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Daily Nuggets: A For Impact Blog

Strategic Plan vs. Strategic Clarity

Note: I first posted this in 2011. I’m posting again because I’m still tired of reading lengthy strategic plans that don’t derive from, or result in, real strategic clarity.

  • In the past year, I have been with several foundations that have asked orgs for ‘strategic plans.’ Speaking to the foundations directly, I can say that what they’re really asking for is STRATEGIC CLARITY — not 40 pages of ‘stuff.’ It’s a vocab issue.
  • IMPACT drives INCOME. In order to get funding results we [The Suddes Group] always have to back our way into helping an organization get REAL strategic clarity, so that we have a clean strategy, message, and case for support for funders. Funding, at this point, then simply becomes about execution. We can coach and train people to execute.


Strategic Plan v. Strategic Clarity

Think about the difference in these two terms.

Every organization needs strategic clarity and a 1000-day action plan. They need to have everyone on the same page about:

  • The purpose (the WHY) and the vision (the ultimate goal) (at 30,000’).

    This should fit on a napkin.

  • No more than THREE* simple strategic priorities (at 14,000’) that advance the organization toward the goal, aligning with purpose.

    These should fit on the back of that napkin.

    *Drucker was even simpler. He said every organization should have at most TWO priorities… WOW!

  • A 100-day (near-term) plan of action tied to each priority and a 1000-day plan of action with benchmarks that run more fluid for quarterly review.

    This should fit on one sheet of paper (maybe two), if you stay at the strategic level.

Every day we speak with someone who needs or wants a ‘strategic plan.’ I can’t identify with that term anymore because it means so many different things. In each case though, they need clarity and simplicity. Only about half the time do they need to do a lot of consensus-building (think: visits, dialogue, and time) to bring everyone on the same page.

Over simplified? No.

Easy? No.

Common Case-for-Support Challenges

We can almost always diagnose a problem with a case for support (or funding story) by using the Altitude Framework. And, what’s interesting is that organizations tend to need help at a single level of messaging versus all or multiple levels.

We can organize messaging challenges into these three levels of clarity:

  • At 30,000′ – Toward what end? (This is a WHY question)
  • At 14,000′ – Where is the money going?
  • At 3′ – What’s the math?

Note: There are some supplemental questions based on circumstance and sector. For example, a social enterprise needs to be able to talk clearly about the business model (explicitly) but, I would argue that topic is covered (conceptually) under ‘knowing the math.’

Here is how we often see the lack of message clarity playing out:

At 30,000′ – Toward what end?

Organizations that struggle at 30,000’ tend to be doing sector-changing work (and often in a crowded space). They focus too much on how they’re different, or the nuances of their model, instead of being really clear about the simple, visceral reasons WHY someone should care: “This is the problem we’re solving!” Or, “This is how we want to change the world!”

Tell-tale sign: They often lead their narrative with a theory of change.


  • Health (care) Transformation.
  • Education (Transformation).
  • Community Development.

At 14,000′ – Where is the money going? (Or, what are the funding priorities?)

Organizations that struggle at the 14,000’ level tend to operate on an (established) funding model other than philanthropy. They’re not good at talking about how they’ll use funds to do X, Y, or Z. Culturally, they might start a fundraising campaign simply to augment a different business model.

Tell-tale sign: An organization with a multi-million-dollar operating budget wants to start a campaign for unrestricted funds.


  • Hospitals.
  • Research Institutions.
  • Global RFP-Grant-Based NGOs.
  • Large earned-income organizations.

At 3′ – What’s the (Case for Support) Math?

Organizations that struggle with the math tend to be those with built-in funding prospects. A great example here is a school. Alumni and parents will no doubt support the school, but the the questions then become about how all the math works out. Will it increase tuition? Will it be sustainable? What is the cost? How will this funding project impact the future business model (tuition/admission)?

Tell-tale sign: A mentality of “If we build it, they will fund.”


  • Schools
  • Museums

To be clear: every organization needs to address these three case questions. I am just outlining some general trends and questions that might be helpful in uncovering your challenge.

Long-term Vision and Near-term Vision

Vision is simply a clear picture of the future toward which you are striving.

Most organizations benefit from having a long-term vision, and a near-term vision.

Your long-term vision is often time-independent. Example: Ending Cancer.

Vision, in this sense, is more like a ‘higher cause worth pursuing.’ We call it vision, but we can’t always see exactly how to get there.

In these instances, we benefit from a near-term vision that will maximize the contribution and engagement of others. This is usually time-dependent and tied to an achievable goal.

Example: “By 2020 we want to make sure we have a national registry for xyz cancer trials. This will be an important milestone toward ending cancer.”

I’m sure we could simply reframe these visions as ’cause’ and ‘goal,’ but thinking of them as a long-term vision and a near-term vision helps to frame them in a way that is usually more visceral and engaging, because we’re focusing on the ‘clear picture.’

The Role and Context of the Engagement Tool (3min video)

This 3-minute video illustrates the context and role of the Engagement Tool.

Most organizations do not have true sales tools that can be used to engage with a prospect 1:1 and make an ask. They have other things… like a marketing brochure, pitch deck, or case-for-support.

