Category Archives: Campaign Strategy

Typical Not-For-Profit Vision Statements

As I continue this series of  posts on organizational visions, I want to acknowledge right now that most organizations, particularly in the not-for-profit sector, don’t use a narrative-focused approach in building their visions.  And I respectfully submit that many non-profits have lackluster vision statements. A few are certainly short and to the point, but fail to tap into the power of a vivid narrative description.  Vision statements of even the largest, most well-resourced charities in the world are often based on what feels like an unattainable future, or are so broad and conceptual as to feel like meaningless platitudes.  They aren’t bad, necessarily – they just aren’t compelling, or “sticky”.

Here’s a typical (hypothetical) example:

“Our vision is for a world without hunger.”

What does that really mean? What does such a future look like? It’s not motivating, because of two things:

One, it’s unclear. That is, I have no pictures in my mind of what that world looks like. Sure, I can make up a few stories, scenarios and images – but that’s just me going to the extra mental effort filling in the blanks for myself.

Two, it seems unattainable. To our knowledge, no reasonably complex human society has ever successfully ended hunger for all of its citizens.

Here are several other classic, real-world examples:

“A hunger-free America

“A world without… [insert disease here]”

“A sustainable world for future generations”

“A world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments”

What do you think? Are these sufficiently vivid, sticky and compelling to be repeated by staff at all levels; to be motivational and inspire weary volunteers even in tough times?

In upcoming posts I’ll share some of the methods I and other facilitators use to help organizations and businesses tap into the power of their own visions.

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5 Qualities of a great organizational vision

goldfish jumping to new bowl-iStock_000020130958XSmallQuick: think of an organization or business you know and love. Maybe it’s one you actually work or volunteer at. What’s their vision for success? In other words, what’s the specific statement or narrative that they use to describe wild, vivid, success in, say, ten or twenty years? Chances are they have one – but you don’t know what it is of the top of your head, even if you work there. Or they have one – but it’s so broad as to be virtually meaningless. Maybe it’s just a vague platitude, like “an end to world hunger.” True, it’s not easy to come up with a clear, powerful vision. But the process itself can be a wonderfully creative experience. And once developed, an effective vision can be a rich source of fuel and inspiration for years to come.

Truly great organizational visions tend to have 5 key qualities. And, no surprise – – these are the same qualities of effective social change messages of all kinds:

  1. Visual: This seems like a no-brainer, but visions should, in fact, involve imagery – vivid pictures, told in words, that literally stimulate the visual cortex of listeners. “In 30 years we will have achieved world peace” is certainly aspirational, but it’s not visual.
  2. Motivating: Effective visions are emotionally compelling, and deeply motivating. They speak to the heart and gut – not just the head. They inspire people to act, to keep going when the going is tough, to dig down a little deeper because with that extra push, the beauty and power of that collective vision feels within reach
  3. Achievable: Powerful visions are like big “stretch goals” – their achievement may be well out of our comfort zone, it may call for great acts of courage and perseverance – but it is actually possible to get there. They are, in the words of Ari Weinsweig, “strategically sound.”
  4. Positive: Effective visions are stated in the positive – what we are FOR, not what we’re AGAINST. That’s easier said than done for many social change organizations whose orientation has been focused on stopping oppression or negative environmental and economic development.
  5. “Spreadable”: Like any good, ‘sticky’ story, effective visions can be repeated, spread like a happy virus from one team member to another, and beyond. If they are too long, boring, or conceptual (versus vivid and grounded in tangible imagery and action), we can be pretty certain they will sit on shelves gathering dust. John Kotter, author of “Leading Change”, suggests that it should be possible to convey a great vision in no more than 5 minutes. That way, they can be communicated as a regular, cherished practice across all levels of the organization. His research suggests that most companies under-communicate their visions by a factor of 10.

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Four Solutions for striking the media “brand balance” in coalitions

For non-profit organizations working in coalition, picture this all-too-familiar scene: you’re sitting around the table hammering out the key messages of a major news release, carefully crafting the lead quote and framing the sound bytes, stats and background information into a snappy, compelling 1-pager. But then the tensions start to build: whose organizational representative gets the lead quote? Whose name or names and contact information get listed at the top of the page for reporters to follow up with (assuming you’re not going to make the mistake of listing 10 different spokesperson contacts on the release)? And it’s not just news releases: individual spokespeople and organizations get profile through the authorship of op-eds or letters to the editors, blog postings, and on their relative prominence as contacts in story pitching or briefing letters to the media or in media advisories.

Here’s the thing: in most cases, if one of your members has a gigantic brand profile (think: WWF or Greenpeace), they are most likely going to generate the MOST media interest and follow up, every time.  Which is the whole point of the release…right? But it’s not always so simple in practice.

