Grabbing Every Opportunity

I was sitting in a meeting of a board development committee of one of my clients when someone uttered the conventional wisdom, "We need to grab at every opportunity."

Everyone nodded in knowing consent and happily created a long list of actions the committee and the staff should pursue in the coming months.

But it got me thinking: Here is troubled organization which has a thin staff and a modestly involved board with an ambitious plan for survival and growth. Can this group really afford to grab at every opportunity?

I think not.

I am increasingly convinced that one of the reasons organizations fail to implement their plans -- often after a relatively rigorous, time-consuming and expensive planning process -- is that the plans do not set out clear priorities.

Believe me, I am as entrepreneurial as the next person, and I believe in grabbing major opportunities when they arise. A well-timed, well-executed special project, fund-raising event or marketing activity can help boost visibility and revenue. But almost every arts organization is a small enterprise and every time a project is added to our lists of ventures, something else must be deleted. Otherwise we are in danger of spreading our organization -- and the attention of donors and audience -- too thin.

Board members must learn that we simply cannot grab every opportunity. Some project ideas sound good but are not worth the time, energy, focus and financial cost. It is wonderful when board members bring us their ideas and staff leaders must be open to them. But board members must be willing to hear that one of their pet ideas simply cannot be executed at that time because of scarce resources and other, higher priority projects.

I believe that planning consultants are often to blame (and I am a proud, if often guilty, consultant myself) for creating too-long lists of activities because, in an effort to provide our worth to the clients, we provide laundry lists of activities they should pursue.

But I think planners who say "focus on these three things over the next year" are doing a better job for their clients than those who produce 25 pages of strategies. Shouldn't part of the planner's job be to evaluate the items on their lists of possible projects and determine which few are most potent and implementable given existing staff, board, volunteer and financial resources?

Doesn't focusing a board and staff on the truly important activities help prevent them from pursuing only the items that are comfortable while ignoring those activities that will truly create health? I have observed far too many boards that discuss cultivating donors, finding new prospects, writing thank you notes, etc. without ever asking for funds and others that will get excited about a very modest marketing activity that takes inordinate amounts of staff attention that leaves no time for actually using the event to cultivate interest in the organization.

Grabbing at every opportunity sounds nice but it just isn't smart.