January 10, 2024

Preparing for the Unpredictable: What Does That Even Mean?

Recently, I shared my perspective on the role of nonprofit strategy with this quote: “Strategy is about preparing for the things you can’t predict, not mapping the steps toward the things you hope will happen.” The purpose of this article is to expound upon that idea and show what this means for your nonprofit.

I have used the windsock creature (you know, the one that flails about in front of car dealerships) as a metaphor for nonprofit strategy. At first glance, the poor creature has minimal control over its existence, bending in whichever direction the wind takes it. Similarly, nonprofits are subject to the whims of funders, government agencies, even the broader economy. When priorities shift like the wind, nonprofits respond to those shifts much like the windsock creature by going where they need to go to remain relevant.

For me, however, the defining feature of the windsock creature is not that it flails about helplessly. Rather, I focus on the fact that despite the turbulence, it never leaves its spot. In other words, the creature is able to survive the changing conditions because it is grounded.

Likewise, your nonprofit must have anchoring points that allow you to respond to changing conditions in a manner that does not weaken your core mission. Anchoring requires deliberations around the following:

  • Your organizational core, which encompasses:
    • The population that needs you most.
    • What that population needs most from you.
    • Your defining qualities as an organization (e.g., philosophy, values, etc.).
    • How you define success working with this population.

  • Your desired strategic position, which includes:
    • What you do, specifically, with/for your target population.
    • How you are similar to and/or different from others doing similar work.
    • How you will acquire the resources need to support your work.

  • Your strategic priorities, which are broad areas of emphasis that will move you toward your desired strategic position. Strategic priorities can be organized into the following categories:
    • Program development to address emerging needs, changing populations, etc.
    • Internal capacity to ensure that roles and responsibilities are aligned.
    • System relations aimed at meaningful collaborative partnerships.
    • Community relations focusing on funders and other external stakeholders.

The relationship between these three components is illustrated in the figure below. Working from the inside out, the organizational core provides the starting point for determining the most relevant and impactful strategic position, which in turn is supported by a small number of strategic priorities.

Taken together, these three elements make up the organization’s strategic framework. Defining the appropriate strategic priorities is crucial because they ensure that board and staff members are lined up and facing the same direction. From there, specific action plans can be developed for each department, committee, or individual in response to the question, “what do these priorities mean for me in my role”?

“This is Helpful. When Will We Get the Plan?”

The section header above is a direct quote from the board chair of a former client. He was addressing the elephant in the strategy room: “what good is a strategic framework without a plan to move you forward”? Fair question, to which there is a simple response: strategy is strategy and planning is planning. They are both important but are different activities undertaken for different reasons.

The fundamental difference is that strategy (in the form of the strategic framework) guides long-term decisions, while plans direct short-term activities. Returning to our metaphor of the windsock creature, plans change as the conditions under which you operate change. In contrast to the transient nature of plans, the fundamentals of your organization as presented in your strategic framework not only persevere through changing conditions, but they also provide the basis of the decisions about what to do next. They are your organizational anchor.

It is comical to imagine a sky full of windsock creatures, left to fly away because they were not anchored. It is not quite so funny to think of your nonprofit as one of those ungrounded creatures, flying around aimlessly is search of a landing spot.

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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