How Nonprofit Leaders Can Use Strategy and Technology to Enhance Organization’s Performance

Guest post by Harrison Coerver:

Many membership
organizations and not-for-profits are struggling to maintain their relevance in
today’s fast changing environment. 
Unprecedented competition, higher expectations, accelerating technology,
changing preferences and time pressures are all converging to create a
challenging landscape.  At the root of
the problem: weak, hidebound board leadership.

Given the strong role that
not-for-profit boards have in directing their organizations, it is difficult
for volunteer leaders to not to take responsibility for the plight of these
groups.  Many boards of membership and
voluntary organizations share three characteristics that hamstring their

First, most boards are not
composed for performance.  Directors are
selected based on who they know, what interest they represent or how long they
have been hanging around.  Let’s face it;
many on boards are along for the ride. 
They have superficial levels of involvement and they engage in “social
loafing” — the propensity of those in large groups to default to a smaller
group to carry the workload.  While there
are leaders on boards, there are not enough of them.

Second, board leadership
rarely holds themselves or their peers accountable.  Admittedly, it is difficult to challenge a
non-performing director that is volunteering their time.  But, tolerating slackers marginalizes the
efforts of true leaders intent on advancing the organization’s mission.

Third, tradition – not
strategy – is the master of most non-profits. 
This year’s board does what last year’s board did.  Officers perpetuate time-honored programs and
legacy processes.  There is a lot of talk
about “strategic boards” and “strategic thinking,” but most nonprofits are
driven by convention and “the way we’ve always done it” mentality.  Traditions have a stranglehold on most tax

Membership, civic, and
charitable organizations are in a race for relevance.  To win, it requires leadership that can craft
and execute strategy: skillful, creative, and disciplined use of resources to
achieve their objectives.  Strategy
doesn’t just happen.  It requires
leadership, focus, and work.  Successful
nonprofits will embrace the following three approaches to succeed:

1. Small, competency-based boards with rigorous director selection
Most boards are too
large.  They are cumbersome and consume
an inordinate amount of staff time.  A
five-member board is likely to be most effective in many cases.  And, directors need to be carefully selected
based on predetermined
criteria.  For starters, ask “What are the major
opportunities and challenges we will encounter in the next five years?”  Then ask, “What kind of directors will be best
suited to govern (“direct and control”) the organization given those
opportunities and challenges?”

This takes time and
effort, but think of the time and effort costs of underperforming boards.  It will be well worth the effort.  For those who pushback at a five member
board, please show me a large board where the Executive Committee does not do
the lion’s share of the work anyway.

2. Strategy-driven vs. tradition-driven governance
Boards that perform will recognize
the risks associated with clinging to obsolete programs and processes that once
served them well, but now threaten their relevance.  They will assess their true strengths and
areas where they excel, and concentrate their scarce resources on them like
never before.  To do so will require them
to say “no” – something politicians can’t do, but leaders know they must.  Losing focus in today’s environment is a
prescription for failure.

Directors on effective
boards will eliminate waste by understanding the cost of an activity and effort
that doesn’t deliver value or advance the organization towards its mission.
They will eliminate unproductive effort, just as manufacturers eliminated waste
in the production process to compete in global markets.  Many tax-exempts are overweight and out of
shape, yet vying with lean and nimble competitors.

Non-profit leaders of
tomorrow will know that purposefully discontinuing programs and activities that
have outlived their usefulness frees up resources for innovation.  They can’t continue to add new services,
events, and initiatives year after year without spreading resources too thin
and marginalizing performance in all of them. 
Leaders will learn that at times you need to “shrink to grow” as did
General Motors when it eliminated Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Saturn, Saab, and Hummer
to focus on Cadillac and Chevrolet.

3. The technology imperative
Many associations and
non-profits have been slow to adopt technology in a world that is rapidly going
digital.  Members, donors, policymakers,
and volunteers alike are constantly using technology from apps to streaming
video to social media.  They expect
non-profits to use the same technologies they are accustomed to in their
day-to-day lives.  Ignoring the imperative
and potential of technology is a short cut to irrelevance.

Change is particularly
difficult when organizations have decades of operating based on long-standing
traditions.  But, as someone tweeted
recently during my keynote speech, “If you don’t like change, you’ll like
irrelevance even less.”  Association and
not-for-profit leaders will understand the tradeoffs involved and make the
necessary changes with a sense of urgency.

About the author:
Harrison Coerver is an
internationally recognized strategy and planning consultant and bestselling
co-author of Race for Relevance: 5
Radical Changes for Associations
( and Road to Relevance:
5 Strategies for Competitive Associations
(  He can be reached at or 239.281.1691