Action After the Pivot: Strategic Planning Lessons for Times of Fundraising Uncertainty

Strategy puzzle

By Joseph Barretto

For most of 2020, nonprofit organizations that were in the midst of—or getting ready to take on—strategic planning quickly abandoned the notion. What, after all, does it mean to plan for the organization’s direction for the next three years, when they didn’t know what the next three months or even the next three weeks would look like? Many leaders understandably turned their attentions to more immediate matters such as programmatic restructuring and reimagination, short-term scenario planning, and emergency fundraising.

But 2020 was also a year rich in realizations. For many, the time of uncertainty distilled for them the essence of what is important and critical for their organizations. Forced to prioritize programs and initiatives that were mission-focused, they put on hold anything that represented mission creep. They also realized that many items they once considered “nice to haves” (such as a reserve fund or a more engaged Board of Directors) are, in fact, “need to haves” in times of uncertainty. Relatedly, they found out that some actions they’ve long placed in the back burner (such as strengthening staff culture or centering diversity, equity, and inclusion) must now be put front and center. 

In the face of all these realizations, it is no surprise that leaders are returning to strategic planning as a critical management tool to help them establish direction and determine priorities. But planning has to change to remain relevant today. The traditional linear six-month long strategic planning process can prove inadequate during times of uncertainty. It requires too much time and attention that staff and board members don’t necessarily have. In the amount of time it takes to gather information and form strategies, the environment may have already shifted – rendering the analysis outdated. Moreover, the rigid process often results in static plans that are not adaptable, become obsolete right away, and are quickly shelved and forgotten.


Figure 1. The traditional linear six-month long strategic planning process can prove inadequate during times of uncertainty.

A more agile strategic planning process is needed today.

There are a few key shifts in the planning process that can make it more useful during uncertain times. Rather than a linear process, agile strategic planning is best seen as a cyclical one. More emphasis is placed on clarifying your organization’s focus; this involves more than simply reaffirming your mission and going quickly into discovery and research. Rather, you might spend more time in internal discussions to confirm your purpose and define your model. For many, this can take the form of creating (or updating) your Theory of Change. That can be a time-consuming and difficult activity, but one that can be well worth the effort. By taking the time to define your “North Star,” you can transform this part of the process from simply being a jumping off point for planning into a dynamic guide for decision making for the organization.


Figure 2. Rather than a linear process, agile strategic planning is best seen as a cyclical one.

Agile strategic planning also shifts the timing in which organizations go through the steps in the process. In traditional strategic planning, organizations go through the steps (from preparation and launch through to adoption and integration) once and only return to these steps the next time they take on strategic planning  – almost always after the current one’s completion, which can be years later. In agile strategic planning, organizations go through the cycle during the planning process and continue to do so throughout the plan’s implementation. In this version, organizations are able to take in and react to new information and shifting situations while keeping its focus, its “North Star,” in mind. The key to agility is not just to react swiftly but to move while maintaining balance and keeping to your intended direction. In addition, by going through this iterative process on an ongoing basis, organizations build in reflection and learning into their day-to-day systems and create a feedback loop that helps improve their work and maximize their impact. What agile strategic planning aims to achieve is to have organizations keep in mind both its longer-term goals and new information gathered within shorter horizons, allowing them to act quickly – but not reflexively – to emergent realities.

This key shift in an agile strategic planning process puts a greater emphasis on learning the skills involved in planning. Rather than working with a consultant who will gather the necessary information and provide you with a completed plan, this process often involves a consultant who will also coach and teach you the necessary skills to take on strategic thinking. During the process, organizations should gain a better understanding of how to think strategically and build their skills to do ongoing planning in the future. Ultimately, strategic planning should not only result in a plan, it should also make organizations more strategic, allowing them to better meet the challenges of a dynamic environment.

Joseph J. Barretto is a management strategist with 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. His expertise includes organizational strategy and leadership development, building the capacity of organizations to ensure their sustainability and maximize their impact.

Call for Videos | Support Human Services Workers

Mother and baby in masks

During March, the human services sector is celebrating Women’s History Month, as well as human services workers!

