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Connecting Mission and Strategy

Posted September 30, 2009 12:21 PM by Dylan Miyake

A few years ago, V. Kasturi Rangan from Harvard Business School argued that nonprofits need to have more than just a lofty mission to survive. In his article, entitled "Lofty Missions, Down-to-Earth Plans," he argued that nonprofits need a systematic method that connects their callings to their programs.

I believe that the central premise of the article, that strategy is critical missing step in many organizations, is even more relevant today than it was went he first authored the article in 2004. While it was only five years ago, 2004 seems like a generation ago when we look at fundraising, operations, and programs. Consider this statement:

In fact, many nonprofits don't have a strategy at all. They rally under the banner of a particular cause, be it "Fight homelessness" or "End hunger." And then, since that cause is so worthwhile, nonprofits support any program that's related to it--even if only tangentially. While it's hard to fault people for trying to improve the state of the world, this approach is misguided. Acting without a clear long-term strategy can stretch an agency's core capabilities and push it in unintended directions.

Can we still (indeed, could we ever) afford to do "anything and everything" related to our mission? No. We need to make hard decisions about what we will invest in and what we cannot invest in. This doesn't mean that -- to take an example from Dress for Success -- that providing quality clothes for women to go to court is not a worthwhile endeavor, it just means that it is not core to Dress for Success's mission of helping advance women in the workplace.

Dr. Rangan outlines a four step process in his article which is worth reading, but I think many nonprofits can simplify this process dramatically by simply thinking of the their theory of change as the "glue" which connects their mission to their strategy. The theory of change simply outlines what you will do differently in order to achieve your mission results.

For example, if you are trying to tackle homelessness in Atlanta, will you focus on:

  • Mortgage adjustments and keeping people in homes they own?
  • Building quality subsidized housing?
  • Drug counseling?
  • Shelters and temporary housing facilities?

    All of these are good, valid, and noble ways that you can address the homeless problem. But each approach -- each theory of change -- is very different, and requires different funding, different programs, different staff, and different activities.

    Once you've decided on your theory of change, that's when you can start crafting your strategy. Or, to keep it as simple as possible, what you will and won't do in order to execute on your theory of change. If, to continue the analogy above, your theory of change is that by providing people with shelters and temporary housing, you can break the cycle of homelessness and get people back on their feet, what will you do to make that happen?

    We typically help organizations describe their strategy using a strategy map. While imperfect, the map is a good way for people to visually understand the tradeoffs and the cause and effect linkages in their strategy. So, if you were going to build shelters, your map might include themes like:

  • Fundraising and Development
  • Shelter Management
  • Community Engagement

    These themes would capture the key elements of your strategy and help you (and your board, staff, and stakeholders) understand what you are doing about the homeless problem. Executive Directors that we've worked with at Ascendant have been particularly excited about how the strategy map they've created has helped them with fundraising, since it outlines to funders their unique strategy in a way that makes sense.

    Once you've built your map, you need to start measuring and aligning your programs with it. Then you need to start managing with it. But this is a great way to get started.

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