How Do You Maximize Your Effectiveness? Hear From Guest Expert, Donna Catalano, MS, PMP, with Eastlake Solutions
During a global pandemic, many nonprofit organizations are short-staffed and face reduced budgets. How do they maximize their effectiveness with limited resources? Our guest and REC partner, Donna Catalano, provides some practical guidance.
Q: Nonprofit leaders often feel like they are juggling too many things at one time. What are some strategic ways to prioritize your “to-do” list?
A: I look at this question from two points of view. First, there is the nonprofit leader, such as the Executive Director, and their global point of view. They have to look globally and ask, “What has [our organization] decided to pursue and prioritize? How were these decisions made? What are we trying to accomplish?” You cannot say yes to everything.
Then there are the individual employees and how they manage their workloads. Staff come with various levels of skills in this area. What is on their plate needs to be realistic. We [as managers and as individuals] have all been guilty of just piling projects on their/our plates. But how do you decide when enough is enough? Do you wait until someone suffers a mini breakdown? Don’t do this! Don’t just keep adding more projects on until “something breaks.”
Of course, you don’t want to have a scarcity mindset, but you do have to be realistic. Something new is going to be proposed every day. But take a critical look at what is realistic. We’re all guilty [of overcommitment] because the needs are so big.
Q: When an organization has limited capacity, one tendency is to underestimate the time or other resources needed to complete projects. How can organizations improve their ability to realistically plan for projects?
A: There are a number of different ways [to prioritize]. The answers are simple but not easy! Develop the discipline to be able to estimate how much time/resources each project is going to take. We tend to underestimate the time and other resources it takes to complete a task. Begin tracking information (e.g., tracking hours) to find out how much time is spent on particular tasks by each staff person. For example, a painting company knows how long it takes and how much paint is needed to paint a house based on square footage and wouldn’t commit to painting 20 houses in one week unless it had the resources to do so. Although a nonprofit’s work may be different than house painting, having data for decision making can often mean the difference between ‘feeling’ and ‘knowing.’ When the leader knows the time involved, the leader can make informed decisions about how to assign the work.
Q: During the pandemic, many nonprofits had to press “pause” on projects. Now, nonprofits may feel ready to press “start.” How should nonprofits determine which projects to begin again?
A: It’s a great opportunity for organizations to circle back to each of their projects that were put on hold due to the pandemic. List all of these projects. Ask: “Is this still relevant?” Start with “Why?” “Is the reason we initially proposed this project still applicable?” Perhaps the priorities have changed as time has passed. Perhaps this [project] isn’t a burning priority anymore. Or some things were paused and need to be brought back online as quickly as possible. Assign new priority levels to the proposed projects.
Q: “Some of my team members don’t seem to respect deadlines for projects. Any suggestions?”
A: The answer goes back to the culture of the organization. Is the culture one where all of your coworkers are working hard and helping each other? Or is the opposite true? Understanding that workplace culture will have a lot to do with getting back to encouraging your team members to respect deadlines.
How do you get there? I like to point out that if you are not actively developing the culture at your workplace then one is going to develop on its own and you are not going to be pleased with it! Again, the nonprofit leader should take a look at the expectations and how those expectations can help develop a positive, productive workplace culture.
For example, sometimes project teams will come together and team members may not even know each other. Have a project kick-off meeting to set the ground rules. “What are the best times to meet?” One of those ground rules should focus on deadlines. If your deadline is missed, how does it affect other people’s work? How much lead time should you give your teammates if you have concerns about not meeting a deadline?”
An opposite situation is a team that has worked together for 10+ years and has become like a dysfunctional family. You know the person who will always be on top of their work and you know the person who is always late. That situation is a little tougher. But set new expectations and be open about your efforts to change the culture: “We’re going to try something new.”
Q: What are some practical ways to manage several projects at once?
A: Sometimes this goes back to the individual skill level of a nonprofit leader who manages the programs or departments. As they are promoted, you would like to think that they have those skills that they’ve developed on their own but something an organization can do is to encourage their leaders to sit down quarterly and prioritize their projects. “What fits in with the strategic plan? What can we do this quarter?” They become disciplined so that when a crisis comes or some other request comes, the answer isn’t automatically “No” but also isn’t automatically “Yes.” Something new has come up but talk about it and discuss whether it makes sense to add it in the mix. Consider: “Can we get more resources? Hire someone else? Push something else to the back-burner?” The more disciplined the organization can be, the better off they will be.
In his book Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Jim Collins talks about the nonprofit sector. He says that whether you are leading nonprofit or for-profit organization, discipline is critical. Your organization should have disciplined people, processes, government, and finances.
Finally, remember that good discipline won’t slow you down. When you have the processes in place, it frees up your mind and resources to concentrate on accomplishing more!
Q: What is one piece of advice you wish you could share with nonprofits before they get to a place where they need to work with external consultants?
A: Calling in a consultant is not a bad thing! I work with many nonprofits who are already good but are striving to be better. But a piece of advice that I would share is to be realistic on how time is being spent. I call this Attention Management. Everyone resists doing this, but truly, I encourage you to track for a week or a month how time is spent. Introduce it in a positive way to your team. Consider: “How much time are we spending in meetings every week? How much time are we spending just driving to meetings?” When you have that actual data, you can make informed decisions. For example, now we know that not all of our meetings have to be in person. Before an organization brings in a consultant, they need to really track how people’s time is being spent. More often than not, you can make some reasonable decisions just based on that information alone.
Interested in More Information?
Reach out to Donna through her company Eastlake Solutions for more information on ways your organization can accelerate the work that matters most. And don’t hesitate to contact REC with any questions or if you need help with evaluating your staff satisfaction.
Collins, J. C., & Collins, J. (2006). Good to great and the social sectors: A monograph to accompany good to great. Random House.
Campbell, N. (2020) Surviving COVID-19: 6 Recommendations for nonprofits and funders. Philanthropy New York. Link: https://philanthropynewyork.org/news/surviving-covid-19-6-recommendations-nonprofits-and-funders
Catalano, D. (2019). So many projects, so little time. Eastlake Solutions. Originally published in Nonprofit Colorado Magazine in March 2019. Link: https://eastlakesolutions.com/so-many-projects-so-little-time/
Catalano, D. (2020). Are you ready to set and go? Eastlake Solutions. Link: https://eastlakesolutions.com/are-you-ready-to-set-and-go/
Catalano, D. (2020). When is a deadline not really a deadline? Eastlake Solutions. Link: https://eastlakesolutions.com/when-is-a-deadline-not-really-a-deadline-2/
Catalano, D. (2013). Selecting and managing multiple projects: How many plates can you spin at once? Eastlake Solutions. Link: https://eastlakesolutions.com/how-many-plates-can-you-spin-at-once/
Kost, D. (2020). Nonprofits hurt by COVID-19 must hoard cash to hold on. Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative. Link: https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/nonprofits-hurt-by-covid-19-must-hoard-cash-to-hold-on