Strengthening Our Nonprofit Community

Strategic Planning

The Room Where It Happens by Mary Moss

November 7th, 2019

If you’ve seen Hamilton, you know that the “Room Where it Happens” means more than just clever lyrics and melody. History is made by having the right people in the room, people whose actions and commitment will change everything. Alexander Hamilton was in the room, and as they say, the rest is history.

Who is in your room? As staff, do you have the right people in your room? As board or committee members, do you have the right volunteers in your room?

This past month has been an extraordinary one for some moss+ross clients. To name only a few:  * SECU Family House and Oak City Cares celebrated successful campaign conclusions * Healing Transitions and Durham Tech met huge milestones in their campaigns * Voices Together hired a Director of Development and Eno River Association hired an Executive Director * Alliance Medical Ministry created a new major gifts effort and Compass Center launched a campaign for domestic violence crisis housing in Orange County * UNC Rams Club launched ForevHer Tar Heels in support of women’s athletics * Beth El Synagogue dedicated its beautifully renovated space * Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church and The Pauli Murray Center launched feasibility studies.

What made all of this happen?  Committed volunteer leaders were in the room.  Recruiting the right volunteer leadership means starting at the top and focusing on who and what you need. As examples, Oak City Cares campaign co-chairs Trish Healy and Charles Meeker selected a team that could bring new vision to services for homelessness. Co-chairs of the ongoing Healing Transitions “Recovery Can’t Wait” campaign Carol and Bob Bilbro lead volunteers who are committed to expanding services for those caught in the spiral of addiction. Charles Helton and Laura Helton Kalorin are leading the charge to serve more patients at Alliance Medical Ministry. At SECU Family House, campaign co-chairs Becky and Bob Woodruff, Maureen O’Connor, and Matt Ewend reached out across the state. Nathan Bearman and Gary Zarkin challenged Beth El’s community with strong support from Rabbi Daniel Greyber. And community leaders Willis Whichard and Lois Deloatch are leading Durham Tech’s effort.

The take-away for those of you reading this: success depends on leadership, the right people in the right room.

  1. Start with the top leadership. Do not settle for less, because the dominoes fall from here.
  2. Define roles, and recruit for that purpose. For a campaign: passion, commitment, and willingness to make time are the answers. For a job search, ask people who know the organization’s needs. For strategic planning, seek knowledge and thinkers. Including people for the wrong reasons, such as financial capacity and political connections, may well backfire if they are not going to feel successful in doing the job.
  3. Orient, train, and evaluate all volunteers. Give them the tools to succeed, and then evaluate them.
  4. Fix what is broken. It may take a while, but fix your committee if it is not working. Do not accept the status quo if it does not have the right people on it.
  5. Manage the team well, appreciate each volunteer. Clear communication with volunteers is crucial for their success and yours. Hundreds of people were touched this month by the celebrations and gatherings of the organizations mentioned here. People may forget exactly what was said or what gifts were listed, but they will never forget how they felt when they were appreciated.  November is the month of thanksgiving, so show those in your “room where it happens” some love.

I am proud to say that at moss+ross we have the right people in our room, and each professional was hand-picked to help you mobilize your team. Let us know how we can help you be successful.

Recipe for Nonprofit Success: Three Essential Ingredients by Mary Moss

June 4th, 2019

Imagine your organization has stopped operation. Imagine funds have run out. Imagine the population your mission supports cannot be served. Everything stops. Imagine the despair.

For the leaders at Community Music School (CMS) in Raleigh, this was reality, not imagination, and on the front page of the News & Observer a few years ago.

Fast forward to today, where CMS is thriving, growing, adapting, and serving more students as it lives into its mission To Create Brighter Futures Through Music. Fundraising numbers are way up, teachers are being recognized in myriad ways, and more students than ever are clamoring to see their brand new facility located at Longleaf School of the Arts in Southeast Raleigh.

How did this extraordinary state of affairs turn around? CMS leaders concentrated on three key ingredients. This is a simple recipe, and just like in baking, all three ingredients matter in combination. If you lack flour, sugar, or butter, you cannot bake my mother’s excellent pound cake.

