September 23, 2023

From A to Z: Finding Your Place on the Impact Continuum

Life unfolds along one cosmic continuum, spanning birth (point A) and death (point Z). Of course, no two people will experience this continuum in exactly the same way. Some will find it relatively easy to live a fulfilling and meaningful life while others will face barriers that may dim not just their aspirations, but the likelihood that they will attain their life goals. This is the continuum within the continuum, the one on which charitable nonprofits operate. We will refer to this as the quality-of-life continuum.

Working on the quality of life continuum is about helping people move from undesirable conditions (A) to ones that make life better (Z). The specific nature of the movement varies widely and incudes:

  • From despair to hope.
  • From poverty to self-sustainability.
  • From homelessness to stable housing.
  • From isolation to engagement.

Let’s take a closer look at one continuum, the movement from homelessness to stable housing. It looks something like this:

The first notable feature is that the starting point on the continuum are that the causes of homelessness. Next, you will note the series of blank arrows between homelessness and stability suggesting that, like the causes of homelessness, there are numerous, often complex factors that must be addressed if someone is to attain stable housing.

The reality is that no one organization on their own can move someone from A to Z. Consequently, we have nonprofits working to prevent homelessness while others work with individuals and families once they become homeless. What makes the long-term impact possible is that everyone – and this is the key – is working toward the same “Z” but in their own way.

Consider the example of a temporary shelter for homeless women in my hometown.

  • They understand the many reasons women become homeless (point A).
  • They understand that their work begins upon arrival of women at the shelter (point B).
  • They understand that as a crisis shelter, the next step (point C) is transitional housing.

The key to the shelter’s impact is that they understand what brought the women to the shelter and what needs to happen when they leave. This allows them to focus their efforts and resources on that B to C transition, which is to ensure that women have the documents, paperwork, and connections to attain transition housing. By contrast, it is easy to imagine what the program mix of the shelter would like look if took responsibility for all the points between B and Z.

To clarity your organization’s place, try this exercise with your board and staff:

  • Construct the continuum on which your organization functions (A to Z).
  • Identify your specific interval on the continuum (e.g., B to D).
  • Identify the critical needs associated with that interval.
  • Define what success within that interval looks like.

An esteemed philanthropist once wrote that the key to impact is to identify a big program, then break off a piece of it to work on. This not only brings focus to your work, it helps you identify, track, and communicate your mission impact.

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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