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What we can learn about planning from the fashion industry.

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

For many of us, the New Year is a time to set and write down goals and make plans for the year ahead. We take out our calendars and write in important annual events and dates (birthdays, wedding anniversaries, upcoming graduations) some of us even color code those events or set reminders on our electronic devices so we don’t forget to send a card or get a gift. There are some events, that we spend a full year or more planning for, making meticulous lists, consulting with several experts along the way, even visiting with others who may have planned a similar kind of event. Like a wedding, for example.

Did you know that on average, people spend 18 months or more planning for their wedding? Which, in many cases is about a 20-minute long ceremony (not including the 2 to 3 hour party after)? This infogram from the Huffington Post show that 40% of people spent 10-15 hours a week planning their wedding. That’s nearly a total of 1,140 hours of planning for the big day. A lot of that time is spent paying meticulous attention to details making sure that red of the table cloth is the same color red as the flowers, and not a shade different; that we intentionally put Aunt Martha at a different table from Uncle Tony because you know those two don’t get along, let alone when Aunt Martha’s blood sugar gets low. There’s time spent auditioning the DJ, because we must have the exact, right mood when the guests are waiting during the transition from ceremony to cocktails while the bride and groom, or groom and groom are having their photos taken and you don't want them to get restless or faint from hunger while you’re off taking photos for 45 minutes. And speaking of cocktails, wasn’t it cousin Shoshanna who became a vegan her last semester at Smith College, so we should remember to have something on the menu for her.

For important events like weddings, baby showers, Quinceañeras, and graduation parties we are deliberate about every single detail to create a particular experience for our guests. We want that experience to include memorable moments, in stunning, comfortable and engaging environments ensuring our guests feel included and special and that we paid attention to the details with them in mind.

And yet, when it comes time to planning in our nonprofit (youth and after school) programs, we often wait until the last minute. Even though we can look at the calendar and know that there are some important events to remember every year. That doesn’t even include special, one-of-a-kind or unexpected events. There are events that happen in our field that once you add them to the calendar, they never change.

At the Fashion Week in Paris this past November, they were featuring their SPRING 2017 lines. That means, they were conceptualizing them MONTHS ago to be able to construct them and have them run-way-ready by November and then have enough to ship out to stores. And they can do this because they know that Fashion Week is always in November and spring fashion usually hits the stores around Valentine’s Day; in February. It’s not a surprise to them. They already have the dates set through 2019. They work within, as opposed to being constantly surprised by the timeline and rhythm of their industry.

Those of us who work in nonprofits and especially youth programs have industry-specific timelines, too. We know in youth programs, for example, school starts back up (at least for now) after Labor Day, which means our after school and support programs need to be fully staffed and ready to run by about the 2nd week of September. We know that there will be at least three breaks between the start of school and December and that we’ll want, and so will our funders, to put on some kind of end of the semester showcase, in December, which will naturally coincide with everyone’s event who is also operating on the same schedule and trying to fit in those obligatory holiday parties.

We come back in January sort of coasting along through February trying not to burn out by the long, dark days and get through the longest month of the year: March. And then, suddenly, with the turn of the calendar to April, we realize that our programs will be wrapping up in less than three months, we’ll have to figure out how to spend down unspent funds (often because they came to us later than promised), hire new staff for summer, plan summer curriculum and write final reports, close out budgets and evaluate year-round staff. If we’re lucky, we try to squeeze in a vacation in we forgot to schedule in the slower months of February and March and schedule a training for the new summer staff, because we always have to re-hire staff each summer. Imagine saying that without the periods as one long sentence in one breath, because that’s how life feels between April and June for us.

We often pass on this poor planning habit to our staff. For example, on average in many youth-serving program, part time staff, are only allotted 30 minutes PAID TIME per week to plan their lessons. The American Faculty Association recommends (for teachers) 2 hours of prep for every 1 hour taught and for NEW staff 4 hours of prep for every 1 hour taught. When I, an expert at writing curriculum, am developing brand new materials, I use a 1:3 ratio. For every 1 hour of new content I write, it takes me 3 hours to write it.

Think about it: people spend 10-15 hours per week planning a wedding resulting in a 20-minute ceremony at which people know what the expected behavior is and can sit quietly through the vows, songs and tears knowing drinks and dancing are in their near future. And yet we ask adults, some of whom only have a high school diploma to create, age/developmentally appropriate STEM/STEAM or PBL, or whatever the acronym of the month is type-of-activities in spaces that are sometimes not their own, with limited resources and limited support to plan up to 4, 1 hour lessons per week (or more) for sometimes 20 or more children, not all of whom yet know what the expected or appropriate behavior is in our program. And we ask the staff to do this without an expert “wedding planner” equivalent to help them coach them through all the details, like the fact that Shannon reads beyond grade level and when she gets bored, she picks on Tobias and that becomes a distraction for everyone. Or that the reason why Richard is always “sneaking” around after snack time, is because he’s trying to hide the extra bags of chips and carrots in his pockets because that might be all he has for dinner later, which sometimes makes him late to the lesson and so it’s hard to use that tip from the training about being sure to start each session with a ritual/routine.

What if you were to plan the year ahead with the consideration for how the activities and experiences made your participants feel when they are with you? What would it take?

What if you were to start using the timing and patterns of our industry as information as opposed to constrains? What might be different?

So, as you get your calendar out this January consider these three things:

So, as you get your calendar out this January try to keep these things in mind:

1. What are the things you KNOW happen EVERY year, quarterly, monthly, bi-weekly, weekly and put them in your calendar (consider color coding them). Include various stakeholders and staff in this activity so you can be sure to consider how the calendar year impacts everyone’s’ roles. What patterns surprise you? What is showing up you didn’t know was there? What’s missing?

2. What patterns or gaps do you see that you can use as information to improve, reduce, duplicate, clarify, partner up, eliminate, etc. (whatever you need for your work/program)? What impact might that have on the “quality of life” and the kinds of experience you want for your program and stakeholders?

3. When you are planning the year ahead, what are the kind of experiences you want all your stakeholders (people who are impacted by your organization) to have? How will they feel after their experience with you? What will it take to do that?

I’d love to know what you come up with.

And if you need help with this activity, please contact me so we can discuss how we can work together.

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