How a theory of change should inform your mission

Many of my clients have difficulty articulating their work in a clear, concise, and compelling way. In my initial conversations with these potential clients, it quickly becomes clear that they do not fully understand the rationale behind their work, or how their work has broader, longer-term impacts on the problem they’re trying to solve. This isn’t unusual, but it is a problem for the organization. This lack of understanding leads to a lack of focus, a lack of clarity among staff and Board members, and a resulting lack of collective purpose and drive. And so inevitably I end up working with these clients on developing a theory of change, one that brings greater clarity, greater focus, and greater cohesion to the organization.

Working with one organization, I was approached by a Board member who was brought in to participate in the process. She asked me a keen question: how might developing a theory of change affect the organization’s mission?

To answer this, let me back up a bit. When an organization is created, it is created with a purpose (hopefully a singular one). The organization’s statement of purpose is what we call a mission statement. It defines what an organization does and what problem it aims to solve. The mission may evolve over time, but the essence of the mission generally remains consistent for the organization.

Most founders of nonprofits have a clear purpose in mind – they know what the organization will do and what it hopes to achieve – but they may not understand the bigger picture. They don’t consider much outside the scope of their own organization’s work, or worse yet, they believe they can solve the whole problem by themselves. But the truth is this: every organization works within a larger system of actors who are working on the same issue.

Some of these actors are working on the same issue from a different angle, but some are taking the very same approach, though they may not be aware of each other. In fact, some organizations aren’t even aware of other groups working in the same geographic area on the same issue with the same partners or constituents! And when this happens, and there are redundant and even competing organizations, it becomes difficult to define an organization’s unique value proposition – what does it offer in solving the problem that no one else can or does?

In other cases, organizations have been doing the same work for years and years with no seeming reduction of the problem. In this situation, they fail to understand the larger system and how their organizations are actually creating impact. How does your organization’s work actually solve the problem in the long-term? Systems are complex, with many different interacting parts. Transformation of the system will require thoughtful planning, clear focus, and working with others who are tackling the same issue. Without knowing the system and its different points of leverage, how can you truly understand what is needed to create lasting change?

This is where a theory of change comes in. A theory of change is not a statement of what will happen when your organization achieves its mission. A theory of change describes what is needed to transform the entire system in which your organization works. It goes beyond the work of your organization because your organization alone cannot solve the problem (despite what you may think). In fact, the vision of the system is your organization’s vision statement, but hopefully it is not unique to your organization and instead is shared by the other actors working in the system. Because you are all working in the same system towards solving the same problem. A theory of change not only provides a view of the system but also where your organization fits within it.

I think of the theory of change as the nonprofit equivalent of a business plan. A business plan is used by for-profit companies to define what the company is about – its product, its customers, and its operations – but it also describes the market it will enter. This way the business owners (and potential investors) will understand how the new business will compete and survive in the long term by providing a unique value to the marketplace. Similarly, a theory of change describes the system an organization is entering and what unique value the organization contributes to the system.

So will a theory of change alter an organization’s mission statement? Actually, yes, it might. Ideally, a theory of change is done as part of the organization’s formation – like with business planning – so its mission statement accurately reflects its unique role in the system. But since most if not all organizations do the theory of change after their mission statement, the theory of change will likely alter the mission somewhat. Not usually in its essence, but in its focus and how it is articulated.

(Side note: It’s backwards to do a mission statement or strategic plan before doing a theory of change – like planning your route to a destination without first looking at a map of the region – but most people don’t know of a theory of change until after they form an organization and a funder asks them what their theory of change is….)

For instance, in understanding the system, your organization may realize that there is a particular need that you alone can fill, and that may become a more important element of your organization’s work. Conversely, there may be areas of your work that overlap with other organizations’ work, and you may cease those programs or at least spend less resources on them, focusing your mission on what is unique to your organization. If parts of your organization’s work tackle different aspects of the system, you may decide to focus on just one, narrowing your mission. Or through the theory of change development process, you simply may gain greater clarity on the true value that your organization can provide, and reframe your work through that lens.

