November 27, 2018

Two Signs that Your Strategy Needs a Refresh

External and internal factors can influence your nonprofit's need to rethink its strategy. 

By: Meera Chary

While nothing can eliminate the uncertainties that come with managing an organization, an effective strategy should help you respond to the challenges that come your way with greater confidence. If your strategy isn’t providing the guidance you need to make critical organizational decisions, it may be time to rethink it. Here are two signs that your strategy may need a refresh:

Sign #1: The environment around you has shifted, and your approach is no longer as high-impact or sustainable as it once was. Consider the following factors—any one of which might require you to reconsider your current strategy.

  • Policy and funding environment: Changes in local, state, or national policies or regulations can affect how you need to think about your strategy. Similarly, shifts in funder priorities or expectations can open or close revenue options.  For example, when the Affordable Care Act extended access to health insurance coverage to millions of people, many nonprofit healthcare providers had to think differently about how they would work with their clients or how they might fund services.
  • Competitive landscape: New organizations or programs in your region or sector might change how you think about your unique role in the ecosystem and present opportunities for collaboration or partnership. For example, a charter school operator struggling to provide high-quality aftercare might consider partnering with a youth organization that provides afterschool services.
  • Research on best practices: New insights related to your program model, the communities you work with, or your beneficiaries might change how you think about your services. The emergence of a new lifestyle intervention proven to reduce the risk of diabetes, for example, might be a reason for a public-health organization to revisit its strategy.

Sign #2: Your organization has evolved—and so has your definition of success. Changes inside your organization can also lead you to rethink your strategy. You may have achieved the goals you once set for yourself more quickly than you anticipated (great news!), or those goals may no longer resonate for you and your team, particularly if the team itself has changed significantly. New team members can often introduce new ideas and opportunities, while departures may have changed your ability to meet priorities on the same timeline.

For the Boston YWCA, a mix of internal and external signs emerged, compelling its leadership team to revisit the organization’s strategy. First, the CEO of 10 years retired—a turning point in the organization that allowed it to hone its strategy to focus on where the organization could have the greatest influence. “Over time, our program portfolio grew—we had six programs, seven depending on how you counted one of them—and we realized we weren’t able to have the impact we wanted in the city because we had such a disparate portfolio,” President and CEO Beth Chandler shared in a recent interview (see the interview below).

Second, Chandler and her team recognized that the external political climate created an opportunity to generate greater support. “Given all that is going on now in our country, we felt that we should be at the forefront of a lot of these issues and we were getting lost because it was hard to say who we were and what we were doing given all that we were doing.” Gaining greater clarity on its work enabled the organization to have better messaging when talking with potential funders and supporters.


So it’s time to refresh your strategy–now what?
The good news is that updating your strategy doesn’t have to mean throwing out everything old to begin anew. Instead, it’s an opportunity to touch base with your board, leadership team, staff, and key constituents to realign on what your North Star should be and how to create a strategy with goals that will achieve it.

An important first step of any strategic planning process is creating a strong anchor for your plan. Your executive team can do this by getting clear on what impact your organization seeks (your “Intended Impact”), and what cause-and-effect logic will lead to that impact (your “Theory of Change”). Developing and agreeing on an Intended Impact and Theory of Change will build a shared understanding and shared vocabulary across your executive team on the organization’s priorities. That will set the stage for determining what actions must take place, and what resources are required, to realize the impact the organization seeks. Chandler and her executive team started their strategic planning process in just this way aligning on an Intended Impact and Theory of Change.

Interested in support?
If you’re looking for a way to kick-start your strategic planning process, explore Bridgespan’s Achieving Strategic Clarity program. Our 16-week program combines online lessons with guided team meetings to help you team create an Intended Impact, Theory of Change, and a learning plan to test any open questions that linger. We’re taking applications for our September 2019 cohort now.

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