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Nonprofit Strategy: From “Could Do” to “Should Do” to “Will Do”

By Juan Pablo Gonzalez

July 10, 2014

We hear all the time that the leaders of associations, social services organizations and other nonprofits are overwhelmed with well-intentioned ideas from their stakeholders. New board members feel compelled to present new ideas. Major gifts can come with “strings attached.” Old hands among the staff are comfortable keeping pet programs running year after year. Inevitably, there are more ideas about fulfilling the organization’s mission than there are resources. Ultimately, too many good ideas can lead to some bad outcomes.

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The nonprofit leaders we’ve worked with tell us that applying the “inside-out strategic planning” approach has been instrumental in helping their organizations keep from biting off more than they can chew. The steps that follow will help you succeed by maintaining focus and effectively allocating resources.

Frame the Choices

With so many new ideas and ongoing initiatives to consider, it is useful to frame the strategic choices into categories – sometimes called strategic themes—that take advantage of the organization’s multiple strengths and that address multiple threats and opportunities. Those new ideas often emerge from a SWOT analysis, but in our experience the outcome is often a long wish list—not exactly progress when the goal is to focus. (For an interesting take on how to get real value from a SWOT analysis, read this article about SWOT matching.)

Take the example of a membership association whose mission was sound but whose membership was declining. Senior stakeholders agreed that growth was a strategic priority. But to some growth meant attracting more members like themselves. Others were interested in geographic expansion outside the U.S. Still others thought growth meant creating new sources of revenue, such as subscription services or Continuing Professional Education programs. Making clear the nature and potential requirements and consequences of each distinct course of action was essential before debating the relative merits of each.

Create Clarity

Once all the ideas are on the table, follow a disciplined process to define various initiatives in a common way so that there is 100% clarity about the strategic choices being considered. This is a critical step for organizations that have a broad stakeholder base, as it ensures a common understanding of the choices before determining which choices to pursue.

And, of course, the devil is in the details. So while it may be easy to agree to a strategy to increase revenue, doing so without clarifying the expected source of these funds (Dues? Sponsorships? Grants? Bequests?) will lead to confusion and disparate efforts down the road. Likewise, efforts to grow revenue will be more effective if guidance and resources are provided in alignment with the type of revenue sought. As any experienced Membership or Development Director will tell you, approaching large corporate organizations is very different from reaching out to individuals.

Debate the Choices – and Move On

Once the strategic choices before you are framed and clear, it’s time to make decisions. With a common foundation of facts, your strategic planning committee is ready to take on what many organizations do prematurely: discuss and debate strategic alternatives. We find that it’s helpful to begin these discussions with what one of our colleagues calls a “recap of the bidding.” A summary of the alternatives for consideration, the rationale for the choice being put forward (e.g. “expected growth in revenue of x%” or “responds to member priorities”) and the establishment of a simple framework for comparison such as the one below often does the trick.

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With this as a starting point, your strategic planning committee will be well-positioned to select or eliminate the strategic choices before it.

Ultimately, strategy is defined by both the choices you make and the alternatives you reject. Making choices certainly is difficult in nonprofit organizations overwhelmed by good ideas from well-meaning stakeholders. But it must be done. Keeping the strategic planning process focused on making the right choices for the right reasons is critical in ensuring that the organization fulfills its mission.

Four Warning Signs That Your Nonprofit is a Victim of Too Many Good Ideas

  1. Things aren’t getting done.
  2. The staff is stretched too thin and uncertain about how they are contributing to the organization’s mission.
  3. Stakeholders and Board members voice concerns about mission attainment and relevance
  4. You’re having trouble prioritizing a long list of initiatives and the budget is insufficient to fully fund high-priority programs.
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