Once in a while I read or hear a concept that is so clear, so simple, so helpful and so unassuming in the way it’s presented, that I can only smile.  The Winter 2015 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review has a great example, “What’s Your Endgame?” by Alice Gugelev and Andrew Stern.

They start with a point that is perhaps obvious: to know what your next steps should be, you need to know where you’re going. But they’re not talking about the “where do we want to be in five years” vision statement kind of thing.  They mean, what’s the trajectory for your nonprofit, and where does it lead over the course of the organization’s life.

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Very few strategic plans consider this question, beyond occasional vague (and usually meaningless) statement that the organization aims to “end poverty” or something like that. Further, very few organizations ponder this at all, in part because most of us are small players tackling large societal challenges alongside many other moving parts we can’t control.  It may seem impractical to think about an endpoint when so many immediate needs exist—so plans tend to be an odd mixture of unreachable stratospheric goals, and small-picture minutiae.

Gugelev and Stern point out that every organization has a logical trajectory, and suggest that it’s better to be conscious and proactive about charting it.  And how we act now is a function of what our logical “endgame” is.

This question is central to the ideal of “scaling up.” The authors point out that most nonprofits operate at small scale, and how they address the scale question may be very different, depending on where they’re intending to wind up in the end. In a different context, organizations have lifecycles, and the different stages may change depending on that answer.

They helpfully identify six types of “endgames:”

  • Open Source
  • Replication
  • Government Adoption
  • Commercial Adoption
  • Mission Achievement
  • Sustained Service.

The strategies for reaching these points may be radically different. In my experience, many organizations hope for mission achievement, but only reach that point if goals are specific and local (e.g., restoring a river’s salmon population to a particular level). Most organizations expect sustained service, though their strategies may not be sustainable in an objective sense. Actively considering these options is a valuable exercise, and can help organizational leaders reflect on their own trajectories.

Different activities within an organization may have varying endgames, and digging down to the programmatic level can be valuable as well. An integrated organizational strategy can reflect an evolving mix of activities. In any case, big picture intentionality is likely to have far superior results than continually reacting to short-term trends and problems.

Public Interest Management Group views scalability as an important parameter for nonprofits to consider, regardless of endgame strategy.  Bigger will not always be better, more efficient or appropriate, but each organization can determine where and how it can best sustain its operations through its anticipated lifecycle. 

Even if an organization intends to spin off or end its major current activities, reaching sustainable scale can make new options available in the future, thereby keeping valuable institutional infrastructure in the community. A Seattle nonprofit called Building Changes is a good example of this. The organization was founded to provide services to people with HIV/AIDS, and as needs changed, it eventually concluded that it should wind down or spin off those services. But instead of closing its doors, the organization shifted focus to a growing problem of homelessness, and now plays an active role in that field. Endgame strategy is a helpful way to conceive of the organization’s path.

We plan to incorporate this thought framework into future strategy engagements as a tool for defining and evaluating paths each organization may consider. Thanks to Ms. Gugelev and Mr. Stern for advancing a rich discussion!

And speaking of rich discussions around sustainability, my next entry in this series covers a brilliant yet simple strategy for building strategic partners for the long-haul. Click here to continue...


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AuthorScott Schaffer