Tackling the huge size of today’s social problems, and doing so with the limited resources and capacity the social sector is often confronted with, cannot be achieved successfully without a good strategy in place.
But despite their noble missions and life-changing work, nonprofits and charities are often not giving near enough consideration to the strategies needed to be impactful at scale. Looking at the sector’s funding system, it is not difficult to understand why strategic mindsets are rare. In fact, traditional funding practices can often play a role in actively disincentivizing strategic approaches, particularly when they are tied to:
- Results in terms of growth, rather than impact
- Investing in specific solutions rather than in solving the problems
- Short-term projects rather than long-term outcomes, capacity development, infrastructure or partnership building
- Predetermined plans, rather than ability to learn and adapt
But a nonstrategic approach can be costly for organisations seeking to tackle difficult social issues. In this blog, we take a look at the risks of this approach, and share how a clear strategy can help mission-driven teams overcome common challenges in their pursuit of impact at scale.
What is a good strategy?
A good scale strategy clarifies the specific societal problem you’re wanting to address at scale and your organisation’s part in solving it. It sets out the specific impact you want to have on those experiencing the problem and/or the organisations, institutions or societal norms you want to change.
Your scale strategy lays out your choices for how you will achieve impact at scale, what you’ll be doing, while also recognising what that means for what you will not be doing. Being clear on the trade-offs you’re willing to make in pursuit of the benefits you want to unlock allows you to test your strategy and make sure it’s effective in the real world.
The five common challenges a clear strategy will help you overcome
1. Prioritise limited resources
Organisations not saying ‘no’ to opportunities is perhaps the most common mistake we see. Knowing what not to spend precious time and resources on is just as important as being clear on what to do.
Well-meaning teams can often be inclined to spend time and resources on activities that are good and meaningful, but that don’t actually take them closer to achieving impact at scale. For instance, focusing on coming up with new interesting projects and ideas in pursuit of project funding can get in the way of building more sustainable business models.
A fundamental challenge with the grant funding system is that it usually favours novelty, innovation and small-scale initiatives. This causes organisations to get stuck in the pilot-stage of programme development, as this is where that’s where the money is. Instead of spending resources on finding more sustainable business models, teams prioritise coming up with new ideas and initiatives that can get grant-funding because of their novelty.
Being clear on your strategy for having impact at scale helps you know where innovation is needed to deliver your services and what opportunities to pursue. It allows you to be confident and brave enough to say no to the opportunities that are not getting you closer to your ultimate goal.
2. Recognise trade-offs
Making strategic decisions is about choosing one path over another, while recognizing the trade-off. It’s about saying – we’re pursuing this path, despite the costs, because of the benefits we’re trying to unlock.
We’re making the strategic decision to cut out parts of our programme despite it being impactful and participants loving it because the cost of delivery is too high and the rest of the programme is sufficient to reach our intended impact
We’re making the strategic decision to require those replicating our solution to collect specific impact data despite it being more inconvenient and expensive for them because we’re using the this data to build the evidence base and influence government policy.
Without recognising tradeoffs that come with your chosen strategy, team members will not buy into it. If teams are not given a chance to recognise difficult trade-offs that are being made they will struggle to get behind decisions. By involving them in an open conversation about the cost of strategic decisions you can stress test these and ensure that, even if everyone doesn’t agree with every decision, they know why it’s been made and what it’s trying to achieve.
3. Understand your role in the system
A good strategy clearly places your organisation in the context of the world around you and the system in which your problem lives in. As Nick Stanhope from Shift puts it: we need to “play our best roles in relation to each other”.
Without clarifying your organisation’s role in solving the problem, and seeing how your efforts are complementing other actors in the system, you risk defaulting into competition, not to mention unknowingly duplicating the work of others and reinventing the wheel. Being clear on what your role is, and isn’t, also helps you prioritise your limited resources.
4. Learn and pivot
We’ve never come across a scale strategy that didn’t need to be adapted based on learnings from the real world. A clear strategy can be tested. By identifying what critical assumptions the strategy relies on (i.e. what needs to be true in order for this strategy to work) teams can learn what works in practice. Without a clear articulation of the critical assumptions and a process of testing and validating your strategy, you risk spending years on pursuing a path without actually knowing if it will lead to impact at scale.
5. Bring others along
A clear strategy is less lofty than just a mission. It helps galvanise the team by setting out what you’re trying to achieve together, and how you’re going about it. Without understanding the strategy, the team will be working in different directions. They will also struggle to operationalise the strategy, allocate the resources needed and think long term when planning for the future.
A clear strategy is also your biggest asset when fundraising, forming partnerships, recruiting board members, team members or whoever else will help you on your mission. By saying ‘this is what we’re attempting to do and this is how you can contribute’, you can bring others along on the mission from the get-go.
If you want to develop your own scaling strategy and prepare your organisation for scale, check out Getting Scale Ready, a 5-week practical online course to help you kick-start your journey to achieving greater impact. For tools and resources to aid your strategy development, explore our Scaling Toolkit.