Are You Planning to Scale or Planning to Fail?
Too many organizations create impressive strategies for growth, which they then fail to implement. Here are five principles to make your vision come to life.
Alex is on the cusp of something big — the board presentation of a year-long strategy process shows the nonprofit will grow and deliver greater impact than ever before. The board is impressed, and strategy gets universal approval. But a year later, it’s proving much harder to implement than anyone guessed.
It turns out that while Alex’s strategy for the organization to scale was good, the team neglected to think in depth about how it would actually be executed. Like not checking the buckle on your parachute, this ambitious nonprofit had planned to fail.
At Spring Impact, we see this happening in nonprofits all over the world time and time again. And it’s not just nonprofits that have this problem, a 2016 study of commercial businesses and public sector organizations by Bridges Business Consultancy estimated that more than two-thirds of strategies failed due to poor execution.
Implementation is not a straightforward process. It needs detailed planning — plus investment —to make it happen.
So how do you plan to succeed? Here are five principles to make your vision come to life.
1. Invest in Staff to Support Successful Implementation for Scale
Nonprofits must be mindful of and be held accountable for how they spend their money, and social enterprises are often praised for being lean, efficient operations. However, when I walk into the room with a team without the money or skills to achieve their leader’s ambitions, we can almost smell the fear of failure that they know is to come.
One organization that has successfully invested in supporting its implementation staff is the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES). FES has worked with millions of people living in villages across India to bring common lands under their management, improving their livelihoods and protecting the environment. Spring Impact is working with FES to replicate at scale the organization’s Pakriti Karyashala — rural college — model.
More than 40 key FES staff took part in four days of training to equip them with the skills, knowledge and common language to achieve this. What’s more, FES will be tracking, reviewing and recording progress and lessons learned during the implementation period.
This may seem like a daunting investment, but it pays off. At FES, the training helped to foster a collective organizational mindset in support of scaling their impact, clarifying each staff member’s role in achieving this and giving them the skills to play their part.
2. Prioritize Systems and Processes Development
Robust systems and processes will save your team time and money, as well as maintaining quality, allowing your organization to achieve its vision to deliver impact at scale.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in San Francisco saw a dramatic change in the productivity and cohesiveness of its teams once it produced an internal “playbook” on everything from values to “how-to” guides.
However, actually creating these systems and processes is a laborious, time-intensive task. One solution is to outsource this task and bring in experts equipped with standard templates and procedures.
3. Bring the Operations Manuals Alive
All the painstakingly developed systems and processes are usually shared in operations manuals, which — although important — can be pretty dry documents! Ensuring that they don’t sit on the shelf requires a champion from within the organization and buy-in from everyone around their new way of working.
New York Street Vendors have to follow a number of regulations and often have English as their second language. Vendors were repeatedly getting into trouble with the authorities simply because they didn’t understand what they needed to. The Street Vendor Project created this visual guide, “Vendor Power!” which gave Street Vendors the ability to understand their rights and regulations.
A creative approach can make a great difference — user-generated videos, comics, interactive web pages and engaging training sessions can capture your staff members’ interest and fully engage them in the work. If that’s too much of a stretch, consider a train-the-trainer model so that some of your staff become champions of the systems and processes within your organization. Simple internal online training programs, which is easily and economically repeatable, can also work well.
4. Shift the Mindset to Include Critical Funding for Implementation in Grant Requests
It’s difficult to attract funding to prepare for strategy implementation; funders often consider strategy development and innovation a more attractive investment. So we need new, creative ways for organizations to pitch implementation as an integral part of their plans for scale, rather than leaving it as an afterthought.
Marie Stopes Zambia has a tried and tested method of delivering reproductive health services and advice to young people — a demographic where there was limited understanding of how to effectively approach them in a sustainable way. To sustain creativity and innovation Marie wanted to learn how to translate and scale this into the public sector.
The organization asked for support from Spring Impact and the Hewlett Foundation, which included funding an implementation lead within its team. The replication project has now been successfully piloted and launched in four sites with the hope to launch three more next year.
5. Create Flexible Information Management Systems and Feedback Loops
Implementation is not a linear process; scale requires iteration and innovation. Management information systems that capture the right data are critical to give organizations instant feedback so that the program can be adapted to local contexts accordingly and to ensure that impact is being maintained as the program is scaled.
However, the mechanisms for learning from implementation are often too cumbersome to be workable, or too light to provide enough feedback.
Senegal-based Yaajeende is a USAID project that trains local entrepreneurs to sell quality agricultural health and nutrition products to local farmers. We have supported the organization to implement its social franchise model called CultiVert. An important part of this was to ensure the local entrepreneurs — the franchisees — had their performance monitored and evaluated. With Yaajeende, we co-developed a way of achieving this, which made use of CultiVert’s mobile phone-enabled platform.
As the project developed, the information that we collected from the franchisees fed into refining CultiVert’s operations systems and processes, and improving the coaching and support. This level of feedback suits the organization’s size and capacity, and continuously ensures that quality is being maintained as it scales.
Where to Now?
If we want to see social problems truly tackled at scale, it’s time to broaden leaders’ focus from not only looking at the big vision, but also the details of how it will be successfully delivered.
Dan Berelowitz is founder and CEO at Spring Impact, a global nonprofit that supports funders and social innovations to scale their impact through consultancy, research and advocacy.