There are few places where it can feel harder to say “no” than at a nonprofit. Business Geographer Gracie Koester shares perspective on using OKRs to tackle two common challenges of nonprofit teams: prioritization and bringing funders into the conversation for strategic alignment.
There are few places where it can feel harder to say “no” than at a nonprofit. Those sweeping and aspirational mission statements can make almost everything seem, well, mission critical. But as urgent as everything feels, nonprofits simply can’t do it all. To thrive, they need a way to communicate and stay focused on true priorities — with opportunities to renegotiate and pivot in real time. Nonprofits, says Business Geographer Gracie Koester, need OKRs.
Koester is the founder of Bright Work, which helps organizations gain strategic clarity and bridge the gap between strategy and execution with design thinking, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), and ecosystem intelligence. Her background in geography has helped her map her career, as well as her work with clients. “It weaves so many things together,” she says. “Geography is really about synthesis, looking at complexity and trying to find patterns and solutions.”
This interest led to a passion for environmental development policy which inspired her affection for working with nonprofits. She consults with corporate clients as well, and traveling between spheres helps her see where nonprofits sometimes struggle: moving quickly, staying coordinated, and identifying opportunities to iterate and pivot for greater impact.
Koester believes that OKRs can increase the impact of nonprofits by optimizing the prioritization of limited resources. “When you look at initiatives or activities that are going to have a positive impact on people or the planet in need, it can be heartbreaking to say ‘no,’” says Koester, “but in setting near-term Objectives and measurable Key Results, you clarify the strategic choices you need to make today. OKRs change the conversation from how to do good to how to do the most good.”
Alignment on what to say “yes” to also means alignment on what to say “no” to. A nonprofit might postpone an expansion to focus on a core offering during a time of turmoil, shift focus from national projects to state-level impact, or delay a revamp of employee onboarding in favor of putting more resources behind recruiting. “So many of these decisions stem from OKRs forcing a conversation about internal capacity and the current lay of the land,” she says.
More actionable than your mission
People are often more comfortable with setting a 20-year vision than committing to where they want to be next year, Koester finds. “That is understandable when you are doing big global work, but sharpening your focus can really clarify some of the strategic choices you need to make today.”
Koester encourages clients to set Objectives every quarter, thinking through what they can do in the next 90 days to make this year the best it can be. “OKRs really shine in providing near-term focus,” she says. “If you set your Objectives out too far, you are dealing with abstract ideas. These may be inspiring, but not actionable.”
Once Objectives are set, frequent conversations keep everything and everyone on track. “You are constantly reassessing, asking ‘is this the right vision statement for the coming year or quarter?’” says Koester. Each conversation is a chance to evaluate whether your trajectory is moving fast enough and far enough and whether it leads to what still feels like the best target for right now. “This frequency also means that instead of reporting on lagging indicators, you’re catching leading indicators, which allows for rapid learning and innovation.” CFRs (Conversation, Feeback, and Recognition) also give you the chance to make adjustments and reallocate resources as needed.
Defining grant success with Key Results
But Koester isn’t only excited by how OKRs change the conversation within nonprofits — she also wants them to change the conversation nonprofits have with donors. All nonprofits need money, and sometimes that comes with conditions: funder goals that don’t always align neatly with the grantee’s strategic priorities or existing initiatives.
When a nonprofit sets Objectives, they are positioned to invite the donor to be part of what Koester calls “the specific vision of the future they want to exist in.” A grant conversation then becomes one about desired impact and how best to get there.
“Grantmaking is often tied to specific projects and activities,” says Koester. “You start with a vision and then jump into listing the things you’re going to do to get there. Key Results are often the missing middle.” For example, an organization may receive funding to expand a program to a new geographic locale, but success metrics in the new region are either undefined or copied over from existing locations. “In this case, an organization is tied to a specific tactic, which limits flexibility to change direction,” says Koester. “They may find themselves having to follow through on something that has sub-par impact or risk losing the funding altogether.”
Establishing Key Results makes clear to everyone whether or not an Objective is being reached. “Nonprofits can remind donors that they are supporting outcomes, not funding tactics,” says Koester. If an Objective is not on track — as indicated by Key Results — nonprofits and donors can then partner and adjust in real time to achieve the desired impact.
This inclination to put tactics before strategy can also show up as another common pitfall in using OKRs: using tasks as Key Results. “People often default to this because it’s how they structure their time — with to-do lists,” says Koester. “We’re used to thinking of our day-to-day work in terms of jobs to be done, which really means outputs,” she says. “Instead of asking yourself what needs to be done,” says Koester, “ask what’s going to change if you complete these things. OKRs ask you to think about outcomes.”
Setting outcome-oriented KRs takes practice, but Koester has seen firsthand that meaningful measures are both energizing and important for nonprofits. They help nonprofits and funders to more clearly identify and align around the allocation of resources, and to continuously track progress towards Objectives. It’s at this intersection of aspirational and actionable where Koester finds her personal true North. Simply put, “Nonprofits using OKRs will achieve more of what they want to achieve,” she says, “more world change, more growth, and more influence.”
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