Hello Real Word: Understanding Current Realities or
Most people look at art from 360°, but they don't do that
with their life.
Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar?:
Your Development Director has just resigned, effective immediately... your Board members don't seem to have a clue about their roles and responsibilities... the past fiscal year ended with a surplus-first time in three years!!... the building where your theater is housed was just put on the market-you've been given six months notice to vacate... your exhibitions have been getting rave critical reviews, but attendance and membership are at an all-time low...
The above comprises just a small sampling of what may be an organization's "Current Realities" - those existing situations, obstacles, issues, conflicts, challenges, circumstances, and positive and negative attributes that constitute and define an organization. Understanding these realities is a crucial initial step in the strategic planning process.
To a great extent, creating a strategic plan is a straightforward three-part process:
First and foremost is the development of your vision (Phase 1): the clear and compelling view of your organization in the future, encompassing your hopes, desires and aspirations for that future. After the vision has been articulated, it is critical to have a comprehensive and objective-or at least reasonably objective-perspective of your organization's "Current Realities" (Phase 2): its strengths, weaknesses, assets, obstacles and challenges.
These first two steps are fundamental components to successful planning. Quite simply, if you don't know where you're starting from-or what your starting with-it's difficult or even impossible to determine the most effective, practical steps (Phase 3) to successfully realize the future envisioned for your organization.
Ideally, an examination of "Current Realities," otherwise known as an assessment process, should look at an organization (w)holistically, encompassing its:
The design and implementation of an organizational assessment provides the essential foundation for planning. If the process begins "grounded" in reality, the action steps and strategies devised will have a significantly greater likelihood of being successfully achieved.
YOU'VE GOT TO IDENTIFY THE PROBLEMS BEFORE YOU CAN SOLVE THEM!
An assessment process is not designed to resolve issues, but to identify and define organizational strengths and weaknesses. As challenges, needs or shortcomings are revealed, the process can help prioritize them, possibly leading to relatively straightforward solutions or helping you determine where longer-term assistance will be required.
For example, you might discover that your audience lists, donor records and accounting system are in separate formats and incompatible software. Concurrently, you learn that your Marketing Director has a knack for computers and has been silently fuming about the organization's inability to access much needed information. Solution: have her redesign and streamline the database. Perhaps it's not part of her job description, but if the expertise is available-and the software limitations have prevented her from accomplishing primary responsibilities-then having her work on it will only benefit the organization in the long run.
Learning about an employee's or Board member's specific skills or interests is only one way conducting an assessment process provides new insights into your organization. Assessment will also reveal where consensus lies among Board, staff and community members, and where there might be confusion, or even conflict, about the organization, its mission, programs and policies.
And significantly, assessment engages people in the process, and therefore in the decision making for the organization's future. Assessment is the essential starting point to realizing-or strengthening-a shared vision, and provides the opportunity to energize, motivate and even inspire people. Without question, the more involved and comprehensive the assessment process and the more invested the participants, the more apt they are to "buy in" to the plan from the onset, to see it through and, most critically, to ensure that the plan is implemented.
DISCUSS THE UNDISCUSSABLE
Objectivity is the key to a successful assessment process. The assessment methods employed should be designed in a way to make all types of issues and problems safe to discuss. Whoever facilitates the process needs to remain open and accepting of what is learned. Very likely the organization is not always going to like what it hears.
"Undiscussables"-those issues, struggles or frustrations that fester just below the surface of an organization's daily life -- are often revealed during this process. All organizations have undiscussables, but few have the courage to engage them openly and objectively. They are rarely made public. Generally these difficult issues are only confided at the office copy machine, whispered at a board meeting, or angrily vented over coffee. Bringing these issues to the fore, provides a rare opportunity to resolve them and institute change...for the better.
THINK THE PROCESS THROUGH...DON'T DECEIVE YOURSELF
Before getting started, it is vital to fully recognize that an organizational assessment and planning process takes W - O - R - K: over and above your already overloaded programming priorities, pressing grant deadlines and daily crises. However, the long-term value to your organization's future health and well-being cannot be underestimated. A carefully thought out blueprint for an organization's future, grounded in its current realities, leads to positive and constructive change.
