Mmmmm … strategy for breakfast again?

breakfast5Welcome to O.D. Fridays at DonorDreams blog. Every Friday for the foreseeable future we will be looking at posts from John Greco’s blog called “johnponders ~ about life at work, mostly” and applying his organizational development messages to the non-profit community.

In a post titled “Making Breakfast,” John talks about how “culture eats strategy for breakfast“. He is referencing the importance of your organizational culture in everything you do. Of course, John says it in a way that only an organizational development professional can:

The strategy required specific organizational knowledge, competencies, and behaviors to effectively execute and deliver the results as envisioned. And the organization didn’t have those. So with every presentation of the strategy, I was conflicted.  Despite being consistently motivated by the possibility, I was increasingly concerned about the capability.”

In 2006, I made what I’ve now come to see as a brave decision when I left the front line and took a job as an internal consultant working for a national non-profit organization. For five years, I woke up every morning (usually in a hotel room somewhere on the road) and learned over and over again that culture eats strategy for breakfast.

To broadly and simply define my job . . . I was “Strategy Man”. My employer armed me with a 110 page manual focused on how to plan, organize, develop, implement and evaluate an annual campaign pledge drive. In addition to that manual, I was provided tons of tools, templates and samples that filled my consultants toolbox.

Some of you might be thinking “Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.” But you would be way off target. Why? Because culture eats strategy for breakfast!

So, picture this . . .

I walk into an organization’s boardroom and sit down with a group of agency staff and volunteer board members. I pull out my PowerPoint presentation and lots of other shiny objects. Nothing up my sleeve … right? This fundraising thing is easy. Making an in-person, face-to-face fundraising solicitation is as easy as following these simple 12-steps.

When I was done selling the sizzle (e.g. teaching fundraising strategies), I was often met with resistance, bombarded with reasons why it wouldn’t work and told why they wouldn’t do it that way (e.g. organizational culture).

breakfast1Do you see it? Culture eats strategy!

If your non-profit organization has hired staff who don’t possess fundraising skill sets and don’t have a track record of success with resource development, then sitting through a meeting listening to “strategy” can be arduous and sometimes downright frightening. The typical response is “resistance,” which is what John means when he says culture eats strategy for breakfast.

The same explanation holds true for your organization’s board of directors.

If you are just recruiting warm bodies to fill chairs around your boardroom table without being intentional, then you probably have a boardroom of people who say things like: “Ask me to do anything, but please don’t ask me to fundraise.”  (If I had a nickle for every time I heard that expression, I’d be retired and living on a tropical island sipping cool drinks in the shade.)

“If you want strategies to work, then you need to have the right people sitting around the table!”

Hire the right people. Recruit the right volunteers. Be intentional.

Last week, I was told by a board volunteer that he didn’t appreciate all of this talk about developing and following a board development process to increase the size of his board of directors. He kept arguing that we should throw process out the window and ask every existing board volunteer to ask a friend of theirs to join the board. Doing so would double the size of the board much quicker than how I was suggesting they do it.

breakfast2Hmmmm … looking back at that meeting, I think he was cooking up a hearty breakfast for me.

Some of you are probably wondering if your hiring and recruitment practices are intentional. If you answer ‘YES’ to many of the following questions, then you are probably being intentional:

  • Do you have a board development committee focused on growing the board?
  • Do you use tools that set expectations for prospective new board members (e.g. written volunteer position descriptions and commitment pledges)? Do you share these tools with prospects before asking them to join your board?
  • Do you build prospect lists with the thought of filling gaps and acquiring volunteers with specific skill sets and experiences?
  • Are you doing some informal background checking (e.g. asking friends and acquaintances about their current commitments, passions, past experiences, etc) before prioritizing who you plan on approaching first?
  • Are you able to rattle off a list of characteristics and traits of a successful board volunteer? How about a successful fundraising volunteer?

If you want to succeed at whatever your organization is looking at doing, then first ask yourself if your agency “possesses the organizational knowledge, competencies, and behaviors to effectively execute and deliver the results as envisioned“. If not, then you need to work on organizational culture first before introducing strategies into the discussion.

How do you change organizational culture? Be intentional!

If you choose to plow forward with strategy with a blind eye turned towards culture, then you better be hungry for a large heaping breakfast plate.  😉

Have you ever had to change the people (e.g. staff, board, etc) who were sitting around your table? If so, how did you do it? What lessons did you learn? Do you have a very intentional board development process? Scroll down and use the comment box to share your thoughts and experiences.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847


  1. Eric, what do you do when it’s your ED who’s the obstacle? I’m dealing with this issue right now. I have an ED who thinks it’s unnecessary to meet with the board members individually, look them in the eye, and ask them specifically for monthly financial support (or any financial support at all). He thinks discussing the nonprofit’s financials during the board meeting should be enough to prompt them to give. I cannot seem to move him from this, and I am at a loss of how to, other than going around him and asking each board member myself (starting with the ones I know best). I’d appreciate some advice. We’re still a bit on the start-up side. When I arrived 2 years ago, I started putting infrastructure in place (donor database, email marketing, consistent eNews, etc.).

    1. Julia … You’re in a tough spot, but if you’re going to succeed you will need to learn how to manage up. Here are a few good resources on how to manage your manager:

      Speaking specifically to your fundraising challenge:

      1. Your boss probably falls in the category of “reluctant fundraiser”. So, if he is uncomfortable with asking for money, it stands to reason that he will be uncomfortable asking his bosses (aka the board). Your job is to help him/her overcome that fear. I suggest getting him to accompany you on a few donor solicitation visits. You ask … he tells stories. Get him comfortable and the fear will start melting away.

      I also suggest …

      2. Identify your “fundraising champion” on the board. Hopefully, they are on your resource development committee. If you don’t have a committee, then build one and make sure that your champion is on that committee. Go out for lunch with this champion. Share with them your thoughts about board solicitation. Make your case. If they buy-in, then ask them to sit down with you and your boss and help you make the case to your executive director. This is NOT about ambushing your boss. You need to be transparent. S/he needs to know that you’re sitting down with board members. However, this shouldn’t be an eyebrow raiser because fundraising professionals sit down with board members all the time to talk about fundraising strategies, campaigns and events. Right?

      I hope this helps. Thanks for reading the blog. I hope to see a lot more of you in the comment section in the upcoming weeks and months. 😉

      Good luck! ~Erik

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