Spring Clean your Schedule

i-has-a-systemAre you busy all the time?  Rushing from one task to the next with no time to breathe?  Despite all that activity, do you feel as behind at the end of the day as you did when you woke up?  It may seem you just need to work harder, become more efficient, or work longer days.

I suggest an alternate path:  Do less.

Spend less time perfecting the meeting minutes.  Forget the $1500 grant with a 14 page application.  Skip your blog post on the weeks you have nothing to say.  Take a walk after lunch.

I’m not suggesting you clear your schedule completely and sit in your office waiting for inspiration to strike, but there is only so much of you to go around.  When your day is filled with  minutia and busywork, there is no space left to think about what’s next.

What can you stop doing?

Use your mission as a guide here.  It is why your nonprofit exists. Without it, the rest of your work, no matter how well executed, is pointless. I’m not saying you should fire the development director (please, don’t fire the development director), but when the marketing, development and administrative work takes over the life of your organization,  you are no longer doing what you set out to do.

So how do you decide what should stay and what should go?  The key is to connect each piece of work back to your mission.  Think of it like stepping stones.  For example:

The mission of Low Hanging Fruit is to help nonprofits be heard.  The work of writing this blog post breaks down like this:

  1. I’m writing a blog post about prioritization so
  2. the nonprofit leaders who read it will spend their best time on the core of their work so
  3. what they do will have a greater impact.
  4. That impact will strengthen their voice in the community. (i.e. help them be heard).

Since writing new content is close to the core of my purpose, (only working directly with organizations is closer), there are just a few steps between my work and my mission.  For administrative tasks, the link will take longer.  For example, one night last month, I developed a time-tracking system.  The breakdown of that work looks like this:

  1. I’m creating a spreadsheet to track my hours so
  2. I can evaluate how I divide my time between working with clients, writing good content, finding my right people, and growing my experience so
  3. I can ensure I’ve got the right mix of activities to grow my business so
  4. more of the right people visit my website at the right time and find what they need so
  5. when they need help they will contact me to work directly with their organization to
  6. help them be heard.

Both activities can legitimately be tied back to my goal.  Some of your current work will not tie back–or if it does, it’s only because you are very creative.  If you have to work especially hard on this exercise, or the linkage takes more than 10 steps, consider dropping that activity from your work–even just for a little while, and see what happens.

Prioritizing what remains

Even after removing activities not directly related to your mission, your schedule will likely be full.  The next step is to prioritize the rest.  This is usually where you’d see advice like “start with what’s most important” or “what is most unpleasant”, or even, “the easiest thing”.

The problem with this advice is it has nothing to do with what will work for you.  Try this instead:  sync your work with the natural ebb and flow of your productivity by doing the work most closely tied to your mission during your most fruitful hours.  If you like to work from a schedule, spend time at the beginning of each day, or each week, sketching out a plan to budget minutes for each activity.  Schedule the “mission critical” work for the times when you are fresh and unlikely to be interrupted and the less critical work during the times that remain.

If you know a weekly plan just isn’t going to happen for you, set a timer to chime (way better than buzz — but do what you have to do) every fifty minutes during your most productive hours. When you hear the sound, evaluate the work you are doing in the moment–is it the most mission centered thing on your plate right now? If not, switch to work closer to the center.

What’s the point?

Now that you have an extra hour or two in your schedule each day, enjoy it!  Rather than tick off the next thing on your list, take time to dream about what’s possible, learn about something new, connect with people who see the world differently.  By taking your nose off the grindstone, you have time to look up and see what is around you– it’s this time to look “outward” that will give you the experience and perspective you need to serve your community in whole new ways.  (Plus you are less likely to burn out, but that’s another post. . . .)

Your Turn

What are you ready to stop doing?

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Impact & Capacity, Revisited
What’s so great about mission?

Your mission is why your nonprofit exists.  Without it, the rest of your work, no matter how well executed is completely pointless.  I’m not saying you should fire the development director (please, don’t fire the development director)  but when the marketing, development and administration work you do gets in the way of what you were organized to do, there is a problem.The concept is very obvious in theory, but it does get a bit tricky in real life–especially for people with administrative or leadership responsibilities.  When your day involves balancing the budget, approving the marketing plan and wondering where you will get the money to do what needs doing, it’s very easy to start giving those activities all of your focus.  When that happens, it’s easy to become an organization that is about raising money, or about perpetuating itself–not about making the world better.I am in no way suggesting that the leadership and management of nonprofits is unimportant–quite the opposite.  Without the right people in these roles, it is impossible for  those closer to the mission to do their work.  Without nonprofit leaders and administrators, growth and in some cases achieving the mission at all is impossible.  What I am suggesting is that everyone connected with your organization, from board members to the custodial staff should know in their bones why you do what you do and focus their efforts on doing their work in a way that best supports that mission.

