Carole Levine, Principal
Levine Partners LLP
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –“
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Finding your way is not easy, even with an updated GPS or a good roadmap (if you can find a roadmap these days). The advice given to Alice by the Cheshire Cat has great meaning, especially for the nonprofit world. Knowing where you want to go and caring about your direction can make the difference between success and failure…between being sustainable and fading away (as the Cheshire Cat did). So, how does an organization determine direction? Experience suggests that it should be done thoughtfully…strategically…and wisely.
Organizations need to know where they want to go…and at the same time, they need to be prepared to get there via different routes. Perhaps this is why my GPS offers me three choices in determining the best way to go. In some cases, the “.quick” route is best. Organizations can take a fast track toward their goal and bypass some of the distractions along the way. But sometimes, the “direct” route is better. It may take a bit more time, but allows for some flexibility in what is seen and done along the way. And, I always ponder the third option – the “alternate” route. It is often the longest (but not always), but it clearly is the most interesting. It offers the option of new paths and interesting places. This is true of organizations as well. Of equal importance, is the GPS’s ability to warn you of problems ahead (usually traffic congestion) and it then gives you the option of re-routing. Nonprofits often sense that problems lie ahead, but wait until they are in the “congestion” before they take action or make changes. There is a powerful lesson here. If we can re-route before we come to a complete halt, nonprofits have many more opportunities for success.
Organizations, via their leadership, most often state directions in which they want to go via their mission statements. They may want to cure a disease, or wipe out poverty, or raise the graduation rates, or other worthy goals. They generally set out to achieve this via some sort of plan (usually a strategic plan) that sets goals and objectives to achieve their direction. The problem with this, in our fast-moving, ever-changing environment, is two-fold. First: What is perceived as the “right” direction may need to shift (and shift quickly) due to changes in leadership or board makeup, or due to new, innovative techniques for this work, due to competition, or due to the recognition that the current path is not getting you where you want to go. Second: A plan is only useful if it is a living, growing document and many strategic plans are not. Implementation of a strategic plan is most often the greatest stumbling block. And, once implemented, a plan may have gaps and inefficiencies that could not be anticipated until it was in effect. To find the right direction and be effective and sustainable, organizations need to commit to being flexible and nimble.
To be thoughtful, strategic and wise in setting an organizational direction takes thoughtful, strategic and wise leadership. It takes leadership that is not afraid to tell the Cheshire Cat where it wants to go. It takes leadership that is aware of all of its options and the various risks and rewards that each could bring. It takes leadership that is ready to re-route when change is needed and when new information presents itself, or when a roadblock appears. Finding direction matters. And setting an organization on the right path (even when it is that “alternate” route) is the means to a journey that will get you to a sustainable, effective and worthy direction.