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.

Are you planning for change?

Change is a natural and even inevitable part of an organization’s life cycle. As the organization grows, learns, and adapts, it will be necessary to alter your strategies or even shift your mission. At a minimum, most organizations create new strategic plans every three to five years. 

The successful implementation of those changes and plans will require the cooperation and commitment of the whole organization – from entry-level staff to your Board. After all, everyone plays a role in the success of the organization

But change can be hard. Some people fear what such changes mean for their jobs. Others worry if it’s the right decision for the organization. Some like things the way they are and don’t want things to change. Some people just naturally are creatures of habit, finding comfort in the familiar, and they have a hard time with change. Change can create stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction and disengagement. All of this resistance will make it harder for the organization to implement any change and succeed in making a shift. 

Most of the time, strategic planning happens with a focus on producing the deliverable without fully considering the process or how it affects others. Any good planning process should assess potential resistance and proactively respond to ensure successful implementation of the plan. This takes a little more effort, but done well, it makes organizational changes so much easier. 

Here are a few ways to reduce resistance and improve acceptance of and commitment to the new plan:

  • Consider potential concerns from the start. Survey the employees to get an understanding for how people are feeling and to identify both those who will resist the changes and those who can help promote them. What specific concerns do people have? How can you alleviate those concerns and send a positive message that resonates with staff?
  • Communicate a clear vision and value. If you want people to get on board with the changes, they need to understand the purpose and benefits of such changes. Why is this change so important? Why now? What will things look like with the changes? How will things be better for the organization and everyone who works there?
  • Involve people in the process. Reach out to key people in the organization who can help implement the changes and help build a coalition of support. Empower the staff to be proactive and help solve any problems that may arise in the process. Keep channels open for ideas and feedback that can improve the changes or their implementation. 
  • Provide regular updates. Keep people informed about the process, key milestones, critical decisions, and opportunities for staff to provide feedback or engage in the process. Also, updates are a good way to reinforce the vision, value, and enthusiasm for the forthcoming changes.
  • Offer support during the transition. While you want to provide opportunities for people to provide feedback and be involved in helping the organization change, you also want to make sure employees are supported by the organization. Have someone who can advise employees that are struggling with the transition, and consider making someone involved in the change process serve as a liaison to answer questions or just listen to concerns. Some organizations also offer additional time off to help people deal with stress, or allow flex-time to help them balance personal priorities when work gets too stressful.

Once the changes are in place, be sure to reinforce them with incentives and by demonstrating how such changes are leading to positive outcomes for staff and the organization. 

Change is hard, especially when it can mean venturing into the unknown. To make the transition easier, planning for change should include planning for implementation, factoring in others’ feelings about the change into the process. When you need to change an entire organization, you need the entire organization standing with you. 

Do you know your competition?

No person is an island, and neither is an organization. All organizations exist within an ecosystem of other actors who are working on the same issue

Organizations are often familiar with their partners – those they work with who help them carry out their work – but not as many are aware of other peers – those they don’t work with who take similar or different approaches to the same issue. 

Knowing the full ecosystem of actors can be very valuable to organizations. For starters, it can help you to identify potential partners who can advance your work and your cause. The idea of collective impact was created to encourage organizations to think about how they can work together to achieve more than any one individual organization could. While there are challenges to teamwork, there is also a lot of value of coordinating and collaborating your efforts with others. 

Moreover, it can be a challenge to achieve your mission if your work is in direct competition with another organization. If you’re taking the same approach with the same constituents, you will constantly be competing for resources and attention. Understanding what everyone else is working on allows you to identify the gaps and opportunities to avoid competing with others. It makes your organization more strategic and will make your organization more effective and more efficient in the long run.

And if you want to attract support to your organization, you need to know what sets you apart from others. Of all the organizations working on this issue, why should people choose to support you over the others? Determining your unique value proposition means knowing what makes you unique and the only way to know that is to know who your competitors are. Once you can identify that special something that makes you stand out from the rest, it will be easier to craft effective messages. 

A competitive analysis is an assessment of the other actors in your field – a scan of other actors, what they do, and how they are similar or different from your organization. Many organizations never conduct a competitive analysis, and as a result, they miss opportunities to collaborate with others, they waste time and effort submitting grants to funders that are committed to other organizations, and they have trouble articulating their unique value proposition. (In fact, many organizations I know don’t realize that what they think is their unique value isn’t actually all that unique…) 

To conduct a competitive analysis, start with the organizations you’re familiar with – partners, direct competitors, and those that work with the same constituents. Then start expanding to others who work in the same geography on the same issue. You don’t have to include every organization – just the ones that are relevant to the space you occupy in the ecosystem. This will help you identify areas of mutual interests and areas where you occupy a unique niche.

If you want to get the most out of a competitive analysis, include information about who funds what organizations and to what extent. Understanding the funding landscape can help you see opportunities for new funding and be more selective – or creative – in where you pursue funding. For instance, if a competitor is supported by a particular funder, you might choose to focus on funders that aren’t committed to that organization yet. Or you might pursue co-funding with another organization to get more support for your work and more exposure to a new funder. But you won’t know what potential awaits until you look.

And that’s the whole point: the more of the bigger picture you can see, the more opportunities for collaboration, enhancing your work, and articulating your unique value you can find.

So try a competitive analysis with your organization and see how it can improve your organization’s effectiveness and build your base of support.