God is in the Details: Planning and Implementing for Success

The day-to-day pressures we all face at work in the nonprofit sector only seem to expand with each passing day. Even if we sometimes take a step back to look at what we have accomplished in relation to what we hoped to accomplish or to identify our priorities, the list of what we must do just seems to get longer and more diverse and out of our grasp.

Often we are overwhelmed and we have difficultly identifying our priorities. The issues we deal with can include everything from the community we serve, the board of directors and voluntary leadership that provide support and social sanction for our services, the staff members who deliver the needed services to our clients and members – and perhaps one of the most important parts of our efforts, our donors and supporters who provide the financial resources that enable us to implement our services. Given this myriad of responsibilities, it is no wonder we sometimes have difficulty giving each concern the attention it deserves or the thorough support it needs from beginning of the idea to the completion of the task.

However, when the pressure is on and the difficulties we face prevent us from giving due diligence to every aspect of what needs to be accomplished, we sometimes pay the price by being in a difficult position where we are suddenly asked for an accounting by the people we serve or those who work with us. The expression, “God is in the details” refers to the idea that if and when we let things slip by we often wind up being in a situation that is either embarrassing or damaging to the agency or at the very least to our role in the organization. No matter what our agency is planning or what we are planning in our specific roles we have to check, double check and perhaps triple check to make sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed.

Recently an agency was planning an event to recognize the donors who supported a program for teens at risk. These teens were what might be characterized as “borderline” drop-outs. They were registered in high school, but they did not necessarily attend every day and the majority of them were falling behind in their school work. The local community center decided it would initiate a program to support these young people in school and to provide them with tutoring to improve their school work and at the same time strengthen their self-esteem so that they would not see themselves as “losers” but rather as “winners” with the potential to succeed.

This program appealed to the CEO of a local hi-tech business who, in his youth, was also a “borderline” student. In fact, he had almost dropped out of high school, but thanks to the support he received from one teacher who took an interest in him, he not only graduated from high school but also served in an elite unit in the Israeli army. When he finished his service he qualified for a special scholarship and studied computer science. During the years following high school, his self-confidence grew and this enabled him to succeed in the army and thereafter.

Now that his start-up company was successful, he wanted to return the favor and give other high school students the support they need to turn their lives around. That is why he contributed the funds needed by the community center to set up the after-school program for the teens who reminded him of himself when he was young. The board and staff of the center decided to hold a dedication with the young people to acknowledge what was accomplished with his support.

The director of the community center had overseen the big picture of the dedication with the board and the newly hired staff of the after-school program. The coordinator of the program was asked to oversee the details for the evening, including arranging for the young people to participate in the program. Once the general plan was in place, the director of the community center assumed all would go smoothly. He had hoped that the dedication would be the first step in encouraging the donor to make a multi-year commitment to the after-school program.

Unfortunately, the coordinator of the program did not follow through and she did not confirm the participation of the young people. The donor arrived and representatives of the municipality came to add their support and encouragement, but none of the young people were present. Apparently, they were embarrassed to participate as they felt the program emphasized their weaknesses and not their strengths.

What became clear in the aftermath of this fiasco was that the director of the center did not specify exactly what the coordinator of the program needed to do and therefore the coordinator did not confirm the young peoples’ participation with the program staff. Although all the staff agreed to the concept, no one took responsibility for making sure the young people were committed to participating in the event. They were not told what was expected of them and they were not given specific assignments.

The most important part of planning any event is being very specific about assignment and clarifying the participants’ expectations. Although the director was horrified and was furious at the coordinator and disappointed in the young people, all was not lost because the donor was very understanding. His own experience made him more understanding of the teens’ vanishing act.

The lesson we can learn is that the success of any meeting or event is planning to make sure that the requested arrangements are confirmed. If the director had confirmed the arrangements with the coordinator and had the coordinator verified the participation of the young people, the entire dedication might have been implemented differently. The silver lining from this story is that the director learned from his mistakes and is now planning a concluding ceremony for when the program completes its cycle. He hopes that this time around, the teens will be in attendance and will have a chance to meet with the donor. For this to happen, he will need to implement a different planning process with a focus on the details. Only in that way will his ceremony be a success.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.