Are False Starts Impeding Your Progress?


Anticipation is at its peak, the play is about to happen, and the whistle blows. The referee’s voice echoes across the stadium: False start.

Five-yard penalty. The opportunity to move the ball is hampered. This might even lead to a turnover. 

False starts are common in many sports. In football, they are the top cause of penalties. And guess what? False starts happen in nonprofits too.

Organizational false starts might not be in adrenaline-pumping moments. But they can cost your nonprofit significant time, lost motivation, and wasted staff and volunteer energy. 

We often see false starts in strategic planning and capital projects. A board or CEO gets excited about a potential opportunity, invests some time and effort, but quickly finds out the organization is not ready. Or a group launches in a particular direction, gets six months down the road, and finds out they have to go back to the drawing board, or put everything on hold.

How can you avoid false starts in strategic planning or other big initiatives?

Here are some questions you can ask.

  • How strong is your board? Boards are the decision makers around any significant strategic work in a nonprofit. Do you have the right people at the table and are they focused and willing to give the time to help you move forward? You might need some new players to get your board moving in the right direction.
  • Whose voices must be at the table? You may have the right board, but some of your best volunteers have the biggest jobs and it’s hard to get them to meetings. These might be some of your most influential players—it’s hard to move through a play without the quarterback. And if they aren’t at the table, four months into a process, you might find out that they have critical concerns or questions that take you in a different direction. This can take you back to the drawing board to revisit steps you thought you had already completed, causing a disruption in momentum.
  • Where is your staff today? Change is abundant in the staffing world right now. You might have a vacancy in a critical operations position. Or your CEO might be considering retiring. Departing staff are so committed to the organization’s mission that they try to move plans forward before they leave. But you can only get so far in relationship building and strategic thinking if the leader is on their way out. It’s also challenging for a new CEO to inherit a brand-new strategic plan that was developed by the prior CEO.
  • What is a realistic timeline? In today’s fast-paced world, nonprofits sometimes feel a need to rush things. Do you have sufficient time to do this work? To create a comprehensive strategic plan with community, key leader, and board and staff input, you usually need 6-8 months. Capital projects can take up to five years. In our experience, organizations that try to move a process too quickly find that they then have to restart and/or re-do work.
  • What support do you need? What is needed to guide you through this work? Executive directors, CEOs, and board members can facilitate a strategic planning or capital development process themselves. But the downside is the people facilitating can’t participate at the same time. We have also seen situations where a board member is leading critical strategic work, but then a job relocation or change comes up, and they suddenly have to bow out. That causes another kind of false start.

Hopefully, these kinds of questions can help your organization think through where you are, and identify what is needed to ensure your success in tackling significant strategic work. It’s a good time for truth-telling, for being realistic about what you can reasonably take on. 

Do you think you might be in the middle of a false start? Let DBD Group help! Contact us to learn more.


12-1This Month's Focus

This month we're taking a look at ourselves and our relationships. Join us in taking a step back and considering the questions that we should be asking to continue developing and nurturing what matters most.



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Posted by Kellie Wardman
Kellie Wardman

Written by Kellie Wardman

Kellie Wardman, PCC, CPCC, has worked in the non-profit sector for 20 years, serving as a consultant and executive coach for a wide range of innovative and impactful leaders and organizations. She has provided clients with comprehensive support in a wide range of disciplines, including strategic planning, board development and governance, facilitating partnerships and collaborations, and capital development.

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