Get back to basics with the first principle of strategy development

This article is Part 1 of 2. The second article continues with the next two principles after Know Thyself: building on your strengths and making decision-making criteria explicit.

We all carry unexamined – or unstated – assumptions with us. When organizations initiate strategy development processes, these unexamined assumptions can lead to unsatisfying results: mis-communication along the way, time wasted gathering information you don’t need, or agreement to words that merely paper over differing understandings.

Many of these pitfalls can be avoided by beginning any strategy development process with three principles.

First principle: Know Thyself

Whether as individuals or as organizations, we often forget to remember who we are. For individuals, this might mean spending time with an old friend or a sibling, someone who brings you back to your fundamental self. For organizations, this means reviewing the most basic questions of the organization.

At the beginning of any strategy process, be sure to spend time up front reviewing a few deceptively simple issues with both board and management.

Mission. This is, of course, a common starting point for assessing an organization’s identity, and for good reason. Focusing first on mission reminds us why we have dedicated so much of our time, and even so much of our lives, to a nonprofit cause. Rather than just repeating the words of the mission statement, exercises that describe the mission or the hoped for impact can be more inspiring and also more accurate. Explaining benchmarks your organization will achieve in five years, or on what will change in the world because of your work, are simple ways to refocus on the meaning of the mission.

Geography. How would your board, executives and staff describe the geographic area served by the organization? Sometimes this is an extremely simple question; more often than not, it uncovers nuances about how the organization is focused that are vital to moving forward. For example, in my work with one health care organization, we found that while its literature described a “metropolitan” service area, in fact nearly all their clients came from a handful of inner city zip codes.

Customers. This question can be answered in different ways. First, most nonprofits can describe direct customers: patients in the example of a health care organization above, patrons for arts organizations, recipients of service for social service organizations and so on. However, it’s good to make sure you understand the secondary customers, or audiences, your organization must serve: funders of programs, local political leadership, nonprofit collaborators and more. For nonprofits, defining customers means understanding who you are accountable to – and speaking to those audiences.

Programs. Programs are, of course, the primary vehicle for achieving organizational mission. I have served on the board of a small nonprofit organization for several years, and during that time I have experienced the regular occurrence of a board member reacting in surprise at a board meeting: “Oh!  I never knew we did that!” It can be notoriously difficult for some organizations to educate board members about the details of program work, but it is essential that board members understand the basic category, or “buckets,” of program work before considering questions of strategy – since considering strategy often means redirecting existing programs or establishing new activities.

Funding. Many board members and managers are familiar with their organization’s overall budget, but may be less familiar with the relative importance of different funding streams. A basic analysis of revenue by category – government grants, fee for service, foundations, general contributions – is essential knowledge for nonprofit leaders.

When I work with nonprofits, I sometimes worry that these questions are too simple. But again and again, as we talk through these fundamentals, I discover that they offer a clear definition of an organization’s basic identity. On top of that, I have never once been in a situation where the entire board and management team involved in developing strategy began with a shared understanding of these fundamentals. Walking through this discussion may be elementary for the executive director, but it can be illuminating for board members.

Another way to think about the Know Thyself principle is that for an organization, the entire leadership must be self aware.

See also:

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

Building Nonprofit Capacity

Nonprofit Sustainability

Image credits: quotessays.com

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