The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

"Every nonprofit leader who breaks out of the three-year planning cycle to form strategies as opportunities and challenges arise is manning the strategy revolution barricades"

- The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, page XV

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution sets out to help nonprofits rethink the way they do strategic planning. The book is packed full of tools and examples of how real-time strategic planning works and how it is different than traditional strategic planning. David La Piana has built a consulting firm to help nonprofits to apply “strategic restructuring.” The book was written in 2008 and is still valuable today as the pace of business continues to increase with the help of technology. Traditional strategic planning consists of sitting with a team and building a 3-5 year strategic plan over a 6 month to year timeframe. In 2014 the issue is that many nonprofits are still doing this and according to La Piana it can be deemed ineffective. Trends and climate change rapidly and nonprofits need to be ready to adapt to those changes if they want to stay effective. Real-time strategic planning is a process that will bring in staff and board members to be ready to approach opportunities and challenges with continued responsiveness.

The Golden Egg

Golden Egg: The biggest takeaway from the book

Crafting a strategy screen

"Knowing why you are making a specific decision is an important strategic capacity because it challenges your thinking, helps you to bring others along in embracing strategic decisions and creates an organizational memory composed of the rationale for past decisions."
- The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, page 65

A tool that La Piana presents for how organizations can make important decisions is the Strategy Screen. “A Strategy Screen,” he writes, “is a set of criteria that your organization uses to choose whether or not a particular strategy is consistent with its identity.” Think of a grid. Column one will consist of criteria which organizations want to base decisions on. This will usually include 5-8 essential points. This might include: Is it consistent with the mission? Does it build on current competitive advantages? Will it reinforce our client’s view of us as a prefered choice?  Each organization’s criteria will be different. Once a challenge emerges, the strategic team will list possible strategies that organization would consider to address this challenge in columns 2-4, or however many options they have. Teams discuss each option and how it measures to the criteria.  This could be simply using a number system with ratings 0-3. Finally, the team adds up the numbers to get a sense of what the best choice is.

Strategic screen is a simple concept but underused. How often because of the routine of doing 3-5 year marketing plans and living in a reactive environment do we miss out on opportunities or effective solutions? The strategic screen really reminds us in the nonprofit sector that the mission statement we have on all our printed material means something and should be in the forefront of our decision-making. Once the criteria for a nonprofit is formulated, it can be used through the organization’s departments. It is a simple but practical tool that should be added to best practices for nonprofits strategic planning.

Gem #1

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

Understanding and knowing how to respond to "Big Questions"

"It is just the nature of organizational life — perfection is never within reach. Moreover a new opportunity or challenge can arrive at any time, rendering our beloved way of doing things suboptimal, or even downright useless. Thus we should always be open to developing new strategies – and not just when our current strategies are in trouble."
- The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, page 71

Applying real-time strategic planning creates the opportunities to make effective choices when met with an opportunity or challenge. These moments are what La Piana addresses as the Big Question. “A Big Question is an opportunity or threat to which the organization must respond. Usually, it is beyond the scope of the organization’s current strategies, thus requiring a new strategy.” Working in the nonprofit sector, these big questions come with new opportunities, when another organization can be a threat to an organization’s efforts, or when there is a challenge to the organization’s business model. The vital part is knowing how to detect these Big Question moments and then applying the strategic screen. The Big Question is not something hypothetical that traditional strategic planning tends to focus on. Big Questions are real and usually need to have a timely and effective response to ensure the efficiency of the organization.

When I was working for a nonprofit, every time a Big Question came up the response from the COO was, “is it financially viable?” Which, he was right on. That should be an element of the strategic screen. However, it cannot be the only one. If organization’s solely base big questions on one factor, they might miss out on opportunities that will help their organization make a bigger impact. The concept of the strategic screen encourages organizations to look at multiple criteria when faced with Big Questions.

Gem #2

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

A fast response environment

"The capacity to rapidly discard failed strategies and adopt new ones is a major advantage of the nonprofit strategy revolution."
- The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, page 85

The strategy screen allows organizations to assess possible strategies as they are developed. Once a criteria is implemented that the organization believes it should base decisions on, anyone can “scrub” their idea against the criteria bases. In addition, the vetting of different strategies can be done in a timely manner, allowing the focus to switch to implementation. Traditional strategic planning is a drawn out process; while the planning is taking place the organization is already being hit with the effects of the challenge. It can become more of a reactive versus proactive environment. Utilizing the strategic screen allows for organizations to rule out invalid strategy quickly. Nonprofits have to be business savvy and ready to make big decisions quickly as the market continues to grow and competition arises. As business continues to move at a faster pace, nonprofits like for profits are going to have to find ways to stay on top of their game to achieve their mission.

The strategy screen is only one tool that La Piana offers in The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution.  He provides examples as well as 27 tools which can now be accessed on their website. While some might think this revolution is outdated, I would say it’s not. From large nonprofits to small grassroots nonprofits, many organizations are still adopting the strategic plan that takes a lot of time to develop to only sit on a shelf. It’s crucial for organizations to stay viable and have active strategic planning. This book is great for new nonprofit leaders as well as people who are on business development teams. Best practice organizations are going to create an environment where staff are able to take part in strategic planning. This book provides great tools for staff to create productive and informative ideas to support the future of their nonprofit.

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Amy Bontrager

ABOUT Amy Bontrager

Amy has a passion for the nonprofit sector. “How to be business savvy, while changing the world.” She earned her MS in Nonprofit Management in 2010...
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