Assessment should never be looked at as an end unto itself, but as a process that will lead to action and change. Before embarking on an organizational assessment, consider the full scope of what needs to be accomplished. Following is a checklist detailing each of the steps:1) PREPARE
2) COLLECT - INFORMATION AND DATA 3) ANALYZE - THE INFORMATION AND DATA COMPILED
6) DEVELOP ACTION STEPS
COVER ALL YOUR BASES...PERCEPTION VS. REALITY
To ensure a broad spectrum of pertinent details and facts is collected, two distinct types of information should be gathered: qualitative (pertaining to or involving quality or kind, e.g. individual attitudes) and quantitative (expressible in terms of quantity or amounts, e.g. attendance figures). Gathering individual or collective perceptions and opinions of your organization and comparing that information with quantitative data (facts, figures and percentages) provides a thorough and comprehensive understanding of an organization -- that 360° perspective noted in Warhol's quote at the beginning of this section.
For example, Board members might perceive that your organization's annual chamber music series is a sell-out-throughout the years, every time they have attended, all the seats have been filled-and therefore it must be a highly sought after ticket and a fiscally successful program much wanted in the community. However a financial analysis coupled with a review of box office figures for the past three years, reveals that this particular program ends up "in the red," -- it annually causes a huge deficit for the organization and a necessity to scramble for increased revenue from other programs to balance the books.
What's going on here?
Inevitably Board members won't be aware that each year the series' audience is substantially "papered," with more than 50% of the tickets donated or given away.
Perception versus reality. Should the series be continued? The answer will lie in analyzing other information, such as the goodwill that might be generated in the community by offering so many free tickets...who the tickets are donated to...etc.
QUALITATIVE INFORMATION - GLEANING PERCEPTIONS, PERSPECTIVES AND OPINIONS
WHAT DO THOSE CLOSEST TO YOU, THINK OF YOU?
To obtain the most salient and comprehensive information, it is critical that opinions and perceptions are elicited from those people most invested in your organization. Such people are typically known as "Stakeholders." It is extremely beneficial for each organization to identify these stakeholders and how they honestly perceive your organization.
A Stakeholder can be defined as any individual, organization or group who has either a personal or professional interest or investment in your organization's operations, resources or programs. There are two types of Stakeholders, "Internal" and "External," and both should be queried during the assessment process.
"Internal" Stakeholders can vary from organization to organization, depending upon the type(s) of programs and services provided and the administrative structure. Staff members and Board members, those individuals responsible for day-to-day operations and policies respectively, are always considered Internal Stakeholders. Others may include:
External Stakeholders can be considered those who may not play a central role in your organization's operations or policies, but are invested in the programs or services it provides. These can include:
Together these individuals possess the greatest range and depth of knowledge about your organization from both the "inside" and the "outside."
Generally, internal and external stakeholders are involved in the assessment process in different ways (e.g. Board members might participate in an interview process, while subscribers are asked to complete a two-page survey). Therefore, it is beneficial to identify who's who, and what types of information you need from each.
Whether you categorize someone as "internal" or "external" is dependent upon the specific role(s) different groups or individuals play within your organization. For example, if your organization is an exhibition space that determines its programs solely by a curator, artists would most likely be external stakeholders, no doubt along with your membership and audience members. However, if your exhibition space makes program decisions by a committee of artists, each and every member of this committee would be considered an internal stakeholder and treated accordingly.
Regardless of their "internal" or "external" status, everyone who participates in the assessment process should understand:
A MYRIAD OF METHODS AWAIT YOU
A variety of means exist to elicit an individual's or group's personal perspective on your organization and the types of programs and services provided to your community. There is no one right approach. Specific methods, techniques or tools should be used based on: (1) the type and range of information you have determined should be compiled; (2) the human and financial resources available; and (3) possible time constraints. For example, if you have only limited resources and time available to conduct the assessment, select individuals whose comments will be representative of a group of individuals you would like to hear from, such as - the chair of your Program committee (in lieu of each member), or your Volunteer Coordinator (instead of all your volunteers).
