Is it too much?

Posted in executive director / operations plan / staff team

Is it too much?

The current year is wrapping up. Planning is well underway for next year. Non-profit boards will meet to write their strategic plan and then hand it to the staff team to turn into programs and services for the next operating year. Sometimes, in the excitement of operational brainstorming and discussions, especially if the team is strong, the operational plan can get a little too big.

The voice of reason.

When the whirlwind of operational planning settles down, a non-profit executive director needs to act as the voice reason. A well-meaning staff team will often want to ‘try’ to do more than they can manage in one operating year. This isn’t a matter of poorly selected programs, but more a case of a team that is excited to do the work.

The executive director will want to ensure the operational plan for the year is achievable. To do that, there are two filters an executive director can use to determine if the operational plan will succeed or fail.

Start with the budget.

A non-profit executive director will usually have an intimate knowledge of budget limitations. They will know the areas where programs typically go over budget and will know the hidden corners where they can tuck away a few extra dollars.

Start by drafting a complete budget plan for the entire new year. I like to start my budget with human resources expenses, including increases to wage grids and mandatory employer costs. Then I add in fixed costs like office operations. Next, is the budget needed for board meetings and training. For me, everything left over, is available for programming costs.

As with most non-profit’s there often isn’t much left, but what is left, is what I must work with. That helps me determine which programs are the priority, which have a greater impact, and which ones need to be cut.

Finish with a calendar.

When I have my budget complete, I move on to drafting a calendar of all programs for the entire operating year. I don’t get bogged down with too much detail, but I do like to see everything mapped out for one full year. I use a spreadsheet to map the dates a program will run, the time it will take for prep and planning, and the time it will take for follow-up and reporting. That fills a calendar quickly, but I don’t stop there.

I then schedule all the usual holidays and vacation preference that I have observed over the years. For example, if I know that someone likes to take 2 weeks in the winter to go on a sunny vacation, I add it to the calendar. If someone like to take time off when their kids are out of school, or when they are needed to help with harvest on the family farm, I add it to the calendar.

The process of adding in personal days and holiday schedules to the calendar paints a clear picture of the busy seasons and the quiet seasons. Match that with the programs planned for the year, and again, reality sets in.

A calendar-look at the entire year reveals when there will be enough members of the team to run a program and when there won’t be enough people to do the work. This step allows programs to be shifted to better align with the team’s availability, and when a program might need to be cut.

Together or alone, it works either way.

If the staff team is interested, the steps of budgeting and laying out the program calendar can happen as a collective discussion right at the operational planning meeting. Making the needed adjustments to the operational plan for the year, as a team, helps to ensure buy-in, and a much more in-depth understanding of all the elements of a successful operational plan.

The beauty of these steps is that an executive director can also complete them alone if the staff team didn’t participate in a formal operational planning discussion. Whether completed with the team, or by the ED back at the office, the operational plan will have a greater chance of success, because it won’t have as many budget or scheduling surprises.

Better chance of success.

The benefit of creating a full budget for the new year’s programs, as part of operational planning, followed by laying everything out in calendar-view is that it is easier to spot the places that will be successful, and to adjust the areas that might not work. This lessens the risk of program failure, and that sets up the operational year for success.

Your turn.

Your turn. What steps do you take to ensure your non-profit’s operational plan is going to be successful? Do you have any tried-and-true tips that you use each year? I want to know! Please use the form on the side of the page to let me know, ..or send me an email, ..or message me on socials.


Hi, I'm Christie. I help executive directors develop the systems and processes needed to run a non-profit.

I learned early in my career, there is no non-profit school. Browsing the internet for resources from big-city experts doesn’t provide practical solutions to balance the budget, write a work plan, or conduct an employee evaluation. Leadership development tips don’t really resonate when you are also taking out the recycling and cleaning the washroom.

I created so non-profit leaders never need to wonder how to do the job – no matter how big or small that job is.

I have been the executive director of small-team, small-budget, non-profits for 20+ years. My experience isn’t theory. It is the real, operational, and practical solutions I use every day.

I love my work and I want to help you love yours too.

© Christie Saas 2023 All Rights Reserved

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