Small but mighty: game-changing strategy in small to mid-sized nonprofits

Many nonprofits use periodic strategic planning to tune up their strategies or make adjustments to their route along a fairly steady course over the near-term future. Sometimes, however, organizations have a bigger, bolder agenda, often driven by a big challenge. My recent column on “Game-Changing Strategy” in The Nonprofit Times (February 1, 2013) examined this phenomenon through the lens of our consulting work with large, national nonprofits and foundations.

Since its appearance, I have been asked if the only groups suited to developing game-changing strategies are these big, well-resourced institutions. The answer, most emphatically, is “no way!” Game-changing strategy is available to any nonprofit facing a need to change direction, respond to a major challenge, or seize a new opportunity if it has the capacity and the courage to undertake a large, sometimes daunting change process.

Strategy is about making hard choices

I remember an early experience with game-changing strategic change. It wasn’t with a big household-name nonprofit but with a small, state humanities council. As we began the engagement, the challenge was this: We have limited resources with which to pursue our broad mission to promote the humanities across a large, diverse state. In response we currently offer an array of programs, none of which are at sufficient scale. The council had set itself the task of narrowing its portfolio to concentrate more resources on a few core activities. The problem was that the varying interests among the staff and board were aligned in such a way that making hard choices–invest more here and thus less there–was not possible. They were at an impasse. Thus the wide array of poorly supported activities.

At one point early in the strategy process we asked: “If you were building the council from scratch today, what would you make sure to do and what would you avoid?” By moving the discussion away from an unwinnable debate over the relative merits of current programs, we facilitated engagement in the struggle to actually think strategically. The group soon decided unanimously the answer to our question was: “We would make sure to do only one thing and to do it really well.”

Bold thinking pays off

This conversation opened the council’s horizons to think differently and we exploited that opening. For the next few months it considered various ideas for “the one thing.” In the end, it found it, tested it widely throughout the state, even using a public polling firm, and defined a bold signature project: an initiative to engage the entire state in an effort to tell stories about how residents’ families came to live where they did. Whether the family had arrived last week from China, last year from another state, or in the last century from Mexico, it turned out that everyone had a story he/she wanted to tell.

This new effort was a true game changer for the council. As the idea gained traction, the board supported the management’s plans to shed existing programs in a responsible and orderly way, either by transfer to another host entity, spinoff as an independent new nonprofit, or phase-down. The council soon concentrated all its effort on the new initiative. As a result of its intense focus on a winning idea, private funding increased, libraries and schools around the state lined up to implement the project in communities, and the council’s profile rose immeasurably.

Small organizations, big ideas

This was not an isolated instance of courageous thinking reshaping a small organization: far from it. Consider: the merger of two small environmental nonprofits that decided to trade their independence for greater power in pursuit of their shared mission; a half-dozen small and mid-sized human services groups that co-located to save a precious but expensive-to-operate facility for the disabled; or the bold campaign launched by a grassroots HIV/AIDS service organization to redefine treatment as prevention in its community. These groups were not large but their ideas certainly were.

So, if you are a leader in a small or mid-sized organization embarking on an examination of your strategy (perhaps for no other reason than “it is time,” three years having passed since your last effort), here is my advice. Before you begin tweaking your current efforts–”We’ll raise 10% more money” or “We’ll serve 5% more people”–consider for a moment how you would go about pursuing your mission if you were to start your organization over today, free from all impediments to bold action. You might decide you would build the organization just as it is now. But if not–if you can imagine a better way–consider whether it is time for a game change.

See also:

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid-Response World

Nonprofit Strategic Positioning: Decide Where to Be, Plan What to Do

Nonprofit Mergers and Alliances

Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant

The NON Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success

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