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Behind The Room 40 Name

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What’s in a name?

A frequent question we get is about our name – it’s a little unusual. We’re actually named after an organization who came together during World War I in Room 40 of the British Admiralty Building. They brought together brilliant minds from various disciplines to understand how to use intelligence to make better decisions, faster.

One of the successes of Room 40 was identifying that a diversity of skills and ideas makes teams more successful, not less. It was this group of naval experts, linguists, mathematicians, scientists, and professors that managed to crack the enemy code.

Their mission was kept so secret that there still aren’t a lot of details about all the volunteers who came together to gather and process information crucial to winning WWI. Fortunately, our Room40 is much easier to find!

We’re thankful to them not just for their name. Without the Room 40’s code-breaking, we would not be able to celebrate today’s 100th year anniversary of the end of the Great War.

The Room40 Group is a consulting and advisory group that works with the leadership of nonprofits to help organizations improve, grow, and change. Like its namesake, Room40 is a place where smart people come together to analyze data, uncover meaning, and progress toward a greater good.

 

Want a great strategic plan? Pay attention to the process.

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Greetings from Room40,

The other day, I was asked what makes a great strategic plan.  I had a one-word answer, “Process”.  Not process for the sake of process – we don’t have patience for that.  Process that engages stakeholders, creates space for data and analysis, allows for iteration and sets up for testing and refining.  It’s a slightly odd answer from a bunch of self-professed data-junkies who like better decisions faster.  Not a lot of room for “process” if you’re oriented that way.  And that’s exactly why it’s important and is central to our approach.

“So, data-junkies who value process, what is this approach you’re talking about?”  We’re so glad you asked.  Here it is.  As always, if we can help you and your organization improve, grow, and change, drop us a line.

 

Seven Habits of Highly Successful Strategic Planning Processes
(I hope Steven Covey doesn’t get mad at us for that.  We’re just trying
to be funny.  How bout we just use SHHSSPP for short?)

Here goes…

SHHSSPP

1. Engage people.  There are no great strategies, just strategies well implemented.  One of the most critical steps in maximizing impact is getting your team on board by involving them in the process.  We balance input and perspectives from national and local leadership at the staff and board levels, front line to executive, program to back office.  We build this in from the beginning to get important input, educate and empower those involved, and create support for the plan as it is developed.

2. Write your narrative. We start the project by defining the narrative for the organization: Where are we today? Where do we want to be tomorrow? What is our vision of the future? This simple, short story will align your leadership on the front end and ground future conversations with staff and stakeholders on the important values and vision underpinning the organization’s next chapter.

3. Develop a hypothesis. Next, we help you develop a strong and testable hypothesis for how you will move from today to tomorrow. This will help us identify and prioritize the most critical decisions you need to make, and the specific data we collectively need to validate (or improve) the hypothesis.

4. Conduct analysis.  With the narrative and hypothesis to guide our efforts, we overlay quantitative and qualitative data, judgement and opinions to inform, validate and revise our thinking.  We conduct both internal analysis (programs, operations, financials) and external analysis (competitors, partners, geographic fit, funding options). Our Internal work builds on what you already know about your organization, supplemented with interviews and additional analysis. Our external work brings to the table new research, data and analysis about different the different opportunities and challenges that shape the context for your work.

5. Create scenarios.  The narrative, hypothesis and analysis come together to inform your organization’s decisions about its future.  To facilitate the decision-making, we believe in the power of developing several scenarios that offer distinct and competing views of what the organization will be doing in the future.  These scenarios will be intentionally provocative.  They elicit reactions that help us identify what will be embraced and challenging among the options. They open up a conversation about why.  It’s not unusual to like the reach of one scenario, the depth of another and the funding model of the third.  Some things are incompatible. Others can be integrated. In the end we can’t do everything and so we’ll have to choose.

6. Put together the plan. With the future vision decided, we develop a plan for how to get there informed by all we have learned about the organization and its external context.  This becomes the document that guides you internally and rallies your supporters externally.

7. Get ready for Implementation and change management.  Finding the “what”, or answer, is only the beginning. Arguably, the harder work begins with the “how”, or changes in behavior, staff, systems, and process… and that requires a clear articulation of the “why.” We can’t do that for you, but we draw on our executive experience leading similar efforts, our wins and our failures, to help you do it better.

