Our organisations won’t be around for ever – start planning for that.
- Why was your organisation set up?
- Why does it still exist?
- How long does it plan to be around?
- What would happen if it focused on nothing else but achieving its mission?
Putting ourselves out of a job?
Burning with revolutionary zeal, the Manic Street Preachers punkishly promised to split up after their debut album in 1992. They’re still going. Grey beards, acoustic guitars. Chwarae teg, as they say in Wales – fair play, but it’s not what they set out for.
Burning with the same zeal, many non-profits talk about doing themselves out of a job. I don’t know any that have made this rhetoric a reality. I was once involved in creating a charity’s 10-year strategy, after which it promised to wind up. The issue would be mainstreamed in other organisations’ practice (the Fifth Domain), communities would be empowered to take action (the Seventh). Job done. Until, 10 years later. Guess what, the next strategy came out.
When I see charities really celebrating a milestone anniversary, I get mixed feelings. I smile for them because survival is hard, and I strongly believe we need healthy charities for a healthy society. But I also sigh, because if the charity is still around then so are the issues it was set up to tackle, which is no cause for celebration.
Of course, lots of charities have wound up in recent years, though the question of survival was generally taken out of their hands, usually by the withdrawal of funding or support. Rarer for an organisation to choose the time and manner of its own exit. The ongoing example of Life Changes Trust decision to close a year ahead of its originally-planned winding-up date is an interesting exception, as is HIV Scotland’s decision to create an end point and publish an 11 year strategy.
Fundamentally, if our organisations are interested in making a lasting difference, shouldn’t they invest as much attention in putting themselves out of business as they do in keeping themselves going?
Single focused goals
What would happen if your organisation focused on nothing else but achieving its mission? Would it still do the things it does, in the same ways? Would it use its resources differently?
Is this a strange question? Or is it possible you spend time every day in activities that only contribute vaguely to your mission, if at all? Your mission, vision or aims are the reasons your organisation exists. You spent time developing and defining them. Which is only worth it if you use them every day it to make decisions, manage capacity and stay focused. Having set our goals, we usually then get on with…our ‘real’ jobs. And the more time we spend doing that, the less we have left to put into our mission.
Our organisations won’t be around for ever and we need to start planning and operating on that basis.
Not because their demise is imminent (though they may be), but because they don’t have an inbuilt right to exist. Their only purpose is to pursue and achieve their aims, not to keep themselves going..
We need to find more sustainable operating models and one of the foundations of that is to align our work with our mission as closely as possible. This will help ensure we make the best use of limited capacity and resources, avoid mission drift – and make a sustainable impact. It will ensure that if we face sustainability challenges it will be because we chose our own path rather than losing our way.
As one CEO put it,
‘When I first started, we were going down in flames. I decided that if that’s going to happen, we’d make bloody sure they were our flames’
Strategic decisions are as much about what you won’t do as what you will. They often mean letting go of things: for example old habits and beliefs; attractive but distracting opportunities; the need to be all things to all people.
Do some simple analysis of how your time is spent, where your money comes from and where it goes. Whatever your Strategic Plan might say, your true strategy will be reflected in these results – they are always revealing.
Review your commitments and resources. Do they reflect what’s needed now, or situations, communities and opportunities from the past? Strategic decisions will be needed, for example to invest or disinvest in different activities, knowledge and resources to reflect changes in need or demand. For example, organisations are now reviewing their investments in the light of Covid-19. Should office space be reduced and savings be spent on home office equipment? Should budgets for travel and events be reinvested in IT and training?
One of the most common traps for any organisation is to assume that it must maintain the same levels of revenue in future as it has just now. Often this is understandably about CEOs feeling the very real responsibility to keep people in jobs. But other motivations also creep in, like pride, competitiveness or just the belief that it is natural, desirable and sustainable for organisations grow. It’s not. There are natural limits to the growth of any organism or organisation. These may be internal or external.
Internal limits to organisational growth are things like capacity, time and knowledge. But those are all consequences of something much more important: what you choose to focus on. When we have single focused goals, limits to growth aren’t barriers to be broken down, but exciting enablers of something new. As Seth Godin says, ‘The opposite of “more” is not “less.” If we care enough, the opposite of more is better.’ Taking this advice, in 2019 my company took the decision to grow by getting smaller – from having seven staff and associates doing more work to having three doing better, more focused work.
External limits to survival and growth come from the resources available in the environment. An example you sometimes see is when a charity campaigns vocally about its funding being reduced (usually it’s being ‘slashed’ or ‘cut’). They are passionate about their work and want it to continue. And they may well be justified in thinking that they are being treated unjustly. But it’s also worth considering – have they reached a natural limit on their growth? Does the environment need an organisation of that type and size, and can it sustain it with the resources available?
As Stephen Covey said, ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’ Keep your focus on the mission and use that to guide your choices.