Who Has the Power to Shape Your Nonprofit’s Strategy?

Welcome to 2022. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably hoping that this year holds in store many of the things that 2020 and 2021 did not: Optimism. Health. Connection. Civil discourse. Laughing at things other than the latest internet meme about what the CDC recommends.

Here at Prosper Strategies, we’re also hoping this year brings about a massive shift in the way nonprofits approach strategy. In fact, we’re dedicating our work this year to making sure that shift happens. I’m going to ask you to use your imagination and ask yourself some tough questions as I explain why…

Think back to the last time your nonprofit spent time shaping its strategy.

Maybe it was your three-year strategic plan. Or your annual fundraising strategy. Maybe it was a plan for a new program. Or a brand strategy to go along with the new logo that took your board 18 months to agree on. It doesn’t matter. Any of these scenarios will do.

Who was in the room?

Were you surrounded by members of your staff, and maybe a few folks from your board? Where were the people your organization exists to serve, and those most affected by the issues you address? Were their voices and perspectives central to your big strategic discussions? Did you gather their input through surveys, focus groups or other engagement methods that were accessible to them? Or did you fail to seek their input altogether?

And what about your other stakeholders: your community partners, donors, funders, volunteers, the friends and family of the people and communities you serve?  Did you involve them in the process of shaping your strategy? And if you did involve them, did you help them understand the all-important perspectives of the people you serve, and that those perspectives must, by necessity, take priority over their own? Or did you let the loudest voices among them take over, steering the strategic ship far more than anyone should?

Who made the tough decisions?

Who decided which priorities should be the focus of your organization’s work over the next few years? Who weighed in when designing new programs or services for your community or reshaping existing ones? Who provided input on how to structure your fundraising budget to better meet the needs of your stakeholders? Were the people and communities you serve consulted on decisions that could directly impact them? Or were they left out?

Were these decisions made slowly and painfully, by consensus? Did you chip away, little by little, at dissent and disagreement, watering down strong ideas and approaches until everyone was finally satisfied enough (or just sick enough of the process) to agree? Or did you fail to make any real decisions at all, and end up with a strategy that felt more like a long to-do list?

What happened next?

After you finished documenting your strategy and started implementing it, did you share your progress transparently with the people and communities you serve, and give them the power to provide feedback on whether your work is effectively addressing their needs? Or were their opinions overshadowed by a myriad of measurement and evaluation requirements from your funders, too complex and cumbersome to provide any real barometer for how you were actually doing? Did your strategy slowly lose steam? Did it start to fall apart the moment something unexpected – like a staff change, funding shift, or global pandemic – popped up? Or did you carry it through, only to end up with everyone disappointed that it didn’t drive the seismic change it seemed to hold so much potential for?

Your nonprofit deserves better than that. The people, communities and causes you’re working for deserve better than that. But there is a problem.

We’ve all been operating with an old rule book for nonprofit strategy work that tells us strategy is the sole responsibility of the leaders on your board and staff. The old rule book keeps the people most affected by your organization’s work out of the strategy process, or involves them in ways that only create an “illusion of inclusion,” rather than real, meaningful opportunities to provide input and evaluate impact. It results in strategies that are out of tune with the needs and priorities of the very people they are intended to benefit, as well as those who must come along in support of your cause.

This has got to stop. Not only is it ineffective, it’s inequitable.

It’s time to rewrite the rules that govern nonprofit strategy.

That’s exactly what we’re working to do this year, and we’re hoping you’ll join us. Over the next several weeks, we’re going to share exactly how we plan to do it, and how you can join us in the quest to build more effective, equitable strategies for the good of your nonprofit and the people and communities you serve.

Stay tuned for more next week. While no one can promise that 2022 will bring about the end of maskne, Zoom fatigue, or sticking pieces of plastic up our noses, we all can play a role in ensuring it’s a revolutionary year when it comes to how the nonprofit sector approaches strategy.