HSC will be celebrating human services workers with a social media action day on Wednesday, March 24th. We will be sharing the sample tweets and toolkit days before the event.

In the meantime, please send us a short 20 to 30-second clip/video of a worker at your organization – or workers! – telling their story of supporting communities during COVID by COB next Friday, March 19th.

You can download instructions and a sample script template by clicking here. Please send your video to Gaby Andrade at by COB next Friday, March 19th.

Since March 2020, human services workers have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 to ensure New York communities are safe and healthy. The nonprofit human services workforce comprises 80% women and over half people of color. The best way for the State to show its commitment to achieving equity among workers is to recognize human services workers as essential workers and allow them to receive emergency pay. Thank you for joining us with videos and by participating in the action day to raise up this important issue!

Video Instructions & Script

Technology Matters to Nonprofits: The Impact of Falling Behind the Technology Curve

Technology Matters to Nonprofits

My wife was recently notified by our wireless provider that her smartphone will no longer be supported. A couple of years ago, when she needed a new cell phone, we made the decision to save some money by buying an older, but not obsolete, model phone. “There’s no reason to spend all that extra money for the latest, greatest model when this one will work just fine,” we reasoned.

Most of us as consumers can relate to this story. Things seem to be changing faster than ever. My teenage children cannot believe that when they were born, we had to take pictures of them using actual cameras because none of us yet had smartphones with built-in cameras. How many movie plots would fall completely apart in a world like today in which smartphones are so ubiquitous?

But are things changing faster than ever? Without question!

In fact, the speed of technological advancement is said to be exponential, not linear. One scholar, Ray Kurzweil, refers to the phenomenon as“The Law of Accelerating Returns”.

The graphic here displays the advancements of technology on a historical timeline:

accelerating growth in technology chart

Source: Asgard Human Venture Capital for Artificial Intelligence

The idea of keeping pace with this speed of technological change is daunting to any of us individually, but even more so to a nonprofit organization. As a firm that has worked exclusively with nonprofits for nearly three decades, JMT knows that nonprofit organizations tend to lag behind the technology adaptation curve. This lag results in part from simple resource constraints, but primarily from the Overhead Myth’, or the false conception that financial ratios are the sole indicator of nonprofit performance.

This mindset essentially boils down to the idea that as much money as possible should be spent on programs, not infrastructure. The noble intention behind the ideal of that statement was taken to the extreme and became insidious in the nonprofit culture, to the point that there was an almost palpable fear of spending money on anything that is not direct program activity. There has been an organized effort by thought leaders, such as Guide Star, and even foundations who fund nonprofits, such as Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, for several years to change the mindset and the culture of nonprofits with regard to infrastructure spending. We believe the lag in technology adaptation by nonprofits is shrinking, though there will always be at least some gap.

The combination of the exponential speed of technological evolution and the gap in nonprofit adaptation creates a risk that falls under the category of the ‘nonprofit starvation cycle’, which is discussed in detail by JMT’s friends at BDO LLP in this benchmarking surveyThe ability to grow and serve more people is constrained by a lack of infrastructure spending. Paradoxically, the very outcome nonprofits are trying to avoid —less impact on the community– by spending too much on “overhead” becomes the reality when too little is spent on infrastructure!

While my wife and I are merely annoyed that we spent money on dated technology and are now facing the need to buy a new cell phone, it could be disastrous for a nonprofit to make the same mistake with a mission critical system such as a financial management/ERP or a Donor Management system.

I just returned from a technology conference in which it was announced that an ERP system will be using machine learning to automatically scan the general ledger for anomalies and irregularities in journal entries. I’m sure that this amazing feature will one day be something we all assume is part of any ERP, just as we all assume a cell phone has a camera. Don’t be fooled by solutions with recognizable brand names and years in the marketplace—many of them are powered by older generations of technology. It still works, but how long before those solutions will be obsolete and outdated like my wife’s smartphone?

We’d love the opportunity to learn more about your technology needs and how we can help support your organization’s growth and ability to serve others. To chat with one of our nonprofit experts, contact us here.

