Nonprofit organizations are frequently under pressure to scale up their programs. Scalability and replicability are assumed to be a natural goal. When your program is having a positive impact on the people it is designed for, why would you not want to reach more people?
Yet there are some big assumptions built into this model. The first is that growth is always good. Our culture worships growth. The economy is only considered healthy when it is growing. A successful career is one moving up in responsibility and scope. A website wants to grow its readership. A podcast wants more listeners. Yet should this always be the goal? Are there alternatives to growing larger in scale? What about going deeper?
Are nonprofits like machines?
Another is that nonprofits and their programs are like machines. The basic assumption for being able to scale and replicate is that the program is essentially similar to a widget. You should be able to document the basic elements of a program, train new people to deliver it, create it in a new location and the logic follows that you will then get the same outcomes in the new environment.
Can you franchise a nonprofit program?
Many nonprofits follow this model -- Habitat for Humanity, City Year, Teach for America. It borrows from the for-profit sector concept of a franchise. Yet can a nonprofit really be franchised? Can you standardize the program and deliver equivalent outcomes in the new arena? Can you really just hit copy and paste when you are dealing with people?
Nonprofits as Human Systems
Yet nonprofit programs are not machines. They are inherently human systems. They are built with people with certain skills, talents and abilities to deliver a program. Delivering that program happens in a particular social context. The original participants bring a specific set of circumstances, attitudes and abilities. These all interact to create a unique mix. They have more in common with the uniqueness of snowflakes than widgets or hamburgers.
Another analogy that comes to mind is a play - each performance is unique even though the script and the players are the same. Similar, sure, but unique.
Usually the goal of these types of program is some type of transformation. To transform people's lives in some way -- Such as building young leaders or increasing educational attainment or creating self-sufficient home owners of low income families. Transformation has little to do with creating new exact copies of the original (widgets, hamburger, t-shirts).
What has your experience with scaling? What has worked and what hasn’t?
To discuss the strategic issues your organization is facing, inquire about a free coaching call.
Some have argued that strategic planning is dead. They argue that the world moves too fast and changes too quickly to make planning meaningful. In today’s “VUCA” – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – a world characterized by disruption - you just cannot plan for the future. They point out that the practice of long-term planning rose to the forefront during the 50s and 60s when the rate of change was slower.
Certainly the rate of change may seem dizzying today. Or perhaps it is the rate and volume of information coming at us that makes it seem like everything is moving too fast (but that is another topic altogether). Yet I would contend that without planning–especially longer term strategic planning or strategic thinking—you leave your organization prone to either business as usual or staying caught in a cycle of reactivity.
Predicting the Future?
Strategic planning does not enable you to predict the future. I think there is a hidden assumption that in order to do strategic planning effectively you have to somehow know the future. This trips people up. Even futurists cannot accurately predict the future though they spend their professional lives watching trends and making educated guesses.
What is strategic planning? I like Allison and Kaye’s definition: “A systematic process through which an organization agrees on and builds key stakeholder commitment to priorities that are essential to its mission and responsive to the organizational environment.”
Engaging in the process does enable your organization to step back, consider where you are, where you have been and set some intentions about where you want to head next. Eighty five percent of organizations say that they engage in some sort of strategic planning on a regular basis. It enables you to think about some possible futures and then make decisions about which you would like to see materialize. It does not, obviously, guarantee that you will make it all happen.
Setting Intentions & Staying Flexible
With flexibility built into both the plan and the process, investing the time in strategic planning sets up your organization for success. By taking stock of both external trends and internal capacities, then setting targets for how you will proactively work towards your mission, you take charge of your future. At the same time, remembering that a plan is just that – a plan – and you will need to adjust it as circumstances change. Using the process as an opportunity to define criteria for how you will make decisions about future strategic opportunities and challenges, you will be better prepared when unexpected things pop up.
Thinking of engaging in a strategic planning process with your organization and want to learn more? Get in touch with me for a complementary coaching session.
