When working with nonprofit agencies on strategy, I often find myself making four principle statements — Be authentic, be intentional, be large, and be radical. I find myself repeating these principles because in this continuing anemic economic climate, many nonprofits are still operating out of a conservative posture. Strategy is often focused on preserving core programs, adding one more fundraising event, working harder to expand donor databases or thinning operating costs. Risk is too often reserved for opportunistic grants that come along or an unexpected bump in a revenue stream. Yet, don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that conservation is inherently bad or evil. indeed, skillfully applied managing from a conservative perspective has buffered many nonprofits from the negative economic effects over the last couple of years.
At the same time while conservation may temporarily preserve the status quo, in the face of an every growing demand for nonprofit services and solutions, a conservative strategy is untenable in the long-term. Senior nonprofit executives and nonprofit boards engaged in operational planning may find comfort in budgeting to “known” revenues but “revenue-driven” budgeting may undercut growth and undermine the long-term health of an agency. Under-investing in administration and infrastructure, leveling or reducing salaries and benefits, underfunding reserves, or a host of other conservative fiscal moves, can amount to the proverbial “death by 1,000 cuts,” where the cumulative effects temporarily deferred, may suddenly manifest as an organizational crisis or an inability of the agency to meet the organization’s mission.
This post is part of an ongoing series related to strategic planning. As a precursor to strategic planning, I believe that an agency needs to cultivate a culture of courage. So here is one take on the outlines of principles that embody organizational courage.
Be Authentic: More than once I have interviewed an executive director or board chair who has confided that the constant adapting to changing funding streams shapes and reshapes in subtle (and not so subtle) ways, the organizational mission and vision. One exasperated director shared, “Some days I’m not even sure if I am walking into the right building.” While mission-drift often starts unintentionally, such incremental creeping is prevented by a myopic focus on authenticity. Every program, every funding decision, every grant application, must be guided by a clear mission and vision in the context of the compelling need(s) it seeks to address. Authenticity provides the focus an agency needs to envision a future that is greater than the current economic reality.
Be Intentional: Too often boards of nonprofit organizations get mired down in the operational details of the current agency operations. The mundane and immediate, such as a year-to-date 10% revenue shortfall, adding a new policy or procedure to the organizational canon, or figuring out how to improve the computer network, while all important, can impede and intentional strategic focus. When a focus on the operational becomes a cycle routinely eclipsing the strategic, it becomes harder to be intentional about the future. To be successful an agency needs an intentional focus on strategy that is clearly palatable throughout the organization.
Be Large: With a conservative mindset, many nonprofit organizations are constantly engaged in fundraising, grant writing and trying to keep together a patchwork of revenue streams. Messaging to the community and potential funders is “we are worthy of support because we are doing good things on virtually no overhead.” Large, turns such thinking upside-down. Large re-frames the message from “we are worthy “ to “there is a compelling community need and we are catalysts to effectively address that need.” Fundraising becomes resource development and in a coordinated strategy, an agency seeks investors interested in creating a social return on investment. Being large supports the assertions of being a catalyst with clear and measurable outcomes as well as benchmarks for quality and continuous improvement. There is little question about the presence and leadership of the organization in the community.
Be Radical: While being conservative can preserve the core, being radical can expand the core. Yet, radical needs to be defined. While radical may carry the perception of risk or polarization, radical is simply the ability to ask the hard and profound question “what if?” The “what if” questions spawn radical ideas that can be translated into strategy and action. Questions like: “In the context of the compelling need, our mission and vision, what if we could do things differently to create a larger impact?” or “If we were to fundamentally rethink our relationship to our community and our supporters, what new models for service delivery would emerge?” need to be asked. Creating a culture that thinks radically is one that expands the agency’s horizon even if when the current economic clouds partially obscure the view.
Authentic, intentional, large, and radical are four terms that illustrate a strategic organizational culture that is applied rather than an abstraction. Such terms provide a base that an executive team and board can use to measure progress and be accountable to. By operationally defining a strategic culture, an agency enters into the process of strategic planning from a position of strength, opportunity and aspiration, which are prerequisites of a results-driven process. So it bears repeating – Be authentic, intentional, large, and radical.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.