What is it About the DMV?
I had to call DMV the other day. You're groaning, I can tell. It was just as bad as you are thinking it was. I called to sort out a minor problem and was put on hold for an hour and a half. To their credit, they now have a "virtual hold" option that lets the caller hang up and receive a call later. So I wait an hour and a half for a call, only to have the staff person tell me, "Oh, I can't actually do anything. Our computers are all down. Maybe call back in a couple of days." It's as if the system is built to be as unhelpful as possible. It's as if the system is built for the maximum comfort and convenience of the DMV, customers be damned. It's easy to make fun of the DMV. They are notorious for being unhelpful. But in my experience, I have seen nonprofit organizations fall into the trap of creating self-centered systems that ignore client needs.
5 Ways to Avoid The DMV Trap
1) Develop a smart strategic plan
Strategic plans are meant to be tweaked. Having a strong strategic plan is important, but it's important to build in the flexibility to take advantage of new developments or timely opportunities. One way to achieve this is to conduct quarterly or semiannual strategic plan reviews and build in new goals and strategies. Creating some flexibility in the organization's overall strategy allows it to be responsive to changing client needs.
2) Get close to your clients
As much as we think we know our clients, it's important to seek feedback frequently and in several different ways. One of my clients uses a combination of on- site 3 question surveys using an iPad, periodic longer surveys and focus groups and are now developing a client advisory committee. Another client conducts frequent shadowing and asks managers to sit in the waiting room and listen and document feedback. The strategy matters less than the frequency of the feedback and the systems that are put in place to act on the feedback.
3) Cultivate staff innovation
Staff very often have solutions to problems that management don't know exist. It's important to build mechanisms to solicit staff input on the pain points that clients are experiencing and on the potential solutions. Some organizations use staff or team meetings for this purpose. Others intentionally train staff on process improvement techniques like Six Sigma, that facilitate collaborative thinking and problem-solving.
4) Follow the (right) money
Nonprofit organizations are often dependent on grant funding and will understandably seek out as many funding opportunities as possible. While this may result in a larger budget, that budget often comes with strings attached. I have seen organizations that are beholden to funders that impose strict mandates on grant funding, but don't necessarily address the most pressing client needs. While it is attractive to bring in as much grant funding as possible, it might be a better strategy to selectively pursue only grants that advance the organization's strategic plan and its clients needs.
5) Keep up on trends
Clients and staff input is essential to developing a client-centered strategy, but it's also important to keep up on trends that can inform future strategy. One of my nonprofit clients offers job training and support services for homeless women. The CEO spent a significant amount of time developing relationships with city government, planning councils and developers to ensure that the needs of the homeless population would be considered in new major urban planning initiatives that were being developed. Another client has an internship program for local college students who conduct market research to inform programming. These nonprofit leaders are investing in activities and relationships that ensure their organizations meet client needs now and in the future.