November 14, 2022

A Better Mousetrap? How About Better Strategy!

Build a better mousetrap, the saying goes, and the world will beat a path to your door. Perhaps, if what the world needs is to catch mice. But the best mousetrap in the world is of no value if what the world needs is a better way to trap bears.

We have a mousetrap problem in the nonprofit sector. Despite its dismal record, nonprofit consultants and practitioners continue to use some version of the traditional mousetrap in strategic planning. The mousetrap come in a variety of forms, including SWOT templates, brainstorm mapping, detailed data analysis, and the occasional gimmick whose real purpose is to keep participants entertained through what is an otherwise unfulfilling process. In this planning scenario, the task of the facilitator is to teach people how to use the mousetrap properly.

But the problem isn’t that people don’t know how to use a mousetrap. The problem is that we have failed to recognize that the mousetrap is insufficient to the task at hand.

Despite the cliché suggesting the opposite, failing to plan does not mean you are planning to fail, any more than having a plan inoculates you from strategic failure. That is because strategy and planning are two different things. More importantly, they serve different purposes. Just as a mousetrap is not designed to trap bears, planning tools are not designed to help you think strategically.

Strategic Thinking

I have written previously about what strategy is and what it isn’t. In short, strategy is about the long-term relevance, impact, and sustainability of the organization. Strategy is not about identifying and compiling a list of tasks that meet a host of organizational needs and wishes. To illustrate the difference, consider the following organizational objectives:

  • We will achieve excellence in the delivery of our programs and services.
  • We will narrow the scope of our programs to focus on our historic clientele.

Each is important. But important does not mean strategic. To separate the wheat from the chaff, ask yourself two questions:

  • Will this make us more relevant, impactful, and sustainable?
  • Is there a scenario under which this would not be a priority?

Both objectives satisfy the first criterion. Achieving excellence and focusing programs are both likely to make your organization more impactful. However, it is difficult to imagine a circumstance under which a nonprofit would not pursue program excellence. Therefore, program excellence is an important organizational priority, but not a strategic one.

Conversely, refocusing programs is context-specific, presumably based on changes in the external environment that have the potential to make the current program model less relevant, impactful, or affordable. We can assume that the organization would have made a different decision under different circumstances. This adaptation to a changing environment is the essence of strategy.

Sidenote: To take this exercise a step further, look at your current strategic plan and ask yourself this question: if we achieve everything in the plan, where will we be? Presumably, where you want to go is a better place than where you are now. If there is no clear direction embedded in the various objectives, then your plan is not rooted in a coherent strategy. In other words, you may be doing a lot of stuff but making no strategic progress.

The Strategic Framework

Organizational strategy has one purpose, which is to provide a lens through which your organization can assess ongoing program and resource decisions. For this to occur, we need two things from strategy: 1) a direction that we believe will lead to greater relevance, impact, and sustainability; and 2) a few high-level areas of emphasis around which we focus our attention, efforts, and resources. To this end, I offer an alternative to the traditional mousetrap in the form of a strategic framework. The framework is built around the three Ps of strategy described below.

  • Position: Strategic positioning includes: 1) what we will do, for whom, and to what end (program position); 2) where we fit in relative to others in our domain (market position); how we will support our work (resource position).
  • Priorities: Strategic priorities are opportunities, challenges, etc. that must be addressed in order to achieve the desired strategic position. Priorities are organized into three categories: program development, internal alignment, and external relations.
  • Parameters: Strategic parameters come in the form of mandates (what we will always do), prohibitions (what we will never do), and criteria (how we will decide) that govern program and resource decisions.

Strategy doesn’t require a detailed road map of every turn and stop along the way. Rather, it requires a compass to ensure that your organization is moving in the desired direction.

Strategy doesn’t need performance indicators that can be used to judge the quality of the work of staff. Rather, it needs consensus on a handful of broad priorities around which everyone can align their work.

Strategy doesn’t require deadlines to serve as motivation to get stuff done. Rather, it requires a clear understanding of what success looks like so that we can assess our efforts as we go.


I believe planning is an important and useful organizational activity. If your nonprofit decides to raise a higher percentage of its annual funding from individuals, then someone needs to plan the events. Likewise, if you have an untenable amount of staff turnover, a staff retention plan is vital to the stability of the organization. My argument is that we are conditioned by the tools we use to focus on things that are important but have little strategic value.

A board chair once said this to me following my presentation of a strategic framework: “This is very helpful, but when do we get the plan?” The response I came up with later (I was thrown by the question at the time) was that there are likely to be a lot of plans developed along the way. Further, there are likely to be questions, opportunities, and challenges that arise that we cannot anticipate.

This is when the value of the strategic framework becomes clear. Being strategic is not about creating and working a detailed plan. Being strategic is about responding with consistency and purpose when things don’t go as planned.

Need Additional Assistance?

If you are interested in going deeper into your nonprofit strategy or if you wish to review your organizational strategy more broadly, click the link below to schedule a 30-minute phone or zoom consultation with Mike Stone.

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