Month May 2017

Month May 2017

Question Two: How Are You Doing?

John Bauer May 28, 2017 blog, News No comments
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In my experience, too many strategic planning efforts jump straight into building a vision for the future without first carefully examining how well the current mission is being executed. To do so ignores present realities, both in the organization and in its environment, that may affect the organization’s ability to move toward its preferred future. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with projecting (some might call it dreaming or fantasizing) into the future. But one must be something of a realist in terms of understanding the world as it exists in the present, as well as how the organization contributes to improving that world. Taking a long hard look at how well your organization is carrying out its mission is a prerequisite to being able to chart a realistic path into the future.

Traditional approaches to strategic planning dictated that organizations do a SWOT analysis. I have previously expressed my disdain for SWOT as a tool for strategically evaluating an organization’s current status. I agree with Tom McLaughlin (2006, pp. 101-102), that weaknesses and threats are really management issues better addressed through risk mitigation processes, while strengths and opportunities are strategic issues requiring board and stakeholder engagement. Furthermore, a SWOT analysis doesn’t force reflection on the more important, foundational questions that are relevant for nonprofit, mission-driven organizations.

In my previous article (“What are you doing?) I talked about the importance of having a strong, clear mission statement. But measuring the impact of that mission isn’t the same as asking whether the mission is being fulfilled. For example, if asked if the organization is fulfilling its mission, who wouldn’t say “yes?” This is what I would call a “drive-by” question. “Fulfilling the mission?” Yep. Check the box. Done.

So the question isn’t “Are you fulfilling your mission?” The question is really, “What impact is your mission having on the people it is intended to serve?” Where in a SWOT analysis are you going to ponder that question? A related question might be, “How well are you executing your mission?” And a third related question is, “Can you sustain your mission?” There are ways to quantitatively answer those questions using tools such as those offered by Steve Zimmerman and Jeanne Bell (2015). I’m sure there are other ways. But you will note that these are types of question that go well beyond the typical review of the mission statement.

However, I am also not equating this kind of business model assessment with looking at key performance indicators or other metrics of efficiency. I’ll give you an example to make my point. Tracking RPMs on a tachometer, watching the fuel gauge, making sure the engine temperature is nominal, checking to see if the seat belts are fastened – these are all valuable metrics – to a point. But if the car is in neutral or is up on blocks, it isn’t actually performing the function for which it was built and such performance data is useless. The question isn’t how efficiently the car is running, but is it getting its passengers to their desired destination? If a car could have a mission statement it might be “To safely and comfortably transport passengers to their destination.” Obviously, it is possible that the car could be running smoothly while failing miserably to achieve its purpose.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a strong advocate of data-driven decision-making, having business intelligence systems that promote proactive thinking and acting, creating and using KPIs and all kinds of metrics to support anticipatory leadership. But efficient operation is not necessarily an indication that the organization is changing lives in the way that is implied or stated in the organization’s mission statement.

Getting closer to the heart of the question is the measurement of “quality.” Most nonprofit organizations track data around how their constituency groups perceive the quality of their services. These may come in the form of customer satisfaction surveys, third party assessments (often required by granting agencies), parent and guardian surveys, community needs assessments, etc. Such tools may provide some meaningful insights into the impact the organization’s programs are actually having on the people supported but in my experience, they more usually settle for measures of satisfaction and don’t provide data related to the actual impact missional programs are having on people’s lives.

Far from being a “drive-by” question, “How are you doing?” requires a deep analysis of the impact of the mission on the population and community being served. It requires deeper thinking around questions such as these posed by Zimmerman (pp. 50-51, 79):

  • If this agency didn’t exist, who would it matter to and why?
  • What is the social issue or human need the organization is trying to address?
  • What does success look like and how would you know?
  • Who are the primary direct beneficiaries of the organization?
  • What is the geographic region of your impact? What is the scope of service?
  • Are the missional programs delivered in an exceptional manner?
  • How profound is the change affected in people’s lives by the mission?
  • How many people are impacted by the mission?
  • Does the organization build community around its mission?
  • Does the organization leverage relationships around its mission?

So, how well are you doing? Ponder that question for a while before moving on. But taking the time to understand how much of an impact your organization is currently having is a necessary prerequisite to addressing the next question in my ten part list: “What will your environment look like in the future?”

As always, your thoughts and opinions are appreciated.

Works cited:

McLaughlin, T. Nonprofit Strategic Positioning. (2006). John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

Zimmerman, S., Bell, J. The Sustainability Mindset. (2015). Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Question One: What Are You Doing?