Three Essential Ingredients

1. Visionary Strategic Plan – moss+ross guided them through a strategic planning process that produced a new mission, vision, core values, goals, and strategies. Focused on a big vision – opening the doors of music to all underserved youth in Wake County – the strategic plan directed that the first actions steps were to hire an executive director and create a fundraising plan.

Lesson learned: If you envision it, plan it. There is no substitute for a visionary strategic plan.

2.Strong Passionate Leadership – Board Chair Carol Holland (Vice President, Client Relationship Manager of Paragon Bank), has driven a process to expand the Board with people who love the CMS mission. They have added two new community leaders, with more to come. The Board followed the strategic plan by securing funding for a new Executive Director, Dennis de Jong. moss+ross created the job description and helped define a funding path and a process. Dennis has changed the trajectory of CMS working in collaboration with the Board and other community partners, infusing new vision and energy into the organization in a very short amount of time. Dennis’s skills and experience are a perfect match for CMS’s needs.

Lesson learned: Get the right people in the right seats on the bus. There is no substitute for leadership.

3.Compelling Fundraising Plan – A dream is but a wish without a plan – specifically, an annual written fundraising plan. Without enough funds, CMS could not execute its strategic plan. moss+ross developed a fundraising plan with a case for support that shines the light on the big vision in the strategic plan. Big donors follow big vision. Our moss+ross Interim Solutions division quickly filled their start-up staffing need – and then all involved agreed that Sarah Himmelfarb should transition from moss+ross Interim Solutions to become the new Development Director.

Lesson learned: To live into your mission, you will have to fund it. There is no substitute for money.

If moss+ross can help you create your recipe for success, let us know. For more information on Community Music School, visit the CMS website. Read about their recent fundraising event at the Governor’s Mansion where First Lady Kristin Cooper addressed the audience.

Your Board Really Can Be Great! by Susan Ross

April 11th, 2019

I was asked for my perspective on the probing question “Is Your Board Any Good?” in a recently released short video from local agency Angel Oak Creative.

During the filming, I suggested to the interviewer that “Is your board as good as you need it to be?” might be a better question.

At moss+ross, we work with lots of boards, and Mary and I have rarely run into one that really is not “any good.” But we have seen boards that aren’t making best use of their skills, have fallen into performance ruts or lost their focus, and have ended up being less effective than the nonprofit or institution – or their board members – deserved. Sometimes a retreat or custom training can be a big help to getting a board reengaged and focused.

Last Friday, moss+ross led a workshop with a wonderful group of folks who serve on a university board of visitors. Because this type of board is not a governing board, it has a different role to play than the more proscribed legal role of a board of trustees or board of directors. But believe me, their work matters greatly to the CEO, and their support is critical to the institution.

These leaders represent a wide variety of professions and skills, and all are passionate about the cause and want to serve it well. During the meeting, they reflected on their many successes as a board, and then challenged themselves to be even more impactful in their work.

All boards are expected to provide time, talent and treasure. Typically, members are (or have been) volunteers, are interested in the cause, bring a needed skill set, and offer a particular perspective. In the case of a board of trustees or directors, they also maintain legal and fiduciary responsibility for the nonprofit, hire and fire the CEO, and set the strategic direction of the organization.

What else can a great board do for its cause?

  • Provide a deep and diverse talent pool that the nonprofit would never be able to hire.
  • Offer guidance and input on strategic issues and policies with long-term implications.
  • Help the nonprofit stay focused on its true purpose and avoid mission-creep.
  • Serve as ambassadors for the cause, finding ways to share the story and bring new people in.
  • Support staff leadership without trying to take over and solve every problem.
  • Show that this volunteer role is meaningful to them through their time and financial support.
  • Finally, step aside at the right time so new talent can come in, while finding ways to remain engaged.

We tip our hats to all the thousands of board volunteers who make our Triangle nonprofit community thrive. If your board is ready to challenge itself to be as good as it can be, let us know if moss+ross can help!


