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25 Years of Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management

By: Sarah Appleby 18 Sep 2019
This summer marked the 25th year for the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management (SPNM) Program at Harvard Business School Executive Education. For one week each July, SPNM convenes over 150 nonprofit leaders from around the globe and across the social sector to explore cases on nonprofit leadership and strategy, and learn from HBS faculty and a cohort of their peers. During the week, participants focus on innovation, building a strategy for high performance, measuring social impact, leading change, collective impact, and other topics. Participants come from organizations with a wide array of sizes and missions.

Participating Organizations by Sector     Participating Organizations by Annual Budget Size

The charts above represent an average of the most recent five years of the SPNM program.

The top attending organizations over the last 25 years (in descending order of number of attendees) are: United Way, Habitat for Humanity, Boy Scouts of America, YMCA, Make-A-Wish, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, YWCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Outward Bound Global, Catholic Charities, and Save the Children. Many participants are able to attend because of scholarship support from HBS donors, and HBS and Harvard Alumni Clubs have provided SPNM scholarships for over 800 nonprofit leaders since the program’s inception.

The field of social sector management research and education has experienced significant changes over the last 25 years. Here are some of our key takeaways.

  • When SPNM started in 1994, a commonly held belief about the social sector was that nonprofits should operate more like businesses. However, our research soon showed that the pursuit of social impact requires adapted tools, because organizations with a social mission need to account for more than the financial bottom line. Faculty developed new tools and frameworks for the social sector, adapting principles from business strategy to account for the absence of market forces, the weak alignment of incentives between operators and funders, and the tensions between upstream competition for funding and downstream collaboration to serve the true “customers.” These include The Nonprofit Coherence Framework and The Balanced Scorecard and Nonprofit Organizations.
  • Measuring and managing social impact has been a central theme throughout SPNM’s history. The book High Performance Nonprofit Organizations – Managing Upstream for Greater Impact by SPNM faculty recommended building organizational capacity and linking learning with results to better pursue a social mission. As nonprofits experienced increasing pressure from funders to account for outcomes, further research examined the logic model and theory of change frameworks in a variety of contexts. By delineating the results that are within an organization’s direct span of control from those that depend on multiple stakeholders, the framework put forward in What Impact? A Framework for Measuring the Scale & Scope of Social Performance suggested new levels of accountability for funders in turn.

Each new development from faculty research is integrated into the SPNM curriculum. And as our SPNM faculty are quick to point out, it is the on-the-ground knowledge and experience that SPNM participants bring to the classroom which allows our faculty to learn from the field and develop new tools and insights about the social sector.

SPNM was the first of several Social Enterprise Executive Education programs at HBS that now run each year. Governing for Nonprofit Excellence was created as the complementary program to SPNM for nonprofit board leaders and will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2020. Performance Measurement for Effective Management of Nonprofit Organizations is designed for senior nonprofit leaders responsible for managing performance to meet a social mission. Other programs include the Public Education Leadership Project and Strategic Nonprofit Management – India.

At the Social Enterprise Initiative, we’re incredibly proud to have brought over 13,000 leaders to our Executive Education programs over the last 25 years. We’re excited to continue that work and look forward to the next 25 years of educating, supporting, and inspiring executives across all sectors to tackle society’s toughest challenges and make a difference in the world.

Note: The key research takeaways mentioned above were adapted from Understanding Our Impact: 25 Years of Social Enterprise at HBS.