John Bauer May 16, 2017 blog, News No comments
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So begins the journey into self-discovery and planning your preferred future.

I have been mildly surprised to hear nonprofit clients tell me, “We don’t have to mess around with reviewing the mission statement. Our board just went through that exercise. We’re fine with our current statement. Let’s just get on with writing a strategic plan.”

I certainly don’t wish to denigrate the efforts of CEOs and boards to evaluate their organizations’ mission statements, but the strategic planning process really does need to begin with a careful analysis of what the organization is doing, with whom, how, and why. Ideally, these questions have already been answered in a pithy, one sentence statement. It’s just that I’ve seen too many organization’s treat this exercise as nothing more than a necessary but annoying task that boards periodically conduct.  On the one hand, it may be viewed as an opportunity by a few to contrive a grandiloquent slogan.  On the other hand, the exercise may be greeted with disdain as if it has no relevance to what the organization does. One college president told me, “We don’t need a mission statement. Our mission statement is what we do every day.”

Let me suggest that “mission” for a nonprofit organization is the same as “profits” for private sector companies. Thought of in this manner, having a clear and effective mission statement for a nonprofit is as important as knowing product demand for a for-profit company. “If mission accomplishment is as important as profit attainment, why do most nonprofits not spend equivalent time in mission creation and monitoring? In reality, nonprofits often completely mess this up. As important as missions are, nonprofits frequently go off in ineffective directions by relying on mission statements that can be little more than slogans” (Pandolfi, 2011).

So, in the interest of launching strategic planning at the correct starting point, indulge me for a few minutes as I dig a little deeper into this first question: “What are you doing?” It seems to me that the starting point for strategic planning must be a consensus understanding of what the organization strives to accomplish by fulfilling its mission. Conversely, failure to seriously address the organization’s mission not only can undermine the strategic planning process, but will likely contribute to ambiguity of purpose in the minds of significant stakeholders. Without careful analysis of the organization’s mission, strategic planning itself will likely become an unprofitable academic exercise incapable of providing the focus and discipline needed to achieve the organization’s preferred future.

To understand the significance of such an analysis, consider a few mission-related questions: Why was your organization founded? Who started it and why? Are you doing the same thing today that the founders did on day one? With whom do carry out your mission? Do you serve the same population? What will this population look like in the future? Who supports your mission? How do they perceive your mission? What impact is your mission having? Can you demonstrate that you are fulfilling your mission? Can you measure the impact it has on the target population? What do you think your mission will look like in five or ten years? Is your mission sustainable? The mission statement of a nonprofit organization is the critical starting position from which to answer all those questions and upon which to build strategies to proactively prepare for the future.

So what is a mission statement and what are the attributes of an effective mission? Koenig suggests that every good mission statement has three pivotal elements:

  1. Our cause: Who? What? Where?
  2. Our actions: What we do.
  3. Our impact: Changes for the better.

He goes on to graphically illustrate the attributes of good and bad mission statements (figure 1).

(figure 1)

The most effective mission statements are written in a single sentence of 15 words or fewer and contain all three of those elements. Here are a few examples to make the point.

  • Public Broadcasting System: To create content that educates, informs and inspires.
  • Environmental Defense Fund: To preserve the natural systems on which all life depends.
  • CARE: To serve individuals and families in the poorest communities in the world.
  • And of course, TED: Spreading ideas.

More than just serving as an inspirational slogan that employees and donors can get behind, Pandolfi argues that “an effective mission statement must be a clear description of where an organization is headed in the future that distinctly sets it apart from other entities and makes a compelling case for the need it fills.” In other words, there are critical business reasons tied to the organization’s strategy. In the same way that a clear and effective strategy in the private sector attracts more customers which result in more profit, a nonprofit’s clear and effective strategy facilitates attraction of funds and provides the ability to take smart action.

And if you think mission statements are old fashioned, consider this. Recent research at Ohio University shows that Millennials especially are drawn to a strong mission. “Young employees want to believe their work is making a difference, whether they are in the for-profit or nonprofit sector. Good mission statements place the organization in the wider social context, and show how the work of the organization contributes to making society a better place” (Fritz).

An effective mission statement also allows a nonprofit organization to operate with focus and discipline by providing consistency in decision-making. It also suggests the means for measuring success and creates a shared understanding among all stakeholders that transcends time and place. In other words, an effective mission statement is translatable into measurable actions that everyone in the organization can understand, monitor, and influence.