Some of the more commonly used methods to elicit opinions and perspectives include:
Interviews: This method is one of the most personal, allowing for spontaneity and valuable open-ended responses that are not quantifiable. It is also probably the most labor intensive and time consuming, and generally the least objective. However, interviews can stimulate in-depth responses and an extensive range of information, ideally covering all key aspects of an organization's programs, services and infrastructure. Interviews can be conducted either in person or via the telephone. Prior to embarking on this method, it is important to decide what information is needed and from whom. A series of specific questions should be designed with the understanding that less is generally more-a half-hour to one-hour interview should suffice, using no more than 10 to 12 questions. This method can be conducted by an organization's Executive Director, Board Chair or consultant.
Who might you interview?: staff members, Board members, program committee members, key volunteers, funders, local officials.
Questionnaires and Checklists: Questionnaires used in combination with checklists are intended to elicit similar information as interviews. However, they offer a slightly more objective, substantially more streamlined, and a generally less time-consuming approach. Questionnaires and checklists can be distributed to participants to fill out on their own, or they can be completed as part of a group meeting (e.g. during a Board or staff meeting). They can be as comprehensive or streamlined as necessary, but generally no more than 12 broad organizational questions should be included for open-ended responses. An accompanying checklist can be more extensive, with headings covering all aspects of an organization's operations-mission, programs and services, governance, human resources, fundraising, marketing, financial management, public relations, planning and evaluation-with a detailed list of criteria under each area. Respondents are asked to rate each area as either strong, adequate, needs improvement, uncertain or not relevant.
Who might you assess through a questionnaire and checklist process?: staff, Board members, program committee members, advisory committee members, key volunteers, funders, local officials (see end of article for Sample Board Questionnaire and Sample Staff Questionnaire).
Surveys: This approach is most often employed to glean information from specific populations, such as your organization's membership, subscribers or audience. This format provides the easiest way to track trend data and draw broad-based conclusions from surveyed populations based on breakdowns such as: program interests, artistic discipline, geography, age, ethnicity, financial resources, etc. Surveys are most often sent through the mail or distributed at the conclusion of a performance, event or program. Surveys typically include: a list of questions or response opportunities (usually limited to two pages) that can be quantified (e.g. respondents can be asked to put items in priority order or to rate them on a 1 - 5 or 1 - 7 scale); along with questions requiring an opinion or value judgment. An excellent guide to creating surveys is Laura N. Wagner's Writing Effective Survey Questions, a "How-to Guide" available from: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention, 1000 Welch Road, Palo Alto, CA 94034-1885 (415.723.0003).
Who might you survey?: membership, audience members, subscribers, gallery visitors, education program participants
Retreats: Typically conducted as a day-long meeting, this method is often employed as an opportunity to launch an organization's planning process. An assessment can be conducted during the retreat. The use of this format for assessment is most successful and effective if an organization's key Stakeholders are participants. In this setting, participants can raise and explore issues in great detail and develop a sense of their colleagues' opinions and perspectives. A retreat can also be used to culminate an assessment process. Used in this manner, retreat participants can be informed about the results of the process with detailed information on where consensus lies, what primary issues and needs were raised, and what program and administrative priorities came to the fore. In whatever way a retreat is designed, it is an ideal setting to bring together disparate members of the organization who don't often have the opportunity to strengthen their camaraderie and share ideas, interact, debate and question.
Who might attend a retreat?:Board members, staff, key volunteers, artists, program committee members. (See end of article for a sample outline for a Trustee Planning Retreat.)
Focus Groups: Similar to ad hoc advisory groups, this method is designed to bring together people with common interests to express their opinions about specific programs, services, activities, issues, needs, etc. Approximately 8 to 12 participants, representative of the population whose opinions you want to sample, are brought together for a one to three hour meeting. Questions to guide the discussion and encourage participation from all attendees should be prepared in advance. A number of focus groups can be organized to respond to the same issues. After all groups involved have gone through the meetings, a synthesis of their views is formed. The process has the advantage of involving people in defining issues and needs and enlisting their help developing solutions.
