By Rachel Leventon, MPA, CVA
Almost every morning in my household there are superheroes of one form or other solving urgent problems of varying importance while my 4 year old eats his breakfast. The heroes range from scuba-diving submarine captain polar bears to green-caped super-readers in storybook land, but they all have one thing in common (besides being animated) – they use data-driven decision making.
Don’t get me wrong, there are no caped crusaders teaching my son how to administer surveys or complete intricate data analysis. The brilliance of the formula used almost universally in children’s programming is that it encourages children to stop, look, and listen to their environment before jumping into action. These characters are laying the groundwork for children to think strategically about their problems and gather and use knowledge about their situation to decide how to proceed.
As nonprofits, we can learn a lot from Bob, Manny, and Diego as we make decisions and plan for our organizations. By stopping, looking, and listening to our environment – our stakeholders, government and institutional influences, our partners, others in our mission area locally and nationally – we can build our plans on a solid understanding of the environment in which our decisions are being made. This process is called Environmental Assessment.
Environmental Assessment has many components, and not all of these are necessary for every organization. The amount of time and resources put into your assessment should correlate with the weight of the decision being made or the depth of the plan being created. Many assessment components can be administered by a knowledgeable individual within your organization, while some benefit from third party administration. Some possibilities to consider in an Environmental Assessment include:
- Organizational Assessment to determine how well you are applying best practices and how well internal operations are functioning.
- SWOT Analysis by Board and Key Staff to identify the strategic Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats facing your organization.
- Member Surveys and/or Focus Groups to determine the satisfaction, needs or expectations of your members.
- Client Surveys and/or Focus Groups to determine the satisfaction of your clients, evaluate client outcomes, or determine client needs and expectations.
- Employee and/or Volunteer Survey to determine satisfaction and to provide employees and volunteers opportunities to give praise, voice concerns or offer suggestions about areas of strategic interest.
- Policy Analysis of local, state, and federal legislation, rules and initiatives that could positively or negatively impact program demand, content or funding.
- Market Analysis of others offering similar services (or different services to the same clients) locally or nationally to see whether your services overlap, supplement, or parallel those of other organizations to determine opportunities for collaboration, identify growth areas, or determine marketability.
- Feasibility Analysis to determine the possibility of success prior to starting a new program or initiative.
- Cost-Benefit Analysis to determine if the benefits of a new or existing program or initiative justify its expenses.
- Key stakeholder interviews to solicit feedback on potential changes or decisions.
- Community Needs Assessment to find out what the community needs and how the organization might best meet those needs.
An Environmental Assessment may be completed for a specific program or for the whole organization depending on the type of decision or plan it will inform. The types of assessment used are driven by a central question – “Would anyone enroll if we offered training at 9am instead of 4pm?” This is followed by additional questions – “What is different about 9am vs. 4pm for our clients?” “What else is going on at 9am that we might compete with?” “Would 9am appeal to a different set of clients, and if so who?” “How would 9am classes impact our staffing? Our facility?” etc. Once the questions are asked, the assessment tools above are used to gather the data to answer those questions. The information collected is then analyzed for results to inform decision-making and planning.
Last week a panda bear special agent taught my son another lesson nonprofits should remember about environmental assessment. In exploring the jungle all around him while trying to achieve his mission, the agent neglected to focus on his specific purpose and wandered off the path. So too can we as nonprofits, in an effort to gather all possible information, we can make our environmental assessments too broad. Targeted assessments conserve resources, provide more usable information, and preserve opportunities for future assessments by limiting demands on clients, staff, members, or the board. A straight-forward question can have a straight-forward answer when asked the right way.
The final lesson nonprofits can learn from these cartoons is the part that makes them so real and so much fun for kids. These heroes mess up. They miss important steps, fail to anticipate surprises, and forget which way to go. But what do they do when this happens? They turn to the screen and ask for help – “Can you find Goofy’s green bicycle?” Then they recoup, regroup and continue their efforts until the problem is solved.