How do I do that?
The best way to stay linked to your mission is to make sure the work most important to your mission is done at your most productive time of day.

For example.  The mission of Low Hanging Fruit is to help nonprofits be heard.  Right now I’m writing a blog post so my linkage looks like this:

1) I’m writing a blog post about the value of mission so
2) the nonprofit leaders who read it will spend their best time on the core of their work so
3) what they do will be more powerful–making it easier for them to be heard.

One night last week I decided I wanted to know how I was spending my time.  The breakdown of that work looks like this:

1)I’m creating a spreadsheet to track my hours so
2)I’ll know how I spend my time so
3) I can evaluate how I divide my time between writing good content, finding my right people, and growing my experience so
4) more of the right people  visit my website at the right time and find what they need so
5) when they have a communications problem they will think of me as someone who can help them be heard.

So, for my work, writing content is much more important to my mission than tracking my time

What this doesn’t  mean
Spreadsheets and time tracking is totally pointless.

What it does mean
My most productive and creative hours should be spent writing.  The less productive parts of my day should be spent on the spreadsheets.

If planning your day makes you happy
Prioritize your daily tasks and schedule each one in order of how closely aligned with your mission it is.  Put the most mission diriven parts at your most productive time of day

If planning your day is never going to happen
Set a timer to chime (way better than buzz, but do what you have to do) every 50 minutes during your most productive hours.  When you hear the sound evaluate the work you are doing in the moment–is it the most mission centered thing on your plate right now?  If not, switch to something that is.

Living without Microsoft Office

a different kind of open office photo credit: Shannon Clark

I know, it sounds crazy.  I know you use Word and Excel, maybe even PowerPoint every single day.  I know you send and receive documents from other people who use Word and Excel and your job depends on being able to open and those documents.  I also know you you aren’t a pirate (even on Talk Like a Pirate Day) so using stolen software is absolutely out of the question.

And yet, if you install Open Office today, you will never need to buy another version of Microsoft Office .

How is that possible?  Open Office is a suite of products that cover all the basis of the Office you are used to.  The menu bar arrangement isn’t the same and some of the features work a bit differently, but unless you are a super duper power user of office software, it will do what you need it to do.

Switching is Scary

Making any kind of change can be intimidating, especially if your current way of working only hurts “sometimes.”   That’s why it’s important to download and start using Open Office now, before your current version of Microsoft Office is completely worthless.  That way you can use Open Office for the projects without tight deadlines, and you can fall back on Microsoft for the times when the work has to be done right now.  Eventually, (and sooner than you think) you’ll be comfortable using Open Office even in crunch time.

I’m ready to jump!

Before you go to the download page, remember you are not in the “target demographic” for this site, so some of what’s discussed there won’t make sense to you. That’s ok. Most of the discussion is about the development of the software, and you aren’t interested in that– you just want to use the software. So go here to start the download, click the big green square and save the rest of the site for when you are feeling more adventurous. (or never go back again–what ever works for you.)

The step-by-step instructions below are for Windows users–the instructions may still work on a Mac, but I don’t have enough experience on that platform to be of any real help.  (If you use Open Office on a Mac please post the install instructions in the comments!)

  • Go to the download page.
  • Click “Download OpenOffice.org” in the big green box.
  • Click “Save File” in the pop-up box and wait for the program to download.
  • Once the program has downloaded you will be asked if you want to open the new file. Click Yes or Open
  • If a box pops up warning you the file you are about to open is an “executable file” click ok.
  • Follow the instructions given by the installer and you should be good to go

It would really be better if you could show me. . .

Congratulations you are now an Open Office user!

Important New Rule

You have started using Open Office, but the rest of the world has not, so it’s important to save all of your documents in the Microsoft file format.  Instead of clicking “Save” when you first save a document, click “Save As” Name the file as you normally would, and then in the “save as type” field (right below where you named the file) Chose the Microsoft equivalent of the file you just created.  (.doc for wordprocessing documents, .xls for spreadsheets, etc.)

That’s it.  You will be able to send your files to others still paying for Microsoft Office and they’ll never know the difference.

Extra Credit:  What’s so open about it?”

Open refers to the Open-Source movement in the software industry where the source-code (the building blocks of the software) is made available to the public.

