Addressing the hard topics with planning

By Regenia Bailey / Guest Column

The board is ultimately responsible for the future of the organization, whether that means growth, change, downsizing, mergers or closure. While most boards like to think of their annual planning sessions as a time to discuss growth, there are times when an organization is at a crossroads, and the planning session involves more difficult discussions of turnarounds or transitions.

These issues rarely resolve themselves on their own, and the difficulties they cause tend to grow the longer they are ignored. Here are a few common challenges, and ways to work through them.

Mission drift

While there are ways to appropriately frame aspects of an organization’s work to attract various kinds of funding, mission drift occurs when the organization changes or expands its focus to specifically meet funders’ interests. Mission drift can also occur when an organization defines its mission so broadly that it tries to be all things to everyone.

Being a utility player-type of organization may seem like an attractive strategic position, but it rarely works that way. Without a clearly defined purpose, it’s difficult for an organization to market itself and attract sustainable support. Lack of clear focus can also be exhausting and costly if the organization takes on projects that are outside its core competencies that require additional training, skill development or new staff.

To address mission drift, the board must clearly define the organization’s purpose, and develop strategies and activities that align with that purpose. If the board is unwilling to do this, it risks reducing the organization’s relevance to its community and limiting the organization’s ability to be sustainable.

Financial challenges

A board can never be complacent about the organization’s financial concerns. A small problem one month can become a crisis the next.

Cash flow problems may simply be timing issues – a program or project occurs before the grant or donor pledge is received to support it – or they may be an indicator of the larger problem of a program costing more than the organization receives to support it. Inabilities to meet fundraising goals and attract grant funding may indicate flaws in fundraising planning and implementation, or that donors and funders are not interested in supporting the organization’s activities. It’s critical that the board understands the nature and severity of any financial concerns as they arise.

Chronic financial problems and funding emergencies are typically a sign of broader organizational problems. The board must take immediate steps to determine and address the cause of the problem and remedy the situation. Once the initial problem is addressed, the board should put systems in place to ensure long-term solutions to the organization’s financial challenges.

Engagement challenges

The organization may have trouble recruiting new board members or getting current board members to attend meetings. It may be difficult for the organization to attract or retain employees or volunteers. Key leaders in the organization may be burned out. Engagement challenges may be a signal that the organization has lost its momentum. Without an infusion of new leadership and energy, the organization may continue a slow decline in its activities.

If poor board attendance is a cultural issue or staff retention is a financial issue, the board should be able to take steps to address them; other engagement challenges may prove more difficult to fix. A founder or key leader may be ready to leave the organization. Board members and volunteers may have had changes in their jobs or families that leave them little time for work with the organization. The cause of engagement issues tends to vary from individual to individual, and often has nothing to do with the organization itself. When facing challenges of board and staff engagement, leaders need to decide if they are manageable, or so severe they require changes to the organization itself.

The annual planning session is a time to take a clear-eyed look at the organization and think about its future. Whether the board is developing a new strategic plan or developing annual goals to align with its current plan, it’s important to remember that planning isn’t always about growth. Sometimes planning involves developing strategies to address difficult organizational issues.

When the board uses its annual planning session to ensure the organization has a clearly defined mission and purpose, develop systems to manage the organization’s financial health, or deepen engagement, it lays the groundwork for a more sustainable enterprise.

Regenia Bailey is a consultant and coach to nonprofits at her firm, the Bailey Leadership Initiative. She teaches business courses at Kirkwood Community College. For more information, visit