By Louisa Hackett - What makes an organization effective? Sure strong managers, high performing staff, visionary leaders, sufficient resources and up-to-date technology all play a part. But a critical element, maybe the most critical, is clarity of purpose. Without knowing fundamentally what an organization is striving to accomplish and for whom, the chance to have the most effective programs is lost and muddled, diffuse programming can follow.Nonprofits can lose their way for a variety of reasons. Funding opportunities can determine how an organization grows and funder expectations can drive program design. Too often growth by RFP results in programs operating independently with little knowledge about or coordination with each other. Mission drift can also occur in the face of an overwhelming demand for services. Without direction about who gets priority, people are enrolled or helped on a first-come, first-served basis. But the individuals most in need of assistance may not be coming through the door.
How can answering a few questions make an organization effective? Asking and answering the right questions provides direction. Direction provides a clear focus that enables individuals, resources and programs to be aligned around activities that the organization has determined will produce intended results. In other words, the change the organization wants to make drives what an organization chooses to do.
Planning Question #1: Why does our organization exist?
There can be a long tenuous connection between what an organization wants to achieve and the specific role the organization plays to get there. Given the enormous obstacles nonprofits face in striving to make the world a better place, it is understandable how groups identify lofty and far reaching goals: world peace, full employment, college ready students, etc. The challenge is to be both expansive and focused.
Community Resource Exchange (CRE), for example, has always worked to make New York City more fair and just. That is a pretty big goal. While we have always known the focus of our work is nonprofit organizations fighting poverty and advancing social justice, we recently narrowed our focus even more by confirming our work is to make these organizations both stronger (management wise) and more effective (program wise).
Planning Question #2: For whom does our organization exist?
Defining who is being targeted for an organization’s change efforts can be simultaneously easy and hard. Easy because changing the world means there is a large sphere of impact: lots of people to help and policy issues to influence. Hard because given limited resources, choices need to be made. We can’t impact everything and serve everyone. Deciding who or what gets attention is difficult because it is hard to say no.
Answering why we exist and for whom provides the framework for how to answer the next three critical questions:
- Planning Question #3: What does meaningful success look like?
- Planning Question #4: What programs and services get us to success?
- Planning Question #5: How do we manage for effectiveness?
Look out for part two of this blog post which will share examples of how other organizations have taken on answering questions three, four and five.
For more information about how CRE can help you answer these five strategic questions, please visit the Practice Areas section of our website.