For the nonprofit sector to truly climb aboard the social innovation train, as opposed to being abandoned by it, nonprofit leaders need to move past the reactive toward the strategic.
But is that possible? Have nonprofits been stuck in a resource-constrained, charity mindset for too long to be made strategic, bold, big thinkers? It’s been a vicious cycle. Nonprofits lack adequate resources so they become very protective of what they have and wary of any actions which might threaten those resources. Therefore they become exceedingly risk averse and fearful of innovation. They focus more often than not on keeping the doors open as opposed to investing time, energy and resources in long-term strategy.
But that’ s just not going to cut it anymore. These times demand a radically different mindset and approach. The nonprofit sector must move from the reactive to the strategic. So how does a reactive approach differ from a strategic one? It looks like this:
When a financial crisis hits the organization, the reactive approach is to focus on keeping the doors open and staying afloat. But a strategic approach focuses on what caused the crisis and how to fix the underlying problem, model or system so that they never return there again.
When a funder wants to award a significant sum to an organization for new programs that detract from, rather than bolster, the organization’s theory of change, a reactive approach focuses on the increase in revenue, but a strategic approach recognizes the misalignment and turns the money down.
A reactive approach allows program staff to continue with a status quo method of program delivery, but a strategic approach constantly asks hard questions, tracks results, pushes outcomes, restructures inefficient processes, gets underneath the surface to make programs better, stronger, more impactful, more sustainable.
A reactive leader arrives at board meetings with reports, charts and status updates, gets a rubber stamp on day-to-day activities and breathes a sigh of relief that the board didn’t ask too many questions. But a strategic leader analyzes the unique contributions each individual board member and the board as a whole can make and leverages those contributions effectively, engages the board in meaningful discussions and actions around where the organization is going and trends in the external marketplace, and focuses board work on big picture issues and opportunities, creating key external networks, and building a strong financial future.
A reactive approach helps the board recruit new members that fit narrow definitions of experience, gender, ethnicity, and size of pocketbook. A strategic approach compares the long-term goals of the organization to the competencies, networks, experience and resources required and creates an intentional board recruitment strategy to get there.
A reactive leader crosses things of their daily to do list and feels satisfied because the trains ran on time, crises were avoided, and everyone got a paycheck. A strategic leader is rarely satisfied and constantly works to build key alliances with external partners, learns new skills, pushes their staff harder, evaluates their work, continually refines their model and responds effectively to a constantly changing environment all in the name of greater impact.
A reactive leader allows the natural uncertainty of running a nonprofit to cause fear and inaction. A strategic leader, like a true entrepreneur, recognizes the opportunity for innovation that uncertainty offers and embraces and uses that opportunity to continually mold the organization’s solution to the external market of need and funding.
It remains to be seen whether a reactive leader can transform into a strategic one. I would bet that the success of the social innovation movement as a whole rides on it.
Photo Credit: Loren Javier