Six Questions to Consider in Hiring a Nonprofit Consultant

April 25th, 2017

Six Questions to Consider in Hiring a Nonprofit Consultant

Advice from Senior Associate Kate Hearne

1. Do we need a consultant? Look at your strategic plan or annual fundraising plan. What are your goals and how do you plan to move the needle toward those goals? Will you just work longer and harder? Maybe. Or maybe some of those goals would benefit from the outside perspective, strategy, and accountability that a consultant can bring.

2. How can a consultant help?  If you are meeting your fundraising and operational goals, a consultant can help you reach goals above and beyond the day-to-day responsibilities like a capital campaign or launching a major gifts program. If you’re not reaching your targets, a consultant can recommend new strategies and give an unbiased assessment of how you can strengthen your program. The benefit of a consultant is the additional support, creative thinking and extensive experience that will add value to the good work you’re already doing.

3. What do we need help with? Consultants need to know what the work will entail. Think through the specifics of your project. What are your desired outcomes? What is the scope of work? How often will you want to meet with the consultant? What are your deadlines? Where do you need the extra support that a consultant can bring? Is it manpower? Is it strategy? Is it training or research? Defining your needs will drive the type of consultant you choose and help you get proposals you can compare.

Senior Associate Kate Hearne

4. What do we look for in a consultant? Look for a consultant with proven experience in projects like yours. Ask for a detailed scope of work and timeline for that work. Ask for references and check them. Ask to see samples of a similar deliverable. At moss+ross, our final reports (and other deliverables) are highly customized to a particular client and considered proprietary to that client; however, many times, we can share a similar deliverable in person.

5. Which consultant is right for our organization? Fundraising is about relationships, and that same sense of relationship should be considered when choosing a consultant. As much as possible, get to know your prospective consultant during the RFP process. Select a consultant with whom you feel comfortable and one with whom you enjoy working. Any consultant can deliver plans and processes but you want one who fits your office/nonprofit culture and encourages a working relationship of trust and honest feedback.

6. Can we afford a consultant? While most nonprofits could benefit from a consultant, not all nonprofits are financially ready to bear that expense. Carefully consider what you will gain from allocating resources to a consultant. If hiring a consultant means that you will end up with a more effective fundraising program, then maybe that expense is worth it. Just be careful not to view a consultant as a magic bullet. A consultant can organize your program, prepare materials, and train volunteers, but you and your Board must be ready and willing to implement a consultant’s recommendations. By having Board and staff own the implementation for a consultant’s recommendations, the organization will be stronger both in process and engagement.

Dream Big, Plan Well, Execute to Perfection

December 12th, 2016

Dream Big, Plan Well, Execute to Perfection

Those are three phrases that I use to guide many facets of my personal and professional life.  I did not grow up knowing how to do any of these things with respect to advancement (or much of anything else).  It is through 35 years of practice that I have become more seasoned in these areas.

Susan Ross and Mary MossWith respect to planning (i.e., the focus of this issue), in my very first development position, I was asked to write a plan on how to increase totals aggressively in a relatively new phonathon program.  Terrified does not even begin to describe what 25-year old me felt. I had no clue what the vice president of this university wanted to see or how to begin or why I had to do it.  My first step was to ask my peers what they thought should be in my section of the plan.

Lesson #1:  Peer guidance is essential.  Asking your colleagues up and down the line takes the “scare” out of how to write a plan and spurs creative and aspirational thinking.  Do not attempt to write your plan in a silo; build buy-in along the way by asking questions.  If your office is small, reach out to counterparts in other organizations. They will value the opportunity for discussion as much as you.  I did this routinely in smaller shops later in my career to create annual action plans.

Lesson #2:  Set ambitious goals.  Doing what you did last year in the same way is likely to yield the same results.  You have to dream big in order to attain big results.

Lesson #3:  Be specific in how you set goals (dollar, donor, communication, number of prospect visits, etc.).  How will you ever know if you are successful if you are not specific in setting your goals?  Force yourself to be accountable:  execute the plan.

In the end if you dream big, plan well, and execute to perfection, your program will grow and so will you as a professional.

