Chess pawn piece seeing a queen piece in the mirror
Strategy Published Date, 2023

Promises To Keep: How Nonprofits Realize Their Missions By Realizing Who They Are

Created By: Craig Shelley, CFRE
February 7, 2023

Whether they’re mom-and-pop shops or multinational corporations, businesses succeed when they develop a compelling vision and stay focused.

David Aaker of the international consulting firm Prophet calls this a brand vision, writing that it “should reflect and support the business strategy, differentiate from competitors, resonate with customers, energize and inspire employees and partners, adapt to different markets and precipitate a gush of ideas for marketing programs.” He cautions, however, that the brand vision “cannot be an exercise in wishful thinking but, rather, needs to have substance behind it.”

The same goes for nonprofits, where idealism can sometimes distort the reflection in the mirror. A realistic understanding of who you are as an organization is the key to optimizing performance today and strategically planning for tomorrow.

As an advisor to nonprofit executives and fundraisers, I get to work with a wide variety of organizations, which exposes me to a range of missions and approaches. They generally fall into three categories—though the lines between them are often blurred:

  • Point solutions. These organizations treat a symptom of a problem. Food banks and homeless shelters come to mind. These are the oldest and most common form of nonprofit. They have measurable and controllable outcomes, which can be counted by straightforward metrics such as number of people served. While the basic needs these organizations fill have not diminished, a challenge as the sector becomes more sophisticated is that more donors are looking for “upstream” solutions. Another challenge: motivating staff and volunteers in the face of seemingly endless need.
  • Systems change. These organizations are attempting to eradicate the root causes of a problem. This approach requires collaboration—and patience. A single organization can’t change a system, and the hoped-for outcomes won’t occur within the fiscal year or on a schedule of your making.
  • Movement building. The stakes are highest here, but organizations have the least control over the outcome. “Movements define success globally,” writes Hildy Gottlieb in an influential Stanford Social Innovation Review essay from 2015. “If a movement is successful, things change for everyone. Organizations, on the other hand, often define success internally, by what the organization accomplishes for itself.”

I have often been in the room (or on the Zoom) when an executive director or board member declares that now is the time to launch a movement. The words can be inspiring, but there’s always a part of me that wonders whether this is how movements are born. Does the organization have a realistic self-image? Or is it making a promise that won’t come true?

Olga Tarasov and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors offer one useful exercise for looking in the organizational mirror. Operating Archetypes consist of three elements:

  • Charter. The organization’s scope, form of governance, and decision-making protocol.
  • Social compact. Implicit or explicit agreement with society about the value the organization will create, including questions of accountability and legitimacy.
  • Operating model. The approach to the resources, structures, and systems needed to implement strategy.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Tarasov says the framework “helps an organization articulate exactly what it seeks to achieve and how it deploys resources, capacities, talent, and relationships to achieve that vision and strategy. This, in turn, can inform better decision-making across the organization.” (Learn more about Operating Archetypes.)

Another, complementary pathway to achieving a clear understanding of your organization involves listening to your staff and honoring what they say. Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, describes this ongoing and often humbling process in his essay Building Resilient Organizations. “Many of our leaders,” he writes, “have prioritized hard skills and pragmatism over developing their ideological orientation or running transformative campaigns. Other organizations have an ideological analysis but lack the skills to develop an effective strategy and execute a campaign in a way that builds large bases.”

Mitchell offers a framework for developing organizations that are “structurally sound, ideologically coherent, strategically grounded, and emotionally mature”—and therefore not only resilient but impactful.

  • Structural. The organizational form, roles, and mission. What kind of vehicle are we?
  • Ideological. The organizational vision for the world. Where are we going?
  • Strategic. The organizational plan to advance toward this vision. How do we get there?
  • Emotional. The organization’s expectations of its people and people’s expectations of the organization in matters of emotional, physical, and spiritual care and well-being. How do we behave on the journey?

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and Mitchell both offer new approaches informed by the pandemic and the social reckoning of the past few years. Both are useful for nonprofits of all kinds. Some organizations improve the neighborhood and others operate globally. Some deliver services and others change systems. The best understand what they are—and what they aren’t.

Orr Group can help you build a strategy that is actionable, achievable, and grounded in reality. Get in touch today to learn more.

Craig Shelley, CFRE is a Partner and Chief Growth Officer at Orr Group. Craig advances the missions of nonprofits by bringing a change-management and entrepreneurial approach to strategy, organizational development, fundraising, and board optimization.

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