Functionally, what will you USE to help you make an ask? (Answer: An Engagement Tool!)

A great engagement tool follows the WORK to get CLARITY around WHAT you’re doing and WHY.

Role and Context for The Engagement Tool from For Impact / The Suddes Group on Vimeo.

Download Illustration.
Download Sample Engagement Tool. Here is another Sample Engagement Tool: It’s about zombies.
See more on Engagement Tools.

Storytelling – The Basis for Human Progress.

I was turned on to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind after reading a book review from Bill Gates. (I won’t try to ‘one-up’ a book summary by Bill Gates, so just read his.)

Harari walks through the rise of the homo sapien and argues that a ‘cognitive revolution’ is what allowed our species to really win out over other species.

Specifically, it was the ability to develop and transfer abstract concepts (Note: Harari calls these abstract concepts: fiction and story). Without an abstract concept, we would not have the concept of religion… or the rule of law. Without these abstract moral codes, our rival species did not assemble or cooperate in large groups. It required the idea of ‘something greater’ to develop cohesion and community in groups greater than about 150 individuals.

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees.

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.

People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Take for example the world of business corporations. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principal difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales.

Here is the very powerful insight that sticks with me. Harari writes:

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.

Innovators, leaders, and fundraisers are storytellers. We develop NEW stories. We’ve evolved to do this! And… “Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it.”

The task in front of us is not easy, yet — just as it always has — all progress of humanity depends upon it.

Audacious Philanthropy

Read the feature article in this month’s Harvard Business Review: Audacious Philanthropy. Lessons from 15 World-Changing Initiatives.

The Movements: The Anti-Apartheid Movement – Aravind Eye Hospital – Car Seats – CPR Training – The Fair Food Program – Hospice Care – Marriage Equality – Motorcycle Helmets in Vietnam – The National School Lunch Program – 911 Emergency Services – Oral Rehydration Solution – Polio Eradication – Public Libraries – Sesame Street – Tobacco Control.

It’s a ‘must read’ for social innovators, funders, and movement leaders!!!

Executive Summary:
Research revealed five elements that together constitute a framework for philanthropists pursuing large-scale, swing-for-the-fences change. Successful efforts:

  1. Build a shared understanding of the problem and its ecosystem
  2. Set “winnable milestones” and hone a compelling message
  3. Design approaches that will work at massive scale
  4. Drive (rather than assume) demand
  5. Embrace course corrections

The article walks through dozens of illustrations and case studies — and it’s in these individualized narratives that we find true gold. Here is one vignette about the power of reframing to advance the LGBTQ rights movement:

“Supportive philanthropists financed polling and focus groups to help movement leaders understand how to reframe the core message. The research revealed that many voters perceived the movement as driven primarily by same-sex couples’ desire for the government benefits and rights conferred by marriage—and they did not find that a gripping rationale. This insight was pivotal: The movement refocused its communications strategy on equality of love and commitment, arguing that “love is love”—a message that struck a chord. Victories piled up, culminating in the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. And although limited in scope, the push for marriage equality advanced the broader LGBTQ rights agenda in ways that might not otherwise have been possible or that would have taken much longer.”

The Rise of Automation. Man’s Search for Meaning(ful) Work.

15% of The Suddes Group’s focus is in the form of coaching emerging social entrepreneurs. In that area, I will remember 2017 as the year we saw the rise of automation-for-social-impact. We’re encountering dozens of artificial intelligence start-ups for social good. It’s eerie. All of a sudden we’ve crossed some threshold where this ‘automation stuff’ is a commodity.

At the same time, the business conversations around meaning, purpose, and work are exploding. So we can SEE a future where there will be fewer jobs, AND we’re collectively searching for more meaning in the jobs we have.

This is what makes an article from America Magazine about meaningful work so timely. “Can Catholic Social Teaching Help Solve the Labor Crisis?” – August 21, 2017. (America is a bi-weekly Jesuit Catholic publication.)

I’ve shared this article dozens of times in the past two weeks. It captures the collision of these concepts. It also provides a moral argument for meaningful work.

In summary, the article walks through three big discussions:

  • Due to automation, jobs will continue to disappear.
  • Meaningful work is our purpose and inherent to human dignity.
  • We have a responsibility to do more than ‘make-work-jobs.’ We must think about how to create meaningful work. Work that “has a meaningful contribution to the common good.”

Selected highlights:

  • “The United States in this century has seen the most severe falloff in employment rates since before World War II.”
  • “For most working Americans, foreigners are not the main competition–machines are the ones gunning for jobs.”
  • “One study in 2013 found that 47 percent of Americans were at high risk of losing their jobs to automation in the foreseeable future.”
  • “Human beings were made for work…. the United States’s poor and marginalized yearn to be full participants in their own societies. As Catholics, with our rich body of social teachings, we need to stay engaged in the conversation, helping people find work that is meaningful. Of course that means encouraging job growth. But we may also need to reject some of the quickest and most obvious solutions to the employment problem, in the interests of realizing an economy built around service and the common good.”
  • “St. John Paul II reminds us that work is ‘a fundamental dimension of human existence on earth.’ In Genesis, God commands Adam and Eve to work, and responding to that command is our way of answering the divine call to ‘multiply and subdue the Earth.'”
  • “Work derives its objective significance from its meaningful contribution to the common good… this is a magical ingredient that can convert even a dreary task into something ennobling, humanizing and salutary for our souls.”
  • “Stimulating new markets is much more difficult than generating make-work jobs, but the former is much better if we want people to spend their lives engaged in meaningful activities… for those who truly need material assistance, it is better to subsidize directly than to distort the labor market.”

