A conversation with Jonathan Kaufman, Principal at Third Plateau
Third Plateau is a social impact strategy firm that partners with people and organizations that have game-changing ideas to improve the world. As Thread was forming as a firm in 2015, Third Plateau was our first peer, supporter, role-model, and friend. Our team has had the privilege of joining the Third Plateau on several projects that that tie strategic planning and development strategy and execution together to help nonprofit partners go farther, faster. As a company, Third Plateau is on a bold mission to make positive things happen for their clients, our community and the world around us. They do this by challenging each other to think big and take risks. The Thread team has accepted this challenge and we are no doubt stronger at our own work because of the example set by our colleagues at Third Plateau. Today we share with you some of Third Plateau’s unique culture and work through a conversation with Jonathan Kaufman, Third Plateau Principal.
Strategic plans and development plans *have* to be linked. They need to have a lot of overlapping DNA, embody the same values, and be in constant communication with one another.
Thread: How does Third Plateau help nonprofits become more strategic in their work?
Jonathan: We lead with relationships in all of our work, aiming to build authentic connections with organizational leaders and visionaries. When a strong relationship is your foundation, we are able to help shape and drive strategy in myriad ways.
Though we never take a rinse-and-repeat, one-size-fits-all approach to our work, we have uncovered some themes that help organizations become more strategic. For example, every nonprofit needs to firmly understand what it’s truly trying to accomplish — why it is so critical the organization even exists.
In our experience, every nonprofit falls into one of two buckets: 1) it is trying to work itself out of business by solving the underlying problem (e.g. homelessness, hunger, etc.); or 2) it is working to establish a new, better status quo (e.g. healthcare, education, etc.). This is such a basic question, but one far too few nonprofits answer (or answer honestly): which bucket do you fall in, and what does that ideal state actually look like? Nonprofits don’t exist to run programs; they exist to produce positive impact in the world. So, knowing what that impact can and should be is the foundation of any sound organizational strategy. Once an organization has clarity and alignment around that answer, it’s fairly easy to figure out how to design and tweak programs to drive towards that North Star. The trick is working to ensure every moving piece within your organization—your staff, board, programs, metrics, etc—is all working in harmony towards that same shared end state.
To help organizations define that end state and position all of its efforts towards that cause, we facilitate strategic planning processes, business planning, theories of change and logic models, metrics and evaluation, board development, fund development strategy, and community engagement initiatives.
Thread: What are some of the signs you look for to indicate a nonprofit is in need of, and ready for, a strategic planning process?
Jonathan: Organizations need a strategic planning process when at least one of the following three things is true:
1.The nonprofit is facing an exciting new opportunity, but is unsure how to maximize the benefits of that opportunity;
2. The nonprofit is facing a daunting challenge and is unsure how best to navigate it; and/or
3. The nonprofit’s programs and team members are not fully aligned or laser focused on the desired end state.
Organizations are ready for strategic planning process when both of the following are true:
1. The organizational leader(s) are fully committed to the desired impact (rather than specific programs); and
2. The organizational leader(s) have the perseverance to navigate the long, difficult journey it will take to bring that impact to fruition.
Thread: What do you and your team do to ensure an organization’s unique culture is a core part of the strategic planning process?
Jonathan: The short answer: everything. Having a strategic planning process shaped by the unique organizational culture is not a “nice to have,” it’s a “must have.” Again, this is where having authentic relationships is so critical. It allows us to really get to know the organization and the individuals involved, what makes them tick, and what fuels their passion. We play to this every chance we get. For example, if an organization’s culture is anchored in transparency and inclusion, we design a process wherein everyone in the organization knows where we are in the process at any given time, what decisions have been made to date, and what’s still to come. Similarly, if an organization’s culture prioritizes excellence, we design a process geared towards constant improvement and push the organization to refine the wording, formatting, and style of the plan to align with the organization’s identity.
We very much subscribe to the belief that culture eats strategy for breakfast, so we do everything we can to ensure these two elements—the culture and the strategy—are fully aligned to the point that they are extensions of one another.
Thread: In your work, how have you seen organizational strategic plans and development plans fitting together?
Jonathan: Strategic plans and development plans *have* to be linked. They need to have a lot of overlapping DNA, embody the same values, and be in constant communication with one another. The strategic plan should be done first, setting a bold vision for where the organization wants to go, why it wants to go there, and how it will make it happen. From there, an organization can create a development plan that plays to these strengths, finds prospective donors and partners who share the organization’s ambitions, and keep all stakeholders laser focused on the organization’s desired end state and its approach to making that end state a reality. Additionally, strategic plans and development plans need to pivot and adapt in unison. As a new opportunity emerges, or a new roadblock uncovered, the strategic plan and development plan both need to evolve accordingly.
Thread: What advice would you give to nonprofit leaders who are considering embarking on a formal strategic planning process?
Jonathan: Ahh, so much advice, and so little interview time. Here are three pieces of advice that rise to the top of my list:
1. Commit – you can’t half-ass strategic planning, so if you’re going to do it, do it. Set clear expectations and timelines, and make the planning process a priority for yourself and your team. For the duration of the strategic planning process, you should expect “strategic planning” to never drop out of the top three items on your “to do” list.
2. Buy-in – the process is far more valuable than the product. Many organizational leaders can write a good strategic plan in a weekend and share it with the team, but the team won’t be investing in bringing that plan to life. What you’re left with is a really pretty document that most people don’t care about, or worse yet, actually resent. Instead, take your time in the process and focus on engaging the team that will have to operationalize it, authentically soliciting their thoughts and feedback, and working collectively to build a strategy that everyone co-owns.
3. Focus on your North Star – whether its through a theory of change, logic model, or some other framework, get clear on your desired end state and don’t let anything take you off course. Programs and processes should serve that end state (not the other way around!), so stay program agnostic and design strategies that best drive the impact you seek.