Just don’t say the “S” word

Strategy. I said it. In one project, we danced around the word avoiding it valiantly because we didn’t want to scare anyone off. In two other projects, it became clear that the gerbil wheel of programming may need some “deeper thought and alignment” (did I avoid the word?). But no, we didn’t have time for a strategy—just focus on the work. Cue the gerbil. And then there’s the partner who told me simply that no one is interested in strategy. I’m starting to feel that this is true.

I imagine someone has studied the history of strategic planning in the nonprofit sector and can explain how it became so angstful. (The German major in me wants to ask how the nonprofit Zeitgeist became angstvoll, but I digress.) Haven’t we moved beyond this prevalent idea that a strategy is a dusty binder on the shelf? No one uses binders anymore. Our collective antipathy for strategy is doing us a huge disservice.

We can’t complain about having to work this hard if we don’t pause for reflection on what really matters.

We can’t wonder why we aren’t moving the needle on our missions when we haven’t considered the one thing that will give us a structural advantage.

We have evolved how we think about fundraising, equity, advocacy, and so much more. I believe that we can evolve how we think about strategy.

As many in this community know, I think a lot about learning strategy. We want to move _____ (person/type of person) to do ____ (action). We want our clients to access SNAP benefits or experience the love found within a safe recovery space. We want board members to engage in decision-making and legislators to vote for budgets that favor the communities we represent. We want volunteers not to cut their fingers off while working in the food bank on Saturday. (We have a training for that.)

For all of that to happen, the people we are trying to move to action need information, tools, and confidence. Our work demands incredible courage, which means we need creative spaces in which people can practice hard things. And when questions arise in the middle of the challenge, we need technical assistance to answer questions in real time.

Recently I’ve been referencing JD Dillon’s Modern Learning Ecosystem Framework with clients curious to imagine what strategy to move people to sustained action might look like. Instead of putting all our eggs in the training basket, we consider the nuances of push (required) and pull (desired) training and build an infrastructure of learning supports that moves us closer to where the work happens. What if we stopped all training tomorrow and focused instead on identifying who knows what in our community and pro-actively connected people with each other and well-curated resources.

Modern Learning Ecosystem Framework by JD Dillon.

There are, of course, parallels in organizational strategy. The leverage would fall not in the programs themselves but the connective tissue between programs. We would focus on how well one message or outcome could be woven across audiences, events, relationships, partnerships, etc. Whatever your line of work is, I imagine there are tactics that range in availability and structure, as the Modern Learning Ecosystem Framework shows us above.

I’ve decided that the “S” word is much like broccoli to a child. The emotion triggered by broccoli feels disproportionate to the product, which really isn’t that big a deal. The spring purple broccoli at our local farmers market is actually pretty incredible! Let’s keep bringing up strategy – or “deep reflection and alignment” if that’s how we are going to hide it under the mashed potatoes. Our missions need us to leverage everything we got.

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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