The particular Board member who asked me the question got to experience some shifts to her own organization’s mission. Again, the essence was the same but the focus and purpose was more specific and focused. The organization understood what needed to get done, where it could add the most value, and how it could best solve the problem, and that led to greater articulation of its mission.

I’ve seen organizations shift their missions in light of a new theory of change, but in the end, the organization benefits from a greater comprehension of what needs to get done and how it can best add value to transforming the system into their vision.

Does your theory of change bring greater clarity to your organization’s mission? Does it take a broader view of the system and identify your organization’s unique value within it? Does it help you articulate your organization’s work and purpose?

If you’re interested in developing a theory of change that does all of the above, check out The ToC Workshop, a special eight-week program designed to help you get the most out of a theory of change for your organization.


Want big money? Inspire confidence

Over the holidays, I got around to reading Vu Le’s blog entitled “Hey, you want nonprofits to act more like businesses? Then treat us like businesses” in which he points out that while funders demand nonprofits act more like for-profit businesses, they don’t invest in them like they do for-profits.

While I wholeheartedly and passionately agree with Vu’s requests from funders – more money, more overhead, faster decision-making, more risk-taking, less micro-managing – I think he fails to fully consider the funders’ criticism.

His blog begins with the inciting incident – funders once again asking nonprofits to behave like for-profit businesses. Vu’s title states his viewpoint – if you want nonprofits to behave like businesses then you have to treat us that way – but I think that’s confusing the chicken with the egg.

Yes, to a large extent, nonprofits are backed into a very tight corner because of the way funders invest in them. And yes, I personally believe that if change is going to happen on this front, that funders will be the ones to truly make it happen.

However, you don’t treat a child like an adult just because the child says that’s the only way he’ll grow up and act like one.

Let’s first clarify something: Yes, nonprofits are businesses. Like for-profit businesses, they strive to produce enough goods and services to meet demand; they need to advertise and promote their work; they need to raise enough revenues to cover the full cost of doing business; and they need to reinvest in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of their businesses. The differences are that

  1. nonprofits exist for the public good, to better society or the world in some way, and as such
  2. their “customers” (or constituents) usually cannot pay enough to cover the full cost of business, which means nonprofits are dependent on a third-party donor or funder to subsidize their work; and
  3. they do not distribute their profits to their investors (as Vu rightly points out in his blog).

But when people say that nonprofits should behave like for-profit businesses, well, I think they’re right. Some people who say this are misguided and don’t understand how nonprofits operate (the three points above). But what many are talking about is the way nonprofits manage their organization, from leadership and planning to operations and revenue generation. Nonprofits are often started or run by smart, passionate people who identify a societal need and take action, but few of them have any business or management experience. And I’ll be honest: it usually shows.

Take this one client I worked with last year. He fit this description – a university professor with a sharp mind, a keen understanding of his work, a vision of how to solve a problem. But when I asked him what his business is, he responded, “Well, I don’t have a business. I run a nonprofit.” And this kind of thinking is why he had no strategic plan, no fundraising plan… and a fully volunteer-run operation without enough funding to pay for staff or expand his efforts.

Here’s the thing: if you want funders to invest in you like they do for-profit companies, you need to inspire confidence. When you come to a me as a funder with a good idea, I’m interested in hearing more. But when you fail to present a clear, thoughtful plan for executing the plan, financing the work, and producing concrete, measurable results, what makes you think I’m going to just throw a large sum of money at you?

Do you think for-profit businesses just walk up to venture capital firms without a business plan? Without proof of concept? Without projected financials and results? Of course not. Start-ups work hard to put forth a solid, convincing plan based on numbers and hard evidence. (And they are more open and up-front about the risk, which makes it easier for investors to take a risk, because it is known and calculated.)

