4 min Read
September 27, 2018

Make process a priority. It’s worth it.

Your annual donor luncheon is four months away: time to start planning. Do you…

  1. Start an email chain, schedule a couple of meetings, dig around for last year’s files and folders, and wonder why no one else seems to be thinking or worrying about this yet?
  2. Pull out your team’s shared outline of all the steps in the process—from kickoff to debrief—with roles, responsibilities, and tasks clearly defined, and start working down the list, confident that your colleagues will be working from the same document and will be on the same page about what needs to happen and when?

If Option A sounds uncomfortably familiar, you’re not alone—but you’re missing out on the benefits of a well-established process.

“Process” can be an abstract notion, and everyone probably defines it a little differently. In this context, we mean a clearly defined, written approach to recurring tasks and projects, outlining exactly how you get things done (who’s involved, when, in what order, how responsibilities are distributed and communicated, how you know when you’re done).

A surgeon assigned to remove your appendix follows a clearly defined process. Everyone involved in the process knows their role, what’s supposed to happen first, second, and third, and what it looks like when it’s done right. There are checklists and clear expectations. New surgeons can be trained in the exact same method. Patient outcomes are improved—and patients are reassured—by the consistency with which the tested process is applied. And updates to the process—new techniques, technologies, and skills—can be easily incorporated, because the workflows are so well-defined. You would never want your surgeon to say, “honestly, I don’t have a specific way of doing it—I just get in there and see how I’m feeling.” An established way of doing things is critical to success.

Most nonprofit teams have at least a few clear systems and processes in place—maybe for handling expenses or other accounting protocols, or for preparing and conducting board retreats, or for enrolling participants a specific program. But for many of the things that you do on a day to day basis, the “way” you do them is just in people’s heads—or maybe there’s no fixed “way” that you do things at all.

The result is a certain amount of inefficiency and misalignment, and a general feeling that you’re scrambling to keep everything on track. Your team loses time reinventing wheels and putting out fires that result from skipped or overlooked tasks. Consistency is hard to achieve. You find yourself making the same mistakes more than once—and when key team members leave, all of the lessons you’ve learned leave with them, sending you right back to square one.

It doesn’t have to feel that way. Ready to break the cycle?

  • Start by learning from your successes. Where do you already have effective, defined processes in place in your organization? How are they documented? Who has access? What do you do to make sure they’re successfully applied? Even if the best examples come from HR or program administration rather than development or communications, they can offer useful insights to your team.
  • Identify the places where you most need a better-defined process. These should include any workflows or projects that are mission-critical for your team or organization (like online fundraising campaigns, or monthly metrics collection and review).
  • Pick one to start with, and map it out from beginning to end. What happens first? Who does it? How does it move forward from there? What does it look like when it’s finished?
    Ideally, you’ll do this exercise in a small group with anyone who has a leadership voice in defining and delivering that process, so that you can identify places where you’re not aligned. In the course of your conversation, you’ll agree together on the best way to complete each step, efficiently and effectively.

    (Word to the wise: resist the urge to overdo the detail in your processes. Traction, a business management book written for small and midsize companies, recommends you document the 20% of the process that delivers 80% of the value. I personally would go a little further than that—Big Duck’s process documentation probably outlines 60% of the tasks we perform in the service of any particular project—but if you get too granular, your process won’t be able to flex and evolve when obstacles inevitably crop up, and you’ll struggle to maintain the document accurately.)
  • Finally, train and build buy-in. A documented process is only useful if it’s alive. If you plot out and document a beautiful system, but no one else is invested in following it, you’ve wasted your time. That’s part of why collaboratively establishing process is important, as is making time to help people see the bigger picture: why having and adhering to a process makes us more effective in achieving our mission.

Got any great examples of a well-defined process that your team follows, or a place where defining your process has really made a difference in your outcomes? We’d love to hear about it.