Implementation or the Lack Thereof

I have been consulting to an important arts organization for almost one full year. I have been asked to write its strategic plan in concert with senior staff and the board. This group faces serious financial challenges which arise from a poor public image that has adversely affected its fundraising efforts. Over the past decade, as its fundraising effort atrophied, the organization turned to cost-cutting as its approach to balancing budgets. As a result, the staff is overworked, the board members are scared, morale is low, much needed marketing campaigns are underfunded and the cycle of woe continues.

The irony is that the organization still does important artistic and educational work. The most important challenge to fiscal health -- creating strong, unique programming--is consistently met. The 'solution' to this organization's problems, therefore, seem so evident to me. The organization's leadership must:

• Implement a strong, proactive institutional marketing campaign
• Work diligently to engage new donors
• Strengthen the board

I have been talking with the leaders of the organization for months now about specific methods for accomplishing these tasks; together we have created a detailed implementation plan. There is no disagreement among senior staff; they all agree that these steps are critical and should be pursued.

But nothing has happened.

Every time I meet with them they raise questions about the wording of the plan, the timing for involving more staff and board members in the planning process, and the need for further discussion.

They simply cannot get into action and pursue any of these important strategies in a disciplined manner. It is extremely frustrating since they continue to fall farther and farther behind their competition and are getting sicker and sicker.

I wish this were a unique situation.

Too many people see planning as an intellectual activity rather than a roadmap for implementation. It is easy to have endless discussions about needs and problems and even solutions. It is much harder -- and far scarier -- to begin implementation.

I once worked for an organization that was planning a major capital campaign. Every prerequisite for a good campaign had been completed: we had a wonderful project, a beautiful case statement and a strong campaign committee.

The committee met regularly but never raised a penny! At every meeting the members would ask for a new list of prospects, a new format for that list and a new set of financial targets.

But they never asked one of the prospects on any of the numerous lists we developed for a contribution.

I know asking for money can be uncomfortable; I know looking for board members or planning an institutional marketing effort can be time-consuming and challenging. But unless one acts on a board development, marketing or fundraising plan, the effort to develop it is wasted.

And no organization ever creates the perfect plan. But getting started on implementation rarely requires perfection -- it merely requires a direction.

An ounce of implementation is worth a pound of planning.