Where to Start: Auditing Your Strategic Sustainability

By Andrew Fretwell

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

This series began by calling out a systemic defect in our funding model and was followed by proposing a paradigm shift to move our field towards accountability, value delivery, and a better balance between guiding our community and “meeting customers where they are.” The speed of most paradigm shifts ranges from slow to glacial; almost none happen quickly. But executives and lay leaders should not resign to sitting around and waiting for Godot, and instead initiate their own strategic self-audit and spur ideas for a successful pivot. I now conclude this series with two tools to help executives and lay leaders get started:

Tool 1: The AudienceDonor Venn Diagram

While appearing basic, many organizations gloss past periodically asking themselves, “Who is our audience?” Serving multiple audiences can be beneficial when rooted in a long-term strategy, but the temptation to tack on new audiences to chase attention and grants is often powerful enough to loosen an organization’s focus. Without laser like attention on who exactly it is you are serving, you lose the best compass you have for making decisions, big and small.

After clarifying your audience, consider who your donors and create an ‘Audience-Donor Venn Diagram’ to visualize the overlap or separation of these two types of stakeholders. In this exercise, overlap is good. More overlap means that since your donors are a part of your audience, they are less likely to pull your attention in other directions. Less overlap correlates with vulnerability to being caught between the two sides, an unenviable if not untenable position. Successful entrepreneurs are adept at quickly learning which assumptions need to be tossed and out adjust accordingly; if donors are resistant or unwilling to revisit their own assumptions, they can use the power of the purse to push aside what the market is trying to express. Even if your funder is willing to listen to you, the precious time and energy lost on persuading them may relegate you to chasing the curve instead of riding the cutting edge of it. So which one of these does your organization look the most like?

Tool 2: The StakeholderFunding Graph

There is another critical dimension to this process. The Venn diagram captures how much overlap there is between your audience and funders but does not reflect how reliant you are on each of those stakeholders for your income. The “stakeholder-funding” graph helps do just that. Here, the Y-axis represents the extent to which an organization is funded by its audience versus outside funders. The X-axis represents how much overlap there is between the organization’s audience and donor populations. Placing your organization on the ‘Audience-Donor Venn Diagram’ will be a useful to determine where you sit on the X-axis. The graph is split into four quadrants and each quadrant tells a different story. Which story is your organization’s placement telling?

If your organization sits in Quadrant 1 you benefit from being primarily funded by your audience and have attracted funders who are interested in, but not a part of, that population. You can benefit from gaining input from those funders as an outside source of insights, but may have to part with those funders if they lose interest in your work or don’t want to pivot with you during the journey. Organizations in Quadrant 2 are also well positioned with their funding mostly coming from their audience and additional funds comes from those they serve though they should be careful not to miss out on creative disruption by becoming too deeply entrenched in their silo.

Quadrants 3 and 4 are dicier. Quadrant 3 organizations rely heavily on donors who are part of their audience. The danger here is that to achieve continued growth you may want to shift or grow your audience only to find yourself hamstrung by your donors who are not interested in other audiences. Those who rely heavily on alumni donations know this frustration well. Quadrant 4 is the danger zone, heavy reliance on outside donations to serve your audience. If those donors support you because they have their own agenda, what happens when that agenda collides with a different reality? Do you have the ability to walk away from their money or do you begin the game of pleasing your donors in the place of listening to your audience.

Occupying quadrants 1 or 2 speaks to a solid organizational strategy and business model. But what should an executive or board member do if their organization is treading in the unsteady waters of quadrants 3 or 4? As with any problem, recognition is the most crucial step; it is no small feat to overcome organizational inertia and acknowledge that the status quo requires a difficult, if not tumultuous disruption. From “Lean Start-up” to any Peter Drucker book, there is a wealth of literature on strategic planning from which to learn different approaches. But all require a re-evaluation of your existing business model: redefining your audience, locating their needs, determining how to offer them something they value, and monetizing it appropriately. The process requires stripped down honesty, a strong grasp on your operations, cognizance of competitors and substitutes (both inside and outside the Jewish space), and aptitude for making and implementing painful decisions, including new staff structures. Organizations that come out the other side of that process have the opportunity to clear the next hurdle: selling the new strategy to current funders and earning their buy-in to the vision of a healthy, nimble organization that is best positioned to succeed.

Transferring ownership of our institutions from mega-donors to the community at large is a maddeningly long road if we wait for it to materialize on its own. But we need not wait to begin inducing the sea change by shifting our organizations towards better strategy. Lay leaders and professionals who take practical steps to do so can start leading that change today. After all, if not now, when?

Andrew Fretwell has worked as an educator and community activator for Young Judaea and the Birthright Israel Foundation between 2007 and 2016, and earned his MBA from CUNY Baruch College in 2015.