What Makes You Strategic?

As someone who has helped nonprofit organizations to do strategic planning for 35 years, I find it painful that some organizations can be so non-strategic.  Much of what is called strategic planning by nonprofits is merely long range planning, and a truly strategic thinker would look long and hard through many nonprofit organizational plans to find hints of what I would personally consider to be strategic.
Perhaps much of the problem relates to semantics, and that’s why visiting the dictionary might be helpful.  Dictionary.com lists the following definitions of “strategic”:
  • pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of strategy: strategic  movements.
  • important in or essential to strategy.
  • (of an action, as a military operation or a move in a game) forming an integral part of a stratagem: a strategic move in a game of chess.
  • Military .
  • intended to render the enemy incapable of making war, as by  the destruction of materials, factories, etc.: a strategic bombing mission.
  • essential to the conduct of a war: Copper is a strategic material.
  • a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for  obtaining a specific goal or result: a strategy for getting ahead   in the world.
Unless you find the military definitions helpful, the first three definitions would be practically meaningful only in light of an already articulated strategy.  But at the risk of being ponderous, what makes a strategy strategic?
For example, one old definition of strategy I recall is “the fundamental logic by which one accomplishes an objective.”  Fair enough.  But that’s a
process definition devoid of any meaningful content.
As succinctly as I know how to put it, what makes something truly strategic is the right
criteria.  Or, more practically and specifically in terms of ministry leadership and nonprofit management, having the right criteria for strategic choice.
In other words, meeting these criteria, once defined, would make something (e.g., an activity, a project, an initiative) strategic; failing to meet the criteria would indicate that whatever else its value might be, it hasn’t earned the right to fly under the “strategic” flag
Because strategic criteria are contextual (or “domain variant,” if you want to sound scholarly), this means that what is strategic for one organization is likely to be nonstrategic or counterstrategic to others.  But are there broad, if not universal, criteria that would help nonprofit organizations to improve their strategic IQ and in fact be more strategic?  I think so.  And with no pretense of being thorough, let alone exhaustive, here’s a list you might consider as starters:
  • Does the activity (current or proposed program, project, initiative) transparently link to or derive from the organization’s mission and vision?
  • More specifically, can a clear line of sight be established by way of linkage with the organization’s Key Result Areas (KRAs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)?
  • Does the opportunity take advantage of a strength or distinctive competency the organization possesses?
  • Correspondingly, does it avoid a dependence on something that is a weakness of the organization?
  • Does it demonstrably add value to key organizational stakeholders, thus likely strengthening their engagement?
  • Does it leverage limited organizational resources?  (That is, does it get good or improved “bang for the buck,” amplify the return on time and talent invested, etc.?)
  • Does it offer the opportunity to enhance organizational brand equity or attain a comparative advantage in the marketplace?
  • Does it contribute to the internal consistency of existing strategies? (That is, does it align in a complementary or synergistic way with existing strategies or is it tangential, possibly indicating a wild goose chase?)
  • Is the level of risk acceptable?
  • Is it consistent with established policy guidelines?
Obviously, you can add to this list, but if we were playing poker, I’d contend it’s “good for openers.”
D.L. Moody (not sure whether he played poker or not), once said, “The best way to determine whether a stick is crooked is not to debate its crookedness but to lay it down next to one that’s straight.”  Following that eminently sound counsel, the best way to determine whether something is strategic is not to debate how strategic it is, but to lay it down next to explicit and rigorously defined criteria for strategic choice.  To the extent that most of your answers come up “Yes,” it’s highly likely that you are indeed being strategic.
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The Most Important Degree in Development

Over the years I’ve been asked, generally by younger staff at client organizations or by people attending my seminars who are contemplating a career in the field of development, “What’s the most valuable degree you can get?” It’s a great question, and one that used to trigger a range of provisional answers.

Because the field of development now comprises more than 50 distinct disciplines, it’s clear that the most worthwhile academic degree for some people could be in any of these disciplines. That said, however, my typical responses would include a Master’s in marketing, communications, or advertising. Or an MBA (continuing to believe, as I do, that there’s no business bigger than God’s business). And, because I’m persuaded that the core discipline of marketing (and thus development) is psychology, I’ve noted that a minor in psychology certainly wouldn’t hurt.

But recently I’ve changed my mind. I’ve now settled on the most valuable degree bar none. And the good news is that almost anyone can get this degree. Better yet, it requires no major financial outlays for tuition. No time on campus. No evening courses or intensive residential sessions. The answer I now give is “an M.A.” That’s a “Master’s of Appreciation.”