Engagement Tool Template for Social Entrepreneurs

I’m north of San Francisco this week spending time as a Mulago Foundation Faculty Member with the 2017 Mulago Foundation Rainer Arnhold Fellows.

I feel really lucky to have any association with this group. Hats off to Mulago for (literally) traveling the world in search of the most promising entrepreneurs. They’ve done a terrific job. Please take a moment to read about these amazing social entrepreneurs and the work they’re doing to end extreme poverty!

I’m helping each social entrepreneur craft his or her message and ‘ask.’ Here is the Social Entrepreneur Engagement Tool Template I’m using. (see: What is an Engagement Tool?) Our Altitude Framework guides how to process these components.

At 30,000′ (for social entrepreneurs) it’s powerful and simple to communicate the PROBLEM and then the SOLUTION. (Most entrepreneurs actually end up at 14,000′, geeking out about the platform, biz model, or the theory-of-change…)

Funders (or indeed ANYBODY else) are engaged FIRST and FULLY at the WHY level.

From here, notice the template has two versions (front/back). The funding presentation goal at 14,000′ is to help a funder understand WHAT you do and WHERE the money goes. In other words, what’s the RATIONALE for funds? What will be the IMPACT that will be achieved?

The coaching goal at 14,000′ is to help the entrepreneur SIMPLIFY the WHAT… and then communicate the resulting (and quantifiable) IMPACT.

Finally, at 3′, there are two ways to think about working toward the ASK.

Again, most entrepreneurs default to working on the model (at 14,000′). This framework helps them to communicate FIRST at the WHY level. Then it SIMPLIFIES the WHAT. And, CLARIFIES the ASK.

Social Innovation by Analogy

Building on yesterday’s post about analogy, it occurs to me there are two types of analogy: Recycled Analogy and Innovative Analogy.

It’s often said that innovation is nothing more than putting together existing concepts in a new way.

Here are some more nuggets from the book Shortcut to illustrate innovation and Innovative Analogy:

Steve Jobs once told Wired magazine that “when you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

And, here is a story about how Steve Jobs came up with the (innovative) analogy of the computer as a ‘bicycle for the mind’.

In a talk that showed the same grand vision but little of the polish that the world would later come to expect of him, Jobs stood behind a lectern and told of “the best analogy I’ve ever heard.” He cited a study reported in Scientific American that calculated the locomotive efficiency of various animals—from fish to mammals to birds—to determine which could travel from A to B with the least expenditure of energy.

The condor won. The condor took the least amount of energy to get from here to there,” Jobs told the audience. “And man didn’t do so well; he came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. But fortunately, someone at Scientific American was insightful enough to test man with a bicycle. And man with a bicycle won—twice as good as the condor. All the way off the list. And what it showed was that man as a toolmaker has the ability to make a tool to amplify an inherent ability that he has. And that’s exactly what we are doing here [at Apple]. It’s exactly what we’re doing here.”

As Jobs described it, Apple was building a “bicycle for the mind”—a tool that could take people’s minds anywhere they could possibly imagine and multiply its power.

Recycled analogies are useful. They provide mental shortcuts and need little explanation. Examples:

  • We’re going to be the Uber of ____
  • This is going to be the Mecca of ___
  • Innovative Analogies are original (imported) concepts. Steve Jobs applied a concept from study in Scientific America! Innovative Analogies might take a little explaining, but they create a new (visionary) frame for the audience.

    I’m starting to think about Innovative Analogy and how it has played out in the social sector. I’m cataloging examples to share in a later post (at which point they will be ‘recycled’). If you have any example, email me.

Creating analogy is one of the most important skillsets in the world.

Humans are unique in that we can we can have an innate ability (and urge) to infer abstract patterns (a.k.a. concepts) and move them from one domain and apply them to another. We do this through analogy.

This ability to gives rise to language, communication, and learning.

Analogies are also at the root of strong sales and leadership. Steve Jobs described the first Mac as a bicycle for the mind. Eisenhower framed the Vietnam conflict in terms of a ‘domino theory.’ The first locomotive was framed as an ‘iron horse.’

We advance concepts by building on existing concepts.

So when was the last time you remember making a study of analogy? Shouldn’t we be studying it constantly?

Start with this book: Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas. I’ve read some 50 books on analogies and metaphor. There are more comprehensive reads, but Shortcut offers a digestible and effective 101 for everyone.

I’m adding it to the required reading list for For Impact leaders.

NB: When we’re helping an organization build a funding message, we include a step in the process to construct analogy. I believe this needs to be a part of every strategic planning, leadership framing, and ‘sales prep’ process.