A Simple Framework to Set Priorities for Your Mission Driven Organization
Nonprofit organizations are expected to deliver results on multiple fronts. The result can be a nightmare for prioritization. A simple framework that spells out the tradeoffs between mission, resources, advantages and impact can help sort it out.
If you lead a nonprofit, my guess is that you are constantly grappling with the reality of multiple missions. It can lead to a strategy-free, frustrating existence that wastes resources. Here, I’m going to use an approach inspired by my mentor, Ian MacMillan.
Mission and Intended Impact
Nonprofits often have grand mission statements that leave the question of what success would look like unclear. Instead, specify impact. At Larkin Street Youth Services the intended impact is: “help homeless youths, ages 12 to 24, in the San Francisco Bay area develop the self-sufficiency and skills to live independently.”
Mission clarity and mission fit are the first dimension.
Munificence of resources
Notwithstanding your mission, you still have to pay the bills! The quality of outcomes has little bearing on the amount of resources made available to charitable causes. There are literally hundreds of examples of vast resources being poured into solving social problems to virtually no effect.
This is a key reason to separate mission fit from the potential “market.”
Seeking out underserved customers
The most successful nonprofits (as Kevin Barenblat of Fast Forward points out) “commit first to reaching an underserved population, which often includes higher acquisition costs and lower lifetime value. This unwavering focus on an underserved market segment, even when there are others who could benefit from the nonprofit’s programs, drives all aspects of the organization’s strategy.”
A final dimension is how effectively your nonprofit can tackle the problem. Nonprofits can leverage the capabilities and resources of other entities, amplifying the good that can be done by any one of you.
Consider the Crisis Text Line, which provides free text-messaging crisis intervention 24 hours a day. It is a free service, staffed by unpaid counselors (supervised by paid staff). The texts are free because Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T waive charges for messages, and also do not put these texts on billing records. This would never be possible for a for-profit, and has proved to be a literal lifeline to people struggling with mental health issues.
By juxtaposing these elements — clarity of and fit with mission, resource munificence, advantages and customer segment being targeted — MacMillan created this framework.
Category 1 is the core offering. The fit with the mission is great, there are resources to be had and the goal is to become one of the top providers for the selected constituency. Category 2 is an opportunity to develop and penetrate a new segment of customers. Categories 3, 7, 9 and 10 are all candidates for disengagement, as they either don’t fit the mission, can’t be addressed effectively by the focal organization or could be transferred to other providers. Category 4’s fate will depend on whether you believe you can build capability and that it will be worth it.
Categories 5 and 8 represent cases where, because the resources required are hard to capture, a nonprofit can either cede ground to another alternative provider or work collaboratively, as we saw in the case of the Crisis Text Line.
Category 6 is the great conundrum, because it fits the mission, you’re the only game in town, and you’re badly needed. This is an area in which you may cross-subsidize services from your more resource-rich counterparts.
Harlem Children’s Zone: An illustrative case study
Rheedlen Centers for Families and Children was founded in 1970. By the late 80’s the charity had a plethora of programs — a family-support network, a homelessness prevention program, and a senior center. Geoffrey Canada became President in 1990. Its programs were successful — Canada had to institute a waiting list.
As he later said, “Sure, the 500 children who were lucky enough to be participating in one of his programs were getting help, but why those 500 and not the 500 on the waiting list? Or why not another 500 altogether? For that matter, why 500 and not 5,000? If all he was doing was picking some kids to save and letting the rest fail, what was the point?”
Re-Defining the mission and divesting activities without a fit
In 2002, Canada began an effort that would transform the charity. The agency was renamed the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) and adopted its original mission to a clear statement of impact: that 3,000 children, ages 0 to 18 living in the zone, should have demographic and achievement profiles consistent with those found in an average US middle-class community. This focus led the organization to shift resources out of programs that were not aligned, such as the homelessness prevention program, and invest in those that were, such as a Head Start program and a charter elementary school.
Serving an under-served population
Harlem Children’s Zone proudly boasts an 88% “market penetration” of potential recipients of its services by the children in the Zone. Canada is incredibly specific about the children he regards as “his.” “We want the kids who don’t have two parents, whose parents haven’t gone to college, who haven’t got a chance statistically of making it.’’
Choosing not to get involved in programs where HCZ doesn’t have an advantage
Canada divides the problems of his beneficiaries into the ones he needs to solve and the ones he doesn’t need to solve. The ones he needs to solve are the ones that are keeping the child from succeeding in school. Everything else, he has decided, he can leave alone.
Today, the Harlem Children’s Zone boasts impressive numbers. A 97% college acceptance rate for its students. 22,500 children and adults served annually. Revenues of over $161 million. And a promising role model as a vehicle for ending intergenerational poverty.
If your mission-driven organization were wildly successful, how would we know? Who would be helped? Then put together a list of the programs you are currently supporting. Are they serving an unserved but important segment? Are resources to support the activity readily available? Are you really good at offering the solution?
If this intrigues you, get in touch. I can point you to great resources for helping people sort out their strategies, whether it’s to make money or save the world!
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