If you aren’t a programmer, this might not seem like a big deal, since the the source-code looks like goobly-gook and even if you do figure out how to change it you will likely just break the program. But for people who know how to program it means they can read and edit the “instructions” the software gives the computer so they can improve it or change it to meet their specific needs. It also means that the software gets better faster because there are many eyes and many people with different perspectives working on it to make it better. In a sense it’s a bit like having someone proof read your work– with another set of eyes and another perspective, problems you didn’t notice or weren’t able to fix can often be found and solved easily.

If you start using more open source software (and you will) You may hear it referred to as “Free as in Speech” and “Free as in Beer”– All open source software is free as in speech– that is, the code is available for anyone to see and use. Open Source software is often, but not always, “Free as in Beer” meaning that you don’t have to pay for it.

Nonprofits e-mail free!

Image Credit: Chromewavesdotorg

Have you ever called your parents to ask for money?

Did you notice they were more likely to say yes if you’d had lots of other conversations with them about the cool stuff happening in your life and the important things you had planned?

Your donors are a kind of  like that.  They love your organization and they want to support it in every way they can.  When you succeed they feel (rightly so) like they helped make it happen.  When you hit rough times, they want to help.  When you have good news, they want to hear it.  When you are about to start something new, they want to know that too.  When you ignore them for months  and then get in touch just to ask for money, they get cranky.  Sound familiar?

But how should you stay in touch?  The weekly phone call may work well for family but it’s unmanageable for a mailing list of any size.  What you need is a way to communicate with all of your donors at once in a way that still feels personal and makes it easy for them to respond if they wish.  You need an e-mail marketing service.

Why can’t I just e-mail everyone the normal way?

If you are sending messages to more than 100 people at a time, sending the message though your regular e-mail provider is a good way to get flagged as a spammer–if that happens not only will your donors miss this particular message, no e-mail from your organization will be delivered until you get your name off the blacklist.  Even if your list has less than 100 e-mail addresses, an e-mail service is a better bet because it allows you to track who is opening your messages and what links they are clicking on–which helps you see which elements of your work are creating the most buzz.

Here’s the free part

Most e-mail marketing services are reasonably priced (between $15-30 per month) but Vertical Response lets 501(c)3 non-profit organizations send up to 10,000 e-mails each month for free.  All you have to do is register for a regular account (no payment is required) and then submit the non-profit application form.   Your application will be reviewed  and in 2-3 days you’ll receive 10,000 free credits.  Each month your remaining credits expire and you get 10,000 new credits–so as long as you don’t send more than 10,000 e-mails per month the service costs your organization nothing.

Update: There is now a potentially better option for nonprofits, so check out this updated post before you make a final decision.

Is this the best e-mail service on the market?

Um, no.  It’s the free-est (for nonprofits) e-mail service on the market.  It has the basic features you need to get started so it’s an easy (and did I mention free) way to get your feet wet.  They have lots of free templates and if you have even a very basic grasp of HTML and graphic design you will be able to customize the colors and photos in your layout to match the feel of your organization.  If you have no marketing budget to speak of, or if your boss needs to see results before she spends money on “new fangled technology,”  the Vertical Response non-profit program may be just what you need.

If  flexibility and a strong feature set is more important to you than price, or if your organization plans to send more than 10,000 e-mails per month, Vertical Response may not be the right choice for you.  Try Aweber instead–they also have a discount rate for non-profits.

Now that you have a format, you need a message.  Don’t know what to write about?  Check out Sonia Simone’s great e-mail class on creating great newsletter content.  (I know she refers to the class as “marketing” and says it’s about reaching your “customers” but I promise it is absolutely applicable to communicating with your donors and reaching new people who will become your future donors.)

Leave a link to your new newsletter in the comments, I’d love to see what you have to say!

Want Better Meetings? Cut your agenda in half

Photo Credit: Ollie Crafoord

This post is part of a series.  Click here to read the whole thing.

I know it sounds counter intuitive, but one of the best things you can do to increase meeting productivity is to plan on doing less.

Why? Because by stuffing your meeting agenda you don’t allow time to focus.  This means when you uncover a tough spot, you won’t work though it, you will “address that later,” which means next month (and, let’s face it, probably the month after that) it will be back on the agenda.

If you want your meeting time to be spent doing the work that can’t be done in any other way, try this instead:  Aside from “housekeeping” items like an icebreaker, agenda review and meeting evaluations, allow only one agenda item per meeting hour.

That’s Impossible!!!
If you are used to traditional marathon meetings with 10 agenda items (not that anyone has seen the agenda), tons of reports by people who talk to hear themselves talk, and no clear direction on what is supposed to happen after the meeting, I’m sure a meeting with only 1-2 main topics seems crazy.  But I assure you, it is possible and it is better.  Here’s how to to make the transition.

