November, 2012

Build a Better Program: Flow Chart

What is this nightmarish scribbling?  It’s the makings of a flow chart, of course.  You can’t tell? 

Like logic models, a good flow chart can help a planning group or a funder understand how people will ‘flow’ through a new program. This is another way to explain graphically how a proposed program will work. If done well, a flow chart can also show how a program won’t possibly work. 

Creating a flow chart is something that many program developers avoid.  Because they see in their heads how a program will work and because they’ve described the operation in a narrative, they figure a flow chart is duplicative, takes too much time to develop, and consumes too much space in a proposal or report.  I don’t agree with this.  Here’s why.

First, the process of creating a flow chart will expose areas of weakness in the program design. Overly-complex processes, service delays, confused decision points, and too many opportunities for consumers to drop out in frustration can all be surfaced in flow-charting.

Second, if a new program is being developed by a consortium of agencies or even a group of departments within an organization, a good flow chart will help define roles and responsibilities. Wrong assumptions about who will be doing what can kill a good program if not caught before implementation begins.  A flow chart is good preventive medicine.

Third, a flow chart supports the development of a better, more realistic, and detailed budget. Whether you are putting together a funding proposal or a new program approach, a well thought-out flow chart will lead to new questions about how much various steps will cost, the source of that funding, and how the process could possibly be made more efficient.

For these reasons, a good flow chart represents time well spent. Don’t get caught up in all the tricky engineering flow chart symbols, just start at Point A with a box and draw an arrow to Point B until it makes sense to you.  The finished product will look nothing like where you started but then neither will your program.  That’s the whole point.


Embrace Your Demons

Embrace your demons, everyone of them.  It’s because you have them that you have anything at all to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.

Professionally, progress and success are all about embracing your demons – organizing the project that seems way too big to manage, writing the giant proposal with so little time, shaping a work group with a bad history and no clear direction, making a speech you are afraid to make, doing something you haven’t done before.

Professional safety lives as a small, stuffed teddy bear along with the blankie you carried around when you were three years old.  Many of us keep the teddy bear and blankie at the bottom of the briefcase as constant reminders not to venture to far into the unknown and unsafe, to the land where the big demon, aka failure, lives, growling and scary under a bridge. If we never walk (or run) over the bridge, we never have to risk meeting up with the demon.

A richer, more productive professional life, I believe, comes from regularly doing something you are afraid to do.  By this I mean, something that you know in your gut is a bit ahead of your learning curve, an activity, job, or speech that is not ridiculous to undertake but clearly beyond the current boundaries of your comfort zone. 

Sometimes this means working with people that you can’t stand or worse, don’t like you!  It’s almost reflex to go the other way if such people will be involved in one of your efforts.  But that’s what those ‘demons’ expect – that you’ll be too afraid to walk across the bridge. 

Whether it’s people, projects, or presentations, surprise your demons this Thanksgiving by giving them a big hug and a wet sloppy kiss.  They live to make you better professionally but only if you embrace them. 



When All You See Is Red: What to Do When Your Organization Hits the Wall

Last week’s post talked about the tension between mission and money for nonprofit organizations.  My thesis was that mission is important but cannot flourish without sound money management.  Any nonprofit organization director who doesn’t understand that is kidding him or herself.  Financial management is not a pesky little detail of nonprofit life; it is central. 

#1 Rule: Keep the money straight.

So what happens when the money has not been kept straight?  One of two things happen:  either the situation is ignored, minimized and marginalized OR the situation is the impetus for new, better financial practices.

Like a smoker ignoring his hacking cough, glossing over nonprofit financial problems only leads to a worse situation.  Financial problems, like cancer, do not cure themselves.  But like cancer treatment, the cure for nonprofit financial problems is not easy or painless.

Steps to a cure (or at least rehabilitation):

1.  Professional diagnosis:  Because non-profit organizations are often small and mission-driven, they rely heavily on volunteers with limited time and, often, limited expertise. When the board of directors first begins to see a pattern of financial problems, that is the time to seek a professional opinion from someone outside the organization.  Virtually every community has nonprofit management technical assistance, this is the time to seek it out.

2. Management accountability:  The organization’s executive director and board of directors have to take ownership of the problem, accept responsibility for past practices, and make a commitment to improvement.  I subscribe to the school of thought that nearly every problem that can be named and claimed can be solved.  Unfortunately, it is very often the case that a nonprofit’s finances are a mess because the executive director has limited financial skills and a propensity toward denial.  Often, a board of directors, itself with limited time/skill, will aid and abet the director’s minimization of the problem.  Solutions cannot happen in this environment.  Accountability is a fundamental requirement of change.

3. Treatment compliance:  Getting out of serious financial difficulty is very hard even with the best professional advice.  Generally, a nonprofit in serious financial trouble needs to: a) develop a detailed remediation plan in consultation with the best advice available; b) fully implement the plan, doing the hard things like laying off staff, consolidating operations, reducing benefits and any number of other onerous things; c) communicate with funding sources so they get firsthand information about both the situation and the plan; and d) establish clear performance/accountability checks so the organizations stays on an improvement course.

 Is all this trouble worth it?  That depends. 

How valuable is your mission?

What Comes First: Mission or Money?

A mission-driven organization is a thing of beauty; that is, until the checks bounce. Then it’s just another organization that thought running on dreams was more important than having money in the bank, an organization where the director used the Scarlett O’Hara Accounting Manual and decided, everyday, to think about it tomorrow.

Harsh?  Maybe.

Most new nonprofit organizations, like small businesses, are established out of the hopes and dreams of a founder or a small founding group.  These are people who are fundamentally mission-driven.  Maybe they’ve experienced the problem they are trying to solve or they’ve spent months and years working as a volunteer to save a community.  Whatever the core motivation, they are setting up a nonprofit organization in order to bring their hopes and dreams to scale.  That’s wonderful and so important to our community.

Right away, though, there is risk.  And the risk is this.  Like new entrepreneurs, new nonprofit directors get carried away with the work they are doing.  They are all about getting their office space and logo, applying for grants, and running their programs.  Almost guaranteed is that setting up a sound financial system will be their last priority. Few people understand nonprofit financial management and fewer yet are interested in learning. This includes nonprofit directors who are reluctant to avail themselves of workshops or technical assistance because it would require opening their situation to outsiders and admitting that their management shortcomings.

Like a college kid with a credit card, it doesn’t take long for a new nonprofit organization to get in very tangled financial trouble.  And because it is extremely difficult to find board members with financial management experience, it is common for a board of directors to aid and abet an organization’s poor financial management while focusing its energies on the program and fund development.  It doesn’t take long before it’s impossible to provide funders with correct accounting of expenditures, some vendors don’t get paid in order to pay other vendors, cash flow and payroll become crises, and the annual audit becomes a nightmare.  It is truly a slippery slope if good systems aren’t set up at the start.

I really love nonprofit organizations and the people who work in them.  I admire founders as much as I admire scrappy entrepreneurs.  Both nonprofit and business start-ups need to keep one single imperative in mind.  And, yes, it is more important than mission.

#1 Rule:  Keep the money straight

If the money is straight, if financial systems are in accordance with the best practices of nonprofit management, the mission can flower.  Money’s a mess, the mission won’t matter.

It’s that simple.



Need help with nonprofit financial management?  A good place to start is the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee.