Earlier this week I participated in a visioning and strategic planning session for a non-profit whose work and founder I respect a lot. You know the drill: a handful of folks around a conference table for the day, dreaming big dreams and thinking big. I really like this kind of thing, especially when someone else has to do all the work that we dream up!

I offered my best questions to try to bring forth what the leader most wanted to contribute in the world, questions like:
What gets you up in the morning, even after doing this work for 20 years?
Of all the things your company does, what has the highest leverage for doing the most good?
Who on the planet is least likely to be able to take advantage of what you have to offer? Have you prioritized a way to get this to them?
What’s your Endgame? a la Gugalev and Stern
How many people are currently benefiting from your intervention? How many possibly could?

This is just how my brain works. If you can answer these questions, I am 100% confident we can craft a viable scaling plan for you, and that you’ll be able to find the money to make it a reality. But let’s start with you, what matters most, and facing into the data.

I’ve found our approach is pretty much 180 degrees the exact opposite of how most non-profit strategic planning goes down. What’s more typical is to do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) Analysis and to do something along the lines of a 10 year strategic plan.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say SWOT Analyses and 10 Year Plans of any kind can take you off track from scaling for impact. Here’s a couple of reasons why:

SWOTs and 10 year plans are generally geared toward institutional preservation versus creating change in the world. Impact first, organization follows, not the other way around.
Threats. What are you talking about “threats?” Anything that tees up a conversation about competition in the non-profit sector is going down the wrong track. We don’t have time for competition. A good idea is a good idea. Period.
You’ll get sucked into the vortex of “what are the funders funding now? – and let’s do more of that” which will take you away from what you should be focusing on: doing your thing. Prioritize doing what needs to be done and find philanthropists who share your values and interests. Don’t chase their money to do their thing. Shine doing your thing and bring them onto the team with you.
10 years is a long, long time. I’m not at all opposed to long-term visions – those are awesome. But way too much can happen between now and 2028 for anything I put in a plan now to be relevant then. Auspos and Cabaj make the point somewhere in this 100 page piece, Complexity and Community Change, that given complexity and emergence and all the things that can change, over-planning is absurd. I agree with them and that’s why we recommend folks work in 18 to 36 month increments. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

I’m not saying there isn’t a time and place for 10 Year Plans and SWOT Analyses, I’m just saying I haven’t yet seen anything incredibly magical come from them, other than consultants making some good money and glitzy leave-behind booklets with sparkly pie charts that end up in recycling bins. So yeah, maybe not so awesome. Save your money.


Here are some folks who are kicking ass and taking names in large-scale change, and to the best of my knowledge, though I could be wrong, they’ve done this without a 10 year plan:

  1. The Share Your Learning campaign has a mission is to transform education by giving more students the opportunity to share their learning with an audience beyond the classroom so they can communicate, collaborate, and contribute. By June of 2020, they hope to have 5,000,000 students publicly sharing their learning.  They set an interim goal to reach 1,000,000 students by August, and on Thursday, May 31st, they hit 1,000,000 students early! You can read more about their work in this hot off the proverbial presses Edutopia article!  I asked what they attribute their accelerated success to and Billions Institute Fellow Michelle Clark said, “We lean into Many Ways to Many. We try a LOT of things!”
  2. Kate Hurley and her colleagues with the Million Cats Campaign achieved their aim of preventing the unnecessary euthanization of 1,000,000 cats early and are already onto their next initiative, If you’ve adopted a cat from a shelter, there’s a good chance it’s one of theirs!
  3. Nina Simon of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has launched the “Of, By, & For All” Campaign to engage 200 organizations serving 10 million community members by the end of 2020. This is one to watch!
  4. Sonoma County Office of Education’s Project E3 is actively engaging teams of superintendents, principals, teachers, and para-professionals in identifying and spreading practices that improve equity, empathy, and engagement in their schools.
  5. Community Solutions’ Built for Zero Campaign is finishing the job that the 100k Homes Campaign started. Nine communities in the United States have achieved “functional zero” on homelessness, with many more on their heels. By the way, great write-up of why it’s working from our friends at the Solutions Journalism Network.

Opportunities – Please Spread the Word!

Billions Institute Fellow Eunice Nichols: The Encore Public Voices Fellowship will provide a diverse group of 20 leaders of all ages an unparalleled opportunity to develop their thinking and writing on the topic of purpose and engagement in the second half of life. Fellows – a mix of community leaders, activists, writers, educators, corporate executives and more – will receive the expert support they need to inform and influence the public debate on this critical topic, as we become a nation of more older people than younger ones. At least half of the cohort will consist of people of color. This effort is a collaboration among Encore.org, The OpEd Project and Ann MacDougall. Deadline: June 22. For details and to apply, go tobit.ly/encorepublicvoices.

From The Bridgespan Group via Zoe Stemm-CalderonThe Audacious Project, which is dedicated to funding ideas with the potential to create change at thrilling scale, is launching now. They are now accepting applications for the next round until June 10th. I know this is approaching quickly, but the application is not too intense, especially for a leader with a big dream!

From Penny Carver with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Call for applications for this year’s Spotlight on Quality in Continuous Improvement, designed to recognize quality in the application of improvement principles, methods, and tools to significant problems in education.

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