Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management(SPNM) is a Harvard Business School executive education program for nonprofit leaders. To learn more about SPNM and our other executive education programs, visit our website. Read more about one participant’s program experience below.
Brightside is an online mentoring nonprofit organisation based in the UK. Founded in 2003, Brightside is one of the largest online mentoring models, working with over 10,000 young people from low-income backgrounds throughout the UK every year. The organisation finds and trains mentors from across industries and leverages an online platform to connect them with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
As Brightside develops its new five year business plan and builds upon its new impact performance management framework which launches this autumn, my main aim from attending the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management course was to use the intellectual stimulus at Harvard Business School to ensure that Brightside’s strategic decisions are as robust and informed as possible.
One topic with particular resonance for Brightside was the discussion on impact. This started on familiar terrain with a well-known strategic framework (logic model: inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes and impacts), and showed that as you go further along the chain, the performance measures become more ambiguous, less measurable and less attributable. However, what has given me pause for thought is where the discussion then went – with an argument that you should focus your efforts on where you have most control i.e within the organization, which is much more nuanced than the usual discussion about maximizing impact for beneficiaries.
Another important question for Brightside is how you balance objectives relating to depth and breadth of impact. While there are a lot of students throughout the UK who could benefit from high-quality personalised information, advice and guidance, we must keep service quality high. How have other social enterprises managed this balance? During the next few years, Brightside will also be looking to extend our service model providing support which follows the needs of the students, rather than the priorities of our funders. How have other organisations managed this, and what sustainable income models have they developed to do so?
One extraordinary aspect of the course was the diverse range of organisations and countries represented (160 social enterprises in total) – whether the Indian social enterprise providing meals to 1.5 million schoolchildren every day (1.5 million!), and grappling with how to scale up to meet need in India; the Australian legal aid centre providing legal support for low-income Australians; or the US agency fighting sex trafficking in South East Asia.
Very different organisations then, but all facing common challenges: maximising and measuring impact; managing growth sustainably; governance and funding were four recurrent themes. No matter where they are, non-profits inhabit a world where they are pulled in multiple different directions by lots of different stakeholders (funders; staff; trustees; and sometimes even by user need and preference).And this is why the focus of the Harvard course was on, well, focus. Be strategic, keep your mission front and centre, be obsessive about execution, and focus on your people.
Applying the learning from SPNM to Brightside is not a straightforward task, and indeed we were counselled at HBS to ‘dose the learning carefully’. Initial priorities will be to review the balance of resources between assuring project quality and programme outcomes; conducting a full logistical review of our work to ensure that we are as efficient as possible and to create the conditions for a learning organisation that gives us the best possible chance of success.
Anand Shukla is the Chief Executive of Brightside. Mr. Shukla wrote a series of blog posts during his week in the SPNM program, on which this post is based.