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The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid-Response World

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid-Response World

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The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid-Response World

289 página
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Lançado em:
Aug 7, 2018


GROUNDBREAKING UPDATES: This second edition features a timely new preface and introduction; updated exhibits and case examples showing how concepts play out in real-life; five new tools, for a total of 32 new strategies.

INDUSTRY LEADER: La Piana Consulting has worked with more than 1,000 organizations and is recognized as one of the social sector’s leading thinkers and consultants.

WIDESPREAD AUDIENCE: The smart and nimble plan developed in The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution Second Edition appeals to large audience including nonprofit leaders, educators, organizational leaders, consultants, organizational founders, and philanthropists alike.

Lançado em:
Aug 7, 2018

Sobre o autor

David La Piana, the founder of La Piana Consulting, is recognized as one of the social sector's leading thinkers and consultants. He is known for an ability to quickly get to the core of complex strategic questions and for working collaboratively with clients to devise innovative solutions that meet their needs and accelerate their growth. David coined the term "strategic restructuring" to refer to the continuum of mergers, joint ventures, consolidations, and joint programming through which nonprofits attempt to anticipate or respond to environmental threats and opportunities. He works closely with major foundations and national nonprofits to promote new ideas and tools that can enhance nonprofits' effectiveness. His work is driven by a commitment to building a more just and equitable world. David has taught graduate level courses at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the University of San Francisco's Institute for Nonprofit Organization Management. A popular speaker, he is a regular contributor to the national dialogue on nonprofit and foundation effectiveness and the future of the social sector. He is widely published and frequently interviewed by the media for his opinions on trends in the sector. He also recently published his first novel: First Generation. David's latest nonprofit book is The Nonprofit Business Plan: A Leader's Guide to Creating a Successful Business Model. Among his many previously-published books and monographs are: The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid-Response World (2008);Play to Win: The Nonprofit Guide to Competitive Strategy (2005), voted in the top three Nonprofit Book of the Year Awards from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management;The Nonprofit Mergers Workbook, Part I: Considering, Negotiating, and Executing a Merger (2000, 2nd edition 2008); and Part II: Unifying the Organization After A Merger (2004);Strategic Restructuring: Mergers, Integrations, and Alliances (2003);Tool for Assessing Startup Nonprofits: Due Diligence Guide for Grantmakers (2003);Real Collaboration: A Guide for Grantmakers (2001);Beyond Collaboration: Strategic Restructuring for Nonprofit Organizations (1997) David received his Master of Public Administration degree in nonprofit management from the University of San Francisco, and holds graduate and undergraduate degrees from the University of California at Berkeley. A former VISTA volunteer, David has held senior management positions with the YMCA, The International Institute, and East Bay Agency for Children, a multifaceted human services agency which grew ten-fold under his leadership.

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The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution - David La Piana



Welcome to the Revolution

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.

—Emma Goldman¹

WELCOME! By opening this book, you have already told me three important things about yourself. First, that you care deeply about a nonprofit organization, or perhaps about a whole array of nonprofits, you are or have been involved with. Second, that you are either in a leadership position in a nonprofit, a foundation, or a consultancy serving nonprofits; or you aspire to be such a leader in the future. And third, (I can guess) that you are frustrated and dissatisfied with the traditional approach to strategic planning that you may have experienced.

Then again, if you are contemplating a strategic planning process, maybe you picked up this book because you want to ensure that your organization’s investment of time and money yields something of commensurate value. Perhaps you are uncertain whether the traditional strategic planning approach—the type you’ve read about, experienced, and had recommended by consultants—will do the trick.

These concerns are longstanding and widespread. This is a journey that began back in 2003 with the thought that there had to be a better way to help nonprofits to think and act strategically. A group of enlightened funders agreed (see Acknowledgements) and supported our efforts to find out if my hunch was right. By 2008, we had discovered some basic truths about nonprofits and strategic planning (which will be described in this book) and the revolution was on. That was ten years ago and over that long, eventful decade much has changed in our world, our democracy, and our sector, but also much has remained the same.

We carry computers masquerading as telephones in our pockets but there are still millions of kids without access to a computer in their schools. A new record for political spending seems to be hit with every election cycle but there are still not enough resources or political will to provide access to health care for everyone. Cars may soon be driving themselves (where was this innovation ten years ago, when I was teaching my kids to drive?) but we have reached a turning point in climate change where scientists now talk not of preventing major changes to our environment but of adapting civilization to them. And at the heart of our sector, nonprofits today have access to more data, more targeted ways of reaching out to constituents, and more young, brilliant, and dedicated changemakers who want to work for them than ever before but most are still using a strategic planning paradigm from the 1950s. What’s up with that?

In 2018, leaders of many—if not most—nonprofits face a VUCA world. First coined by the U.S. military to describe the situation they faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

•  Volatility signifies rapid change, a world where nothing long remains static.

