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How Can You Know if Your Nonprofit Alignment is Inside Out?

Eighty percent of executives say creating an “outside-in” culture is a high priority for the future. Outside is where the good stuff happens. Buyers buy. Inventors invent. Competitors compete. An outward-focused organization has its eyes on the action. They see what’s happening now and what’s coming down the pipe. But, equally important, it sees itself the way it is, how it stacks up, and what futures are possible.

Most organizations are unconsciously designed not to do that. I say “unconsciously” because no leader would intentionally blinker their organization. I say “designed” because layers of decisions stack up to create a nonprofit alignment built to spend most of the time thinking about itself—decisions about how to communicate, what gets rewarded, and what information is essential.

What do people say are the three most important things to do for the future?

If all three are process, organization, or cultural changes, you might be inwardly focused.

What data do people bring to meetings?

If almost all of it is about your performance, you might be inwardly focused.

Who do you focus your research on?

If your research primarily includes your own members, you might be inwardly focused.

Ben Franklin once said: “three things are extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Once an organization has turned inward, it often clings to that for dear life. In one extreme example, a prominent membership organization had seen a start-up insurgent out-innovate them. It grew to three times its size in a few years. Alarmed, one leader commissioned a detailed study of their new competitor. They wanted to know how they had built a new digital model that had undermined the way they did business. The rest of the leadership not only dismissed it but denied it. They refused to believe it was happening. External perspective becomes threatening if it challenges the status quo.

Another client, a large membership organization, was long mired in old ways. We helped them take a radically inclusive and transparent approach to making external perspectives a lever for real change. The process was exhaustive. It encompassed their entire profession, members and non-members alike. They held in-depth conversations with admired and like-minded organizations outside their own space. A profound reflection on their competitors and similar, more successful organizations ensued. As a result, they came to an entirely new vision of who they needed to be and where they needed to focus. With great fear, the leadership opened themselves up to an outside view, only to be pleasantly surprised at the clarity it brought them.

You can’t read the label while you’re sitting in the jar. So becoming intentional about turning your nonprofit alignment outward could be the most strategic move you could make.