Do your programs add up?

In my last post, I wrote about misalignment between an organization’s problem statement and the solution it offers. This diminishes the organization’s value proposition and raises questions and doubts about its ability to solve the problem.

Another problem comes from misalignment between an organization’s mission and its strategies and programs. This creates different problems for both program implementation and fundraising and communications. Program staff may not understand or be on the same page about the purpose or goals of the work. Development and marketing staff may have a hard time selling programs that don’t seem to make sense or that are difficult to link to the organization’s overall goals. The result is a disjointed organization that feels stressed and unfocused. Oftentimes each individual strategy or program can make sense, each with its own clear purpose, rationale, and goals. A problem arises, however, when it is unclear how the programs either contribute to the organization’s mission or align with each other in a way that adds up to the mission.

There are several reasons why a program might not align with the mission or other programs. Sometimes the strategic plan is not clear enough to guide decision-making about program design. Sometimes older programs do not fit with the new direction an organization may take. Sometimes organizations receive funding to take on new work in a separate program. Sometimes organizations suffer from mission drift in an effort to acquire funding to support the organization. Whatever the reason, it may become difficult to explain or justify the work in a way that is consistent with the organization’s overall messaging.

In other cases, each of the programs may align with the mission, but they do not seem organized in a clear, logical manner. For instance, programs may have overlapping work, or, at the other extreme, completely disparate work that seems disconnected. It may be difficult to understand how the different programs will work together to achieve the mission. It may be hard to explain why programs were designed the way they are. There may be lots of questions about the rationale or thinking behind the creation or development of programs. And as with a single program that is not aligned with the mission, it can become increasingly difficult to find a coherent, consistent way to talk about the organization’s programs.

So what can be done to ensure alignment of mission, strategy, and programs? There are a few options:

  1. Ideally, programs are designed under the framework of a clear strategic plan. The plan would have a clear mission to provide strategic goals, articulate values that guide decision-making, and delineate purposeful strategies that demonstrate a strong rationale for achieving the mission through various strands of work. If your organization is having trouble aligning the different aspects of your organization, a new strategic plan may be in order. (And a theory of change will help to clarify your organization’s mission and purpose.)
  2. If the mission is clear and the strategies make sense, then you should take a look at your programs. It may be that some programs need to be refocused or repurposed, or you may need to look at your program framework – the overarching criteria that determine the nature of your programs. Though there are often concerns about losing funding when changing programs, it is often the case that it is easier to solicit funding when the programs are clarified and cohesive.
  3. Sometimes the work is clear, intentional, and in alignment with the mission, but how it is described is misleading or confusing. Rather than redesign your programs or rewrite your strategic plan, perhaps all you need is to redo your messaging. Clarifying the purpose and value of each program – and aligning each program with the mission – can help bring strategic focus and cohesion to your programs.

Strategic focus means acting with the goal in mind. When programs do not align with strategies or the mission, an organization can be unfocused, where staff have different ideas about what they are trying to achieve. This can lead to confusion, stress, disengagement, and lower performance for the organization.

Clarity of purpose and common understanding about how the organization plans to achieve its mission can energize staff, making them feel more comfortable and certain, and empowering them to succeed in their roles. Be sure to align your organization’s work so it is more focused, more productive, and more successful at achieving your mission.

Does your solution align with the problem?

When making the case for your organization’s work, it’s important that you can clearly and convincingly articulate the problem. In my experience, most organizations can paint a vivid picture of what’s wrong (though some struggle to talk about why it matters) but a common mistake I see is a misalignment of the problem and the solution.

Misalignment of the problem and the solution occurs when the solution presented does not clearly solve the problem as it’s described. For example:

  • The problem is defined as hunger in a city due to a lack of housing and employment options. The solution? To provide food through a food bank. This is a short-term, immediate remedy but it doesn’t address the housing and employment issues stated in the problem.
  • The problem is defined as widespread deforestation happening as a result of the advancing agricultural frontier, displaced communities, and encroaching industries. The solution? To engage local communities in planting trees. This solution adds trees back to the forest, but does not respond to the larger issues driving the problem (nor does it do so at the scale of the problem).
  • The problem is defined as a declining interest by children in science due to the way schools and assessments direct educators to teach science-related subjects. The solution? A project-based curriculum that teaches students about science in a more engaging way. This solution does provide an alternative that achieves the intended goal, but it doesn’t take into account the factors that are preventing teachers from using the same approach in their classes in the first place.

