Start Soaking Those Beans

boston baked beans I’ve got a fantastic Jill Dupleix recipe for home-made baked beans that starts: “Don’t wake up in the morning and spontaneously decide to have this for breakfast. Instead, wake up yesterday morning and decide to have it for breakfast today.”

This month we’ve been helping some of our favourite clients – and some new ones – prepare really critical tenders. In some cases it’s make or break time. Many of them have talked about what they could or should have done yesterday to prepare for today’s funding environment.

We’ve been suggesting to them that they start thinking today about tomorrow’s breakfast.  When a tender is announced it’s really too late to set up partnership arrangements, put quality systems in place, start collecting meaningful outcomes data or plan an effective service model from scratch.

We know it’s really hard to think ahead when you’re busy doing your organisation’s work. But the bottom line is that every organisation needs to be thinking about the future if it’s going to survive and thrive. So start soaking those beans now!

If you’d like the baked beans recipe, or you want help with thinking about your organisation’s future, give us a call.

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From audits to plaudits: thinking Annual Reports

I’m really liking this year’s annual report by Youth and Family Services, Logan (YFS). They’ve used a poster-style layout that folds down to A5. It includes lots of great photos and a layout that highlights their achievements in 2012-13 without getting bogged down in text about business as usual. Publishing their financial report in a separate document liberated us to be creative with the rest of the report. It was fun working with designer Scott Edgar and YFS staff to come up with something fresh and different.

Over the years I’ve worked on lots of annual reports. My favourites have been for clients who use this “have-to-do” task as an opportunity to position their organisation strategically. For some, that’s been about impressing fundersmall p2s and donors, for others it’s been about demonstrating their corporate partnership credentials or profiling the human impacts of their work to build buy-in from decision makers and their influencers.

 
A section of the 2012-13 YFS Annual Report

For one memorable project, my brief from the Director General of a Queensland Government department was to win an Australian Reporting Award – I hope he still has the trophy somewhere!

Clients say one of the most common uses for annual reports (beyond legislated requirements) is to help potential recruits prepare for job interviews! I’d like to think annual reports can do much more than that. If you know of any great annual reports, let us know.

Yes. No. Maybe.

We recently ran a social enterprise business planning training session with Foresters Community Finance and Moreton Regional Council. Foresters mentioned that one of the biggest barriers to receiving community finance loans was poor decision making by governing bodies. That’s an issue that pops up pretty regularly so Judith, Jon and I sat down to analyse just what can go wrong in decision-making. Here’s what we think some of the oft-repeated scenarios are:
1. Good decisions are made, but staff or volunteers don’t follow through, so before too long, the same issues have to be addressed again. The fixes: Check whether the decisions are realistic and can be achieved. Set an action plan so that the implementation is in doable chunks and can be monitored.
2. There is lack of clarity about the problem, so the scope of discussion expands, people weary and the loudest voice prevails regardless of the merits of the decision. The fixes: Use a simple decision template as a structured way to untangle the issues. Use hard data when it sheds a bit of light on what options are viable. Be clear about when the decision has to be made and do the spade work in advance so everyone is prepared.
3. Emotions skew the view. Common ones are fear of upsetting someone (such as a faithful volunteer/donor, a long-term chairperson); fear of change; and fear of conflict or confrontation, perhaps grounded in a lack of skill in dealing with conflict. The fixes: Name the fears and work out how to mitigate threats or support each other to confront them.
4. A sense of diffused responsibility kills off action because no one in a committee or on staff is willing to take leadership – the buck stops nowhere in particular. The fixes: Get real – don’t waste time on ideas that no one will drive forward. Recruit new board or staff members who are passionate about the work or the vision. Change the vision and goal posts to ones that people really do get excited about.
5. People are unsure about the level of risk involved, or over-state the risks. The fix: Use simple risk assessment tools to agree exactly what the risks are, how likely they are to occur and how disastrous the impact would be if they did occur. Work out if you can dedicate some effort to minimising any risks that are unacceptable. Don’t forget to look at financial risks so your cash flow or bottom line stay healthy. Remember, nothing is risk-free!
Do these scenarios ring a bell? Any others you’ve seen recurring?

Strategic Planning Day – births, deaths and marriages?

Some practitioners are announcing the death of strategic planning while many organisations remain wedded to it and hire consultants like us to perform the role of midwife, turn up at the birth with flip chart and survey monkey data and deliver a healthy, well-worded plan. So, should the strategic plan be buried or nurtured?  My observations are that behind any useful strategic plan in the social policy/social services sector are ongoing conversations by board, staff and others that deal with:

  • clarity about the problem the organisation wants to solve or the aspirations it wants to achieve (the what)
  • clarity about the methods for service delivery or the theory of change that dictate how to act (the how)
  • clarity about finance and other resources that reveal the capacity for action (the who, when and where).

Without that clarity, strategic planning day discussions can attempt to gain some of those insights or decisions, but the plan is likely to be part fiction. If the clarity is there already it’s probably a sign that research, future-focused discussions and decision-making is alive and well in the organisation, so the strategic plan is a like mirror that reflects the image of a healthy entity.

I’m inclined to think it is better to schedule these vital discussions as a regular part of governance rather than put too many eggs into the special planning day spectacular.  The organisation’s statements about its vision, values, purpose and so on can be published progressively in web sites, annual reports and all the key communications to stakeholders.  There are not too many people who go searching for stand alone strategic plans. They are not necessarily the best ways to reach those who want to know about the organisation.  What matters are the strategy discussions that foster shared board-staff-member understanding and agreement about the core purposes and directions.  Would facilitation of such discussions be a better way for consultants to contribute? Or are they best done in-house so that capacity for strategy is home-grown?