Nonprofit Strategy Nouns not Adjectives

Nonprofit Strategy – Nouns Are More Useful Than Adjectives

I once was having a conversation where a nonprofit leader about nonprofit strategy. He was sharing a brilliant new idea. “We are going to create this website that has a number of portals all pointing to our donations page. Then we are going to use Google Grant Ad Words to funnel segmented traffic to those pages and as people click through and donate, we will raise money to support our cause. Even if we get a tiny response rate we will raise a lot of money. Innovative. Right?” My response was something like this, “In the old days, when people used telephones your approach was called telemarketing. Make 25 phone calls to a segmented phone list and you might get one donation. You spend a lot of money to raise a little money. Not very innovative or efficient except that you replaced the phone bank with a computer algorithm….”

In the years of my consultant practice, this was not the first nonprofit leader or board of director chair that has led an initial conversation with adjectives like “innovative,” “new,” or “better.” Typically the ideas of new and better follow an opening sentence like, “We are wanting to create the strategic plan for version 2.0 of our nonprofit.” One word. Yikes! In this post, I want to share some ideas about strategy and the importance of focusing on the nouns and not adjectives.

An outcome of a solid nonprofit strategic planning process will likely include adjectives like “more,” “new,” or “better” but these adjectives are words that describe the plan after it is completed. Nouns, on the other hand, are the words that are required to build a plan. Start with “new and improved” and you are selling toothpaste. Start with nouns and you are talking strategic planning. Let me offer five nouns that I think are important to leading a strategic planning process:

1. Values: Any strategy pursued by a nonprofit must inextricably link to values of your organization. If you don’t know how a strategy connects with your shared values then your strategy will lack power and strength. Said another way, a strategy that is not anchored to values is simply an idea. Today, more than ever, nonprofit strategy needs to be connected to the value DNA embedded in your organization.

2. Competencies: Strategy must also be placed in the context of your core competencies. By contextualizing your strategy, you prevent overestimating or underestimating the resources required to turn that strategy into action. Knowing that you going outside of the bounds of your existing competencies will also force you to think about the new skills and resources that your agency will need in order to achieve the strategy. Measuring strategies against the noun of competencies also help you consider the potential trade-offs and returns of investing in a new strategy.

3. Impact: A third noun to inform your strategic planning process is impact. It is only by being clear about the impact you currently are making, and the impact seek to make in the future, will you be able to develop strategies that improve your current performance. It is here that the old adage “to what end” becomes important. Potential impact must drive strategy.

4. Leverage: The fourth noun is born out of asking the question “how does this strategy build upon and advance the rest of what we do?” Leverage increasingly matters. “One-off” strategies can be a distraction and major time suck. That does not mean that you never pursue innovation or research and development. On the contrary, such small experiments could be about future of leverage or perhaps even be a major disruption that makes past leverage obsolete. The difference is that by considering leverage you are being intentional. When crafting new strategies, the whole must be considered in addition to the sum of the parts.

5. Sustainability: The success of any strategy is ultimately found in its execution and sustainability. In short, no sustainability – no strategy. Unless disciplined thinking about the long-term sustainability is applied to each strategy developed, the strategy will lack a firm foundation and the potential for success undermined.

Taken together, when a nonprofit organization thoughtfully engages in the development of strategies focused on values, competencies, impact, leverage and sustainability, I have confidence that the adjectives of “new” or “better” will follow. However, starting with new and better may not necessarily lead to the stronger foundations of an organization. So when it comes to developing nonprofit strategy, nouns are indeed more useful than adjectives.


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Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.