as they emerge. Complexity work is a journey not a destination. But including a larger team and holding more space for learning is the way in and through it.
  • For those who want to recognize this time in our lives and practice “we care” instead of hoping your team members are going to do “self-care” on their own, we encourage you to use this time to collectively grieve, remember, and celebrate those we lost this year and those who fought hard every day just to make the day work for themselves, their families, and the larger community. Taking time to recognize that so many around you – and maybe you, too—have experienced “life quakes” both the joyful and tragic is time well spent.

However you choose to move into this next year, make it a conscious choice. We might be in the season of “almost” but we can be active leaders. What will you do make space to plan, not just react, to what comes next?

We stand ready to support you.