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Decision-Making Begins With Asking Questions
How many decisions do you make in a day? Researchers estimate that adults make up to 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day. That is a lot of decisions! Thankfully, many of our daily decisions are low-stakes and do not require a lot of thought. In a work setting, decisions carry more weight and can have long-term impacts. For nonprofit organizations, the stakes are even higher. Decisions have consequences that can impact organizational sustainability. There is a high level of accountability to responsibly manage resources that are in limited supply while also trying to get the resources to do more. Nonprofits also have very real worries about scarcity and missing out on opportunities, causing decision-making to be even more challenging and stressful. This can lead to making decisions without thinking through the outcomes, overthinking decisions aka analysis paralysis, or maintaining the status quo to avoid difficult decisions.
To help make decision-making less daunting, we outline key assessment questions that will help your organization make strategic decisions that maximize resources and impact. As you will see in the following example scenarios, decisions often have many different variables that require careful consideration.
1. Does it align with and support your mission?
Mission alignment is important to keep your organization focused on its reason for existing. It is not possible to do everything and be everything to everyone. Examining opportunities through the lens of your mission helps to avoid investments in opportunities that do not further your mission. It also helps avoid mission creep and overextending your organization.
Example scenario: A community member approaches an organization with a program idea that they think would help the organization serve more people in the community. The program service population is children, and the organization serves adults. While it is tempting to explore helping more people, it is out of scope for the mission and the organization does not have the resources to work with children.
Decision: The program idea is not a fit for the organization, but its team connects the community member to contacts that may be able to help while noting that there may be opportunities to collaborate with the new program in the future.
2. Does it connect with current organizational goals and priorities?
Clear priorities and goals are essential elements for any organization. What often happens is that decisions are made without considering the link to key strategies. Every activity should have a clear connection to a goal. This is not only important when vetting new initiatives, but it is also necessary to reevaluate activities as goals change. Your organizations may discover that as goals are met certain activities are no longer needed. Congratulations! Now shift your attention and resources to your new goals.
Example scenario: An organization just completed its annual fundraiser and conducted an assessment to analyze the performance. Among the biggest fund generators were Instagram and Facebook ads specifically created for the fundraiser. Since it went so well, the organization is considering running more ads. Before running more ads, they need to make sure there is a clear connection to a current goal and that the return on investment continues to be financially beneficial.
Decision: One of the organization’s goals is to grow its monthly recurring donation program. They decide it is worth the investment to update the ads and run more using what they learned from the previous ad campaign.
3. What is the investment of resources needed and is it worth it?
We have all had ideas that sound great in theory, but upon closer examination require more resources than we have available. There must be an understanding of what a project will entail before leaping. One of the biggest pitfalls is underestimating the resources needed such as time needed. For current activities, keeping track of the resources expended is important to identify when a change is needed. If the gains are not worth the effort, it is time to adjust.
Example scenario: A board member suggests that their organization accept cryptocurrency donations. The board member is an accountant with a passion for crypto and is willing to spearhead the initiative. She provides a presentation outlining the benefits and costs. The idea is met with enthusiasm from the board and the team as they have had a few inquiries from donors about it. Besides providing giving options that align with donor needs, the organization also has a goal to diversify funding sources and leverage technology to be more innovative. A list of action items such as updating the gift acceptance policy along with who would be responsible is prepared to help understand the full scope of the project and the resources it will take.
Decision: After discussing and reviewing all the information, the decision is to move forward with the initiative. The timing is right with key players in place to bring the idea to fruition.
4. What is the impact on stakeholders and the community?
People are an organization’s biggest asset. Considering stakeholders in decision-making is a must. Engaging stakeholders provides different perspectives and can identify blind spots that your organization may be missing. Every decision your organization makes will have an impact on someone and ideally, it will be a positive one. That is not always the case as decisions can have both positive and negative impacts on different people. Having a thoughtful explanation and reasoning behind the decision to share helps keep relationships healthy.
Example scenario: An intern discovers and shares a grant opportunity. The deadline coincides with a grant report that has been identified as a top priority. It is a complex report that will require contributions from many team members and volunteers. So does the grant application. The grant reporting is for a popular and effective community program that has received positive feedback and helped many people. It is important to meet all grant requirements to keep the funding.
Decision: This is a tough one as it is hard to not pursue new funding opportunities. However, adding a grant application to the mix is not worth the stress it will put on the team or the potential negative impact on the quality of the reporting project. The organization saves the information for future reference and encourages the intern to keep up the great research.
5. What are the costs and benefits for your organization and community?
Sometimes decisions are straightforward with simple choices. Sometimes decisions are more complex with multiple options, alternatives, and paths forward. One commonality of every decision is that there will be costs, benefits, and opportunity costs. Cost assessments are often focused on financial investment. Don’t forget to factor in the important element of time costs. On the flip side, benefits are the positive outcomes. When capturing costs and benefits, keep in mind that perspective is important. What is viewed by some stakeholders as a benefit may be categorized as a cost by others. Ideally, the best choice will be the one in which the benefits outweigh the costs.
Example scenario: An organization’s volunteer program is growing rapidly, and team members are suggesting investing in a volunteer management platform to manage the program. It is becoming a headache for the team to keep everything organized and track volunteer hours without a formal technology system in place. The pros of a new system are increased efficiency, a better volunteer experience, happier team members, and better tracking of volunteer impact. The cons are the potential financial investment required and the time to research, vet, select, and implement a new system. The opportunity costs of moving forward with a new system are the activities that must be passed up to proceed. For example, less availability of resources to invest in other ideas and less time to devote to other projects.
Decision: The team decides to invest in a volunteer management solution to support its goal of expanding its volunteer program. While there will be an upfront investment of time and money, the positive impact the new system will have on the organization and the community outweigh the costs.
We encourage you to use these questions to inform an intentional approach to decision-making. Taking the time to analyze the impact decisions have on your organization and its resources is a worthwhile investment in its future. There are no right or wrong answers—just what is right for your organization.