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Get Your Non Profit Strategy Focused

There is a saying called Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to consume the available resources.” Which is to say, your entire team will always be busy, and your total budget spent. This is especially true of non profit strategy. 

So the question is, how do you ever do something new? Starting anything means stopping something, which is often harder than it sounds.

In our non profit strategy work, we often hear leaders lament the difficulty of freeing up resources or concentrating on fewer but more important things. The status quo has a healthy immune system. The “corporate antibodies” swiftly move in on attempts to make way for the new.

Do You Need To Start Stopping?

If you don’t recognize this dynamic in your organization, ask yourself if the following are true:

  • No one knows when, by whom, or why some of your programs were started in the first place. Many non profit programs take on a life of their own, to the point that no one remembers how they started.
  • None of your programs have ever missed their goals (because they can’t be measured). Often the goals of non profit strategy are vague and subjective. It can be impossible to measure results genuinely, so no one ever misses a “goal.”
  • “But we’ve always done it that way” is often a winning argument. Non profits can be slow to change and often fall back on the way things have always been done, even if it is not the best way.

If you answered yes to any of the above, it might be time for you to start stopping.

But how?

Focus on the Bottom Lines

Jazz great John Coltrane was known for his long-winded saxophone solos. When Miles Davis complained, Coltrane said: “I just don’t know how to stop!” Miles replied, “Try taking the horn out of your mouth!”

It’s a funny quote but an insightful one. It reframes the problem as something (in Coltrane’s case, pretty quickly) solvable. Organizations that succeed with non profit strategy do the same. They refocus from activities to outcomes

In other words, asking not “why are we doing X, Y, or Z?” but “how do X, Y, and Z create the outcomes we want?” You don’t measure strategic outcomes by work done but by a change in the business or world that moves the strategy forward.

Non Profit Strategy

“The key to non profit strategy success is to agree on the bottom lines before you make resource decisions”

We encourage clients to look at outcomes on a “triple bottom line.” The first is Impact – how big of a splash does something in the market, the community, etc. make. The second is Alignment — how closely is something tied to the top-level strategies of the organization. The third is Value – how much does it deliver in revenue or other quantifiable contributions.

Agree On Outcomes First

In the words of the great philosopher Meghan Trainor: “Thank you in advance, I don’t want to dance. ” Successful organizations focus their strategic planning on the outcomes they want and how they will measure them instead of what they want to do. As a result, they have a clearer view of things that are not delivering for them and an easier time saying no to them.

One large organization we worked with reduced its dashboard goals from more than thirty to six. By linking the budget process to the six top-level goals, things without impact or value were not resourced. This happened as a matter of principles established in advance, not on a case-by-case basis.

It is not easy. The example above profited from solid leadership, board partnership, and sustained planning discipline. The fruits of this effort are a strong focus on things that matter, the ability to shift resources among them as things change, and a level of organizational clarity that keeps everyone aligned when change happens.