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Andy Harleman


In the mid-90’s, Andy helped found a nonprofit organization serving people with developmental disabilities in the St. Louis, MO area. There, he served as Administrative Director until departing to start a small business. In 2006, Andy found an opportunity to join a consulting firm which was dedicated to the nonprofit sector. This firm was then acquired by JMT Consulting Group in 2008. In the more than a decade of being part of the JMT Team, Andy has helped hundreds of nonprofit organizations more effectively deliver their services to the community.


What’s Wrong With Your Chart of Accounts and the Solutions You Need to Make It Right

What’s Wrong With Your Chart of Accounts and the Solutions You Need to Make It Right

In the most basic terms, a Chart of Accounts (COA) gives a complete listing of every account in your accounting system. To a nonprofit financial manager or controller, a chart of accounts is much more than that.

Your chart of accounts is the framework that gives insight into your nonprofit organization’s financial health. If well-designed, a COA organizes all your agency’s accounting, reporting, and other organizational information to set you up for informed decision making under an established process.

Often due to a lack of resources, many nonprofits struggle to keep well-managed COAs. That disorganization can lead to inefficient or broken processes, making visibility difficult to achieve. If you’re struggling to manage your chart of accounts, it may be time to conduct an audit. Know you’re working with an efficient and organized list to keep you apprised of your organization’s financial performance.  

Let’s take a look at best practices for managing your chart of accounts. We’ll look at some common mistakes in COA design and discuss the best way to fix those errors. By the end of this article, you’ll have the tools to take control of your COA. Enjoy increased capacity and improved reporting for your organization!

Common Mistakes on Chart of Accounts Design and the Solutions You Need to Fix Them

Excessive detail in the COA and general ledgers

It’s easy to think more detail is better, but that’s not always the case when it comes to your chart of accounts. If you have too many details in the general ledger, you end up with a lot of accounts with a less than $1000 on them. When an accounting entry isn’t specifically described in the ledger, it’s an easy and tempting option to create a new one rather than find the right one. This can be especially troublesome if you’re a nonprofit using Quickbooks. The more entries and accounts, the more cumbersome your system becomes.

Disorganized ledgers make it hard to input data into the right accounts consistently without gaps and/or overlaps. When time comes to audit these ledgers, you’ll be facing a big cost. Chaotic ledgers need extensive detail to reconcile.

To solve this issue, condense your chart of accounts codes. Of course, this works only if all users adopt the new codes in the system. If anyone on your team inputs using the old system’s codes, you will be dealing with the same problem all over again. To combat this, retire old accounts in your ledger system that no longer qualify for the new condensed code system.

Once you’ve consolidated your COAs, enjoy streamlined inputs and effective reporting outputs.

Not enough detail

Too much detail isn’t a good thing, and too little is just as bad. If you consolidate too many of your codes, it can be hard to decipher between higher and lower cost items. This makes it harder for your organization to budget and make informed decisions. Having two inventory ledgers report to the general ledger control makes reconciliation difficult. More information, in this case, would help reconcile accounts.

Aim for the smallest number of accounts while maintaining enough details for informed decisions. Depending on the size and complexity of your organization, your detail will vary.

Misaligned categories

Misaligned accounts can cause confusion in your COA design. To accurately report on your organization’s performance, you need to align your accounts. For example, your revenue and cost of goods sold should be aligned by category. You cannot sort one by product and another by department. This will not allow for accurate analysis or reporting. Align your accounts and keep categorization consistent.

Inconsistent or unclear naming system

When titling accounts, your team should be consistent across the organization (as well as any ancillary organizations). Before you use acronyms, vague titles, or jargon, keep in mind that people outside of the financial team (e.g. stakeholders, CEO) will be reviewing your COA and should be able to understand all titles. In your accounting policies, establish a naming system for everyone to follow so titles are consistent and understood by all.

Incorrect numbering system

Financial controllers coming from enterprise corporations may tend toward six or more digit systems. This is unnecessary for nonprofit accounting systems. Too many numbers can lead to a complicated and cumbersome chart of accounts. Some basic accounting systems, such as Quickbooks, establish the chart of accounts using an alpha system. This will make it difficult to ever sort accounts in any way aside from an alpha system in the future. When your organization outgrows Quickbooks, you will want to be able to easily transfer your COA to your new accounting system.

