February 3, 2015

Are Management Tools a Missing Link Between Aspiration and Action?

The abundance of resources available to help leaders improve their organizations' performance includes a wide variety of management tools—practices, activities, or processes ranging from analytical devices such as donor segmentation or organizational diagnostics to elaborate processes such as strategic planning or constituent engagement.

Let's suppose you're the leader of a nonprofit whose programs you believe have significant potential to make a real difference in the world.

Let's also suppose you've embraced the belief that what actually generates meaningful social value and improves people's lives is demonstrated performance—not assertions of effectiveness but the consistent, high-quality, and unglamorous delivery of programs and services that work.

The practical question you'll inevitably confront is what do you actually do to bridge the gap between your aspirations for impact and your pragmatic need to act to realize your organization's full potential? The good news is that there are abundant resources available to help you with every facet of management and leadership. Of particular note are what we refer to as "management tools": practices, activities, or processes that can help leaders address a wide variety of challenges. These tools range from analytical devices, such as donor segmentation or organizational diagnostics, to elaborate processes, such as strategic planning or constituent engagement. And the tools have evolved in practical, real-world settings—often first in the business world—and have the potential to help almost any organization improve its performance.

The bad news is that the number and complexity of these tools can make it very difficult for leaders to sort out even basic issues, such as which tools are most useful in what situations and how to select and apply them effectively. It is especially difficult to do this in a way that is cost-effective and convenient for nonprofit leaders who are already funding constrained and over burdened, perhaps like you.

This is the challenge The Bridgespan Group has taken on with our Nonprofit Management Tools and Trends project. Our goal is ambitious: to create a multi-faceted, ongoing, practical management resource for nonprofit leaders that will be a key element of the missing link between your aspirations and desire for action. We have a strong model in the experience of global consultants Bain & Company, which since 1993 has run a similar management tools and trends project that has become a widely used resource for business leaders around the world.

Shaped by a panel of more than two dozen practitioners, funders, and intermediaries, our survey focused on determining current and anticipated usage of 25 tools, amount of effort invested, and resulting user satisfaction. To provide context for these decisions, the survey also captured perspectives on 21 major trends, ranging from attitudes toward performance measurement to big data analytics. In all, 481 nonprofit leaders, primarily in the U.S., participated.

The most visible initial product of this effort is our report, which summarizes the results of the survey and highlights selected insights.

The three big headlines:

  • The use of management tools by nonprofits is widespread and poised for further growth
  • Tools that involve interaction among people and organizations appear to be more popular than purely analytic ones, with partnerships and collaborations leading in use and satisfaction
  • Satisfaction with tools used is generally high but varies with effort invested

Perhaps more interesting and tantalizing, though, are richer findings that emerged from deeper analysis, especially of apparent incongruities between views expressed on distinct trends and tools. Among them:

  • Nonprofit leaders see a need to increase performance measurement both to strengthen impact and their case for program funding, but few believe funders will increase support for evaluations
  • Many nonprofits consider talent management a key issue, but 60 percent have not taken advantage of tools that could help assess and develop employees
  • Leaders' attitudes toward specific pathways to scaling their organizations' impact vary dramatically by size of organization, but also reveal widespread commitment to building on their core programs rather than developing new ones

To be sure, we believe the long-term value of the Nonprofit Management Tools and Trends project will not lie in a one-off report, even though we expect this to be very useful. Again, our aim is bigger: to build a potent, ongoing resource for nonprofit leaders that you can access at your will to help you and your organizations bridge the gap between aspiration and action. To that end, we've built our website to offer immediate support and guidance to leaders desiring to better understand these particular management tools. For each tool, we provide definitions, detailed notes on usage and methodologies, selected examples and/or case studies and references to other useful sources of information about them.

In addition, over the next several months we will be rolling out other resources:

  • A video that elaborates on key tools, what they are, how they differ, and how they can be most powerfully applied
  • A webinar on how to select and utilize management tools for maximum benefit
  • New studies and blogs growing out of further analysis of the current survey results

This project's success ultimately will come down to whether it has been helpful to you and other nonprofit leaders. Accordingly, we want and need not only your engagement but also your candid feedback on every aspect of what we are building.

Please feel free to let us know what you think in the comment field below.

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