THE BLOG
08/01/2014 04:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Knife Skills for Your Nonprofit!

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Nancy Lublin's got guts. The CEO of DoSomething.org recently made an unprecedented move and cut more than half of the organization's current programs. It wasn't a panic move - answer to a financial crisis or some such. It was a well-thought-out, conscious choice that she made, with the input of her team, to scale the organization's impact and position them for future growth.

If you're shaking your head in confusion, you're hardly alone. But as Nancy says, "Shrinking to grow might seem counterintuitive, but remember when your mom told you to cut your hair to keep it healthy and let it grow? Yeah, it's sort of like that."

It's a great analogy, and one that nonprofits must take to heart.

Because with all that's on our plates in the day to day, we can find ourselves so locked into doing things the way we've always done them, running things the way we've always run them, that we lose sight of the big picture. We end up simply chugging along - just surviving instead of thriving.

When It's Time to Change

Let me confess right now that I'm as guilty as anyone. Reading about DoSomething's changes caused me to reflect on the ways the nonprofit teams I've been part of have overextended ourselves, stretching too thin by expanding and extending our conferences to additional cities when we really didn't have the means to manage more; taking on programs and continuing to run them even when they needed much clearer targeting to be effective.

We had trouble letting go - and, I'm guessing, so do you. We are still working out the details of what we need to let go! (There's a reason that song is so popular.)

But it's important to be able to do so. Because adding - or even maintaining - for the sake of volume doesn't necessarily accomplish anything. The point is to scale your impact so that even if you're working with what might be less than before, you're working from a place so focused you can't help but do more good. Quality over quantity.

Evaluate and Evolve

Of course, in order to create transformative scale you need to identify what does work and build upon it. To do this you need to take a step back and evaluate your organization's programs one by one, and be ready to cut ruthlessly anything that isn't serving its purpose.
The questions Lublin asked in assessing DoSomething's programs were, "Where do we have a competitive advantage? Where does the market truly need us? Does each program directly relate to our goal of five million active members by 2015? Can we scale this program?"

They're great questions. Here are some other key areas to assess:

· Mission - Does this program align with our mission? Is it helping us achieve what we set out to do, or is it taking us away from what we truly want to do?

· Strengths/Passions - What are our strengths as an organization? What are we truly passionate about? Are those qualities being served through this program? Does this program energize and excite our team and enable them to make a large and meaningful impact?

· Resources/Sustainability - Is this program sustainable, or is it a drain on resources that might be better applied elsewhere? Is this a program that can be scaled, or will it eventually fizzle out, rendering it useless?

· Collaboration - Is someone else doing better work that we could collaborate with? Can we combine forces and extend our reach without spending more?
Transparency is encouraged. Answering these questions and making decisions via consensus, instead of from the top-down, will allow for everyone to see the value in whatever changes are deemed necessary, and to recognize that it's not about elimination for elimination's sake - it's about creating space for the things that will work best.

As Nancy notes, "Change is always hard. Change that involves people is the hardest. Some people shifted to new roles. We eliminated some roles altogether. But all of us--even those who lost their jobs--agreed that this was the right move for the organization."

Lessons From the Business World

In a situation like this, there are lessons we can take from the for-profit sector, applying a bit more of a corporate filter. Continuing programs - whether we're talking about conferences, events or services - just because they've always been done or are expected is not reason enough.

The things we spend our resources on have to make sense. They have to be sustainable and feed the passion of our teams. And they have to serve our mission at large. If they don't, they're simply not worth investing in, because they offer no return on that investment.

As you evaluate what isn't working, document your findings so that you can see red flags the next time and recognize the need for change sooner. Accept the lessons you learn throughout the process and move forward, building your organization into a stronger, more efficient entity, with a larger capacity for meaningful impact.

Then take that time periodically to step back and evaluate. And if you need to change again, do it.

Has your organization ever made these kinds of radical changes in order to grow? Tell me what worked and what didn't below.