March 10, 2021
In a recent conversation with a nonprofit board of directors, I asked how much they knew about the history of the organization: its founding purpose, its programmatic evolution, and the logic behind the significant decisions it had made along the way. Their responses were mixed, as you would expect. The most unexpected response came in the form of a question from one relatively new board member. “Is it important for the board to know those things”, he asked?
This conversation, in a nutshell, captures what I see as the greatest barrier to effective nonprofit strategy. Simply put, we don’t know where to start because we don’t know the questions we should be asking. Generally, when we are in doubt about what to do, we default to something that is familiar. Enter the SWOT analysis.
SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Advanced mental organizers, like the SWOT, are effective because they focus and direct our thinking. In this scheme, strategic planning focuses on two major tasks: shoring up your weaknesses to fend off external threats; and matching your strengths to growth opportunities in your domain.
Why do people default to the SWOT? First, it is not only familiar, but also memorable. Truly, SWOT belongs in the acronym hall of fame along with the KISS principle and SMART goals. Second, the SWOT analysis produces an artifact that looks like how we think strategy documents are supposed to look. It is loaded with data and organized into categories that correspond to its intended use.
There are two major downsides to the use of the SWOT analysis as the launch point of nonprofit strategy development. First, SWOT sessions can devolve into a brainstorming activity, supplanting the discipline required of legitimate data analysis. As a result, planners find themselves wading through a morass of irrelevant information that they feel they must take into account in the development of the strategy.
Second, analysis is a reductive process whereby our reality is broken down into its individual parts. It is my conviction that effective nonprofit strategy begins not with analysis, but with synthesis. In the same way that the SWOT conditions us to look for connections between individual pieces of data, synthesis attunes our minds to the patterns that exist within the whole of our organizational experience.
What, then, is the proper starting point for nonprofit strategy? I suggest the following:
Looking Backward: How did we get here? What were the milestone decisions and actions that shaped our history?
Looking Inward: What has our history taught about ourselves? What are the enduring characteristics of our organization?
Looking Outward: What is changing among our clients, funders, collaborators, and competitors that might affect our ability to meet our mission?
Ultimately, strategy is about deciding how to move forward. Effective strategy combines the three elements of reflection, investigation, and aspiration as the basis for the long-term vision for the organization.
Is there a place for data analysis in this process? Of course, there is. But rather defaulting to the SWOT, we need to dissemble it and employ each part in the proper place at the proper time. Opportunities can be pursued with vigor when they emerge from a strategic vision grounded in the core of the organization. By the same token, obstacles and challenges that obstruct our strategic aspirations can be viewed as the threats they really are.
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