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Should We Do That? Five Questions to Ask

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pamela A. Mischen
August 21, 2015

Last month, I wrote about the importance of understanding knowledge capacity in the development of a strategic plan. This month, I am going to take a step back and ask, “Should we do that?”

In my years of working with local nonprofit organizations, government agencies and community-based networks, I have seen this question ignored or answered with half-truths. Chasing the easy (or easier) money often leads to success in grant seeking, but does it really amount to success and long-term sustainability for your organization? Before you dive right in, ask yourselves the following questions:

#1 – Is it part of our mission?

I know you have heard this question before. But what if an opportunity presents itself to use your strengths in a different way– maybe for a different population or in a different geographic area? Sometimes missions need to change and expand. However, projects like this need very careful consideration and involvement of many stakeholders before an organization becomes something that it was not.

#2 – Is it part of our plan?

Mission statements are broad. Consequently, organizations can justify a broad range of projects by saying that it fits with our mission. But does it fit with your plan? Hopefully, you have one.

During a well thought out planning process, you considered both the external and internal environments of your organization. You also considered a wide range of options and prioritized them. Then this new idea comes along. Of course plans need to evolve and change, but ask yourselves where this new idea would have ranked if it had been considered during your planning process. Time and money are limited. If you take on the new project, you are likely to have to forgo something in your plan. Consider the opportunity costs.

#3 – Do we have skills to implement this project? Could others do it better?

The first part of this question was the topic of last month’s article so I will not dwell on that. What I didn’t talk about last month was whether other organizations could do the project better. This may be the hardest question to come to terms with. If we truly believe that government agencies and nonprofits should “run like businesses,” then the question might not matter if we think we can “make a profit.” However, if we are interested in the greater good, we have to recognize our own strengths and limitations.

#4 – Will it help or hurt our relationships with other organizations?

So you’ve ignored the previous question and were able to obtain a grant for a project over a better-qualified organization in your area. True, competition is part of the world we live in, but so is collaboration. More and more, organizations must work together to achieve the outcomes they jointly desire. Funders are recognizing this and requiring collaboration in many grants. Maintaining good relationships with other organizations with which you are likely to collaborate is essential.

In addition to recognizing when to take a pass on an opportunity better suited to another organization, following through on commitments is crucial to success as well as maintaining good relationships. Too often we overcommit. We do it with the best intentions. We want to have good relationships with other organizations. We want to be good collaborators. But if we don’t have both the will and ability to follow through, our commitments have the opposite effect and large efforts suffer.

#5 – Can we do it well?

This question is really a catchall for all of these other questions: Do we have the data to support that this project is really what is needed? Will we have the resources to implement it with fidelity? Will we be able to evaluate the project properly to determine whether it is worth continuing? Will we be able to sustain it if it is worth continuing? Once again, time and other resources are limited. Taking on a project that cannot be done well hurts not only your organization, but your entire community.

I could have titled this article, the value of saying no. For many of us, it’s hard saying no. Personally, I hate saying no. Yes is exciting and full of possibility. However, there are some pitfalls to saying “yes” too often. An organization can become focused solely on implementation and no longer have the time or money to ask if what they are doing is the best thing for the population they serve (needs assessment), if they are implementing the project well (quality assessment) and if what they are doing is producing the desired outcome (evaluation).

It may result in being unable to sustain what could be an effective project or wasting money on an ineffective one. It can result in damaging relationships with other organizations or the community’s capacity to achieve common goals. While there is room for experimental projects in every organization’s portfolio, maintaining a strong core of documented successes is the key to long-term sustainability.


Author: Pamela A. Mischen is associate professor in the department of public administration at Binghamton University and director of the Center for Applied Community Research and Development. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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