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February 2012:

Successful Nonprofit Leadership Starts With a Collective Focus on Strategy, Inclusion

By Anne Towne

February 8, 2012

Posted in: Community Service

Today’s service or philanthropic organization no longer can rely on the limited resources and practices for nonprofit management that served the last generation. The state of the world economy, evolving technology and changing American demographics have altered the nonprofit landscape forever. The new reality: Changing operational environments require more comprehensive and fine-tuned business strategies for organizational success, whether you lead a multinational or a small business, an institution or a nonprofit service provider.

Long gone, for instance, are the days when building an effective board for a nonprofit meant stocking the group exclusively with individuals who could be relied on for fundraising clout or personal wealth. Of course, the demands of bringing in contributions are still absolutely critical in this sector today, but the modern nonprofit faces a far more extensive array of business challenges, where special skills on the board — and well beyond the board — can make a big difference in an organization’s ultimate success or failure.

As a former nonprofit executive and a current consultant to service-oriented organizations and institutions, I’m often asked how the rapid social, lifestyle and communication changes of the last decade have impacted the management of nonprofits and philanthropic organizations today. Inevitably, a second part of the question follows: How do I recommend addressing these changes?

In my view, the most accurate and brief answer homes in on two factors: one, broadening the know-how and skills base available to the nonprofit leader, and second, tightening the time cycle for strategic planning. Lets take them briefly in turn.

Use your board and your volunteers as productive extensions of your salaried team. We all know how tight most institutional budgets are today. But nonprofits have a distinct advantage here over their corporate counterparts: You have (or should have) energetic and eager volunteers — many of them highly skilled in professional disciplines relevant to your challenges.

So draw on this collective know-how, which likely extends into areas of cultural or demographic sophistication that will help you, not only in fundraising — that still-essential focus — but also in membership development and beyond.

The same goes for your board. You can still rely on your sleek, well-coiffed and well-heeled board “rainmakers,” but broaden the frame and recruit for 21st-century business and strategic savvy as well.

Throw out that three-year strategic planning cycle. Strategic planning at three- to five-year internals is so 1995. The business world of today moves with bewildering speed and, admittedly, a lot more unpredictably. But that’s all the more reason to stage your strategic planning initiatives at two-year or, better, 18-month, intervals. If your financial resources make it imprudent to mount big-bang strategic planning exercises on anything less than three- or (ouch) five-year cycles, you can do one of two things.

1. Scale strategic planning back to smaller-scope, incremental “chunks” 18 months apart (e.g., membership, outreach and funding in one session; governance and management in the next). This is not ideal, however, in that it introduces the habit of compartmentalizing where a comprehensive vision is more in keeping with the goal of strategic planning.

2. Keep your big-scope triennial exercise, but capture and revisit/refresh your planning on a limited basis every year. You may have to scramble for resources to add these yearly leadership and board reviews, but synching up your plans with external developments and, more importantly, with your real-world performance results will pay off operationally and fiscally in other aspects of your operations.

Internet and communication technologies aside, the most pervasive change in nonprofit operating environments is probably the remarkable multicultural evolution in our workforces (paid and volunteer), our membership populations and our potential audiences. This trend is bringing rich possibilities in how nonprofits can function in 21st-century America.

Anne Towne is a former executive director of the Association of Community Services of Howard County and currently is president of Towne Group (, a Columbia-based media and management consulting company. She can be reached at

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