FYI Blog

How to see the forest when you’re stuck in the trees

Details are important, but sometimes they can bog you down. Case in point, I’m in the process of moving and I’m drowning in boxes and logistics and can’t find a pot to make dinner. But I need to make sure I’m not missing out on my wonderful new home! I see nonprofits make similar mistakes. They focus too much on the minutiae that they lose focus on the big picture. Look, I get it. Designing long-term strategies is a difficult task for most nonprofits, as they’re mired in their own day-to-day strategic struggles, while often living budget to budget. Many find it a stretch to think beyond the next fundraising campaign, and talking to leadership about the risks and rewards of future investment can feel risky in itself.

It’s hard to see the forest for the trees when short-term needs trump the long-term view.

But if we’re not looking at the big picture ahead, we miss the opportunity to grow a sustainable program.

Looking forward must necessarily involve the true dialogue of collaboration. A book like Radical Candor—reminding us to “care personally and challenge directly”—can help us think about how to navigate those sometimes difficult conversations, with empathy. But it’s on nonprofits and their agency partners to start the conversations that will get us to the heart of the matter.

Our conversations with clients must be true dialogues, with the give and take of challenging each other, speaking truth to power, and directly addressing and assessing risk. We call out bad ideas (No, we can’t “just do this all online” and here’s why…), we work together to answer the tough questions (What is our risk tolerance? How can we add donor value?), and have hard conversations about things like file growth and investment (all backed by hard data).

We do our clients—especially nonprofits—no favors with sugar-coated talks about what we hope will happen. Instead, we must come armed with data and an open mind, and prepared for push back and conflict—while remembering that strong relationships last past that first fight, right?

The Harvard Business Review has lots of offerings on difficult conversations—including advice from executive leadership coach Joel Garfinkle, who tells us to begin those discussions from a place of curiosity and respect (don’t worry about being liked); focus on what you’re hearing, not what you’re saying; be direct; don’t put off the conversation; and expect a positive outcome. All excellent tactics for starting, and having, the necessary conversations.

As we navigate our way through another year of explosive news cycles, a government in crisis, and wild economic swings, we’ll help our clients weather these storms by planning ahead as much as we can. And, armed with data and resolve, we’ll help our nonprofit colleagues plan their next steps to success.

In the meantime, I have more boxes to unpack and still have to get the cable hooked up. But I think I’m going to take a moment to sit on my couch with a glass of wine and enjoy my new home.