It’s A New Year

January 2, 2007       Mark Hrywna      

The balloons have fallen, Auld Lang Syne is a memory, and that New Year’s Day hangover is now just a dull throb in the back of your head. It’s time to get to work on the new year.

The start of a new calendar year can be a good time to take a close look at your organization in one way or another. While the fiscal year may have its own rhythm, the new year is “really a time for fresh starts,” said Jill Schumann, president and CEO of Baltimore-based Lutheran Services in America (LSA). She stressed being clear about priorities, compiling two or three items to commit to accomplishing in the coming year, and what important things to do now to make sure that happens.

“There’s always more to do than there is time,” she said, emphasizing the importance of setting priorities to avoid reacting to the urgent — “making sure that we’re tending to those things that are really important, not just those that yell the loudest.”

While Schumann talks about priorities and things to get accomplished in the new year, she’s also deciding what not to do this year. It’s something she hasn’t done before, but Schumann is aiming to make a conscious choice to choose a few things she will not do, or spend less time on, this year.

Sketching out the calendar early in the year also is important, so that schedules “complement, rather than collide with existing commitments.”

Schumann makes sure to squeeze in time for family and work colleagues, setting aside some weekends early. “I try to schedule that early on, because otherwise it seems to get eaten up with other things.” And she’s sure to schedule lunches and other things with staff beyond usual work-related items. “Certainly it seems the year goes smoother and better when we have good connections with colleagues at work.”

Brian Gallagher, president and CEO of United Way of America since 2002, stresses five steps in planning for the new year: review back, plan forward, align goals for the coming year, assess his own time, and then communicate broadly.

Normally examined at three-year intervals, United Way will assess performance in five-year intervals, Gallagher said, “simply because I’ve been here for five years, and working on the transformation of United Way.”

But most, if not all, of the steps began well before January.

“I find that if we’re still doing that as the new year begins…it’s not optimal,” Gallagher said. “It’s confusing to folks inside the organization that you haven’t assessed and evaluated the previous year, and you’re asking them to get to work on the next year and you don’t have a plan for next year.”

Planning should be done before the end of the year, he added, and is more vital during November and December than in January. “If you believe the adage that performance is driven by preparation, then January is when you should start performing,” Gallagher said. Planning is all about “being disciplined enough to do it. I find that I learned it from organizations, not so much the process, but organizations that were disciplined enough to do it.”

The best nonprofits are those that are mission-centered and understand their mission. Therefore, they can align strategies with mission, and their structure behind that, Gallagher said. “Those that aren’t quite sure or aren’t really grounded operationally, in their missions, I think they find it more challenging to effectively plan.”

It’s always challenging to make financial decisions in terms of priorities, Gallagher said. “We took about 10 percent of our annual operating budget off the top, and applied it to three or four strategic initiatives at a system level. And then we had our functional leadership go back with that smaller amount of money to force kind of the tough decisions you have to make.”

Leaders of some of the nation’s best-known nonprofits emphasized focus in terms of what gets done this year.

“The turn of a year is a good time to pause and review your organization’s pipeline of opportunities and active work, and make sure that where you’re going is aligned with your mission, your stated priorities, and your budgetary realities,” said Phil Ferrante-Roseberry, co-CEO and executive director of CompuMentor in San Francisco. “This is more than just a ‘hooray for us’ holiday message. You may have to make changes, and they won’t always be pleasant ones.”

Organizational checkpoints should occur in some form throughout the year, though “there are natural windows for making it more visible and intentional,” he said, such as a new calendar or fiscal year. “This is one of the most important roles of nonprofit leadership.”

Said Ferrante-Roseberry: “It’s good from time-to-time to pause and ask yourself if the things you’re doing are the things you should be doing, to ask if they’re succeeding as you hoped, and to ask if there’s anything you should change as you enter a new year.”

It’s also a good time to remind staff about what it is you’re trying to collectively accomplish. How that message is distributed depends on the size and culture of an organization, but to really motivate the organization around a set of ideas, Ferrante-Roseberry suggested a combination of full staff meetings and small group breakouts, along with more focused departmental meetings.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) is in the process of updating its strategic plan, a draft of which will be finalized in March, according to Paulette Maehara, president and CEO.

Updating the organization’s strategic plan occurs every three years, she said, but examining it is an annual, ongoing process that starts with an executive committee retreat in early January. Later in the month, senior staff develops an operations plan for the year, based on the strategic priorities. An all-staff retreat in the first quarter — not always in January — will update staff on the year’s objectives to ensure everyone’s on the same page.

How often a strategic plan is updated depends on the organization. The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), for instance, looks at it “from more of a strategic initiative approach, more on a rolling process, not necessarily fixed to any timeframe,” Maehara said, who is chair of that organization’s board.

“Most organizations have moved away from a five-year planning horizon because things evolve and change too fast today,” Maehara said. “Even the three-year window is a challenge in today’s changing environment. But I think whatever horizon you pick, it’s a document that continually is reviewed and changed, updated as your environment changes.”

The American Cancer Society (ACS) operates on a September-August fiscal year, but the start of a new calendar year gives the Atlanta-based nonprofit a chance to examine achievements in mission delivery and income during the annual planning process, and assess how that impacts longer-term and leadership goals. Pat Felts, deputy chief operating officer, said scorecards help to assess both mission delivery and income delivery impact.

“Those are things we’ve been assessing over the last several months heading into the new year,” she said, with results having been completed in the fall and communications beginning in January. The first month of a new calendar year brings “a lot of communication with our constituents,” Felts said, whether that’s survivors, patients or donors, about achievements in the previous year and what the future holds through the organization’s annual report.

Accountability matters, she said, and people are motivated by results presented in the form of the annual report. “People like to see an organization that has a strategy, a plan and holds itself accountable.”

ACS will kick off a new talent management initiative in January. The aim is to retain, secure and promote top talent. “We think that will be a very motivating activity for staff, as well as attracting new volunteers,” Felts said.

A chief talent officer will be hired to help launch the program. The focus will be on attracting new talent, rewarding top performers and strengthening leadership capability, she said, adding that a scorecard also will be created for talent management accountabilities. There will be “a parallel process for the volunteer side,” Felts said. “Some things will be different because volunteers don’t get compensation, but they have reward.” NPT

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