How small non-profits developed strategy maps to improve performance

After co-presenting on the topic of strategy maps with Dr. Mary Hargrave, CEO of the River Oak Center for Children, to a group of non-profit executive directors in February, I offered to try a little experiment on behalf of the Nonprofit Resource Center.  For non-profit execs who were interested, I offered to facilitate a “Self-Directed Learning Circle” to help the execs develop strategy maps for their own organizations.

Tuesday, I received a completed strategy map and email from David DeLeonardis, who has been CEO of Crossroads Diversified Services, Inc., the broad-based non-profit, since 1991:

I used it with our board at last Saturday’s retreat, and I must say the map worked.  Board members paid very close attention to it …then the board spent the rest of the retreat discussing what outcome metrics they wanted.  The map put the board on the strategy level (30,000 ft. view), they “got it” quickly and they enjoyed a productive retreat.  The amount and level of discussion was perfect.

If you want a glimpse into David’s challenge as he attempted to depict Crossroads’ strategy, take a minute to read Crossroads’ history.  Yes, it offers services for people with disabilities, but it is also the umbrella for an incredibly diverse range of services for both private and public sector companies.

In their book, Strategy Maps, Robert Kaplan and David Norton provide a few examples from non-profit organizations.  All were large organizations, ranging from Teach for America through government agencies and ministries — even the U.S. Army.  Although River Oak Center for Children definitely benefited from the effort they put into development of a strategy map, as well as better “balanced scorecard” measures, it remained to be seen how well the tool would work for small, local non-profits.

The members’ reasons for participating varied.  Dave was responsible for presenting a new draft strategic plan to the Board on May 1; they had fully accomplished their last strategic plan and Dave was looking for a way to “paint the picture” of the proposed direction.  Two other participants had also achieved recent milestones and needed a way to describe their new vision and direction.  A third was trying to find a way to integrate two very different halves of an organization’s operation and to interest its Board in establishing a strategic direction.  A final member of the group needed to develop a strategic and operational plan that would help the organization to double its capacity over the next several years, based on a commitment the Board had already made.

At the first meeting, participants were asked to come prepared to describe the impact their organization aims to achieve.  That alone was revealing.  Several organizations shared lengthy mission statements, and noted in some cases that the mission didn’t do a good job of getting to the essence of what they try to accomplish.

Each member of the group worked through the various lenses of their strategy map to show the cause-and-effect relationships between intangible assets such as human and information capital, to value-creating internal processes such as operations, through the customer value proposition and finally to the financial perspective.  Initially, some of the maps were cluttered with too many elements to be manageable.  Some were oversimplified.  Just talking about “what drove what” led to greater clarity of understanding about the organization’s strategic points of difference and its dependence on internal processes.

Our “Self Directed Learning Circle” convened just three times.  I’ll be interested to hear more about the experience of the other executive directors as they rolled out their strategy map drafts with their executive teams or Board members.  We’re going to formally debrief in about a month.

One of the most gratifying aspects of the experience was watching different executive directors “get in the sandbox” with each other by offering suggestions and insights.  I certainly got more out of the experience than I put into it.

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