I'm not sure about you, but when I think about strategy, I think about long, drawn-out documents with best-scenario guesses about what's going to happen in the next 3–5 years. I think about countless meetings that go on for hours, sometimes ending with the same questions that got them started. And I think about the lack of follow through on the plans that were made with seeming earnestness.
That said, for us, strategy isn't something to be written down in a long planning process. It's not about producing a document that will ultimately sit on the shelf and collect dust. It's about being engaged an ongoing, ever-evolving and active process of making choices, testing them in the real world and seeing what works best for us and those we serve.
In their book on strategy, A.G. Lafley, former chairman and CEO of Proctor & Gamble, and Roger L. Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management suggest that, as they articulate their strategy, companies should position themselves to win. Now, let me say something that some might find controversial: Nonprofits also need to position themselves to win. Because they're focused on advancing a social mission, we want to think that they shouldn't be concerned with winning. But how is doing everything you can to be the best at amplifying your social impact not winning?
To play merely to participate is self-defeating. It is a recipe for mediocrity. Winning is what matters—and it is the ultimate criterion of a successful strategy.
We're a nonprofit with a mission to connect youth around the world with each other and their purpose. And as the leader of this nonprofit, I don't want to just be okay at that. I want to win. And for me, winning means making sure that all of the young people across the globe are connected to each other and are fulfilling their purpose in life.
When it comes to strategy, then, we tend to think about it in the same way that Mr. Lafley and Mr. Martin think about strategy. It's the same way the team at the Monitor Institute thinks about strategy. It's about experimenting, recognizing patterns and executing as a whole. And ultimately, it's about making hard choices.
Businesses and governments aren't the only ones who have to make hard choices. So do nonprofits, and sometimes ours are harder to make. For instance, should we stop a program that's big on impact but runs at a deficit? Do we look ahead and position ourselves to the future needs of the people we serve, abandoning a segment of society still in desperate need for help? These are hard choices.
For us, our hard choices are currently focused on how and for who we design our internship program, whether we can afford to continue building the capacity of our partners while neglecting our own and whether we should start a for-profit side hustle that will allow us to earn our own revenue. Again, these aren't easy choices to make, and in the process, we're likely to make some choices that turn out to be wrong. Hopefully, they will lead us to the right ones. Most likely though, we'll face some setbacks.
But like it or not, we're in the business—yes, even nonprofits will "live or die on cash flow, just like any other business"—of taking risks. Because that's what businesses, nonprofits and governments are really about, taking risks. We just have different ways of going about it. Yet the hope is that through the process of making these hard choices and through our determination to win, whatever that might mean for us, we make our work and the world more effective, efficient, sustainable and just.
If you find our approach to strategy intriguing, let us know. We're searching for five (5) thoughtful and action-oriented people to serve on our board, and if we've piqued your curiosity with this post, you just might have what it takes to be one of them.