Look no further than how strategy is typically thought of by most nonprofits and their consultants and you’ll quickly understand why poor or no strategy is a major barrier to growth.

First, what a meaningful strategy that leads to growth is NOT.

  • Strategy that leads to growth is NOT asking three different copywriters to draft three versions of a renewal series.
  • Strategy that leads to growth is NOT offering a client 100 PowerPoint slides at yet another quarterly or monthly review session.
  • Strategy that leads to growth is NOT a spreadsheet exercise — the larger the spreadsheet the better — no matter how ‘analytic’ or ‘scientific’ those numbers make you feel.

The Agitator’s been on the strategy vs. tactics soapbox before. (See Beware of the ‘S’ Word.) This time around it’s essential to emphasize how poor or no strategy inhibits growth.

For the nonprofits unlikely to ever grow, strategy is often thought of as a spreadsheet exercise. Somehow, as noted, the larger the spreadsheet the more confident the organization is in its ‘strategy’.

Have you ever wondered why front-line staff and managers — those responsible for executing ‘strategy’ — tend to dread the annual ‘strategic planning’ ritual? Why does it consume so much time and have so little impact on organizational actions?

Answer: Those responsible for delivering on the plan know from experience that this sort of process doesn’t produce positive change and growth. Instead, it almost always perpetuates the status quo.

Of course, if the alternatives are massive brain storming sessions or off-site retreats to come up with ‘radical’, ‘great new ideas’, you’re probably best sticking with the spreadsheet process. Better that than waste a day or two of talk with no meaningful follow-up action.

So, what is the alternative?  What does strategy look like if an organization is truly seeking growth?

For starters:

  • Strategy is about forcing a choice, stating what the organization is and is not doing.
  • It is about making assumptions and explicit choices and outlining both — BRIEFLY — in 1 page, 2 maximum.
  • If your strategy document is more than 2 pages then there is 99.9% likelihood it isn’t a strategy at all. It is a planning and forecasting and prognosticating exercise to deliver short-term comfort. It is also almost certainly a document that looks radically similar to last year.
  • A strategy is clear, concise and focused. Just like good copy.
  • Strategy is about making small bets with the explicit choices made — and not made — and the associated assumptions spelled out.
  • With a solid articulation of the 2 (or 3 at most) choices available to solve a problem (e.g., falling retention rates, lousy uptake with the monthly giving offer) or achieve a goal, and equally solid articulation of the assumptions that must be true for either choice to work, you increase your chances of success.
  • Evaluate those assumptions and determine which set best fits with what you do well, is most likely to be true, and then make a choice. This will greatly increase chances of success.
  • Increasing your chance of success is not the same as reducing risk.
  • It is about turning left or right and not believing you can do both at the same time.
  • It is about monitoring performance of the small bet and then modifying your course or abandoning it all together.
  • Contrary to popular belief, strategy is not about first failing a whole lot. That is called failing.

Here are two quick tests to determine if you truly have a strategy aimed at growth:

  • If there is no risk, there is no strategy.
  • If you feel comfortable, there is no a strategy.

What’s your strategy?











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