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The Competitive Advantage of Knowing Who You Are

Paul-BrestAt a dinner party not long ago I met Paul Brest, who was soon to retire as president of the Hewlett Foundation.  I knew of his work and writing and considered him one of the wise men of philanthropy and social change. I asked him about all of the interest in and work being done around developing metrics to measure social outcomes, and other ideas being debated in philanthropic circles, and for his advice on how to sort out what was most important.

For at least two decades the nonprofit sector has flocked from one new trend to another like children chasing a soccer ball. They include capacity building, sustainability, collective impact, impact investing, venture philanthropy, social enterprise etc.  All have been important in their own way. But Brest smiled at me, like an uncle sharing a lifetime’s experience and wisdom about what really matters and gently said: “The most important thing is simply to know and be able to say what success looks like. If you do that with precision and clarity, really articulate the goal you hope to achieve, everything else falls into place.”

I’ve been thinking about his comments ever since. Partly because it affirmed the direction we’ve followed at Share Our Strength in refocusing our efforts to end childhood hunger in the U.S.   Mostly because it resonated with our work at Community Wealth Partners which has given us a window into how many organizations, struggling with scale and sustainability scale, struggle all the more because they have not specified the purpose or goal on behalf of which they are doing it.  Perhaps I also heard the distant echo of my parents saying never mind all of the fuss and commotion around you, just know who you are and what you are about and everything else will work out.

Determining what success looks like sounds like the simplest, most common sense advice in the world. But it remains the most important unanswered question among organizations aspiring to create social change. Precious few address it. When they try they find it is harder than it looks.

Along with Amy Celep, the CEO of Community Wealth Partners, I’ve met with hundreds of nonprofit organizations across the country over the past few years. We’ve seen first-hand how many have yet to tackle this fundamental, threshold question, whether their focus is education, health care, poverty, jobs or another critical need. Time after time we’ve found that leaders of the local “Healthy Communities Project” have not defined “healthy community”.  Or the Education Reform Coalition has not specified the outcomes they hope reform will achieve.

On the other hand, the rare exceptions to the rule who can say what success looks like, have been rewarded in the marketplace with accelerated growth and deeper impact.  They include organizations like:

  • City Year, once they transitioned from an organization providing service opportunities to an organization reducing the high school drop-out rate;
  • Charity Water, once they calculated how much disease and its’ costs could be reduced via clean water;
  • Malaria No More which set the bold goal of eliminating deaths from malaria.

They enjoy the competitive advantage of knowing who they are and what they are about. To achieve and leverage that advantage, it helps to do at least five things:

First, find the right words to nail down the goal as specifically as possible. Paul Brest has written that “The test of a well-defined goal is that one can describe it with sufficient clarity so that others, including observers from outside the organization, would be able to assess the extent to which the organization had achieved the goal. While ‘improving the well-being and life opportunities of teenage girls’ is a fine mission statement, it does not meet the criterion for a well-defined goal: It is too vague for anyone, including the organization’s CEO and board, to know whether and to what extent the goal was achieved.”

Second, do not try to be all things to all people.  John Kennedy said “to govern is to choose.” Choosing a specific goal, by definition, means not choosing others.   Someone is sure to be unhappy. That can be especially challenging for established organizations that have numerous existing stakeholders whom no one wants to disappoint.   But in the long-term diluted impact is even more disappointing.

Third, devise your own signature definition of success based on what you believe would be both right and rewarding.  There is no one right answer, but there is an answer that may be right for you and your organization. No one will be as connected to the goal as you, for as long a time as you. In this way it is a deeply personal choice, because one of the most important objectives is that it sustain you and your team over time.

Fourth, invest for the long-term.  Transformational change does not come fast or cheap. It if did, someone would have already achieved it.  And it’s unlikely you will have all of the resources you need up front.  So you need to make a long-term commitment.

Fifth, refuse to yield. What you have undertaken is hard. Human nature will be to look for an easier path. There will be infinite temptations to drift off target and choose an easier path. Don’t.

Imagine being a construction engineer but not having a clear vision of what the finished building should look like. Or an athlete not knowing the sport or event at which he or she wants to win. Or an artist who keeps painting without a conviction about what to portray and when to stop.   By contrast, most great achievements have at their core the clear sense of what success will look like and then, and only then, what it will take to get there.  That imperative of knowing who you are and what you are about is a decisive competitive advantage. It’s is no different for nonprofit executives, social entrepreneurs, and philanthropic leaders.

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About Billy Shore

Billy Shore is the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit that is ending childhood hunger in America. Shore is also the chairman of Community Wealth Partners, a Share Our Strength organization that helps change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist.

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