September 08, 2021

Strategy and the “Rule of Three”


The rule of three may be the most prevalent phenomenon that you didn’t even know was a thing. Basically, things that come in threes are believed to be funnier, more memorable, and more satisfying than any other number. Marketers employ the rule regularly as do comic writers (the next time you a watch a sitcom, notice the use of two serious statements to set up the punchline).

There is a version of the rule of three that applies to nonprofit strategy. Employed correctly, it can bring clarity and focus to a process that is easily derailed by superfluous information. In its simplest form, nonprofit strategy distills down to three core elements, as described below.



Aspirations – Based on where you have been, where do we think you should go next? Aspirations are not fantasies about how great things could be if only…Rather, aspirations are rooted in the reality of how things are and how your organization can position itself within that reality to create the greatest mission impact in the most sustainable manner. Below are some examples of strategic aspirations.

  • Narrow our focus to those families with the greatest need.
  • Develop a program model that can be replicated in other communities.
  • Expand our presence in the region.

Priorities – The pursuit of organizational aspirations requires concentration of time, effort, and resources. Too often, though, we dilute our efforts by confusing means with ends. As a result, our line of sight for planning is drawn to the finer details of short-term implementation rather than those intermediate ends that will draw us closer to achieving our aspirations. Effective strategic priorities are specific enough to give guidance, broad enough to allow adaptation, and comprehensive enough that everyone within the organization can see how their work supports the priority. Below are some examples of strategic priorities.

  • Adapt our staffing structure to reflect changes in the industry.
  • Lessen our dependence on government funding.
  • Improve our image among our key referral sources.

Boundaries – While strategy, at its essence, is about deciding what you will not do, there is the need for another layer of consideration. Strategy boundaries appear in the form of limitations, prohibitions, and conditions that will be used when making ongoing program and resource decisions. The purpose of boundaries is to ensure strategic consistency and integrity at the level of implementation. Below are some examples of strategy boundaries.

  • We will not provide financial assistance to families.
  • We will not initiate programs or services that remove consumer choice.
  • We will expand into new communities only under the following conditions:
    • There is demonstrated unmet need.
    • We can maintain service quality and consistency.
    • There is potential to be profitable.


The point is that effective strategy development and execution is more likely when we cut through the clutter and get to what matters most: aspirations, priorities, and boundaries. Too often, these basic elements can become obscured by an overflow of data (e.g., stakeholder surveys, SWOT analyses, community needs assessments, etc.). While data has a role to play in strategy development, we need to remember that what matters most at the end of the process can be counted on three fingers…no joke.

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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