By David Bernstein
Last week, I asked a foundation for financial support for advocacy work in the event of contested elections. Many Jewish organizations have become increasingly concerned about the prospect of contested elections, violence, and challenges to the democratic process.
“What precisely will be the nature of the funding?” a Foundation staffer asked.
“I don’t know,” I responded. “But I do know we need to create a set of resources now and if the elections are contested in a serious way we need to enlist a consultant with expertise in elections and advocacy in order to provide direction and support for local Jewish community relations councils.” JCRCs are at the frontlines of the public affairs challenges in their local communities, and would need to respond effectively by building civic support and supporting peaceful measures to problems as they emerge.
At a time when funders notoriously want clear-cut plans, defined outputs, and projected impact, I knew this might strike him as, shall we say, ill-defined. I also knew that we had a pressing need that required urgent funding (which the funder did provide).
It is perfectly understandable that funders want to know exactly what outcomes their money will help produce. In some cases, funders ask for a “logic model,” a precise roadmap, very often in the form of a graphic representation, that presents a chain of causes and effects of resources, outputs, outcomes, and impact of a program. It depicts the relationship between a program’s activities and intended effects.
The logic model is an excellent planning tool for many organizations and for many projects. It requires organizations to go through the painstaking process of spelling out exactly what must be done to pull off the desired result. For example, a Jewish advocacy group that wants to hold advocacy training for young Jewish leaders would tell the funder, upfront, how it plans to do so, from creating the curriculum to providing a step-by-step recruitment plan to finding a retreat center.
The logic model is based on the same assumptions as the traditional strategic planning process – that we can glimpse into the future and plan accordingly.
But what happens when the world is changing so fast that it’s not possible to make such predictions for much of our work?
In preparing for a strategic discussion at a recent Jewish Council for Public Affairs Board meeting, I reviewed goals set at a previous Board meeting in late April, 2020. I realized that two of the goals from April were now obsolete and two more needed to be added. Our strategic picture of advocacy and engagement for the coming months was rendered out of date in a matter of six months. The world changed that much. No logic model could do justice to much of our work.
Another planning model used by some nonprofits and favored by certain funders is called “Design Thinking.” Design Thinking is an iterative process that organizations use to understand their market and develop innovative solutions to prototype and test. Design Thinking is in many ways the polar opposite of the Logic Model – it says we know generally what we want to accomplish in the world but we don’t yet know how to accomplish it. For that we will need to test out a series of options and see what fails and what works.
One Table, a Jewish organization that empowers young Jews who don’t yet have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice to build one, uses design thinking to develop its array of Shabbat-oriented programs. Design Thinking generally involved five distinct phases: Empathize (get to know the interests and needs of the target audience), Define (define the needs of the target audience), Ideate (brainstorm on solutions), Prototype (create alternative scaled down versions of solution) and Test (try solutions out).
Like the Logic Model, Design Thinking has its place. In a Design Thinking approach to the advocacy training program for young Jews mentioned above, the process would start by understanding what young Jews are interested in and how they live, and only then develop prototypes for advocacy training for piloting with a small group. Only after a series of pilots would a full-fledged training program be brought to scale.
But, like the logic model, Design Thinking does not work for every conceivable organizational activity. Design Thinking won’t tell my organization what we need to do in the event of a contested election or a new antisemitic threat or an unexpected set of policies. In such a situation, I can neither provide a funder with specific steps nor a process for piloting innovative solutions.
In a tumultuous political environment, we can make educated guesses about the future, but these guesses will often be wrong, requiring us to quickly pivot. Sometimes we just need the resources to act.
In his book “The Nonprofit Strategy Resolution,” Dan La Piana eschews the traditional strategic planning approach. “Long-term strategic planning … assumes a knowable world where problems can be identified, quantified and solved, reducing future uncertainty.” This planning paradigm needs to give way to “deliberate, ongoing and active engagement” in a highly uncertain environment amid rapid social change. He argues that leaders must move from being “the planner” to “the strategist.” He explains how to do that in his strategy model.
If this new planning paradigm is right for many nonprofit organizations, it is even more right for advocacy organizations operating in a turbulent political context. Funders who want to resource the most important work should look beyond “airtight” plans and support groups that can act quickly with a strategic mindset in a crazy world.
David Bernstein is President and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.