One might also ask the question: “What would the world look like if we actually fulfilled our mission?” Would hunger cease? Would discrimination be eradicated? Would every child succeed in school? Contemplating such “mission exits” should lead organizations to think deeply about how they measure their success. A good mission statement should suggest what that world would look like if completely fulfilled.

Finally, I believe that the process of creating a mission statement is of equal importance to the end result. In the nonprofit world, boards of directors are the caretakers of the mission. CEOs are hired to advance the mission and make sure it is carried out. Staff are directed to manage processes which support the mission. Donors provide financial support for the cause described by the mission. All these participants have a stake (hence, the term “stakeholder”) in the success of the organization, either morally (boards, donors and volunteers) or practically (staff who are paid for their services). Engagement of all these stakeholder groups in the creation/review/analysis of the mission statement is one of the most effective ways available to build support and loyalty.

As a consultant, ever eager to serve my nonprofit clients, I have found it occasionally challenging to insist that the process begin with a thorough discussion and review of the organization’s mission statement. Invariably, however, when such a review conducted, it serves as the foundation to developing a robust and effective strategic plan.

Once the organization is clear about what it does, it can proceed to do a deeper dive into the remaining nine questions. Up next week: How well are you doing?

References Cited:

Fitz, Joanne. How to Write an Amazing Nonprofit Mission Statement. (online article at: (January 20, 2017)

Koenig, Marc. Nonprofit Mission Statements – Good and Bad Examples. (online article at: (2013)

Pandolfi, Francis. How to Create an Effective Non-Profit Mission Statement. Harvard Business Review. March 14, 2011)

Coherent Strategic Planning: Ten Critical Questions

John Bauer May 8, 2017 blog, News 1 comment
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It has been a while since I have written about strategic planning. In two previous articles, I expressed my academic concerns about traditional strategic planning methodologies, especially in the current climate of rapid change and uncertainty. I suggested a middle ground between long-range strategic planning and the need for immediate strategy, execution, learning and nimbleness. (see Strategic Planning: What’s the Point? and Strategic Plan or Strategy Execution?)


For the past year, I have been busy working with several clients on strategic planning projects that have given me a real-world laboratory in which to test some of my ideas. I’d like share some of what I have learned and suggest a pathway you can follow to create a more dynamic and practical approach to strategic planning. Because it appears that strategic planning is still of significant concern to CEOs and boards, and because I am being contacted almost exclusively to work as a consultant in that area, it is more than timely to become more explicit about what works and what doesn’t.

A strategic plan can be thought of as a story. It has a past, a current reality, and a future that has yet to be written. In other words, a strategic plan provides a narrative context for understanding the organization and its movement into a desirable future. Because the story is still being written, it is sometimes useful to step back and ask a few simple questions in order to establish meaning and purpose for the activities that comprise strategic planning. I have found these questions to be particularly helpful with boards of directors who may not always see the complexity of organizational processes or have the capacity to digest large quantities of information. While there are myriad tools, systems, methods and models of strategic planning, not all of them address all of these foundational questions. My experience has shown me that any plan that doesn’t somehow answer these questions does not serve the organization well.

There is nothing magic or exclusive about these questions. They occurred to me because I have had to explain why I was recommending certain activities in the planning process. In fact, I have found that they often elicit additional questions, either for clarification or further analysis. Feel free to add or subtract in order to serve your needs. For my purposes, I focus on these questions to help boards understand what we are ultimately trying to accomplish.

  1. What are you doing?
  2. How well are you doing it?
  3. What will your environment look like in the future?
  4. What does your environment look like right now?
  5. Where would you prefer to be in the future?
  6. Can you get there?
  7. How will you know if you get there?
  8. How will you address unexpected challenges and opportunities along the way?
  9. How will you support continuous learning, thinking and acting?
  10. How will you tell the story, to whom, and for what purpose?

I’ve decided to write a short article on each of these ten questions. I’ll be posting these every Monday for the next ten weeks. I hope you will find them helpful as you think about your organization and the future you would like it to achieve. At the end of ten weeks, I will also provide a bonus article which will describe my attempt to visually depict this model. Hopefully, by the end of ten weeks, I’ll have refined my schematic so that it is easily understandable. The difficulty has been in trying to integrate a largely linear long-range process with periodic cyclical activities, all the while implementing tools to remain nimble and responsive to unanticipated challenges and opportunities. I think I have found a way to illustrate these three concerns in terms of measures of time, but you’ll have to be the judge.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you about your experiences doing strategic planning in your organization. Please share the good, the bad, and the ugly. We all learn from each other’s successes as well as failures.