These days, most best-of-breed cloud accounting software will cap the number of digits in a numbering system at five. Your numbering system should follow this as a rule of thumb.

To accommodate for future growth, be sure to leave gaps in your numbering system. This lets you add in accounts later while maintaining alphabetic order. Additionally, you should always use a numbering system, not alpha or alphanumeric.

Not tied to any goals or KPIs

Your COA can only be so useful if you’re not measuring key performance indicators (KPIs) to track your organization’s performance. If your COA reports on KPIs, you can continue to improve the financial health of your organization and strive to meet your organization’s mission. Your financial health and organization’s mission will be showcased in your reports and dashboards.

Whatever system you choose to organize your chart of accounts, keep consistency and ease of understanding top of mind. Ultimately, choose what fits your organization’s operation and mission best. To ensure your COA improvements run as smoothly as possible, it’s a good idea to implement any changes at the beginning of your reporting period.

Don’t let ineffective reporting or lack of visibility keep you from understanding the financial health of your organization. Learn about using the right process and tools for success in your nonprofit organization with this guide.

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Jacqueline Tiso


Jacqueline is a frequent speaker on financial management and Cloud (SaaS) technology and is regularly called upon for her expertise by the media and as a conference speaker. Several years ago, JMT migrated most of its internal systems to the Cloud, and after experiencing the benefits of these systems, Jacki has been a leading proponent of Cloud systems for non-profits ever since. Jacqueline has received national recognition with the Technology Pacesetter award in Accounting Today, a Var 100 member, as well as being featured on the cover of Accounting Technology.


How Can Nonprofits Measure Success and Impact?

Nonprofits Measure Success and Impact

How do you know if your nonprofit is making an impact—if your mission is a success? The answer to this question affects everything about your organization, from day-to-day operations to the success of your fundraising efforts.

The National Council of Nonprofits alludes to five actions:

  1. Identify what success looks like to you.
  2. Make a plan to achieve that success.
  3. Collect information along the way to evaluate performance.
  4. Communicate what you’re learning.
  5. Use lessons learned to continuously improve performance.

Together, these steps are known as “outcomes measurement,” “performance management,” or “evaluation.”

The Council further recommends reading Leap of Reasona book that explains the responsibility nonprofits have to those who are served to be as effective as possible. Leap of Reason points out that measuring outcomes is about more than just attracting resources to your nonprofit; it’s about the mission. Only by evaluating performance can you know if you’re helping individuals, solving problems in the community, or protecting the environment, for example. In addition, you need to identify and communicate that impact to donors, who want to know their giving is making a positive difference.

Resources for evaluating performance & measuring outcomes

There are several ways to measure performance: engage in formal evaluation, monitor progress toward specific goals, and use feedback loops to learn what is or isn’t working. Whatever method makes the most sense for your nonprofit, the Council has identified several resources to help you effectively deliver your nonprofit’s program and services, as well as advance its mission.



Measuring success with technology

A memorable line in the first chapter of Leap of Reason reads: “‘We’re lost, but at least we are making great time’ approach to nonprofit impact doesn’t work.” As George Weiner, founder and CEO of Whole Whale says, “This quote captures what many organizations with the best intentions may actually be doing: driving quickly toward an undefined destination. Driving quickly in the wrong direction, or to translate, errant hard work can quickly take you off course and worse be wasteful or even detrimental to the cause.”

So, know where you’re going. Once you’ve decided what success means to your nonprofit, rely on technology to help you evaluate performance and measure outcomes. Cloud-based fund accounting solutions such as Sage Intacct automates tracking and reporting of outcomes and performance metrics. Plus, point-and-click functionality makes reporting quick and easy, and dynamic dashboards provide real-time visibility so you know immediately how you’re doing. Start your journey to success by contacting the nonprofit financial management solution experts at JMT Consulting today.

