The exciting mission and purpose need to be balanced against the dull stuff – and good planning is essential
Are you excited by your working life? Does every problem seem like a solution waiting to happen? Do you spend most of the day in a state of feverish anticipation about the next curveball that the world is going to sling at you?
If the answer is “no, not often” then you have much in common with 99.9% of people in organisations around the world: however much your organisation has a great cause, a compelling purpose, whizzy products and funky offices with great coffee on tap and a pinball machine in the basement, you have to spend a large chunk of your day doing stuff that’s – when all’s said and done – pretty boring.
In a large business the stuff that we might find a bit dull can be allocated to people who don’t find it so: that’s why we have Finance, HR, Procurement and so on. If you’re lucky, those departments will be full of people who can eat a purchase ledger for breakfast without batting an eyelid and will be happy to do so day in, day out.
But a lot of us don’t work in large businesses. I’m increasingly working with smaller organisations in the arts and non-profit sectors and I find that two conflicting factors are at play:
1) The core of what these organisations do is very exciting
Running an arts centre, delivering services to people in need, finding a cure for cancer or helping young people develop – whatever non-profit organisations do they are almost always inspired by a greater sense of purpose than most for-profit organisations. People join them because of that purpose and permeates the whole organisation meaning people turn up to work every day fired up to deliver it. But the counterpoint to this is that…
2) The “boring stuff” can get left behind
There’s a whole bunch of things that are necessary to run even the most purpose-driven non-profit, for example
- Accounts have to be kept in order to ensure financial viability
- Policies and procedures have to be in place to do all kinds of things including financial viability, enabling diversity, protecting vulnerable children and adults
- People have to be hired, developed, rewarded and let go with fairness and due process
- and so on and so on…
The list, whilst not endless, is typically longer and more apparently complex than the list of things that inform an organisation’s purpose, so it carries the additional burden of appearing to outweigh the stuff that the organisation exists to do.
Larger non-profits get around this by having separate departments that do this – just like larger commercial organisations. Smaller non-profits often don’t have the scale to be able to this and, as they will have grown from tiny start-up organisations comprising a handful of founders, they will have been used to minimising the routine background tasks but doing it themselves.
Once the organisation grows, this isn’t sustainable: there just aren’t enough hours in the day to keep on top of the admin tasks and founders can have difficulty delivering the admin correctly as well as the mission.
The kids weren’t alright
If left unchecked this kind of thing can have serious consequences. The demise of the children’s support charity Kids’ Company in 1995 had a number of contributing factors but the major issue seems to have been an imbalance between the drive to fulfil its mission of supporting vulnerable children and ensuring the proper processes and safeguards were in place to support the growth the charity was going through. In this case, these did not appear to have the
The boring board
Trustees have a critical role to play in ensuring that the boring stuff gets attended to – they’re there to ensure the viability of the organisation so, whilst it’s vital that trustees share the mission and values of the organisation it helps if they can bring specialist expertise such as a background in finance, HR or other business support areas, as well as other useful attributes like an address book full of potential donors (well, I guess we can dream…).
Whilst the founders have the vision for the exciting stuff that the organisation will do, the “boring board” ensures that this drive doesn’t happen without compromising the stability and reputation of the organisation.
Planning for success, commercially
Having a sound business plan is where all this comes together and, as you may have realised, the disciplines that are successfully applied in commercial organisations – finance, HR, risk and so on – are just as important in non-profit organisations. (In fact, the term non-profit is slightly misleading: all organisations need to have a positive balance sheet, whether they have paying customers or non-paying “service users” – often they will have a mix of the two.)
The business plan sets out how the organisation will grow and develop over a timeframe typically between 12 and 36 months and aligns its development goals with the financial and organisational changes that support them.
The tools you need to develop this plan whether for or not for profit are the same and I have condensed my quarter-century of experience in this area into a simple one-page guide that helps you deliver a sound plan that will put your organisation on a sound footing – keeping its vision and purpose alive whilst putting in the structures and processes that will keep it growing.
Growth – that’s what makes the boring stuff really quite exciting.