Tah-dah!  Just like that.  Drop us a line if you have questions or stories to share.  We’d love to hear from you.

Yours in pursuit of HSSPP,

Anna, Ben, George and Harleen
aka Room40

Does Boston have too many nonprofits?

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Yesterday’s Boston Globe ran a front-page article on an important and provocative question: “Does Boston have too many nonprofits?”  It sparked a lot of conversation is our office, as I imagine it has in yours.

The article starts by telling a story about OneGoal— a Chicago-based organization helping under-served high school students enroll in and complete college— and their recent decision to expand to Boston. The article then describes the decision by some local funders, schools and partners to work with them, and others not to. In the course of telling this particular story the article walks close to, and touches on, a number of questions that will be familiar to folks who have put their shoulder to this kind of wheel: Is the often fragmented and entrepreneurial state of the nonprofit sector a strength or a weakness? How should funders interested in greater impact best focus and direct their efforts? Are there better ways we should all be working together to tackle the deep and challenging inequalities in American education?

A first observation about all this: I love that the Boston Globe is asking these kinds of questions! At the Room40 Group we spend lots of time wrestling with this sort of stuff as we help our nonprofit clients grow, change and improve. It often feels like nonprofits only get promoted to the front page of the newspaper because of some real or perceived scandal. This week the Globe used above-the-fold, front-page real estate to ask a complicated question about how we can all have more impact. Perhaps I’m a glass-half-full guy but this feels like progress, of a sort.

A second observation: The Globe article acknowledges that lots of nonprofits in Boston are already working on making college accessible, and graduation a reality, for individuals that have the deck stacked against them. In response to the statistic that forty similarly-minded organizations are currently partnering with Boston Public Schools one local foundation executive comments: “The market [is] pretty saturated.” But both the article and this statement confuse the means with the ends. Nonprofits trying to move the needle on college attainment work in two “markets”: one for charitable funding; the other of students receiving services. Are either of these “markets” saturated? In other words, are there no students left in Boston who could use the services of OneGoal or its peers? And if we believe an unmet need is there: how much potential money is needed and could be raised to address it? In this particular article the Globe neither asks nor answers either question.

It’s a pity, because these two questions are central to the matter of where and how nonprofits try and increase their impact. The interviews quoted in this Globe article raise the specter of redundancy and ask if we should do more to avoid it. But if the nonprofits the Globe cites are collectively reaching less than 100% of the students who need their services isn’t the need under-met, rather than over-met? Indeed, redundancy may have benefits. Some of the organizations cited in the Globe article focus their resources on access, or getting kids into college. Others focus on retention, or keeping them there through graduation. Are kids in need better served only getting one or the other?

If the Globe wishes to argue for focusing and consolidating resources on nonprofits that are having the most impact, it should make that case. But this article doesn’t argue for bringing effective and proven programs to all kids in need; it only asks whether we should reduce the number of organizations doing the work.

At the Room40 Group we routinely help nonprofits quantify and compare across geographies the size of the unmet need they wish to address. We have also built a proprietary database of all the private philanthropy in the United States so we can size the potential charitable support for different causes in different places. Nonprofits can have significantly more impact if they make good decisions about where to grow and how to pay for it. Making these decisions with confidence requires asking the right questions, and then answering them with the right analysis.

Because we’re consultants, we sometimes like to show things in 2×2 matrices. It’s a stereotype, I know; please don’t hold it against us. The one illustrating this post we’ve used to help clients think about how the amount of ‘potential funding’ and ‘unmet need’ influences where they grow.

When considering OneGoal— and the other Boston nonprofits highlighted by this Globe article— the Globe and local funders could ask: How big is the unmet need(s) they are individually and collectively trying to address? What will it take and how much potential funding is required to address it? The answer to these questions would suggest how much more needs to be done, and how we might think about achieving it. The question the Globe asks—in effect: How many organizations do we need to do everything well?— is best answered in this context.

That’s our view.  What’s yours?

 

Full transparency: The leadership of the Room40 Group knows many of the individuals and organizations referenced by this article, either personally, professionally, or both. Several are current or former clients. George Chu, my co-founder and partner, is a former Board member of Bottom Line.

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