~Mary Moss

Formulas for Success with a Strategic Plan

March 31st, 2016

Once a strategic plan is in place, it shouldn’t sit on the shelf. Proactive organizations revisit their plans regularly and pay attention to the milestones for achieving their vision. This takes many forms; here are a few examples:

moss+ross associates at work

Pictured above: moss+ross associates Lizzy Mottern, Brooke Jenkins, Chuck Fyfe, and Fred Stang

1. Syncing up: Consider an online survey to assess whether there is a common understanding about the mission, and if the Board’s goals are aligned with the staff’s. This technique is especially useful when you’ve had new board members or new staff members join your organization.

2. Self-evaluation: Even the best board can benefit from a self-evaluation about performance, leadership and alignment with strategic plans. Such an assessment is particularly important as a tool for correcting course.

3. Big picture: Organizations may neglect strategic planning because it is hard to look beyond today’s urgent concerns. Try focusing first on annual plans that lay out key priorities, then spend time envisioning longer term milestones through a board retreat. The bonus: preparation for the retreat brings out topics for discussion among Board and staff that may not have surfaced otherwise.

Examples From the Field

March 31st, 2016

Our clients are an amazing group of creative and energetic professionals.  Here are a few things that have impressed us recently:

1. A school developing its first strategic plan reached beyond its traditional leadership and invited a parent who is a university human resources administrator and a principal from a nearby school to join the strategic planning steering committee.  Both individuals offered objectivity, fresh ideas, and organizational sustainability expertise to the planning process – helping to prioritize goals and identify actionable, measurable initiatives for the next three years.

2. The executive directors of several social services clients have been meeting regularly for over three years to discuss best practices and challenges in fulfilling their missions.  Along the way, these organizations have worked to eliminate duplication in services across agencies, implement more effective systems and programs for serving their clients, collaborate in fundraising efforts, and become real partners in improving the lives of vulnerable people in the community.

3. Our work as a preferred provider for UNC’s upcoming capital campaign has put us in the midst of a number of planning exercises as we assist units across campus with campaign readiness. While each is different, the common denominator is strong engagement by faculty and alumni with the deans and fundraisers in the strategic planning process. This results in a more cohesive approach to setting fundraising goals everyone supports.

4. We loved hearing from a community college foundation, whose strategic plan we helped develop, saying it was time to revisit it. Four years later the board has met most of the original goals, and the team is ready to take on new challenges. Through a retreat and a hard-working task force, we are working with them to prepare for the next phase of growth.

Strategic Planning: An Art, Not a Science

March 31st, 2016

by Chuck Fyfe

For many years, organizations embarking on a strategic planning effort followed an organized, pre-set process that grew out of a desire to justify large capital expenditures to investors.  Many books were written on the subject, and a generally accepted process was the norm.  Plans were populated with such elements as vision and mission statements, competitive analyses, SWOT analysis, risk assessments, resources analyses, etc.  And the plans were developed using similarly structured, replicable and defined processes.

Chuck Fyfe

Chuck Fyfe, Senior Associate

But in today’s world, and especially in the world of nonprofits, more attention must be paid to the specific needs of the organization in designing the process.  Unlike in the business world, nonprofits do not have the same set of performance measures such as net income, earnings per share or return on investment.  Often the goals are less tangible, boards’ involvement in running the organizations vary, and the dependence on philanthropy makes life very uncertain.

If nonprofits fail, they may well cease to exist – and a societal need may go unmet.  There is not a bankruptcy option that will allow you to start over. Thus planning is a necessity, but it must be thoughtful, and tailored to provide exactly what the organization needs.

While there may be no standard approach, we do suggest that a number of questions should be asked prior to any strategic planning effort.

1. What is the time frame for the plan? At one time, five years was the standard. But because we are living in a faster changing world with a less certain picture of the future, projecting that far out may be no more than an academic exercise.

2. Do we start with defining the vision of the organization? Many organizations begin with the mission, define the goals and strategies and then determine where the organization might go in the long run. Nonprofits, in particular, often begin their lives by providing a defined service that fulfills a social need.  Once up and running, the question may be asked, “Where can we take this?”  Or perhaps the vision is never defined, and the organization sees its role as successfully providing services that are needed, while focusing on ensuring financial sustainability in order to continue providing the service.

