Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Nonprofit Vision & Strategy Development in Higher Education Access

In the past two years before coming to Heinz, I worked for College Possible, which is a well-oiled machine of a nonprofit. The organization’s work is getting capable, middle-achieving students from low-income backgrounds to and through college. What I took away from my time there, was that the reason College Possible was successful was threefold: it was run like a business: lean, efficient and impeccably managed; people were passionate and invested, and most importantly, they had a clear strategic plan. Every single thing that the organization did was specifically working towards a vision. Like the reading described, the organization made evident a clear sense of who we were and why we were doing the work we did. It was part of every element of the organization. I think it was easier to invest in the day to day work on the external relations side (which is less mission-related) when I knew exactly what I was doing for the organization and why. Similar organizations that have reached national recognition and been part of the national conversation on the issues they work with consistently have a clear mission, informed by a core ideology – values and purpose.

While the readings are primarily focused on the business applications of a strategy, I think it’s perhaps even more important for nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations in the public sector to have a clear ideology and the ability to understand the environment necessary to create and work within their strategy. Higher education is a fairly predictable environment – colleges work on educating students, but it’s been pretty predictable how they’re set up and what they’re doing in the future. The nonprofit college access sector is a little bit less predictable. Knowing what other organizations are going to do and what they’re going to focus on depends more on the local market than the national one. I think College Possible’s strategy was fairly visionary – the environment was predictable, but the organization was charting new territory. By targeting a specific group of students for four-year schools using quantitative methods, the organization has been on the leading edge in the way nonprofits are reporting their results. Having numerical results, a consistent program that was verified in a randomized control trial, meant being part of the changing conversation about how nonprofits are evaluated. That said, I don’t think that could have happened without a clear core ideology.

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