In her wonderful little book, The Simple Truths of Appreciation, Barbara Glanz shares one of her favorite quotes from Albert Schweitzer:

Sometimes our light goes out but it is blown into flame again by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.


She tells how in sharing this with audiences she then asks people to shut their eyes and think of someone who, at some point in their journey, has rekindled their inner light. She then asks them to write down the name of the person and to commit to their own act of appreciation by letting that person know in the next 72 hours that he or she was thought of.

One man shared his recollection of an eighth grade teacher who was everyone’s favorite and who had really made a difference in all of their lives. He planned to track her down and let Barbara know the outcome.

A couple of months later she received a call from him. He was so choked up he could barely make it through the story. After writing to his teacher, the following week he received this letter:


Dear John,

You will never know how much your letter meant to me. I am 83 years old, and am living alone in one room. My friends are all gone. My family’s gone. I taught for 50 years and yours is the first “thank you” letter I have ever received from a student. Sometimes I wonder what I did with my life. I will read and reread your letter until the day I die.



Although my sentiments and convictions regarding an “attitude of gratitude” and the role of appreciation in development (and leadership, and management, and…) had been maturing for four decades, reading this letter nailed it for me. It reminded me of the awesome power of appreciation to transform lives, and “sealed the deal” in my thinking about most valuable degrees. Not only in development, but in life.

So if you’re thinking about pursuing a degree, let me urge you to become a Master of Appreciation. The truth be told, I simply know of none better.
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Plugging the Holes in Your Bucket

By Larry F. Johnston, Ph.D.

At conferences where I speak, I’ll often tell those in my seminars, “I don’t care what your mission is, you’re in the energy business.” That’s simply my way of expressing a deep personal and professional conviction that the primary task of leadership and management is to focus energy on productivity.

Stop to think about it a moment. This energy -- what the military would have in mind when they speak of the “morale” of the troops – will never appear on any balance sheet or operating statement and yet it is arguably the most important asset your organization has. (An important presupposition is that you’ve hired the right people, because highly energized incompetents can be more than a little scary!)

In fact, Victor Vroom’s celebrated formula in motivational theory states that “A x M = P” – Ability times motivation equals performance. Multiply even great ability by minimal motivation and you’re toast (as in soggy milk toast). Multiply even modest ability by “incandescent eyeball” motivation and you’re likely to do some rockin’ and rollin’.

What has this got to do with buckets? Well, in their national bestseller, How Full is Your Bucket?, Tom Rath and Don Clifton note that “Each of us has an invisible bucket. It is constantly emptied or filled, depending on what others say or do to us. When our bucket is full, we feel great. When it’s empty, we feel awful.” Based on research, Rath and Clifton note that 99 out of 100 people report they want to be around more positive people, and 9 out of 10 report being more productive when they’re around positive people.

The book goes on to explain what we’ve all experienced, and may in fact even experience on a daily basis. And that is that each of us has an invisible dipper, and we can use that dipper in our daily interactions to fill people’s buckets or to empty them.

How many of us realize that organizational climate – how we feel about our working environment – can account for 30% of performance? More pointedly, how many of us genuinely appreciate the awesome power we have in our daily interactions to help fill (or empty) the buckets of others in our families, in our churches, or on our organizational teams?

Please understand. My personal bent is simply too pragmatic to advocate some cheesy, happy-face, saccharin approach to making people feel good. It’s a lame idea, and people would see through it in a heartbeat. But I’m also sober enough and just observant enough to know that a kind word, and a simple but heartfelt recognition of people’s value and their work can work wonders.

If you’re interested in improving organizational climate and performance, let me encourage you to mind your dipper. More practically, as a discipline, let me encourage you put three matches in your left pocket each morning. Then, each time throughout the day that you genuinely share a word of appreciation or affirmation with someone, transfer one of those matches to your right pocket.

At the end of each day, if you’ve got three matches in your right pocket, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re lighting fires that will help your organization to burn brightly. As John Wesley is reported to have said, “Set yourself on fire and people will come from miles around just to watch you burn.”

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Blessed Are the Closers...

By Larry F. Johnston, Ph.D.

Although it’s hard for me to grasp this at times (Yes, Virginia, denial is still alive and well), I’m frequently reminded that I’ve now spent more than 40 years in the field of development. Over those years I’ve gained some priceless insights. Truths on which hang “all the law and the profits.”

