Inspire Passion for Your Nonprofit by Plotting Its Demise

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Imagine you’re walking to your car with a box full of personal belongings from your office. The sad little plant you’ve proudly managed to keep alive is perched delicately on top and is threatening to topple onto the sidewalk. You’ve just said your goodbyes to your co-workers and have promised to stay in touch. Now imagine you’re not alone. Everyone else is leaving with their boxes of belongings, too. Their desktop doodads, pictures of their families, and the coffee mugs that you’ve come to recognize as an extension of their owners. The president of the board and executive director are there, and they’ve just thanked you and the others for your dedication and service to your nonprofit’s mission.

As you begin to shift your thoughts to what you’ll do next, you reflect on what just happened. It’s hard to believe that the organization you’ve spent the last several years working for has closed its doors and will no longer exist.

Despite these typically demoralizing circumstances, you and your fellow co-workers are swelling with pride.

Usually when we imagine this scenario, it’s because something has gone horribly wrong. This time it's different. This time your nonprofit has closed its doors because everything went according to plan.

Planned Obsolescence

At a pivotal point in the organization’s past, someone had the courage to ask, “What would it take for our organization to no longer need to exist?” From there the team developed a strategic plan that answered that question, and then set to work carrying out the plan.

Not too unlike a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG), determining what your organization has to do to no longer need to exist helps drive interest and passion from your team, community, and donors; and it does so in a way that leaves no room for confusion or ambiguity.

For your nonprofit to get to close its doors means you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. You’ve either righted whatever wrong you originally sought to correct, or you have helped society to value a permanent, self-sustaining solution.

A Big Hairy Problem

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of setting aggressive goals and the BHAG philosophy, in theory. I've used BHAG vision statements to drive and develop strategic plans with my clients and have been pleased with the results. But there are a few challenges with BHAGs that have led me to this different perspective, and particularly for nonprofits.

The BHAG can be a difficult concept to grasp. Some people get it and others don’t, but rarely does it mean the same thing to everyone. I find that it’s often because the terms "big," "hairy," and "audacious" are so subjective. It’s hard enough, sometimes, to get some teams to agree to what a "goal" is . . .

When developing a BHAG, a lot of time is spent debating what is big and audacious enough or too much so. While working through the concept, it’s not uncommon to hear someone reassuring others by saying something like, “It’s OK if it seems impossible; that’s kind of the idea.”

But "impossible" is not the idea, and I've often witnessed people mentally check out of what should be a generative conversation because they can't buy into the concept.

Another challenge is that one of the main characteristics of a BHAG is that it’s often perceived as risky. The problem with risk, of course, is that it can lead those outside of your organization to question the feasibility of your goal, and more importantly, your organization’s grasp of what can be realistically accomplished.

Perceived risk is less of an issue for for-profit businesses where inflated ambition and risk are often rewarded. With few exceptions, however, nonprofits typically aren’t rewarded for risky or overly ambitious behavior, and few have the resources to accurately message their BHAG in a way that will overcome the concerns.

With donor attrition at unacceptably high rates, the difficulty most nonprofits have driving engagement from their board, and the importance of clarity and common focus among internal and external stakeholders, the last thing most nonprofits need is confusion about the organization’s grasp of reality.

Finally, I find that the BHAG philosophy helps to reinforce a dangerous mindset for nonprofit leaders, one where self-preservation rather than permanent solutions drives their strategic thinking.

One of the first things I ask organizations when we start working with them is what it would take for them to close their doors and no longer exist.

I have yet to ask this question and not be met with reactions ranging from confusion to disbelief. Some people actually say things like, “You must be kidding!” or “Why would we want to do that?!”

Does Your Nonprofit Need An Exit Strategy?

While one could argue that some nonprofit businesses should persist indefinitely, it’s certainly not the case for all or even most. Regardless of your personal opinion on this subject, there’s little question as to the validity of introducing clarity and believability into the strategic planning process.

Doing so doesn’t necessarily mean that your organization must some day cease to exist. By positioning the strategic conversation in terms of actually accomplishing the mission (or at least one area of focus, before moving your attention to others), you give stakeholders and supporters a frame of reference they can wrap their heads around and believe in, while still offering an emotionally compelling vision.

Next Steps

Simply start by asking what it would take for your organization to not have to exist. For some, this will be really simple to answer, and for others, it will seem impossible. If it does seem impossible or completely unrealistic, try being open to the possibility of revising the scope of your mission to something you actually can impact.

If you stretch your imagination far enough, you’ll find an answer and be on your way to making real and lasting progress.


Image Credit: Bryan Mills (with changes)