In these examples, you can see how the problem could be well-described in a compelling narrative. And the solutions – all of which are good, necessary ideas – could be clearly explained in terms of goals, strategies, and execution. However, the linkage between the solutions and their respective problems is weak or missing.

When you describe the problem, you should frame it in a way that sets up your organization’s solution. Make it clear to the reader or listener why your solution is necessary, appropriate, and logical. Ideally, with a theory of change and a clear strategic plan, you can clarify both the problem and your organization’s response. But another quick-and-dirty fix is to work backwards: take a look at the work you do, and think about what problem it is directly responding to. The work is done to solve a specific problem, so make your problem statement a description of what your work is designed to achieve.

The work your organization is doing is important, but you have to be able to articulate it to others if you want the support you need to get it done. Learn to align your problem statement with your work so others can easily understand the value of what you do.

Why should I support you?

Time and time again I encounter organizations who cannot articulate their unique value. They can talk at length about the work they do and why it’s important, but they don’t have a solid argument for why their work deserves support over all the others out there. 

If there were no other organizations out there doing similar work, you wouldn’t need to say why you’ve chosen the work you’re doing nor tell me why you’re the one best suited to do it. But in a world where lots of organizations are doing similar and even overlapping work, and where donors and funders have access to many options for their dollars, why should anyone support you instead of someone else?

Think about the way for-profit businesses try to distinguish themselves from the competition. Verizon has the most extensive network. AT&T has the fastest network. Sprint has the cheapest plans. All three overlap in their work but they have found ways to distinguish themselves from the competition and answer the question: why you?

Look, I’m not a fan of competition, but that’s the reality. There are other organizations working on the same issue as yours. They have made a case for why their work is important, so why should I support you over them? Donors have a limited capacity to give, and oftentimes a limited willingness to give to unfamiliar organizations. What’s your argument for why you – your approach, your work, and your qualifications – are worthy of support?

Quite honestly, some organizations are doing redundant work and donors are better off giving their money to someone with more experience and expertise. But many organizations are doing great, important work – they just don’t communicate how they provide a unique value to solving the problem

Every organization should be able to say why they are doing their work and why they are best suited to do it. Your organization has chosen a particular approach to the problem, one that you believe will succeed. Why did your organization choose its approach, out of all the different possible approaches? Why is your approach the better or most valuable one to take? And why are you the best suited to do this work and succeed?

Here’s a few possible ways to answer these questions and set yourself apart:

  • We are distinctly different. Others may be taking a similar approach, but there is a distinct element to your approach that makes it more valuable and/or more likely to succeed. Here you would need to describe how your approach is different and better for solving the problem.
  • We’re filling a gap. No one else is taking the approach you are but there is a strong need for it. You would have to demonstrate why your approach is necessary, and how the problem won’t get solved without it. 
  • We’re engaging a critical audience. You are using an approach used by others but working with a group that no one else is addressing. You would need to show that this audience is essential to the cause.
  • We have unique expertise. You may take the same approach as others but you have a unique skill set that makes you more qualified to succeed. For this argument, you would need to clearly demonstrate that your organization’s expertise is distinct and superior to others.
  • We have a proven record. You may have chosen the same approach as others but you have done a better job at achieving results. You would need to demonstrate concrete and measurable differences between your accomplishments and others like you.

In a competitive landscape, it’s not just about why what you do is important, but why what you do is more valuable than other options. Are you a Verizon or an AT&T? What makes you stand above the rest? What makes you more likely to succeed? And why should someone support you over all the other organization’s in your field?

Whether you like it or not, there’s competition for others’ support. So know your unique value and make sure to communicate it as clearly and as often as possible.