Trim the fat
Remove everything from your agenda that doesn’t benefit from face-to-face interaction.  The most likely suspect?  Reports.   Don’t spend any time in your meetings presenting information that can be distributed in advance.  Send the reports in writing, save a bit of time for questions if you must, and move on. Not sure what to cut?  Be on the lookout for times when one person is talking and everyone else is doodling or trying to check their e-mail without getting caught.  Get the “talker” to deliver his info in some other way (outside the meeting) and spend your meeting time on the work that you must do together.

Be prepared
No one should come to a meeting wondering what is going to be discussed.  Send the agenda a week before the meeting, include any reports or background materials that are required for full participation, and expect that everyone will do the work in advance.  It’s better to cancel meetings for which people aren’t prepared than build a culture where it’s alright not to do the pre-work because “we can just go over it again in the meeting.”

Additionally, If there are specific questions that need to be answered, or decisions that need to be made–make that clear in the pre-meeting materials.  This gives participants every opportunity to come prepared for the work at hand and also gives people who need more time to reflect a chance do start their work before the meeting.

Clarify next steps
How will you know if the meeting was a success?  Who will do what after the meeting?  Make sure you know–and make sure your participants know.  If everyone is pulling in the same direction and knows where her responsibilities lay, it’s much more likely that problems will get solved (and stay solved) in your next meeting.

Finally, you may not be able to make the leap all at once–but baby steps will help.  Change one element of your meetings at a time and before you know it you too will be getting more done by focusing on less!!

Have your people call my people

Wouldn’t that be something?  I sometimes daydream about a life where my meetings are scheduled for me and I focus my time and energy on getting the most out of the collaboration.

Unfortunately, getting more than two people in the same room at the same time to focus on the same agenda doesn’t happen by itself. And if your life is like mine, when “people” get called, your phone rings.  So instead of spending time creating processes for  creative minds to solve problems together,  you spend your time e-mailing suggested meeting times, waiting to hear back, suggesting new times, starting over and finally settling on a time that works for most people–until someone cancels.

This is the part where I’d like to offer a magical process to make all of that hassle go away–unfortunately, short of hiring a personal assistant, I don’t know of any way to solve the whole problem.  I do however have a way to make it a bit easier–which will give you some of your creative thinking time back.

Meeting Wizard helps manage the meeting scheduling process by keeping track of who is available when, who has responded and which dates/times have been suggested.  It also provides ways to send reminders to everyone or just those participants who have yet to respond.

It’s certainly not the same as having someone take care of the whole process, but its free, it’s easy, and it doesn’t require you or your meeting participants to install anything on your computer.  It also gets through some of the strictest spam filters I’ve seen.

If you are fairly computer savvy go to www.meetingwizard.com and check it out.  If you are feeling a bit nervous, or appreciate step by step directions–read on!

Scheduling a Meeting with Meeting Wizard

  • Set up account (first visit only)
    • Click Here to go to account set up.  Fill out the form using your  e-mail address and a password you will remember.

  • Go to www.meetingwizard.com
  • Login—enter your e-mail address and your password.   Note: in this case your e-mail address is just a user name.  It will work even if you aren’t using the computer you use to check that e-mail account.
  • Click—“Create a meeting request”, then click “propose one or more dates/times.”
  • Follow the directions to add the proposed days and times to the list.  Remember to click “add” after choosing each date/time.  Click Continue.
  • Fill out the Meeting event details with the same information you would use to send an e-mail invitation.
  • If you leave the “add all new addresses to Address Book” box checked, you won’t have to re-type the address next time (you can choose it from the address book)
  • For “Send me an email update” choose “as each response is received.”
  • If you want a reminder to be sent to your participants automatically, check the box and click continue.
  • Review your meeting request and click “edit details”  to make changes.
  • Click “preview e-mail” to update the email’s subject line and message (this is the info that will show up in your participant’s e-mail box—the meeting request details will show up on the meeting page after your participants click though.
  • Click “Send” to send the request.
  • To confirm meetings go back to www.meetingwizard.com and click “view meetings.”
  • The meetings you have organized will be in the left column.  Click on “view details and responses” for the meeting you are confirming.
  • If enough people are available for one of the options, click the “confirm” button at the top of that column.   On the next screen, add a personal message about the meeting being confirmed in the “Insert new message for participants” box and click send now.
  • If none of the dates work you can add new dates by clicking “propose more dates/times.”
  • If your participants are slow to respond, click “Send a reminder to everyone who has not responded” to prod them.
  • Spend the time you would have spent organizing e-mail responses trying to figure out who was planning to attend creating a great meeting for you and your participants!