September 23, 2020
We all want to good in the world. But with all the issues that need our attention, how do we make sure that our efforts are not wasted? How do we identify those opportunities for involvement that are meaningful to us, and create a discernable impact? In other words, how does an individual find his or her vocation?
Philosophers, poets, and prophets instruct us to begin our search for a vocation not by looking outward, but by looking inward. That is, we do not begin by listing all the needs of the world. We start by figuring out what we have to offer the world.
If we substitute “nonprofit organization” for “individual” and “strategy” for “vocation,” we have an apt analogy for the process described in this series of articles. In part 1, we looked back at our organizational history in search of patterns and trends. In part 2, we mined that history for lessons that tell us more about when we are at our best and where we matter most. In part 3, we look out into the community we serve in search of the position that will allow our organization to create the greatest impact.
The most effective nonprofit strategic position builds on the best of who you are as an organization. “Who you are” is a matter of recognizing those elements of the organizational core developed in phase 2: who needs you most, what they need most from you, and your defining qualities. Are we now ready to go boldly into the future? Not yet. First, we must consider two mitigating considerations.
Nonprofits, because of their tax-exempt status, are required to provide community benefit. Inherent in this statutory obligation is the assumption that we are in tune with the most pressing needs relative to our mission. That is the first mitigating factor in determining our strategic position: what is occurring in the community we serve, and how can we fit in?
Second, effective strategic positioning depends on a realistic assessment of the potential to attract the funding needed to advance the mission. I have yet to meet the nonprofit that has run out of ideas for what they could be doing. To the contrary, most face the daunting and delicate task of negotiating trade-offs between what is needed and what is possible. We simply can’t afford to do everything we would like to do.
These considerations help us locate the strategic position for our nonprofit – that space that fosters the greatest mission impact in the most sustainable manner. That sweet spot is found amid these three questions:
1.What do we aspire to be?
2.What does our community need us to be?
3.What do we have the ability to be?
Serious consideration of these questions prevents strategy development from becoming a fantasy supported by a collection of tasks. Instead, nonprofits have a deep understanding of their purpose, their potential, and their limitations are those move boldly into the future. This doesn’t mean that magic happens and everything falls into place. What it means is that we face the inevitable ambiguity and complexity of the nonprofit environment anchored in a deep understanding of what matters most to us and the people we serve.
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