If you want to be treated like a for-profit company, you need to inspire the same kind of confidence that for-profit businesses do. To do this you should have a handle on basic business principles, including:

  • Planning. Most organizations have a strategic plan, but does that plan provide a convincing picture of how you will create impact? Does it show how you will strengthen and grow your organization to achieve that impact? Does it include concrete measurements and evaluation of progress and success? Do you have a financial plan that illustrates how you will raise enough revenue to cover the full cost of doing business (not just program expenses)? Does it consider what will happen in the event you don’t raise enough funds? Do you have a budget that not only shows how you will allocate your resources but that also reflects your strategic goals? And do you have a thoughtful theory of change (the equivalent of a business plan) that describes the system you work in, what it will realistically take to achieve change, and your organization’s unique role in creating that change?
  • Finance. Do you have a system to properly manage revenues and expenses? Do you conduct thorough financial reporting on a regular basis? Are you allocating your resources to maximize your impact and improve your cost effectiveness? Do you have a diversified revenue portfolio that covers the full cost of doing business? Do your financial reports show that you have learned from the past to improve your financial standing? Are you able to adapt to changing financial circumstances (a big grant you didn’t get, an economic recession, insufficient overhead, etc.)?
  • Management. Does your leadership inspire confidence? Are they organized, thoughtful, compassionate, and focused on the mission? Does your nonprofit have a high turnover rate or high retention rate? Does the organization have a clear and logical structure to achieve its goals? Does the organization have a culture that is positive, cohesive, evidence-driven, and supportive of learning and development? Does the organization have a human resources function, with clear policies and infrastructure to effectively manage staff? Do different people and teams within your organization communicate and collaborate effectively? Has your organization successfully navigated through a period of rapid growth?

There are other aspects of an organization that can inspire confidence – a strong brand, solid partnerships, compelling communications, an honest risk assessment and a realistic risk mitigation plan, a history of success or proof of concept, etc. – but the three listed above are critical aspects of an organization that funders will question when making decisions about whether to fund your work or not.

And sure, you can say, “Well, if funders only invest in our program work, how will we ever have the time and money to invest in all this other stuff?” To which my response is: ask for it. If you can demonstrate a need for these things, and the benefits they’ll bring to your organization, it’s not a hard case to make. Most funders know the importance of supporting the nonprofit enterprise and will at least add some funding to a project grant to help you build out those competencies. Program Officers are real people with real feelings, and they genuinely care about helping your organization succeed (even if their bosses and the decision-makers are more interested in a return on investment). Especially if you have solid relationships with existing funders, ask for what you need.

I am passionate about nonprofits and I admit I am as frustrated as anyone with the way the sector is held back and inhibited by current funding practices. And again, it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario: if we want funding practices to change, we need to inspire more confidence, which might mean asking for funding to do it.

In the end, though, it does no good to play the whiny child, complaining that we won’t grow up until we’re treated like grown ups. Demonstrate that you deserve to be treated like one, and it will be much easier to get the respect and support you deserve.

6 lessons nonprofits can learn from the Avengers

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of superheroes. And why wouldn’t I be? They’re all about people doing extraordinary things to tackle problems for the greater good.

This year saw the second team up of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, bringing Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye, and others together to take down a global threat. While the movie had its ups and downs, I realized that nonprofits can learn a lot from this group of do-gooders. After all, they too face seemingly insurmountable problems and have to overcome internal and external obstacles to achieve their goals.

