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  • Dr. Ken Thiessen

Strategic Alignment. A Nonprofit's Great Challenge


If you are an executive decision-maker in a nonprofit organization you are involved in a worthy cause. You are driven by passion, willing to sacrifice time, money, and energy to see your organization deliver on the promise of its mission. You want to make a difference! Your passion and commitment find expression together with other like-minded people who also care deeply about the cause!

Passion and commitment are essential qualities for executive level involvement in any organization, specifically a nonprofit environment. But are they enough? Are they even the most important qualities? In my consulting work with nonprofits I rarely meet executive decision-making teams who don’t demonstrate these admirable and worthy character qualities. However, these organizations have usually engaged my services because of a struggle to deliver on the promise of the vision and mission of their cause. Some of these leaders are restless and dissatisfied, convinced there must be more they could be doing to maximize the impact for their core beneficiaries.

My consulting experience with nonprofits has revealed that as important as passion and commitment are to the cause, unless they are channeled by a strategic alignment that permeates every facet of the organization, the impact will be muted! So what are the some of the critical aspects that can help bring strategic alignment to maximize the impact of your nonprofit?

Strategy

What if I were to ask each of your executive decision-making team to write out your organization’s one sentence strategy? I have done this exercise with numerous organizations just like yours and the results are always the same. I end up with as many different strategy statements as there are people in the room. Without exception! Granted, there are nuances in the individual statements that are similar, but there are no two identical statements. As much as everybody assumes they are heading in the same direction, this simple exercise reveals an important leadership gap. What if the collective passion and commitment in the room could be channelled by a pervasive sense of strategic alignment? Can you imagine the exponential impact which could be generated?

Core Purpose

As important as passion and commitment are, what is the core purpose which provides direction to that passion and commitment. Put another way, why do you do what you do?

Most nonprofits have a defined mission statement - a raison d’etre. I was working with a client recently and asked the executive leadership team if their organization had a mission statement. There was widespread affirmation that yes, they did in fact have a mission statement. “What is it?” I asked. The avoidance of eye contact exposed their embarrassment. Not one person in the room could recite their mission statement. Finally, one brave soul queried, “Does anybody have the policy manual?” The Board Chair opened the policy manual, extracted the mission statement and handed it to me. I read it - a flowery statement. One audible, less than convincing response revealed a deeper reality. “Wow, I’m inspired!” In the technical sense there was nothing wrong with the mission statement but it failed to inspire the passion and commitment that were present in every person in the room!

Program Goals

I have rarely met a nonprofit that had so much cash flowing in that they didn’t have to worry about funding goals. Quite the opposite. Usually the cash flow is less than the demands of operating the programs. Most nonprofits are usually very clear on their funding goals. They generally know their ongoing funding requirements in order to keep a close to positive balance in the bank account.

I recently asked a group of executive leaders the following question, “For how many consecutive months have you met or exceeded your program and funding goals?” There was a somewhat awkward silence before a relatively new member to the team asked the rather poignant question, “Do we have any program goals?” There was a deafening silence which hung over the group like a pall. Looking to the chair of the finance committee I suggested, “You probably have really clear funding goals and you probably know exactly where you are at in relationship to those goals!” He replied, “Absolutely!”

This is not unique to this particular client. I suspect it might be true in your organization as well. Part of the challenge that many nonprofits face in determining program goals is that the desired outcomes are usually qualitative in nature whereas funding outcomes are quantitative. It’s much harder to measure qualitative outcomes than it is quantitative. There’s no doubt that there is a quantitative component to program goals. How many people attended a given program? How many volunteers did we have to staff the program? But is program attendance the only metric or even the best metric? Is the program goal only about getting people in the door or is it about making a difference? And if it’s about making a difference, how do you measure progress toward that goal?

The Right People

I attended the Fortune Leadership Summit in Atlanta recently where Jim Collins was the keynote speaker. Collins, the best selling author of Good to Great, and Great by Choice makes a convincing case for ensuring you have the “right people in the right seat on the bus”. In his study of great organizations, one of the distinguishing characteristics is a fanatic discipline of ensuring the right people are occupying the right seats on the bus and are doing the right things right. In other words, their skill set and ability matches the requirements of the particular position and they are focusing their primary energies on the core priorities of the organization and are passionate about excellence in the execution of their job responsibilities.

Do you think strategic alignment around these priorities would help channel the passion and commitment of your organization in a way that would help maximize your organization’s ability to deliver on its vision and mission? I suspect it would.


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