Tuesday August 1st 2017

The Most Misunderstood Word in the Nonprofit Sector


Okay, I’ll spare you the drama. The word is STRATEGY. Too many nonprofit boards and executives do not know what it is, why it matters, or how it works in the nonprofit sector. Consequently, the terms strategy, along with its adjective cousin strategic, lack the fixed meaning that prevents them from being employed as a catch-all term. Among the more common uses are these:

 

Strategic = Important

Strategic = Prioritizing

Strategic = Being Intentional

Strategic = Action Planning

 

Indeed, strategy is important; it does involve setting priorities and being intentional; and a fair amount of actual planning is necessary if a strategy is to be of any real value. But each of these individual uses fails to convey the essence of strategy. The question, then, is this: at what point do these attributes of being strategic constitute a true organizational strategy?

 

Strategy is, at is essence, deciding where you want position your nonprofit relative to others operating in your domain. The ideal strategic position is one by which your organization is able to create the greatest mission impact in the most sustainable manner. The strategic position is made up of three major considerations:

 

  • The Program: What you will do, for whom in what circumstances, and to what end. The program position is about your ability to create the greatest mission impact.

 

  • The Market: How your organization will differentiate itself from and relate to others operating in the same domain. The market position is about your organizational role and identity.

 

  • The Resources: How your organization will garner the human and financial capital it needs to support its work. The resource position is about sustainability.

 

The key attribute of a strategic position is coherence. Simply put, the ideal strategic position is one that: a) addresses the highest priority of your target population; a) strengthens the larger network of support serving that population; and, c) attracts the human and financial resources your organization needs to operate at full strength.

 

How an organization decides where it should position itself for mission impact and sustainability is a subject unto itself. For our present purposes, just know that the strategic position should reflect what an organization understands about itself and the domain in which it operates. Specifically, the journey toward the ideal strategic position begins thoughtful conversations around the following questions:

 

  1. What do we aspire to be?
  2. What does our community need us to be?
  3. What do we have the ability to be?

 

Indeed, these are high altitude questions that we seldom have the luxury of contemplating. But without a clear sense of who you are, what you are about, and where you fit into the larger landscape, your run the risk of defaulting to a strategic plan made up of important tasks that need to be prioritized and implemented in an intentional manner.

 

Necessary, but certainly not sufficient. And not very strategic.