An influential volunteer has an idea. They just came back from a conference and heard about an initiative another organization is doing. They think it would be perfect for your organization. When they describe the idea it sounds really intriguing. There is revenue potential and it promises to more fully engage your constituents. Your board and/or senior staff have a conversation about the idea and decide a staff person should put together a business plan. The staff person works on it and the projections look really promising. A staff team is pulled together and their other projects are put on the back burner. As the initiative gets closer to launch, a communications and marketing plan is put together. The initiative launches with lots of internal fan fare. And then….
What went wrong?
Crickets. Very few people enroll. Internal discussion concludes that it must be the messaging. Marketing messages are tweaked and a new set of email blasts are designed and scheduled. But interest and enrollment remain low. What went wrong?
Lean Start Up
The lean start up approach is designed to address this common problem. People falling in love with their own ideas, settling on a wonderful sounding solution without really understanding the problem they are solving for the members or constituents they are trying to serve. Eric Ries created the method with the intent to shift entrepreneurs energy from developing elaborate business plans to ‘getting out of the building” and testing their assumptions with customers. Because it focuses on managing risk and conserving resources it is a good fit for resource poor nonprofits.
Build, Measure, Learn
Lean start up helps you answer the question – how do we know what is actually worth working on? Based on three major steps – build, measure, learn, you create a minimally viable product instead of a business plan; identify assumptions by asking the question – what needs to be true for this to be a good idea and then design brief experiments to test these assumptions. Once the experiments are complete and you assess your results and learn from it. Does the evidence point to continuing with your idea as is? Or do you need to pivot? Or do you perhaps need to drop the idea and not expend any further resources on it?
In the example above, instead of proceeding with a business plan and then immediately into launching a project team to build out the idea, the team would instead identify the assumptions inherent in the idea and then design experiments to test these assumptions with customers.
Unearthing Your Assumptions
Where traditional program design approaches have emphasized careful and lengthy planning, lean start up emphasizes experiments. In the past, new ideas were often based on intuition and anecdotes. Unfortunately these hunches were rarely tested with the audience they were designed for. Instead lean start up moves from an idea to gathering feedback almost immediately. Like the example at the beginning, many organizations have emphasized the ‘big launch’ after a closed or even secret design process. Lean start up focuses on the iterative process – getting feedback quickly and learning from it.
Think this might be a good approach for your organization and want to learn more? Get in touch with me for a complementary coaching session.
Assessing the sustainability of your organization’s business model has two key aspects for associations and nonprofits. The first is assessing how much each of your programs and services are moving your organization’s mission forward. The second is how the program or initiative is contributing to your organization’s bottom line. Is the program profitable? Break-even? Burning through considerable resources? Mission-driven organizations often fall into the trap of considering one or the other of these two key factors rather than looking at how they intersect.
Is it moving your mission forward?
Let’s dig into the first of these. How are your programs and initiatives contributing to your organization’s mission? This moves beyond an impact program evaluation. A program evaluation looks at an individual program and tries to establish whether and how it is achieving its desired impact. The impact assessment as part of an organizational sustainability assessment looks at all your programs and evaluates them with common criteria. Thus you are able to get a comparative look across initiatives for how they are contributing to your organization’s mission.
Defining Assessment Criteria
Deciding on the criteria you will use is key. This is a useful step to widen the circle and involve key stakeholders to define what criteria you will apply. According Jeanne Bell, Jan Masaoka and Steve Zimmerman in the book Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decision for Financial Viability, there are seven benchmarks that are useful to consider in this process:
You will likely have other criteria that are important in your context. This list gives you a starting point for thinking about how to assess the mission impact of your programs and initiatives.
Download Four Things to Consider before an Organizational Sustainability Audit.
Learn more by listening to my webinar on Organizational Sustainability.
Want to talk about how you might apply this at your organization? Book a coaching session.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.