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Flexible goalposts: making a plan and NOT sticking to it

Tuesday, April 12, 2022 8:32 PM | Hallie Knox

Catherine (Draeger) Pederson, Ph.D., is the CEO of Loving Venti, LLC., a Nonprofit Consultant, an Adjunct Lecturer at UW-Milwaukee - and this month's spotlighted member! She draws on years of experience as the Executive Director of various small-to-medium sized nonprofits and has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Ten Outstanding Young America's (TOYA) award in 2015 from the United States Junior Chamber.

How do you approach client engagements when you know that the end result will look nothing like the initial proposed target? With intention, goalposts, and a plan - all held as lightly as possible.

If my clients knew where they should be in three to five months, they probably wouldn’t need my services. I work with small nonprofits, and let me tell you something: people who are launching nonprofits are bursting with passion, vision, and focus like you wouldn’t believe. It’s pretty miraculous how far a person can get, and how much they can accomplish, with just those three things. Eventually, however, roadblocks arise, and gaps or unfamiliar challenges surface. When I step into these places of ambiguity with my who, what, when, where, why, and how, I am fully aware that the answers to all those key questions will likely change at least once during the course of our work together! 

A common example of this is a client coming to me in the belief that they need help developing their fundraising plan. Often enough, somewhere during our work together we realize they already HAVE a robust, functioning fundraising plan – but there is another gap somewhere that, if addressed, could lead to a greater return on investment. Perhaps the plan is in place, but the fundraising staff, who in spite of their passion for the organization may not have backgrounds in fundraising, require coaching in order to put the plan more effectively into action. Imagine if I were to halt the process and say, “Now wait: you hired me to create a fundraising plan so that’s what we need to do; if you want to address the coaching issue you’ll have to hire me back for another project.” What kind of Listener, Learner and Helper would that make me?

The practices of process consulting allow consultant and client to collaboratively solidify an objective and direction, because forward motion is not possible without targets. But, thank goodness, flexibility is intentionally built into that process – process consulting is anything but rigid. As new insights and challenges are uncovered, my clients and I have the space and capacity to address them and adapt our plan and methods along the way. It helps me to think of my projects as paths I’m walking with my clients, noticing and reacting to the journey as it comes, even changing direction mid-step if problems or opportunity is revealed. So much room is left open for learning, creativity, and adventure in this model, especially compared to projects approached as rigid lists of boxes to be ticked!

This flexibility is so necessary and valuable in my work. There are simply too many things that small and/or new nonprofits need to know! It would be impossible for a consultant to truly frame every detail out – even after a day-long discovery call, surprises would still abound. There are just too many possible tangents, and because a small nonprofit is simply not going to have the funds to hire you back for a follow-up, it is imperative to leave space to pivot within the scope of the work. To assume that no unexpected issues will arise, to not leave space for those but to instead tell clients that any new challenges would need to be addressed through a new project – with more of their hard-won funds – would be downright unethical. As the consultant, my role is to listen deeply for the problems and solutions that haven’t yet been uncovered, and work with clients to address them right then and there.

As I mentioned above, a surprising amount of good can happen with little more than passion, vision, and focus. For my own part, I am passionate about my clients, about these young and fiery organizations striving to make a difference in the community and the world. Our logo at Loving Venti is of a broken cup repaired using gold - a play on the Japanese artwork of kintsugi. Even the best organizations have cracks and flaws, which we as process consultants seek to fill in the belief that when a community is served by those organizations, that community is not just being improved, but cherished.

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