3. Is the strategic plan budget-driven, or is the budget a result of an intentional planning process? An organization flush with funding may decide to focus on programs, knowing that it likely will be able to offer those programs as envisioned. An organization that is struggling financially, however, may decide it must redefine itself in order to fund the very basic services it can afford.  The planning may range from dreaming of what could be done to determining what is needed to survive.

Before any process is agreed upon, the client and the consultant must intentionally determine what is really needed in the effort, what is the desired outcome and output (yes, they are not the same), who is the audience, and how the plan is to be used.  Only then can a sound work plan be developed.

The Importance of Strategic Planning

March 30th, 2016

by Mary and Susan

April Fools’ Day is not the only time reality can be hard to see clearly. Just ask any nonprofit executive, and you will get an earful of examples.

Smart nonprofits do all they can to prepare themselves, though, and this means taking precious time from service delivery to plan for the future.

Does your organization have a strategic plan? How is it used? When was it last updated? Strategic plans provide a framework for decisions about a variety of key issues and help you focus on what matters most.


Susan Ross and Mary Moss

In our experience, developing a plan is a critical step to strong fundraising. Savvy donors want not only to know how you will use their funds, but how you will change the world by what you are doing.

Change the world?  Yes, indeed. We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves, and your cause could be just the dream for which a valuable donor has been looking.  But you have to show this in visionary, mission-focused language that will inspire a higher level response, not talk about balancing the budget.

While it takes time, strategic planning is a great exercise for your board and staff. Talking through the big picture issues from multiple angles will make the whole team better ambassadors for the cause. Be sure to spend some time talking about why you work for/volunteer with/give to the cause – it will help everyone see the organization from a broader perspective and will make them better fundraisers and better donors.

If you have been thinking about creating a plan, updating an existing one, or making a current plan more user-friendly, read on!

Four reasons eAlicevery organization needs a strategic plan:

1) To be sure the board and the staff are aligned regarding vision and mission

2) To prioritize decisions about allocation of resources for new and existing programs

3) To focus fundraising on the issues and audiences that are of greatest importance to your future

4) To share your big dreams with donors and prospective donors, demonstrating that you have a legitimate path to accomplish your goals

Making the best of unexpected circumstances

November 19th, 2015

Perspectives on change and the unexpected from moss+ross co-founders and partners Mary Moss and Susan Ross…

Over the course of our consulting careers, we have worked intimately with more than 100 organizations. Some embrace change, planned or not, while others grit their teeth and hope they make it through. Our perspective is that change can be a wonderful catalyst for leaders to step back and rethink, reorganize and restructure operations for the best. And in the 21st century, change is a given in almost every environment.

An organization that is not changing is probably withering. Sometimes forced change offers opportunities that were not there before. Maybe you have an unspent salary to invest in strategic planning or an assessment you know you need. Perhaps you have been organizing your staff workload around a person’s strengths or weaknesses, and the change gives you a chance to rethink staff responsibilities in a more logical fashion. Or maybe the board has let itself become too dependent on a few key donors/members, and this is the time to let it bloom on its own.

moss+ross co-founders Susan Ross (L) and Mary Moss (R)

moss+ross co-founders Susan Ross (on left) and Mary Moss

We often joke that consultants are rarely hired when everything is going perfectly, so it is no surprise to find that our role includes some repair work. We nearly always find that the solutions are not as difficult as feared, and that an outside perspective can bring clarity so that the organization can move forward. Our approach is pretty straightforward:

  1. Get the lay of the land. We try not to offer opinions too early in the process.
  2. Seek input from multiple sources. An assessment always includes interviews with key stakeholders, because they tend to see the problem and have some solutions in mind, even if they have not shared them.
  3. Deal quickly with obvious problems. Seems simple, but it’s not. Letting a bad situation fester is not good for the organization.
  4. Evaluate solutions and move on. Every step you take at this point moves you down the path to a better future.
  5. Say thanks to those who helped. When there are problems, many staff at all levels have to jump in to keep the ship afloat. As Board members or managers, don’t take this extra effort for granted. Your people are the most important asset you have, and they will work harder if you show you appreciate their efforts.