In fact, coalitions are faced with balancing multiple goals. One is obviously to maximize the profile of a critical public or policy issue. Another may be more subtle, but of equal or even greater strategic importance: to maintain the internal strength of the coalition itself. Coalitions can strategically be worth more than the sum of their parts simply because they are coalitions. The particular mix of groups may represent unlikely allies working on (and therefore adding credibility and profile) to a joint issue; or it may show a surprisingly unified position across a sector; or it may simply represent strength in numbers. Keeping a coalition strong may be a major component of the overall strategy. And that means having open dialogue about issues of power, privilege, and the meaning of true collaboration.

I’ve worked with dozens of coalitions over the years, and have seen at least four solutions that real-life coalitions use to balance issue profile with the maintenance of trust and goodwill within the coalition itself. In each case, success relies on a clear agreement, set out in advance and often in writing, about which approach the group will use.  In brief, here they are:

  1. Rotate organizational brands: simply track and rotate which group representatives get the most prominence across a range of media initiatives. One approach is to rotate the lead for every initiative (“you get the lead for this release, and I’ll get the next”). Another variation is to rotate the leads over time; e.g., group X gets the lead for stories from March-June, group Y gets the summer and Fall, and so on.
  2. Focus on geographic relevance: highlight the member groups with the greatest regional relevance to a story. For example,  if a story particularly affects the East Coast, then the Atlantic groups will lead on it.  If it’s a national or international story, the coalition may first highlight one of the international members along with a regional group, but the active pitching and follow-up would be done by regional groups to their own regional media.
  3. Highlight expertise and/or legwork: highlight the member group or individual with the greatest expertise on the issue, and/or those who simply did the most work on this particular story or event.
  4. Highlight the group with the greatest media profile: finally, coalitions may decide to simply aim for the biggest bang for their bucks when it comes to the media profile side of their work, and consistently highlight the groups and individuals in which the media will be most interested, in order to maximize media coverage.

None of these options is mutually exclusive. Coalitions may choose to rotate smaller stories in principle, but for one or two major stories in a year, simply focus on gaining maximum coverage. Or, they may rotate the media profiles in their advance media planning (ie, as they set out the communications and media events they will proactively generate over the next year), but have a nimble sub-committee determine who leads on sudden “response-required” stories on a case-by-case basis (“nimble” being the key word; otherwise, this approach is risky!)

Agreement and true buy-in are key.  Given that collaboration itself is often the core strategy for any coalition, it only makes sense to invest early in frank and open dialogue about the brand profile options, and ensure the whole group is really aligned with the final agreement, well in advance of any media maelstroms.

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Briefing notes: Making Face-to-face meetings count with solid preparation

I just got off the phone with one of my coalition clients, as we committed to planning our next meeting together well in advance. There is nothing like well-organized face-to-face meetings for collaborating, bonding and pooling a group’s collective brain-trust and creativity. But as we all know, meetings can have a Dark Side. If done poorly, meetings can suck a group’s life force; I swear they can! And they can squander money. Consider a two-day meeting of 15 non-profit members, each receiving a salary equivalent of about  $25/hour. It costs a whopping $6,000 for their time, and that’s before even considering food, travel costs, facilitation fees and venue rental.

Solid preparation is one of the keys to ensuring that that $6,000 of face-time is invested well. That means doing as much pre-thinking about the meeting overall, and specific topics within it, as possible. Anything that could just as easily be addressed via email, should be.

Obviously a well-designed agenda is the first step to making the most of valuable face-time.  For larger group meetings, when there isn’t time or budget to contact each participant individually, I often use an on-line survey, like SurveyMonkey, to get a sense of agenda priorities across the whole group.

And I always have the client group do a quick P.O.P., clarifying the Purpose, desired Outcome and best Process, both for the overall meeting, and for each agenda topic.

Another key tool I’ve been working with for several coalition clients is the classic Briefing Note. If you do government relations, the concept will be familiar: it’s a tightly-written 1-2 page document aimed at bringing extremely busy decision-makers up to speed on an issue quickly. A briefing note typically includes key background facts, analysis, options – with well-considered risks and benefits for each – and recommendations. A decent template for writing government-focus briefing notes – for example, the format a Ministerial Assistant might use when informing a Cabinet Minister about essential elements and possible responses to an issue – can be found here; just check one of the “background” buttons to download a sample.

Briefing notes are also useful for extremely busy non-profit or coalition members. When well-crafted briefing notes are circulated (and of course, read) in advance, they allow groups to skip past the preliminaries or simple updates – which can easily be done via email – so they can dive right to the heart of a meaty agenda topic fairly quickly.

The concept is pretty straightforward, but here are a couple of structures that I’ve seen work well for teams and coalitions:

 

1. Briefing notes for decision

Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name

Purpose:  “For Decision” (ie the group will need to consider the issues raised in the note, in addition to others that may arise, then make a decision about how to proceed)

Background: (include a summary of key facts, including main actors, major events/activities to date, analysis, public opinion data, highlights of media coverage and framing to date, etc)

Options: 2-5 possible courses of action, including a brief assessment of the pros and cons for each.

Recommendation: proposed course of action, and the rationale

2. Briefing notes for information/updates

Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name

Purpose:  “For Information”

Background: include a summary of key facts, new/emerging trends, new analysis, etc

Activities: clarify key activities to date as they relate to the overall strategy

Results: clarify the outcomes and results to date based on the activities

Outstanding questions: here’s where the group can get important ‘heads-up’ about unclear issues

Next steps: note upcoming decision points, key actions/events others may need to be aware of

Briefing notes can be used for other purposes as well. I’ve worked with groups that use them to prepare their colleagues for a brainstorm or idea-generating session: sometimes a smaller team just really needs a larger pool of creative thinkers to ensure they have a robust pool of ideas and strategies.  Then those ideas can later be explored and tested outside of the meeting. These kinds of creative sessions can be really invigorating for a team, too – a stimulating shift from more business-like or process-focused topics.

I’ve also seen briefing notes used to shape the way a group provides face-to-face feedback on a key strategy or funding proposal. This can be helpful when real dialogue is needed, so that trade-offs can be explored in more depth. Circulating a proposal to a series of individuals via email or googledocs just won’t allow for that kind of synergistic, collective reflection and discussion.

Well-crafted briefing notes require a fair bit of work and discipline on the part of the presenter. They also require discipline on the part of participants – who need to commit to reading them in advance. But over and over I’ve seen individual and collective thinking sharpened considerably with this kind of pre-work, allowing groups to do what they do best – think creatively, dig deep, explore trade-offs and shared values, and find collective solutions to complex problems.

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Training the next generation of progressive political leaders

Training the next generation of progressive political leaders is the focus of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Progressive Leadership. Their particular focus is on under-represented candidates and leaders, including women, people of colour, and GBLTQ folks, in 5 key US states.  I’m thrilled to be on the team of trainers for CPL’s upcoming training in Philadelphia this weekend (April 10-11, 2010), focusing on message development, story-telling, public speaking and mainstream media tools.  This will be my first training with CPL, and the second of five intensive weekend retreats for their 54 participants, as part of a year-long fellowship for leaders in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, friends tell me, is “the quintessential American city” – diverse, blue-collar, crammed with classic diners and home to the Liberty Bell.  I haven’t seen much yet – the training starts tomorrow – but I CAN say Philly has fantastic restaurants, tons of snappy energy and the CPL team is really, really smart. It’s intoxicating to be hanging out with people who regularly refer to “message boxes” and “progressive narratives” in the same breath!

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POP everything! Strategic planning in 30 seconds or less

One of the simplest, snappiest and most useful planning tools I know is one we teach at Rockwood Leadership Institute.  It’s a sweet little acronym called “P.O.P.” – standing for Purpose, Outcome and Process. Given the state of my memory, I  lunge at anything this easy to remember.  And this fast. Sure, it may take a bit more 30 seconds sometimes, but it’s still pretty snappy and massively effective.

Here’s a snapshot of P.O.P. And really, it’s so straightforward, this is all you need:

  • “Purpose” answers the question “why
  • “Outcome speaks to “what” – the vision of what success will look and feel like when you ‘arrive’
  • “Process” speaks to “how” – the specific steps involved in getting there.

Straight from the Source
The “P.O.P.” model was devised by brilliant leadership consultant (and fellow Rockwood trainer) Leslie Sholl Jaffe and her partner Randall Alford.  As they describe it, “POP is a useful tool for a multitude of the daily activities leaders find themselves faced with: meeting agendas, campaigns, difficult conversations, unplanned calls and conversations… As you can gather from the list, POP is scalable, it can be used for large, long term projects, regular weekly staff meetings, a meeting you attend or a call that comes in that has no agenda, coaching/mentoring sessions…”

Case in point: Workshop Design
Last week I met with a small team of folks designing a workshop within a larger conference for immigrants and refugees.  We started by stepping back and asking: what is the overall purpose of this workshop? Why now? Why here? How can it advance our particular focus on supporting skilled immigrants and refugees in the job market? Then we asked: if this workshop were wildly successful, what would the outcome be? In other words, what does success look like, in concrete terms? Only then did we address the process – the specific format, agenda design, room set-up, breakout size etc.

Cart before the horse…
All too often, action-oriented social justice and not-for-profit leaders jump straight into planning the process of calls, meetings and entire projects – without first nailing down a clear sense of the purpose and outcomes. In practice, it’s vastly more effective to “go slow to go fast”.  Even doing a quick “POP” for simple tasks, I’ve found, can save hours of time, and help ensure that your  creative energies are aligned and vastly more effective from the start.

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