•  Uncertainty describes the unpredictability of our world; we don’t know what will come next.

•  Complexity indicates that the causes of change are many and interwoven.

•  Ambiguity acknowledges that we often don’t even know the terms of the struggle, which levers will affect which outcomes, and if we are seeing the whole picture before making decisions.

From the battlefield to Wall Street to Main Street to the nonprofit board room, leaders have begun to realize that their organizations now face not only problems, in the traditional sense of situations that can be planned for and—at least theoretically—solved, but also dilemmas, new and unclear situations that by their very nature cannot be solved. There are many causes of increasing VUCA in the nonprofit world, most of which will be familiar: political polarization, the breakdown of democratic institutions and the rebirth of a new Far Right at home and abroad, the rise of social media as a means of interacting with the world, historic levels of economic inequality, corporate capture of our politics (elected officials responding to the interests of wealth ahead of constituents), the breakdown of trust in mainstream media as people on the political left and the right choose an echo chamber over a shared reality, and hastily devised changes to the tax code that were not vetted for their impact on the economy or anything else.

Long-term strategic planning, which rose to prominence in the American-dominated global economy of the 1950s, assumes a knowable world where problems can be identified, quantified, and solved, reducing future uncertainty. But increasingly, this worldview and the periodic (every three to five years) planning schedule it suggests, are giving way to a new paradigm where progress is made through deliberate, ongoing, active engagement with the VUCA environment. This shift requires a different kind of leader: in place of The Planner of old, today’s nonprofit needs The Strategist.

Our Real-Time Strategic Planning methodology detailed in this book was developed for the VUCA world, offering a new way for organizations to respond to ever-emerging opportunities and challenges. Beyond the methodology, however, today’s nonprofit leader needs to understand and embrace the CEO’s role as strategist-in-chief and boundary-spanner, the person who ensures data—especially unwelcome data—new ideas, and creative people from outside the organization are regularly brought in. Forming and executing strategy in a VUCA world isn’t easy, and long-term plans have a way of either blowing up or becoming irrelevant as circumstances develop unpredictably. Thus, our emphasis on real-time strategy.

Even back in 2003, La Piana Consulting had worked with hundreds of nonprofit and foundation leaders who shared our frustrations. Determined to find a better way, during research over the next four years toward the development of this book (for a description of this research, see Introduction), I heard consistent complaints about the time, money, and effort going into traditional strategic planning, and the often-puny yield in terms of genuinely useful strategic direction and progress. As a result, I had to pause and ask, Why do we keep doing it this way? You may have heard the adage that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result. Traditional nonprofit strategic planning may not be insane, but it is certainly inefficient, lacking in power, and outmoded. By 2008, I felt it was high time for a revolution in our approach to strategic thinking in the sector.

Beginning with our pilot efforts over four years and the warm reception for the first edition of this book, we’ve watched as the revolution took hold. And, staying true to Emma Goldman’s hedonistic spirit, our readers and clients have told us that this new approach could also be a lot more fun than traditional strategic planning. Courtland Gould, executive director at Sustainable Pittsburgh, speaks to this, saying, "We try to follow the Nonprofit Strategy Revolution approach of really focusing on strategies for competitiveness, and it’s freed us up from the arduousness of what traditionally passes as strategic planning."

After hundreds of strategy engagements and dozens of stories from thoughtful readers, we realized it was time for a second edition of this work. As in the first edition, I still explore alternative ways of forming strategies—patterns of behavior that can help your organization achieve its mission. The original ideas and tools are still here, updated by our much greater experience (and much more gray in much less hair), and they still go beyond traditional nonprofit strategic planning methods, as our research suggested they would be more effective. This new edition offers additional insights, refinement of some processes, and some new tools to add to your tool chest, but the central message remains: traditional strategic planning is inadequate to the challenges you face in a rapid-response world, and a more flexible, dynamic, ongoing strategy development process—a revolution in strategy formation—is essential.

As we explore Real-Time Strategic Planning, I offer a new context for some familiar and traditional strategic planning activities, such as the environmental scan. Make no mistake, these activities can be useful. My intent has never been to throw the strategic baby out with the planning bath water. Instead, I want to help you take the best of traditional strategic planning, recontextualize it in a more flexible and powerful way, and augment it with tools that can fuel ongoing strategic thinking and acting throughout your organization—and to do it all faster.

