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Do We All Need Tattoos? Or Poems? On Why Strategy Matters for Community Foundations

In our role at FSG, we are professional advocates for strategy as an essential aspect of leadership to advance community solutions. Why does strategy matter? The “you can’t be all things to all people” message is one of the simplest refrains—in the words of Michael Porter, this concept is “Strategy 101.” And as people with ambition to change the world and instincts to do whatever we can to help our communities, we can all benefit from that reminder. I haven’t yet come across anyone with a “we can’t be all things to all people” tattoo, though sometimes I think it’d be a good one.

But if you’re not into tattoos, or you have other ideas about what body art you’d like to try, I will turn to how we think about strategic clarity for community foundations.

Community foundations wrestle with an incredible array of decisions about how best to support their communities, advance solutions to complex social problems, and craft the right role for themselves. Strategic thinking focuses on how to leverage local commitment and expertise, to bridge donors and community needs, and to provide leadership to advance solutions—ideally in a way that brings these concepts together, rather than pursues them on separate paths.

In many of the conversations we participate in, particularly at the board level, there are two questions that stand out: “What is our identity?” and “How can we grow and do more?” We also hear from individuals and organizations that they have a hard time communicating clearly with different constituents about the role of the foundation, that they feel like they are working at cross purposes internally or externally, or that resources are stretched too thin between different priorities.

Disciplined strategic thinking is essential to address these challenges. It helps articulate a clear and unique identity, become more aligned in pursuit of goals, and define the right types of growth.

What is important to think about?

Be clear about how you are unique. You determine how you will achieve impact and understand how and why you are different from others. You translate this into clear messages and are consistent with all your stakeholders. Knowing where you are focused, it is easier to make tradeoffs about what you pursue and what you forego.

Be aligned. You think of yourself as a single enterprise and not as an organization pulled between two different arenas, serving donors and the broader community. You have a strong “fit” between all of your goals and activities. This is what drives competitive advantage and sustainability.

Be specific about growth goals. You avoid the growth trap by aligning what you are trying to achieve and your goals for growth. According to Michael Porter’s What is Strategy?, “Too often, efforts to grow blur uniqueness, create compromises, reduce fit, and ultimately undermine competitive advantage. In fact, the growth imperative is hazardous to strategy.” Growth should deepen your focus, not compromise it.

Be consistent but not rigid. You do the planning work and recognize that strategy is not fixed, but directional. Aspire to strategic continuity, but also continuous change. If you understand your direction, it’s easier to be an active learner and be focused on adapting as a leader.

If you are a community foundation CEO and these are things you are thinking about, or should be thinking about, please join us at the Council on Foundations Fall Conference in New Orleans for the CEO Retreat, “Leadership for a Community’s Brighter Future: Why Strategy Matters,” September 8–9.

And just for fun, I’ll leave you with a strategy poem by an unknown author:

You can't be all things to all people.
You can't do all things at once.
You can't do all things equally well.
You can't do all things better than everyone else.
Your humanity is showing just like everyone else's.

So:

You have to find out who you are, and be that.
You have to decide what comes first, and do that.
You have to discover your strengths, and use them.
You have to learn not to compete with others,
Because no one else is in the contest of *being you*.

Then:

You will have learned to accept your own uniqueness.
You will have learned to set priorities and make decisions.
You will have learned to live with your limitations.
You will have learned to give yourself the respect that is due.
And you'll be a most vital mortal.

Dare To Believe:

That you are a wonderful, unique person.
That you are a once-in-all-history event.
That it's more than a right, it's your duty, to be who you are.
That life is not a problem to solve, but a gift to cherish.
And you'll be able to stay one up on what used to get you down.

Rebecca W. Graves

Former Managing Director, FSG