Like the truth that big gifts add up quicker, an insight I could attribute to my grade school math teachers. Or the truth I learned from the mining industry, that you’re either an inch from a million dollars or a million inches from a dollar. And why, with that in mind, it pays to know where you’re digging.

I’ve also learned from an old Apache proverb that “What is needed is less thunder in the mouth, more lightening in the hand.” Or as Otto von Bismarck put it poignantly, “I’d rather have pointed bullets than pointed words.”

But I’m still persuaded that of all the truths I’ve learned in development, this is the greatest by far: Of all the reasons why people give, and they are myriad, the most important is that someone asked.

The amazing thing to me is that after decades in the field and enormous strides made in the disciplines of development (there are now more than 50), so many people are still so reluctant to ask for the gift. They just can’t close. Although the reasons for reluctance are multiple, here, from my vantage point, are just a few of the usual suspects:

Extrabiblical baggage: Far too many Christians want to appeal to mythologized, rose-colored accounts of how George Mueller and Hudson Taylor did things, rather than how Moses, David, Solomon, or Paul did things. In short, their fundraising models simply aren’t biblical. Their appeals to extrabiblical authorities are often mere camouflage; convenient escaped from responsibility when the truth is that they just don’t think it’s “spiritual” to ask for money.

Passionectomies: Some fundraisers have apparently had their passion surgically removed. Because much of selling or persuasion is the transference of feeling, too many fundraisers fail to realize that the most important sale they’ll ever make is when they sell themselves on the cause. Remember what the –iasm on the end of “enthusiasm” stands for: I Am Sold Myself!

Fear of rejection: Too many people think that asking for funds is about them. If the gift is declined, they feel personally rejected. Well, it ain’t about you so get over it! It’s about creating a transformational “bridge” across which God-given resources can travel to change lives. The lives of benefactors as well as beneficiaries.

Lack of knowledge: Just as Paul told Timothy that there are those who are “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth” (2 Tim. 3.7), so in development there are legions of “grip and grin” types who are always lathering but never shaving!

Because precious little is accomplished in organizations without financial resources, and because most of these resources come when people are asked, here’s a beatitude you can take to the bank: “Blessed are the closers…”

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Improving Waste Management

By Larry Johnston

There are a lot of things that separate the pros in management from the amateurs. And the amount of time they’ve been managing has little to do with whether they’re one or the other. I’ve met people who are pros the first day they got started, and amateurs who’ve been at the task for 20 years.

But for this blog, I want to focus on just two differentiators. Both can be either adaptational (i.e., it’s something you adapt to rather than deeply believe) or orientational (i.e., a deep internal compass that reflects core values, beliefs and inclinations), but they quickly find their expression in behavior and methodology. More simply, what we value gets fleshed out in what we do.

One is the notion of stewardship. The other is the nasty “D” word: Discipline. Let’s start with stewardship.

I’m not talking here about stewardship in the sense of encouraging people to give. I’m speaking more to what stewardship is really all about, the use (management) of God-given resources to accomplish God-given tasks. Here we should be mindful of the etymology of the word “steward.” It comes from the old English “styward,” where the sty was the warehouse of personal or communal goods, and the ward or warden (manager) was responsible for the judicious care of its contents. Translating this concept to modern management, especially of nonprofits, is the obligation of managers (stewards) to maximize the impact (results) of every gift entrusted to their care. That entails, among other things, the elimination of waste.

That’s where discipline comes in, and more specifically the disciplines of Total Quality Management (TQM) and Total Quality Service (TQS). Students and practitioners of these disciplines know from research as well as personal experience that in the typical organization an alarming percentage of the activities and processes of the organization cannot demonstrably be linked to value creation or mission- and vision-related outcomes or results. In other words, they’re waste. That assertion is unbelievable to many, offensive to some, but a wake-up call to others.

But whether you’re incredulous, offended, or awakened, the challenge remains: How do we, with greater effectiveness and efficiency each day, gain increasing understanding and mastery of process design and process management at every level of our organizations so that more and more of donors’ hard-earned dollars translate to life-changing and world-changing impact, rather than being frittered away through process deficiencies and managerial negligence?

It’s clear to anyone who hasn’t been comatose that there’s a new game afoot in terms of the level and sophistication of philanthropic competition. A new game means new rules, and new rules mean new tools.

Some of these tools relate critically to how we design and manage key organizational processes. And to become more effective at mission management, we’ve simply got to get better at waste management.

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