By Jennifer Friedlin
Metrics. Dashboards. Governance. Staffing. These may not be the sexiest aspects of running a nonprofit, but without good systems in place mission-driven organizations have a hard time succeeding.
That’s where Aliza Mazor comes in. Through her role as executive director of Bikkurim, Mazor supports Jewish nonprofits as they build the internal infrastructure needed to fulfill their missions. I sat down with Mazor to find out more about organizational development and why she no longer uses the term ‘strategic planning.’
JF: What is organizational development?
AM: Organizational development is what you do to build out the scaffolding that you need to hold your content. Because nonprofits are mission focused they’re fixated on: what is it we’re trying to do in the world; who are we trying to help; how are we going to help them. But you have to have some kind of delivery system.
JF: I would imagine that you believe strategic planning is essential?
AM: I don’t talk about strategic planning anymore. I don’t believe in the old school of writing a strategic plan that’s good for 10 years. When I started in the field everyone really believed you had to have a 10-year strategic plan, and then you had annual or biannual implementation plans. And then we scaled it back and said, ‘You know 10 years is really hard to forecast. So then we started to do one stream of scenario planning looking at the big picture ideas, and then another stream of planning in three to five years.’ And now I think organizations don’t even plan in three to five years chunks.
JF: So what do you advise?
AM: I think what you’re trying to do is set your north star, set what you’re trying to get at, and then each year do some goal setting. Organizations need to look at the big picture and immediate term, and work with their board and staff to assess where they want to be one year down the line, three years down the line. And then they can do quick pivots on annual planning. They may find that even planning out a year is too much. They also need to be very self-aware of what opportunities they will say yes to and which ones to decline.
JF: What are some of the biggest stumbling blocks for nonprofits?
AM: Funding and sustainability tends to be the number one challenge, but I think there are some important challenges that don’t get as much attention. For example, staff development and thinking about your staffing structure is a big thing that organizations struggle with. What kind of role do we need and what kind of person do we need to fill that role? And unfortunately, because nonprofits are on such limited budgets they have got to find people who are versatile. Staff also needs to grow with the organization and to have a sensitivity to the population they are working with. All of those things get layered onto the usual job expectations.
JF: A few years ago there was a boom in nonprofit startups. Is that trend continuing?
AM: I can’t answer for sure, but one thing that has changed is that now there is a robust network of supports for start-ups. I think in the Jewish world, where I am most familiar, and also the secular world, which I work with sometimes as well, there are all sorts of nonprofit boot camps and places to go with your startup ideas as well as contests you can enter to get an initial grant for your idea. There are even specialized labs. For example, the Robin Hood Foundation now has Blue Ridge Labs which is developing apps that help people move out of poverty. In addition, there is a cache of funders who are interested in new ideas and understand the value of R&D and investing in new things.
JF: Where are the holes in the nonprofit sector?
AM: We haven’t yet put enough resources into encouraging organizations to combine and consolidate. But increasingly we are seeing some round tables, like the Jewish Social Justice Round Table, emerge where people come together in common cause. This is good because it will ease the competition for resources. By creating spaces where organizations can really explore their philosophical differences, collaborate when they can, and do more together, there will be fertile ground for potential mergers.
JF: Funders want data, but many organizations, particularly young ones, struggle to measure impact. Why?
AM: When you are growing your idea initially you skimp on a lot of things. You don’t spend a lot of time on formal strategy discussions; you try to get an early rough product out there and test it to see what happens. Also, it is rare for early stage funders to support evaluation. So if you look at a startup they may not have spent time measuring what they are doing. Then usually around the time when they hit about $1 million funders are coming back and asking, ‘How are you measuring your impact? How are you tracking your participants? How are you reaching new audiences via social media?’
Another problem is that nonprofits take on issues that don’t always lend themselves to straight up measurement. For example, one of Bikkurim’s groups, Encounter, is a non-partisan educational organization cultivating informed and constructive Jewish leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While there are things we’re trying to help Encounter measure we feel it doesn’t lend itself to easy measurement. How do you measure a shift in attitudes? How do you measure a change in how the community operates?
JF: What do you suggest to organizations that have a hard time measuring impact?
AM: I think you have to come up with a good way to measure proxies for impact. I’m going to say across all of my organizations there’s a challenge around this. They are all doing complex work that is not easily defined. We want to bring as much perspective around the questions – help them pull together all the pieces of information to be able to measure things that are very hard to measure. It’s not easy.
JF: What’s the toughest thing about being an executive director?
AM: I think the biggest thing executive directors need to do every day is balance big vision with immediate needs. You have to tend to the details while moving toward the vision.
You also have to be prepared to do the unglamorous work of keeping the ship afloat. I have spent more time this week dealing with insurance than anything else. These are the types of things no one tells you about when you become an executive director. You think, ‘I want to lead this team and talk about our mission all day long.’ No one says you are going to sit on the phone with insurance agents to sort out a gnarly problem.
JF: What books and events do you recommend?
“Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability” is a great book about how to create a matrix that shows which of your programs deliver both impact and sustainability. It’s like looking at your profit and loss statement with an overlay of your mission and your vision and your goals.
I always learn something about nonprofit scaling at the Social Impact Exchange. And I really love the Alliance for Nonprofit Management Conference. It’s a great place to go and talk to other people who think about organizational development all day long.
Jennifer Friedlin is the founder and owner of Iris7 Marketing, a firm that writes messaging plans and content for nonprofits. Her blog, Envision.Execute.Serve, features nonprofit leaders sharing their experiences, ideas, and tips. You can sign up here: http://bit.ly/1yK2BAT.