Who might attend a focus group?: audience members, community members, artists, membership, subscribers. (See end of article for Sample Focus Group Questions.)
Existing Data: And let's not forget that some of your assessment work may have already been done. An assessment should build on reasonably current-two to four years old-information you may already have in-house. Existing information is an invaluable resource that is far too often forgotten as the assessment process gets underway. No doubt over the course of the past few years, your organization has compiled peer panel comments from various government funding agencies or notes taken from foundation inquiries. Or what about evaluations you have asked audience members to complete after a performance? And where are all those surveys you had participants in that educational workshop complete? All of this is important existing data that should not be overlooked. You might already have quite a bit of key information on file; it won't cost you anything to access it; and it can help you gain a broad based perspective on different aspects of your organization.
QUANTITATIVE DATA-COMPILING STATISTICAL AND FACTUAL INFORMATION
JUST THE FACTS, MA'AM
Perceptions and perspectives about your organization are just one piece of the pie. To establish the "big picture," this qualitative information needs to be examined in relationship to hard data. A Data Review, as this component of the assessment process is often known, offers additional insights into an organization's operations; a tool for understanding trends and patterns; and factual confirmation of what you heretofore have only assumed.
The types of information you may want to compile and assess can include some or all of the following:
Operating results by programs (one year summary)
Cash flow analysis by month (one year summary)
Historical summary of financial data
Costs / benefits analysis by categories and levels of giving
Unless otherwise specified, it is recommended that three years of historical data be compiled for each area, in order to fully evaluate any existing trends or operational patterns.
DO I NEED A CONSULTANT TO CONDUCT AN ASSESSMENT PROCESS?
In the best of all possible worlds, it would be ideal to have an objective, impartial individual design and conduct all or part of your organization's assessment process; and distill the information, thoughts and feedback received. An impartial "outsider" will not-or should not-have any preconceived notions about a direction an organization should take and what is considered "appropriate." It might be difficult for an Executive Director or Board member to facilitate an interview process and not interject personal opinions or perspectives. They also may become defensive or guarded if some negative comments are made about a program or an administrative process. However, these "outside," objective individuals inevitably cost money, and resources to pay for them are not always readily available.
If you have the resources and interest to work with a consultant, make sure that you are central to the process(es) selected. Participate in designing the different assessment instruments to be used and remain actively involved to ensure that the methods employed are most appropriate for your organization. Your input will be essential.
However, don't avoid implementing an organizational assessment just because you can't afford the assistance of a professional or can't enlist their pro bono support. The need to gather this information is too important to the planning process, and the health and well-being of your organization's future. Analyze your needs; prioritize the information needed; assess your available resources; and conduct the assessment in the manner most appropriate and realistic for your organization at this time.
SO, NOW THAT I'VE GOT ALL THIS INFORMATION...WHAT DO I DO WITH IT?
No doubt, in the midst of your organizational assessment, programming deadlines will take priority, fundraising responsibilities will become pressing, and umpteen minor emergencies will scream for your attention. However, you must remain steadfast in your determination that this process is for the long-term benefit and health of your organization.
There is absolutely no reason to go through all the trouble and hard work of creating and implementing an organizational assessment unless it is fully integrated as a critical component of the planning process, and not an end unto itself. It will be a frustrating and heartwrenching, aggravating, depressing, mind-numbing waste of time, if the knowledge and insights revealed are not used to develop action steps and strategies. These are what will ultimately lead to the successful realization of your organization's future vision.
Go forth, good luck and remember:
The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a
thing makes it happen.
- Frank Lloyd Wright
SAMPLES OF FORMS AND QUESTIONNAIRES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE:
1. BOARD OF DIRECTORS ASSESSMENT INTERVIEW QUESTIONNAIRE
Any other comments? suggestions?
2. STAFF ASSESSMENT INTERVIEW QUESTIONNAIRE
Any other comments? suggestions?
3. FOCUS GROUP QUESTIONS
4. TRUSTEE PLANNING RETREAT
Outline of Proposed Activities
1) Pre-Retreat Activities
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