top of page
  • Pat Libby

Why is nonprofit strategy like a shark?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

As Alvy Singer once said, “A relationship…is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies.”

The same could be said about nonprofits (and philanthropies).

If a nonprofit doesn’t keep its eye on strategy – taking time to carefully examine what it does well (and why), what it could do better, how it could best respond to changing conditions, and how to position itself for future success, it won’t thrive.

It really is that simple.

Think about it for a minute.

Every organization needs strategy. Why?

You can’t just rest on a successful track record or reputation. No matter how many years you’ve been succeeding, you’ve got to be on the cutting edge of delivering on your mission.

It doesn’t matter if you are leading an internationally renowned relief agency, an award-winning hospital, an environmental nonprofit, or a community-based social service agency – it is your duty, as a leader, to determine how your organization can leverage its resources to do the most good in whatever field you’re in.

It’s not your grandmother’s nonprofit.

Strategy is all about figuring out how you’ll get your nonprofit from its present state to its preferred state.

So why do many nonprofits give strategic work short shrift?

They mistakenly believe that:

  • Coming to consensus on a strategic direction will make the organization less nimble

  • Setting strategy is a colossal waste of staff time and resources

  • It will detract from the “real work” that needs to get done

  • It will open the door for Board members to stick their noses where they don’t belong

  • It’s too expensive

  • It will produce a big fat document that will sit on a shelf and collect dust

Then, there are those nonprofits that think if they plan strategy in a one-day retreat, they can check the strategic planning box and be “done.”

That’s nuts.

How do you plan a great strategy?

As Alessandro Di Fiore writes in a recent HBR article, Planning Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy of Agile, agile planning is centered on hard data, qualitative data and sound judgment.

His views echo one of my theme songs: the importance of actively listening to a variety of internal and external stakeholders.

To plan strategy, you need to look at and beyond the numbers to figure out what the people you’re serving want and need.

And you need to rely on the best judgment of your staff for how to get there.

Good strategy comes from a thoughtful process that adds value to the work of the organization and leaves it with a clear path to the future.

That process must engage key stakeholders in a meaningful and productive way, draw upon relevant research of all types, and create logical decision-making pathways that stand the test of time.

Use tools like a Strategy Screen

David La Piana of La Piana and Associates, has created a simple and wonderful tool called a Strategy Screen. A strategy screen is a set of questions and standards that are created, specific to your organization, that enable your leaders to assess the viability of strategies and approaches.

A Strategy Screen can be used as part of a strategic planning process or, as a more lasting set of criteria that can help a nonprofit vet new issues as they arise (and, as we all know, new opportunities pop up all of the time).

I love it because it provides a way of ensuring that an organization isn’t chasing the next big thing, but is keeping its eye on its mission, strengths and competencies.

It helps keep the organization agile and focused.

Good process = a good outcome

The truth is, strategy planning is only as good as the process that the organization engages in to create the plan.

If it works as it should, the strategies that result will make sense and be actionable.


Pat Libby is a strategic planning consultant and executive search consultant to nonprofits and philanthropies. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

Get in touch if you have any questions about hiring a new executive, or managing nonprofits!


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page