How to set your priorities straight

In the nonprofit world, there is always plenty to do – more than we can actually accomplish at any one time. And sometimes we have a whole list of things that seem both important and urgent.

In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey uses a method for setting personal priorities, noting that we often focus on the immediate and unimportant (e.g. email) at the expense of longer-term and more important goals.

In working at and with different nonprofit organizations and foundations, I’ve learned a useful framework to help set a program or organization’s priorities. I call it the Lift-Reward-Risk Method.

Whether you’re making choices about strategic investments, evaluating potential program partners, or assessing a list of potential donors or funders, the Lift-Reward-Risk Method can help you examine where to invest your time, effort, and resources.

Here’s how it works. For each item on your list, evaluate the following:

  • Lift. How much effort will it take to do? (Heavy, Medium, Light)
  • Reward. What’s the potential gain if you succeed? (High, Medium, Low)
  • Risk. What is the probability of failure (or, inversely, success)? (High, Medium, Low)

So let’s say you have a list of potential funders and you need to prioritize so you can focus your efforts on writing grant proposals. If there’s a funder that is a heavy lift, a low reward, and a high risk, then knock it down on your list – it’s probably not worth the effort. However, If a funder is a heavy lift and high risk but a high reward, it might be worth prioritizing. If you have a bunch of light funders with low rewards and low risks, it might be worth it to invest time in some and then invest the rest of your time in that other big whale of a funder. Either way, at least you can have a clear decision-making process for setting priorities. This is useful for your own work but just as important, if not more important, when working with a team. It helps to make sure everyone is on the same page about the work and where the team should focus its energy.

And remember: lowering the priority of something doesn’t mean not doing it – it just means not doing it now or not investing as much time and effort into it now. Because we all have limited time and resources and we should be using them in the most efficient and effective way possible.

So consider the lift, reward, and risk of your options. It will make it easier to move forward with confidence.

Is your team or organization clear about priorities? Is there a clear process for making decisions about priorities, and how to handle unexpected opportunities? What methods do you use to set priorities for yourself, your team, and your organization?




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