Heather Comstock Connects

Helping nonprofits and other volunteer organizations develop strong relationships and a clear voice in the community.

Spinning Wheels or Incremental Gains?

Where’s the balance between having a plan and making progress or allowing the planning process to becomes the end in itself? (photo taken on I-40 in TX near the Cadillac Ranch).

I spent about a month this summer driving cross country. The odd thing is when I set out on the trip, I didn’t connect the dots to consider I was actually achieving one of the items on my bucket list. The trip was divided into segments and I didn’t really “add” them up and equate them to the epic coast to coast drive. Each and every day I just focused on moving forward. We didn’t have a set destination each day or a set number of miles. We stopped and looked at stuff and visited things along the way. The only goal was to continue to move forward. And we did it. Twice. Maryland to Oregon and back again.

I have been giving some thought to goals and objectives for the nonprofits I volunteer with. What should we be accomplishing? How do we know if we’re making a difference? There’s lots of buzzwords and measurable outcomes that would make funders happy, but do they really help us help our community? Is it okay that we not have some lofty and elaborate goal but something closer to home?

I personally fall into the anti-strategic planning camp. I have spent loads of time working on strategic plans only to find them gathering dust. I don’t find them meaningful and would rather poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick than spend time in a committee writing mission and vision statements. On the other hand, if you have no idea where in the heck you’re going, you run the risk of meandering and wandering and eventually, paralyzed by choices you stop moving forward and spin your wheels.

So how do you do this? I have no answer as I am not really a strategic planning consultant (I can rock an IRS application or a policy manual for you though!). In thinking of my organizations and our plans for the coming year, how do I know we’re making progress?

I am going to keep it simple and try to apply some of the lessons I learned from driving cross country.

Destination – I know where we’re going and we have a rough idea of when we’ll get there but we can stop along the way. The point is the journey. For my organizations, we have put together a draft calendar so participants can set aside dates and it will keep us moving forward when we know we’ve got to have something prepared on a certain date.

Structure – on my road trip I knew I wanted to stick to main roads and didn’t want to seque off the interstate more than half an hour. In my organizations, I am using the program plan that was published as a tool for structuring our events. Instead of me developing random topics and activities, I am able to adapt the ideas for our own kids.

Keep it simple – We stopped at several historic sites along the way. I can give you a rough outline of why the places were significant but I can’t give you a full academic breakdown. That’s not a bad thing. I saw it and know why its significant. It was realistic to think I could dig deep in a few hours visit with a child. Same for our kids – we know our audience. The more elaborate and complicated the program we try to deliver, the faster its going to fall on its face and degenerate into chaos. Offer the basics and those who want to dig deeper will take that initiative.

Flexibility – we listened to ourselves and how we felt and changed our plans accordingly. Originally we were going to cross to the California coast and drive north but changed plans when we’d had our fill of state highways winding through the mountains. Same thing with working with kids, you have to be flexible and be prepared to scrap things that aren’t working. Would your organization scrap a program plan that wasn’t working or would you adhere to the Strategic Plan and continue forcing something that isn’t working?

Rather than expending tons of time and energy on elaborate goals and objectives, I am going to look for the incremental gains. Are we continuing to move forward? Did we get the opportunity to try some new things with the kids at each event? Are the kids having fun and coming back meeting to meeting? Are we doing stuff the kids want to do (“No skits. EVER!)?  Wouldn’t that be a better use of time, energy, and resources?

I am curious about what others are doing. How do you do your planning so you’re still moving forward but you aren’t wasting time with complicated goals and measures? Can you still demonstrate your value? Do you have any suggestions?

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