Posts Tagged ‘The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution’

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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Strategy is a 24/7 endeavor

As nonprofits began adopting successful practices from the business community, they grabbed hold of one with an iron grip:  strategic planning.  However, in our efforts to embrace the practice, we confused the process of planning with the real work of setting and implementing a strategy.  The planning process became the proverbial junk drawer.  We tossed the odds and ends into the drawer with the expectation that a single process could address them all – the disconnected board that wouldn’t raise money, the staff in need of team building and the need for relevance in a changing market.

The hidden cost?  We’ve become accustomed to thinking strategically only on an episodic basis – when it’s time for the annual board retreat or when our strategic plan has “come due.” It was simply too time consuming to update the plan document.  So we let it gather dust on the shelf or sit idly in the drawer as we went about the real work of running our nonprofits every day. It’s time to take that dusty or irrelevant plan off the self – and throw it away.

We’ve muddled the essence of strategy with the process of plan development.  They are not the same.  To make matters worse, we’ve allowed multi-faceted organizational issues to distract our strategic focus.  The result?  A drawn-out process that causes us to live in suspended reality.  When the process is over, we find ourselves digging deep for the energy to implement.

We could get by with that “process in lieu of strategy” approach when the external environment was more settled.  Gosh, looking back the 1990s and early 2000s seem almost idyllically stable, don’t they?

You simply cannot afford to confuse planning with strategy in today’s dynamically complex world. It’s time to create the game plan – the play book – the “use it every day ‘til it’s dog-eared” handbook.  The strategic direction that truly guides your monthly and quarterly endeavors – the one you “truth test” against.  The resource so valuable that you’ve uploaded it to your tablet and smart phone.

We’re talking about an organizational strategy.  Not tactics.  Strategy can be defined as a coordinated series of actions.  The operative words are coordinated and series.

Now is the time to adapt.  Today’s nonprofit leaders need to find the true connections between the external environment and your organization’s real competencies and vulnerabilities.  As you craft your strategy real-time you’ll need to consider your organization’s unique position in the marketplace.

One of the best resources we’ve found in the strategy setting arena is the article “Can You Say What Your Strategy Is?” by David J. Collis and Michael G. Rukstad from the Harvard Business Review (April 2008).  This seminal piece presents three key concepts:

A hierarchy of statements that illustrates the relationship between mission, vision, values and strategy.  Board members will thank you as you give them something easy to understand.  Strategy wonks will love it as a tool.

A visual of the strategic sweet spot – the market and customers your organization serves best in consideration of what others provide.

A strategy statement that clearly and succinctly describes who you will serve, how you will serve them, and the comparative advantage you will embrace.

The exercise of writing a strategy statement – and we at Corona Insights have written numerous with our clients – is harder than you’d think.  Organizations tend to think they have clarity only to find a lack of agreement and buy-in. The problem?  Our strategy isn’t precise and simple enough to remember.  Imagine if the folks at Apple designed your strategy.  Ah yes.  A strategy statement so clear and concise that you’ve memorized it – and so has your team.

You’ll find the hierarchy of statements is really helpful when articulating your strategy as you ask yourselves, “Is our strategy distinct from our mission?  Might we have confused our vision with our strategy?”

Now that you’ve defined and committed your strategy to memory, it’s time to use it – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year long.  This means you’ll be testing against it and adapting it as required.  Imagine an executive staff or board discussion that goes like this.

We said we were going to pursue ____ strategy.

Does Opportunity A really fit our strategy?  Does it augment or strengthen our business model?  If it doesn’t we shouldn’t pursue it.  If it does – or could with a tweak – then we should.

Are we forecasting changes in the external environment that portend vulnerabilities to our business model?  Revenue sources that were certain two years ago aren’t even likely today.  Eek they’re risky.

Have conditions changed substantially enough to warrant a reality check of our strategy?

As you anticipate the New Year, I encourage you to make the following resolutions.

We’re going to have a strategy – and it’s going to be clear enough that I can articulate it regularly and ensure my team (board and staff) get it too.

I’m going to use a strategy play book – and I’m going to update it as needed to take advantage of opportunities and address threats real-time.  Our whole team is going to be operating from the same play book.

I’m going to anticipate a continually high level of uncertainty in the external environment and will act accordingly – that means we’ll reality-check our strategy on a regular basis.

Best of all, your board will l-o-v-e you when you tell them they don’t need to participate in another day-long retreat or months-long process that leaves them thinking “what’s this all about anyway?”  Like you, they’ll see that strategy is a 24/7 endeavor.

See also:

Nonprofit Sustainability

The Nonprofit Business Plan

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

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