Article In Brief:
- The Problem: Nonprofits are endowed with a deep desire to fix problems they see in society. However, the fixation on problem-solving can limit impact and be part of the problem, says the author, an executive director with over 25 years of experience in the sector.
- The Context: Strategic inquiry and planning can be seen as a luxury by nonprofits and the leaders who run them. But this misses the value of deep thinking to enable nonprofits to pivot away from problems and toward possibilities.
- The Solution: Using the example of an educational nonprofit, this article presents five steps nonprofits can take to implement strategic inquiry including building board support, listening to community, research, broadening networks, and sharing the journey. Now has never been a better time to get curious about what your organization might do in the future.
Has the fixation on problems become a problem for nonprofits?
For over a decade, Decatur Education Foundation (DEF) has utilized a holistic and flexible approach in addressing the increasing challenges our kids face. Like many other nonprofits, we have taken on large, complex issues—including mental health, food insecurity, and racial equity—and specifically looked for ways in which these issues intersect.
Regardless of how good a school or classroom is, students who are hungry, who face high levels of anxiety and depression, and/or who are subject to active discrimination can’t learn. It is impossible to support our kids without looking at the whole picture.
Last year, as DEF approached our 20-year anniversary amidst the global pandemic, we found ourselves yearning to think more deeply about where we could and should go from here—something many of us in the nonprofit sector are feeling all too keenly.
Moving towards Possibilities
For DEF, part of continuing to serve our community with integrity meant acknowledging the significant toll the pandemic had on our kids and its impact on all parts of their lives. I’m sure many organizations can relate to this sense of plugging holes in a dam already about to break.
But what if this fixation on problems is itself part of the problem?
In The Four Pivots, Dr. Shawn A. Ginwright discusses how achieving social change can only happen if we move from problem-fixing to possibility-creating. In fact, Dr. Ginwright suggests that leaders get fixated on (and even addicted to) problems. We often solely focus on what we are trying to tear down or solve without putting enough thought into what we want to create in its place. Dr. Ginwright’s book made us realize that in order for DEF to deepen our impact, we would also need to move our focus away from problems and toward possibilities.
We knew that before tackling a strategic planning process, we needed to do some reframing around possibility creation. We felt that this required something beyond a traditional needs assessment.
Strategic Inquiry as Necessity
If we’re taking an introspective look at the nonprofit sector, one of its huge problems is the general lack of investment in people, both in terms of salary structure and professional development/learning. Well-meaning board members often urge nonprofits to operate more like the for-profit world; however, those same boards are reluctant to invest in competitive salaries as well as research and development even though both competitive pay and R&D are pillars of the for-profit world.
It is perhaps unsurprising that when I shared my plan with another nonprofit colleague, their initial reaction was “you are so lucky!” But taking time for research and development shouldn’t be considered lucky. Nonprofits and the leaders who run them need to stop seeing the critical work of deep thinking as a luxury and start seeing it as good stewardship and responsible leadership.
What exactly do we mean by strategic inquiry (and how can you use it)?
At DEF, our strategic inquiry includes learning from three main sources—the youth themselves, research, and other innovators—in the hopes of getting a deeper, more holistic understanding than any one source would provide.
While it worked for us to take a year to do this inquiry, we know not every organization can make that happen. You may have a small team or not have the financial resources to commit to an entire year.
However, you can still implement strategic inquiry on some level regardless of staffing or budget. Really, strategic inquiry is a mindset that allows you and your organization to expand your ideas of who might have something to offer the community you serve.
Here are five steps you can take to begin to implement strategic inquiry within your nonprofit.
Step 1: Get your board on board.
Implementing a strategic inquiry initiative at your organization starts by getting your board to see its value. Many organizations are acknowledging that there is no going back to how things were pre-pandemic. The world has changed, but this means that there has never been a better time to “get curious” about what your organization might do in the future.
Want to get your board excited about inquiry? Tap into their own curiosity. Think about introducing an activity at a board meeting that prompts them to think beyond what you are doing now. Use small breakouts (perhaps with the following prompts) to get them excited.
Prompts for Board Breakout Groups
- What do they envision your organization doing in 5 years?
- Who would they be interested in learning from (encouraging them to think outside of your current networks)?
- What burning questions do they have about who your organization serves?
Have some fun coming up with activities that tap into our natural curiosity—you may be surprised at where that takes you. If you get your board enthusiastic about the necessity for strategic inquiry, you’ll not only have their support but also their great ideas and questions to help guide you.
Of course, sometimes boards need to hear from those outside your organization – so use this article to help make your case!
Step 2: Listen to the community you serve.
At DEF, we started the first corner of our strategic inquiry triangle last spring: listening to the lived experience of youth. As part of a partnership with VOX ATL trained teen facilitators created and hosted peer-led listening sessions to inform our understanding of kids’ mental health. This year, we have expanded our partnership to host more youth-led listening sessions to really understand their experiences. We are seeking to reframe the traditional approach of “what’s not working” to allow youth to envision futures anchored in possibility.
