There are countless examples of strategic “pivots” to point to in the for-profit world, many of them from the not-too-distant past. Remember when Amazon just sold books, when Netflix mailed DVDs, or when the Gap was a record store that sold Levi’s? It’s rare, on the other hand, to hear about nonprofits making the same kind of massive changes in strategy. Of course, taking a risk in Silicon Valley (where companies are expected to produce financial returns for their investors) is different than risk-taking in the nonprofit world, where organizations are responsible for having an impact on a social or environmental problem.
But pivoting — a shift in strategy that helps an organization achieve its desired impact — is crucial for nonprofits that want to succeed over the long-term. “Pivot” doesn’t have to be a bad word or signal failure. Think of it, instead, as a natural part of organizational evolution.
Pivots can be large or small, but they should emerge from a clear understanding of what is working and what is not. Using data (e.g., performance metrics, evaluations, and direct observation) to decide whether or not it’s time to pivot will ensure that you pivot in the right direction. This kind of intentionality, coupled with the ability to admit what isn’t working, makes a strategic pivot different than just throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.
Organizations that don’t pivot eventually end up stuck doing the same old thing, even when evidence points them in another direction. In such a scenario, funders often start to wonder about their investment in a “stuck” organization and whether it’s truly creating the impact they would like to see. To help nonprofits that are struggling with the pivot issue, as well as funders who may be sitting on the other side of the table, I wanted to share a story about a pivot made by my organization, UpStart, what we learned from it, and how you can benefit from the same kind of thinking and tactics.
UpStart’s flagship initiative in Colorado was our Teen Fellowship program, which each year engaged twenty-four fellows in the fundamentals of social entrepreneurship through a Jewish lens. This program was a part of the larger Denver-Boulder Jewish Teen Initiative to increase engagement of diverse local Jewish teens. In the fellowship, teens worked in small teams to solve a particular problem in their respective communities, developing new initiatives and learning key skills that would help them navigate the world. The program was rated favorably by the teens who participated, but from an outcomes perspective it was becoming increasingly clear it was off-strategy.
UpStart had just updated its theory of change (which affected the organization’s national and local programming, including ours in Colorado), and it was clear that our Teen Fellowship program did not align with the framework. Under the updated theory of change, the organization’s goal is not to directly provide experiences for people looking to explore their Jewish identity; instead, we work to inspire bold leaders who are building game-changing Jewish experiences — and connect them to each other to amplify their impact. What’s more, the fellowship program was too small to really make the kind of impact we were looking for, and in a landscape already rich with opportunities for teens, it was simply one more option in a crowded field.
We knew Jewish teens would be disappointed when they heard about the decision, so after carefully considering our goals for the region, and in consultation with our funder, the Rose Community Foundation, we decided to transition to a program that would have a wider reach, deeper alignment with our regional strategy, and a clearer connection to our tactical goals.
Explaining the logic behind the transition, Vanessa Bernier, Jewish Life program officer for the Rose Community Foundation, said, “Our goal is to be responsive to changing demographics, which means demonstrating an openness to new ideas, strategies, and innovations. We value our long-standing partnerships with grantees and working together to address the evolving needs of the community.”
That was the green light we needed to create the Change Accelerator for Teen Educators, an intensive program that equips individuals with the practical skills needed to identify and launch bold initiatives that meet the ever-evolving needs of Jewish teens in the Denver/Boulder region.
Because we are in the business of helping organizations make change, we took a page out of our own book and leveraged adaptive design — a framework authored by UpStart associates Maya Bernstein and Marty Linsky that brings together the fundamentals of design thinking and adaptive leadership.
We also designed the “pivot” knowing we would need to get our funders on board, identify the outcomes we wanted to achieve, and ensure that our messaging addressed key stakeholder concerns.
As your organization is thinking about making a pivot of its own, consider the following three questions, which are informed by the adaptive design framework:
Who needs to be on board? For our pivot, we knew we needed the leadership of our Colorado team to assess the strategy and provide implementation recommendations. We also needed the green light from UpStart’s national leadership team, as well as our funders.
Before presenting the details of a pivot to stakeholders, consider carefully what your data, evaluations, direct observations, and experience have to say about how your audience is likely to receive the new program and why a pivot is needed. Then, share that data with those authorized to make the final decision.
How clear are you about your goals and outcomes? Before moving forward with our pivot, we confirmed the primary reason for making the change by looking at both our theory of change and the impact our funders wanted to see: increasing the reach of our programs. Today, our new program directly serves seven teen educators at six different organizations across the Denver/Boulder region, where they are in a position to have a positive impact on dozens, if not hundreds of teens (many more than the original program).
When you’re ready to flip the switch on your pivot, be sure to engage your stakeholders in a dialogue around the best path forward. Creating transparency around the process will help ensure that there’s alignment between you and your funder(s).
Who will be affected when you make the pivot? Any time a nonprofit pivots, there will be people who are excited about the change and those who aren’t. In pivoting away from our Teen Fellowship program, we knew that teens, parents, and several community partners in the region would feel the loss. We also realized we needed to help other stakeholders understand why it was time for a change.
Once you decide to make a pivot, be clear with your stakeholders about the reasons why. When you communicate with them, be sure to paint a picture of the impact you’re hoping to realize, whom you hope to help, and how you plan to achieve your new goals and objectives.
Our pivot represented a risk for us, but we were able to leverage our data and experience to make the case to our funder, the Rose Community Foundation, with transparency and the appropriate level of urgency. The foundation was already invested in our success, and because we had put a significant amount of time into building a relationship with the team there, and they in us, we didn’t think twice about approaching them and trusting that they would be a thoughtful partner in helping us settle on our best next steps.
As nonprofit expert Vu Le wrote in a recent post on his Nonprofit AF blog, “The best, most helpful program officers see themselves as partners in the work….Working with them is fun, and I never feel like I have to hide anything, such as when things don’t go well. This sort of relationship fosters transparency, trust, and respect, which leads to more effective strategies that benefit the communities we serve.”
By fully committing to an intentional, strategic pivot, nonprofits can put themselves in a position to more quickly adapt to the diverse needs of the communities they serve. UpStart, like so many other nonprofits and funders, is striving to create a more just, vibrant, and inclusive future, and increased participation in Jewish life is one part of that bigger picture. Our recent pivot has helped us increase our impact and effectiveness, and as our community and region continue to change, we’ll be looking for other such opportunities.
Sarah Kornhauser is Director, Colorado for UpStart, which is part of the Denver-Boulder Jewish Teen Initiative. The initiative is one of ten such initiatives across the country comprising the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative.