Synthesis Partnership - Critical Issues in Strategy, Planning & Organizational Development for Nonprofits



Critical Issues highlights some of the complex issues facing nonprofits, and the opportunities imbedded in them for advancing mission.

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Synthesis Partnership

Consulting in
strategy, planning & organizational development
for nonprofits.

683 Commonwealth Avenue
Newton MA 02459

617 340 9991

Other Issues


#1 Why plan?
12 ways to serve mission.

#2 The Secret Life of Surveys
It’s about communication.

#3 Untangling the Web
Catching up.

#4 On Boards
Get the most out of a board.

#5 The Structure of Planning
Tilt the odds toward success.

#6 Financial Modeling
Pre-test your decisions.

#7 On Mission
Why a mission statement?

#8 The Measure of Success
Metrics are essential tools.

#9 Nonprofit Brand Identity?
Mission, stability, & revenue.

#10 Mind Your RFPs & Qs
Hire wisely.

#11 Integrated Planning
Strategic planning is not sufficient.

#12 Business Planning
Strengthen sustainability.

#13 Facility Planning
Reduce cost & risk, improve quality.

#14 Managing Change
Stay alert and adapt.

#15 Strategic Action
Create plans that work.

#16 All About Collaboration
The essence of nonprofits.

#17 Fear of Planning
When is strategy a bad thing?

#18 Tools for Planning
More resources for planning.



Planning for yourself?


We’re happy to offer as much
(or as little) guidance as you need.
Use our experience to assure your success.


Call Sam Frank at 617 969 1881 or e-mail us to discuss the possibilities.

Sam Frank



New & Renew
New Initiatives, New Facilities, Renewed Engagement

Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership

When we venture into unfamiliar territory we encounter pitfalls and opportunities that we may not be prepared to recognize. In this issue you will find 37 ideas that could save you money, trouble and credibility.

Tips for new initiatives

Nonprofit staffs and boards are mission-driven. It can be tempting, when encountering a compelling issue related to your cause, to take on a new program or service, demographic, geographic area, or approach (e.g., research, education, advocacy, direct service). How can you make the right decision in any given situation? Here are some questions to ask:

  1. Does it really fit within your mission? “Mission creep” is a common problem among nonprofits. The new initiative may be very appealing, but does it further your core mission or diffuse your attention, energy and resources at the expense of more mission-critical activities? A clear mission statement (see Critical Issues #7: On Mission) and a well-articulated brand identity (see CI#9: Brand Identity for Nonprofits) should offer some guidance. Beyond that, a well-developed and structured organizational strategy will provide the best support for good decisions (see CI#1: Why Plan?, CI#5: The Structure of Planning, CI#11: The Case for Integrated Planning and CI#17: Fear & Loathing of Strategic Planning).
  2. Has your board brought their experience to bear on a rigorous review of the initiative? An experienced board, well versed in the operations, aspirations, and capabilities of the organization, can be enormously valuable in this role. (See CI #4: On Boards CI#4: On Boards) If you don't see your board as being up to that task, it is time to develop the understanding of current board members and/or develop the identification, recruitment, and orientation of new members. (see blog post)
  3. Do you have a well-developed business plan? It has been noted that “nonprofit” is a tax status, not a business model. If you have determined that there is an unmet need that you are in the best position to address, can you can get the financial support required to provide the program or service? If so, the next step is to develop the details of how you propose to do that—business strategy, operations, structure. (See CI#12: Business Planning)
  4. If substantial resources are required for the new initiative, you may be well advised to construct a financial model (CI#6: Financial Modeling) to orchestrate and fine-tune the relationships between streams of revenue and expense.
  5. If you will need new expertise to develop, launch or operate the new initiative, do you have the capability (on board or staff, or through an independent consultant) to define, acquire and oversee this new area of expertise? (CI#10: Mind Your RFPs & Qs).
  6. Both to facilitate success and to appeal to funders, you’ll need to establish quantitative milestones to reach as the initiative unfolds. The initial focus will likely have to be on outputs, but these should translate, as quickly as possible, to outcomes. (See CI#8: The Measure of Success).
  7. New initiatives change the dynamic of the existing organization, and may require further modifications of how you operate. Make sure that you are prepared to manage that change (CI #14: Managing Change).

Renew Enthusiasm

Corporations may not be people, but nonprofits fundamentally are. Everyone involved with your organization cares about your cause. But are you engaging them and focusing their time and talents as effectively as you possibly can? (Answer: No one does.) Here are some things you can do to enhance the satisfaction, morale and devotion of your stakeholders by increasing their effectiveness in furthering your mission.


Everything starts with mission. Is your mission statement simple, memorable and inspirational? (If you have any doubts about your statement or its importance, read Critical Issues #7: On Mission)

  • You can capture the interest of prospective donors and volunteers (including board members) with your mission statement, and pre-dispose them to invest in the organization.
  • If your mission statement sticks in the minds of your stakeholders, it can shape the way they think and speak about the organization, enhancing their own efforts and the likelihood that they will be effective ambassadors to others.
  • By building a brand identity around your mission statement—see CI#9: Brand Identity for Nonprofits—you can project the inspirational effect of your mission further through programs, staff attitudes, communications and facilities.
Inform and Engage

If you can move all stakeholders into just a little more engagement with your organization—from wherever they are—you will get an enormous cumulative boost.

  • Nonprofit boards have been characterized as “ineffective groups of effective people.” Make sure that board members have full opportunity to contribute their strengths to the organization, through clarity (orientation and a board manual), structure (effectively designed and implemented committees and meetings), and an explicit annual commitment (individual service plan). See CI#4: On Boards.
  • Make use of the insights and the front-line experience of your staff by assuring that two-way communications are open and active with them. Empower them with ample opportunities to drive improvements, and to feel that the organization is theirs.
  • Communicate with all stakeholders regularly about issues that are important to them, without barraging them with so much information that they tune out. Monitor their email open and click rates and other indices to assure that they are receptive, and adjust as necessary.
  • Entice the least engaged stakeholders into marginally more engagement through regular surveys designed to be two-way communication on selected issues. It works. See CI#2: The Secret Life of Surveys.

Ongoing professional development for both staff and board is essential for the acquisition and maintenance of the knowledge and skills they need to support the organization.

  • Whether or not you have a budget for professional development, make use of the excellent free resources on the web, starting with the three weekly free offerings of Nonprofit Webinars and its extensive archive of past presentations.
  • The most effective vehicle for professional and organizational development is a strategic planning process. If the process is conceived and conducted well, it will also develop a new generation of leadership. See CI #1: Why Plan?.
  • Every board meeting should have some discussion at least partially directed toward professional development. See CI#4: On Boards.

“We manage what we measure” is not just a corporate adage,it addresses individual psychology as well. To that we could add, “We do what we commit to,” and “We feel good when we are working effectively with others.” A good evaluation system sets clear expectations and facilitates not only effectiveness, but satisfaction with one's own work and one's work environment. See CI #8: The Measure of Success (

Staff and staff departments, and board officers, committees, and members all need to:

  • have written job descriptions regularly updated to reflect the strategic priorities of the organization.
  • set annual goals based on job descriptions and coordinated with the goals and objectives of the strategic plan.
  • discuss their past performance as they set goals for the next year.

For more on the board version of this process, see:


Nonprofit staff and volunteers are driven by a personal commitment to the organization's mission. And by a personal interpretation of it. This can make development of the consensus needed for change especially difficult. However, when successfully managed, needed changes can release enormous new energy from existing stakeholders and new ones. See CI#14: Managing Change.

  • In an organization that does advocacy, adaptation to the opportunities provided by social media will likely involve a generational shift of empowerment, and a relinquishment of some hierarchical prerogatives, but may offer vast new opportunities See one of the sidebars in CI#14: Managing Change.
  • In a smaller organization with unfulfilled promise, it can be more effective to develop a whole new approach to identifying, attracting and recruiting new board members, rather than trying to coax a new level of performance from existing members, who may not be ready to do more than they have been doing.
  • When a new CEO is needed, especially on the retirement of a founder, it is critical to know where you stand and to have a good strategic plan to guide the redefining of the job and the courtship of the right candidate. See “Succession”.