So here are six lessons nonprofits can learn from the Avengers:

  1. You can’t do it alone. The Avengers are a group of superheroes who do plenty of good on their own. They each have their enemies and problems that they tackle in their own corners of the world (and universe). So what would force these different heroes to come together? A problem that none of them could overcome by themselves. Yes, they had differences to work through (see below) but they knew they needed each other because none of them could do it alone. Nonprofits are often like Iron Man or Thor, thinking they are mighty enough to do it all without help. Others are like Captain America, rallying others to work together, some are like Black Widow or Hawkeye, ready to work with others as needed, and others are like Hulk, afraid of working with others at all. The bottom line is that if nonprofits want to tackle big problems at scalesolving systemic, root causes – they need to come together. This is how the buzzword “collective action” came about: the idea that we need to work together to achieve real, lasting change. Each organization has its own goals and niche but we come together around a common vision and collectively succeed.
  2. Teamwork is most successful when each member gets to apply their unique skill set. Yes, they’re all pretty fit and strong, but the Avengers are a hodgepodge of heroes, each with their own talents. They clash when there is ego and competition – who’s strongest, smartest, fastest? – but they succeed when they each respect one another’s unique talents and divide the work accordingly. The same is true for nonprofits, whether it’s within an organization or different organizations working together. Instead of one person or organization taking charge of all the work, it’s important to recognize the point above – you can’t do it alone – and divide the work such that each member gets to apply a unique set of skills. Be respectful of each other’s contributions and be humble enough to let others have ownership over something.
  3. Disagreements can be healthy discussion for growth. Because they’re big personalities, each with their own experiences and perspectives, the Avengers don’t always see eye to eye. Captain America and Iron Man/Tony Stark notoriously butt heads, eventually leading to a Civil War among heroes (to be featured in a film next year). In the latest Avengers film, Tony ends up disagreeing with not only Captain America, but Thor and Bruce Banner too, as he pursues his own agenda for creating a security system for the planet. But in the end, these disagreements are how Tony learns to set aside his personal goals and be a better teammate. Sometimes in the nonprofit world, we’re so consumed with our perspective that we don’t want to hear others’ opposing viewpoints. But being open to others’ views and ideas can help strengthen our own by showing us our weaknesses or by offering new questions, thoughts, and insights that help us develop and expand our own thinking. Smart organizations seek out new ideas, rather than dismissing them.
  4. The best intentions can have unintended consequences. In his attempt to protect the planet from another alien invasion, Tony works on the Ultron Project: an artificial intelligence system designed to act as a first line of defense. Of course, what he didn’t foresee was that the system would be so intelligent it would consider humans a threat to themselves, and therefore attempt to eliminate humankind. Similarly, nonprofits set out to solve problems but don’t always consider all the possible effects their actions may have. Taking a simplistic or myopic view of your work and its outcomes may leave you unprepared when things change or the unexpected happens. Organizations should invest in scenario planning – considering different possible futures you may encounter – and in risk assessments that lay out mitigation plans. The best way to ensure you are successful is to plan ahead and be prepared to adapt.
  5. Tackling problems means going after root causes. The Avengers track down Ultron with the aim of destroying him before he destroys humanity. As they attempt to stop their enemy, they also make sure to take care of all the people in danger’s way. But while the Avengers save innocent bystanders, they ultimately they go straight after the root of the problem. Nonprofits don’t always do the same, sometimes dealing with the immediate without ever tackling the root cause. While it’s important to handle the effects of the problem until the problem is solved, it’s far more important to go after the source of the problem, staving off any further negative effects. Effective organizations go after root causes to ensure a lasting solution to the problem they’re facing.
  6. Solving problems means following through to the end. Because Ultron was an artificial intelligence, it wasn’t enough to just destroy his physical form. In order to ensure that Ultron was eliminated for good, the Avengers had to destroy every last robot he built and controlled, so that there was no remaining piece of the program that could survive and rebuild itself. Nonprofits should work towards doing the same – going after the problem with the aim of eliminating it. Not reducing it and not just treating the symptoms of it but pursuing the eradication of the source of the problem. It isn’t going to be easy, but hey, neither is anything worth doing. Organizations should be making progress towards reducing the problem, not just keeping it at bay.

So go ahead. Mock me for liking comic books and superheroes. But don’t dismiss these important lessons for anyone aspiring to tackle societal problems and creating lasting change….