Transforming Nonprofit Strategy

By Deborah McGlauflin, President, Insights in Action, Inc.

The answers to four key questions reveal what funders most want to know about a nonprofit organization’s strategy and are conventionally viewed as constituting the essence of a traditional strategic plan and the heart of fundraising proposals:

  1. What concrete and measurable impact is the organization committing to be held accountable for – what is the intended impact, on whom and by when (need/rationale, goals and objectives), and how will success be measured (evaluation criteria)?
  2. How will the impact be achieved? (the methodology and main phases of the workplan)
  3. What capacity is required in order to achieve the impact? (know-how, personnel, technology, and  other essential infrastructure)
  4. What will it all cost and how will it be funded? (the budget for whatever duration of time is needed to achieve the objectives)

The assumptions behind these questions, and the dynamic set in motion when an organization sets out to prove its professionalism and worthiness of funding by answering them, have gone largely unquestioned.  In fact, these questions have tended to drive nonprofits to articulate convictions and persuade funders and others that they understand a problem in society and know what to do to solve it.  These questions also subtly encourage and sustain a mindset that 1) views problems in an externalized and often adversarial way, 2) perpetuates dualistic thinking that separates not only those experiencing the problem from those seeking to solve it, but also those solving it from those funding the solutions, and 3) presumes resources are scarce and must be competed for and accepts the inevitability of “winners” and “losers.”

While this framework might continue to work well into the future for many “mainstream” nonprofits, more and more activist nonprofits are finding it to be constraining and inadequate to get beyond tilting rather ineffectually at the problems that are causing the most suffering in the world.  These problems tend to be highly resistant to being “solved” because they are deeply rooted in levels of awareness that can only be outgrown.  They call for joining the outer work of taking responsibility for each other and our world with the inner work of taking responsibility for the evolution of human consciousness at both the individual and collective levels.

The time may be right for some activist nonprofits and funders to experiment with approaching planning and fundraising from a very different set of assumptions:

  • What if they saw problems not merely as something other and outside of us to be tackled and solved, but as helpful evolutionary signposts showing us where there are opportunities to look within.  This might entail different kinds and levels of introspection and dialog with the aim of understanding the excesses of ego and its plural partner “wego” and transforming the individual and institutionalized ill will, greed, and delusion that are at the root of so many problems.  How would this change the kind of impacts nonprofits set out to achieve, their objectives, and their way of measuring success?
  • What if they applied such universal spiritual tenets as 1) not knowing (deep listening and being open), 2) bearing witness (fully investigating and experiencing the situation from all perspectives, taking time to get to know all of its complexities, messiness, and interdependencies), and 3) taking action that is based on not knowing and bearing witness?  How would this change who nonprofits consider to be stakeholders and partners and how they engage them?
  • What if they shook off the trance of scarcity with all of its myths of lack, struggle and separation and woke up to abundance, shifting into the gift economy and other new and creative ways to help more people contribute their time and talents in ways that both transform them and sustain nonprofit activity? How would this change how nonprofits approach fundraising and volunteer engagement and how funders approach funding?

To be sure, such a radical reorientation would require considerable willingness to experiment and learn together on the part of some pioneering nonprofits and funders with distinctly transformational bents. Such an experiment could succeed only with a great deal of trust, curiosity, patience, flexibility, humor, and skillful communication.

Is the time right? If so, what intermediary organizations or networks might be good candidates to undertake and shepherd such an experiment, and mine and disseminate the knowledge gained from it?

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