A mandate for focus -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A mandate for focus

By Dan O'Brien

This article started out to be an illustration of some success stories of implementing strategic plans in other nonprofits. I examined initiatives in several of our peer organizations, but I was unable to find a true case study on the benefits of a directional strategic plan.

For example, CARE implemented an interesting multi-year initiative in which the competencies required for nearly every position in the organization were mapped. This increased their ability to recruit, train and align the staff across all divisions. The Nature Conservancy has developed a unique business model for land acquisition that has allowed it to help protect nearly 15 million acres in the United States alone. World Vision has created a wholly owned subsidiary known as Vision Fund International, which pushes additional capital into the nonprofit marketplace in the form of loans, allowing the organization a higher level of sustainability than a strict grant financer. All of these examples are wonderful illustrations of successfully implemented strategic initiatives, but none of them wholly illustrated what a strategic plan like ours can do for an organization…

What I did find in my research were several common threads in the decision making of these organizations that allowed their respective initiatives to succeed. For the most part, the development of new strategy responded to a change in the environment in which each organization operated. They were decisions driven by data, with realistic expectations of both costs and benefits of implementing new business models. An intuitive understanding of their environment pushed them into thinking about new ways in which to operate, but a data-driven evaluation of new ideas allowed them to have confidence in the initiatives they chose to pursue.

First and foremost among the reasons leading to successful implementation in these organizations was the concentration of energy and resources on the operation of these new ideas. Focus in every case preceded success. World Vision created a subsidiary organization for their initiative, limiting the impact on the rest of the organization. Alternatively, the Nature Conservancy’s model for obtaining, preserving and selling land became their core business. In each case, the strategy was developed, adequately resourced for a pilot period and, having met or exceeded the expectations of leadership, became part of the ongoing operations of the organization. This required reducing investment in previous operations and increasing investment in this new, more effective opportunity.

Our planning process over the past year has introduced a rigor into our presentation of new strategies that is unprecedented in Habitat’s history. Each initiative in the strategic plan has been carefully developed and evaluated through cost/benefit analysis and market studies. We can have confidence in these ideas. Our greatest obstacle over the next several years will be in achieving the focus that is necessary for the success of the initiatives that we choose to pursue.

The challenge that sits before the leadership of this organization in the coming years is to sift through all of the good ideas that this organization has generated. Too many good ideas become threats to one another as our pool of resources is spread thinner and thinner. The board has identified four major areas in which our organization must excel to achieve our vision: serving families, raising resources, transforming systems and developing our people. Ideas in each of these categories need to be evaluated against one another so that we can be sure that we are pursuing each goal through the most effective means possible. In this way, the strategic plan, and the direction that it has laid for the organization, will serve as a tool for members of leadership as they make the critical decisions that will most effectively leverage our resources in support of our mission around the world.

Certainly we have accomplished much in the past several years. Innovative partnerships, new ideas and continued exploration in the way that we deliver services have left us with a very diverse and highly complex organization. The plan that we now have demands that we focus that diversity of activity and the energy that it has required on the best opportunities for growth as we move forward. I look forward to seeing that result.

Dan O’Brien is a project manager at HFHI.