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Tom Thornton


Tom brings over 15 years of experience with software solutions for not-for-profit and public sector organizations as part of Micro Information Products, Sage and nFocus Software. Tom’s extensive industry and operational experience allow him to guide the overall execution of all aspects of JMT’s business including Marketing, Sales, Delivery and Support. In addition to his experience in professional services, sales, and business development with software solutions, Tom was Director of Product Management for Sage Software, where he was responsible for new product development for all of their nonprofit accounting and fundraising solutions. Under Thornton’s leadership, Sage MIP Fund Accounting received three consecutive Campbell Awards recognizing MIP’s extremely high user satisfaction.

Outputs vs. Outcomes: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

Donors want to know if their donations are impacting the work of your nonprofit through its mission. Increasingly, this means telling your story through numbers—something that nonprofits don’t always do well. Marc J. Epstein, co-author of the book, Measuring and Improving Social Impacts: A Guide for Nonprofits, Companies, and Impact Investors, says that “The need for better clarity on mission and the proper data to collect is one of the biggest challenges…. Many organizations have few measurements in place and rely on anecdotes for their evidence and for their reporting to the public and their various stakeholders.”

This approach is not acceptable to donors, regulators, board members, and other key stakeholders who want to see a real return on investment. Thus, Epstein says, “An increasing number of nonprofits have developed measures of the outputs of their organizational activities. But we know that measuring outputs is not the same as measuring success [outcomes] on the goal of increasing social impacts.”

Sharing your story with outputs and outcomes

In other words, output and outcome are not the same. Barbara Ferrara and Jessica Gonzalez, regional managers of the Chesterfield County Public Library in Virginia analyze the difference between these two numbers and share their importance in telling your story. They agree with Epstein’s statement, noting that outputs indicate how much was done, while outcome tells the difference that has been made—in other words, the impact. These two metrics complement each other, and are important to providing a full picture of an activity’s result.

For example, the library held three programs attended by 65 people—the output. The outcome of these programs is that participants learned to use household objects to develop their social skills and prepare for kindergarten.

Ferrara and Gonzalez further define outcomes as a change in skill, knowledge, attitude, behavior, condition, or status. For instance:

  • A skill is what someone can do, such as a customer creating a budget.
  • Knowledge is what an individual knows, such as understanding the citizenship process.
  • Attitude is what a person feels or thinks about something—attendees want more lifelong learning, for example.
  • A behavior is how someone acts, e.g., a student researches scholarships.
  • A condition is how an individual’s life changes. An increase in English literacy is a good example.
  • Status is a person’s social or professional standing. An outcome would be a patron being promoted to a higher-paid position.

Together, outcomes and outputs can be used to create an indicator, a measurable condition or behavior that shows an outcome was achieved. An indicator looks like this:

[Person or group] [reports, demonstrates, exhibits] a [skill, knowledge, behavior] in a specified [quantity, timeframe, or circumstance].

When describing the outcome observation to an audience, use this kind of statement:

As a [type of user] I want [some goal] so that [some reason].

As Ferrara and Gonzalez note, “Remember, the story is about the customer, it is not details of the steps taken by the staff to get to the outcome.”

Tell your tale with technology

Numbers are the backbone of your nonprofit’s story, and two of the most important are outputs and outcomes. With continual requests from donors and others about your organization’s performance, you need real-time access to these and other key metrics. That’s where cloud-based fund accounting software comes in. Visual dashboards with drill-down capability instantly show the status of your programs, and flexible reporting lets you create a compelling picture that speaks to your audience.

Not sure where to start? Turn to JMT Consulting, the nonprofit financial management specialists. We’ll design a technology solution that not only measures outputs and outcomes but also gives you the tools to achieve your desired outcomes. Contact us today for more information.

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Tom Thornton


Tom brings over 15 years of experience with software solutions for not-for-profit and public sector organizations as part of Micro Information Products, Sage and nFocus Software. Tom’s extensive industry and operational experience allow him to guide the overall execution of all aspects of JMT’s business including Marketing, Sales, Delivery and Support. In addition to his experience in professional services, sales, and business development with software solutions, Tom was Director of Product Management for Sage Software, where he was responsible for new product development for all of their nonprofit accounting and fundraising solutions. Under Thornton’s leadership, Sage MIP Fund Accounting received three consecutive Campbell Awards recognizing MIP’s extremely high user satisfaction.