I will also share what we have learned over the past decade using Real-Time Strategic Planning with hundreds of clients. Interestingly, when we first developed this methodology, we conceived of it as a DIY strategy development process for smaller nonprofits that would not be able to afford the time or money for more elaborate strategic engagements. As a result, in the development phase our pilot groups were mostly grassroots. Despite this intent, to our delight, we have discovered that larger and more complex organizations across the sector are also embracing the revolution. For example, we worked with Y USA to adapt our process to the needs of their eight hundred-plus local associations. Daniel Chonowski, former CEO of Greater Peoria Family YMCA said, The model encourages thinking with clarity and acting immediately so that it’s a continuous planning and responding cycle. Board Trustee, William Fisher, added: It is about identifying the potential and living up to it, and narrowing the gap between our aspiration and our reality.²

Nonprofits stick with traditional approaches to strategic planning despite their widespread dissatisfaction for one principal reason: until recently, they have had no alternative. Consider that the only term in general use to discuss strategy in the sector is strategic planning, as if the process (in this case planning) and its object (forming strategy) were one and the same. Most resources on strategic planning offer variations on the traditional theme. They alter the steps in the process, their order, or their relative emphasis, and they may bring new technologies to bear. Meanwhile, through our team’s research and practice on the ground with real nonprofit organizations, we have come to believe that it is not the process, the quality of the work done, or the precise order of the steps that make traditional strategic planning such a frustrating experience. The problem is more basic than that. The evidence that traditional strategic planning improves an organization’s performance is, at best, very mixed.

We think nonprofits can do better.

Recently, other voices have joined us in calling for a strategy first approach to strategic planning. In 2016, BoardSource, the nonprofit sector’s go-to resource for governance expertise, unveiled its strategy framework, a streamlined and strategy-forward alternative to its more traditional strategic plans of the past. Its President and CEO, Anne Wallestad, has since been a strong advocate for real-time strategy, stating in her plenary speech at the 2017 BoardSource Leadership Forum: At the organizational level, I firmly believe that there is no strength in rigidly defined plans, business models that are inflexible, or any other way of operating that relies on a static or stable environment. Indeed, we are only as strong as our ability to change.³

The focus of traditional strategic planning is to produce a formal written document, within a preset time frame, that will endure for a predetermined length of time (usually three years), and cover a predetermined list of areas with very specific (and often distant) goals and objectives. This focus is just not compatible with the formation of effective strategy in a functioning nonprofit in today’s rapid-response world. Or, as McGill University business professor Henry Mintzberg put it to me much more succinctly: Strategy is not planning. He explained that the structures and processes characteristic of planning often stymie the necessary fluidity and organic nature of real strategy formation.

The fatal flaw in traditional strategic plans is that, once complete, they are not fluid and organic but static—and as a result they quickly grow stale. Since variations on the traditional strategic planning theme all share this same basic flaw, it is not surprising that none of them can reliably and efficiently produce the result nonprofit leaders are looking for when they decide to undertake strategic planning: more powerful strategies that will enhance their organization’s success.

Beyond VUCA and technological reasons for more rapid cycling of opportunities and challenges, and thus the need for faster iteration of strategies, in recent years, our increasingly polarized political world has merged with social media and alternative media outlets in an unholy alliance. In this new context, any nonprofit (or its primary constituency) can become the target of spurious attacks overnight. Nimble strategy can help a nonprofit to respond authentically and quickly. For example, The National Council of La Raza (now UnidosUS) found that its use of the real-time approach to develop strategy could not have been more well-timed. Sonia Pérez, COO reflects: Little did we know the 2016 election would turn out as it did and demand the flexibility to shift things around and not be held to a long list of deliverables over five years. Since then, we’ve been having the experience where literally every day there’s another issue emerging at the federal level and it’s helpful to stay focused on the bigger picture, while at the same time we know we can make adjustments where we need to.

Another pressure on nonprofits’ strategy is related to climate change. The increased frequency and severity of hurricanes, droughts, and fires, means that a nonprofit’s long-range plans can literally go up in smoke. Those that can respond the quickest in a disaster will be best positioned to serve their communities. For example, urged by its board chair, Main Street Ministries in Houston has made it a priority to hire strategic thinkers who constantly engage with one another and the board in generative, what if discussions, and practice rapid response to changing circumstances over creating a fixed strategic plan. This paid off in 2017 when, in the immediate wake of Hurricane Harvey, a potential donor called and asked, How soon can you start delivering services? Sonja Gee, CEO, was able to answer: We have already begun, and a substantial gift was made. To quickly mobilize its volunteer workforce, Main Street Ministries had to delay opening a long-planned new service, but it didn’t hesitate to make this choice. Immediate needs came first and the organization had developed the strategic muscles it needed to exercise to make a quick decision. As I recently heard at a gathering of board chairs, The benefit of strategy is alignment and the benefit of alignment is speed.

Even without an epic flood, the world is dangerous and unpredictable, change comes at a rapid pace, and nonprofits must be ready.

Clearly, nonprofits need a new paradigm of strategy formation now more than ever. The rapid-response (or, if you like, VUCA) world in which we live requires nonprofits to identify, understand, and act upon new information and dynamically changing situations in real time; that means now, not in six months when the plan is finished. Making the shift to a new and faster approach to strategy is not easy, but it is increasingly gaining

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