Focus, focus, focus

November 1, 2009 at 8:17 pm | Posted in Business Models, Digital strategy, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

The Harvard Business Review recently offered an interesting review of the challenges that philanthropic organizations face in critically analyzing what their strategic goals, how well they’re meeting them, and how to adjust priorities to improve their performance.

The article, entitled “Galvanizing Philanthropy,” is especially timely given the varying degree of organizational review and program juggling that’s been going on at many foundations as a result of the squeeze the recession has put on endowments and portfolios. Note, an HRB subscription is required to see more than an article summary.

Interestingly, say authors Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Susan J. Colby of the non-profit consultants The Bridgespan Group, the challenge to focus based on objective analysis is one that philanthropies face regardless of the economic climate. It’s just that hard times bring things into much sharper relief.

How to best assess foundation performance is something a number of visionary philanthropies and their executives have talked about for a while. When I was running the communications and publishing group at The Commonwealth Fund, for example, this was a favorite topic of EVP/COO John Craig, who spoke and wrote about it extensively. One good example is John’s 2006 essay on assessing a foundation’s performance. He also wrote earlier this year about private foundations’ response to the “new financial realities” the recession rained down upon them.

Philanthropies are in this delicate spot because of the double-edged sword that is the essence of nonprofit, mission-driven organizations, the Harvard Business Review piece notes. These entities, “exempt from the accountability imposed on business by markets or on government by voters, are free to experiment and take risks,” it says. “But they have little experience in objectively evaluating their own performance or figuring out how to improve it.”

To give a sense of how to attack this issue, the authors look at how the James Irvine, Bill & Melinda Gates, Annie E. Casey, David and Lucile Packard, and Edna McConnell Clark Foundations worked to “get real” by focusing on key strategic “anchors” to optimize their resources and outcomes.

Obviously, the more focused a foundation’s overarching strategy, the more focused and potentially high-impact its communications strategy will be.

Thanks to my good friend and former Medscape colleague Mike Squires, now a top-drawer health IT consultant, for drawing my attention to this HBR article.

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