For your own nonprofit, consider how you could be more engaged with the community you serve by seeing your community as partners in the work. Commit to leaning in to listen to their lived experience. This might take the form of surveys, community forums or townhalls, or some other method of collecting community feedback. Try to use open-ended, BIG questions that allow them to really think beyond problems and get at what possibilities they see for the future.
Step 3: Dive into the research.
Along with the youth’s lived experience, DEF’s strategic inquiry will be working towards learned experience: educating ourselves and our community about what the current research says regarding the factors, relationships, and assets that help kids thrive. This research on youth development, gleaned from a variety of disciplines (for example the science of hope), will deepen our understanding of what we learn from the youth in our community.
In your own pursuit of learned experience, leave yourself open to all types of research, not just studies in academic journals. Explore relevant podcasts and books. Are there any new memoirs out tangentially related to your mission that might give you a new perspective? Let your curiosity guide your choices—you will find you have more resources than you can manage.
If you do get overwhelmed, not to worry! This is not a one-person endeavor. Be sure to find ways to include your team and your board. Consider inviting your staff to take a reading and/or research day once a month and share what they learn. Maybe an organizational book club with board and staff works for your organization. Remember, curiosity is contagious, and strategic inquiry is a great way to engage board and staff.
Step 4: Broaden your connections and networks.
The next, and perhaps most unusual aspect of DEF’s year-long inquiry, includes visits with innovators across the country. In the fall, I met with several innovative organizations—including a youth-driven house and a youth center — to learn about the variety of ways teen-led innovation might take shape. This spring, I plan to visit youth-driven organizations in the west and south.
Zoom has opened up a lot of our world in terms of the possibilities for connection. Perhaps in ways we were reticent to before the pandemic, we are now willing to connect with people across much greater geographic areas. Instead of viewing ourselves as limited to our specific locations, we might consider what we can learn from people doing similar work not only across the United States but internationally as well. What organizations with similar missions might you consider meeting with both to understand how similar issues manifest in different contexts as well as to identify different situational approaches that might address these issues?
Similarly, the pandemic has made painfully clear the systemic reality of inequality. That is, it has encouraged us to think of the ways in which the issues our organizations attempt to address interact with those of other local organizations. At DEF, we were curious about what others were doing, choosing to look beyond the world of education foundations to the broader world of youth-centered organizations.
As an example, my own curiosity about innovators led me to discover the Harwood Institute’s summits where I learned about a community they worked with in Oak Park, Illinois. There, a new library director realized that unhoused people were sheltering in the building and decided to hire a social worker to offer services to these patrons. Upon hearing this story, I wondered what those working with unhoused people might learn from this library (and vice versa).
For your own organization, think about casting a wider net beyond those who are in the same narrowly defined nonprofit service area. Who might be doing innovative work in a slightly different arena that you could learn from?
Of course, looking for connections and building those relationships takes time and energy. However, I’ve found that the more I work with other nonprofit professionals—that is, the more connected I am—the more our collective excitement energizes us to imagine future possibilities. For your own organization, who would you be excited about working with? Who are you curious about?
Step 5: Share your story.
One of the most gratifying parts of our strategic inquiry initiative has been finding ways to share this idea with others. Last year, I launched a blog that had been on my to-do list for years. It gave me a space where I could begin to process all of the information we were collecting and processing. I‘ve also put the word out in a variety of mediums, from local community publications to educational foundation newsletters and now this article at Blue Avocado. In December, I was invited to share strategic inquiry at the Florida Consortium of Education Foundations’ membership meeting and I will host a workshop on the topic at the National Association for Education Foundations in March.
As those of us in the nonprofit world know, our sector can often be slow to change. However, change can and will happen when we try new things as long as we are committed to sharing our stories and work to inspire others to do the same. It is my hope that DEF’s strategic inquiry initiative moves nonprofit board members both to understand the value of R&D and to invest in leaders willing to get curious about creating possibilities at their organizations. We should all be looking towards innovators (both in our communities and beyond) to help the nonprofit sector move forward in better service.
Looking to the Future
I don’t yet know where this year will lead DEF, but I do know that it will be critically important for our future. If we want to be flexible and responsive in addressing the holistic needs of our kids, we need to keep our essential components of inquiry, curiosity, and listening. We have a responsibility to constantly question our adult assumptions about best approaches because, quite frankly, best approaches haven’t necessarily worked in the past (and also don’t stand up against a pandemic). Instead, we need to empower the next generation and lean into what our kids have to tell us.
I hope our year of inquiry inspires others to leave behind the traditional methods of strategic planning, as these tend to follow limited and predictable patterns. Instead, take time for deep thinking and true possibility-creating. There is so much to be gained from leadership that embraces active learning to help create the future we want to see. I can’t wait to continue to share what we learn!
Gail Rothman is the Executive Director of Decatur Education Foundation. She joined the organization in 2009 and has led it through significant growth of resources and achievement of results. Gail has more than 20 years of experience leading in the nonprofit sector and loves to coach and support executive directors and nonprofit boards who want to grow their impact and move from problems to possibilities. She recently joined the Callahan Collaborative, a full-service consulting firm providing the tools, knowledge, and resources organizations need to thrive. In her free time, Gail loves to travel the world with her high school teacher husband and spend time with their three grown kids and two dogs.
Leave a Reply