Lessons from the Spider: Building Value for the Social Sector
Recently I was attempting to hose the fall’s detritus- and a spider and her web- from the picnic table as part of a late fall clean up. Several minutes of very aggressive spraying later, detritus gone. Spider and web intact. I conceded defeat, accorded admiration and stopped to look carefully at the web. Virtually invisible threads of great strength and flexibility, woven together. Highly effective at accomplishing its mission and strong in its simplicity. Perhaps some lessons to be learned.
How do you make your organization spider web strong?
Stay targeted. The spider constructs her web for very specific purposes. She knows the outcomes she wants and has the resources needed to get the job done. Too often organizations get diverted or mired down when making decisions. Have a checklist to ensure decisions align with mission, objectives, strengths and resources.
Simple is hard. Think of the last time you revised a mission statement or did a strategic plan- not easy but think of what you learned along the way and the benefits you gained from the process. If you can distill the complex to the simple, then you really understand. And you can make better, faster decisions.
I learned early on that if I couldn’t draw a simple diagram of how a business worked and identify the key operating, strategic and financial levers that made it work - and be able explain it all clearly in no more than several sentences, then I had no business investing in it, consulting to it or recommending that someone else buy-in as a stakeholder. Can you, your staff and Board do this? To any stakeholder and for any program?
Build strong. Spider silk has high tensile strength and ductility which gives the web strength and flexibility. How do you build tensile strength and ductility in your organization? I believe it takes three things-operating agility, financial acumen and the right resources.
Operating agility means effective, well-executed programs and an understanding of what are the strengths that enable this. It also means having a good grasp of the operating landscape, opportunities and risks. Financial acumen means using finance as an operating tool, not a report card. Use fundamental financial principles to support sustainable growth and understand how operating decisions affect financial health and financial health affects operations.
Finally, build strong by having the right resources. Not all money is the right money. Be investment ready- know what types of resources are needed and what the implications of those resources will be on programs and strategy. And know how to make the case – from a mission, impact, metrics, and financial perspective- to potential funders and investors.
Weave don’t compartmentalize. Build operating agility, financial acumen and strategic flexibility as strong, virtually invisible threads woven throughout the organization. Virtually invisible because they are part of the fabric of the organization and the way people think. Think about the strength that comes with this.
Have you ever seen cases of disappearing cash- programs are growing, revenues are covering expenses but cash in the bank is declining? Strong programs with a sound strategy but without an understanding of how operating decisions can affect the organization’s financial health can lead to problems. What about being blindsided by a change in a major funder’s focus or shift in a government’s approach to addressing a community problem? Programs can be strong, financial management well developed but without a grasp of the operating environment, those strengths can quickly become irrelevant. And of course, great strategy, awareness and financial acumen won’t be of much use if programs and execution are weak.
Build spider web strong.