Think Like a Surfer: Part One of a Two-Part Series on Organizational Strategy

Shannon Ellis

In this first of two blog posts on organizational strategy, CompassPoint Project Director Shannon Ellis considers the changing social and operational environment nonprofits are working in, and the shifts in orientation these changes necessitate. In Part 2, Shannon lays out how getting clear on strategy can help an organization move through turbulent waters.


Although it’s always wetsuit weather here in the Bay Area, I love sitting on the beach watching the waves roll in and out with their steady rhythm and their remarkable ability to be both constantly changing and eternally stable. The ocean is powerful, beautiful, turbulent, dangerous, and inspiring all at once. Often, so are we as nonprofits dedicated to swimming in the seas of social change.

We’ve been through some rough waters lately as a society and a sector. Over the last several years, we’ve struggled against what feels like a relentless effort to cut larger and larger holes in our social safety net. And no long-time nonprofit leader would deny the significant changes in the funding landscape. Government funding is on a consistent decline, caught in a drawn-out recession and a mind-boggling turn away from a collective understanding of the role of government as steward of the common good. Foundations, even as they acknowledge the increasing maturity and effectiveness of many nonprofit organizations, continue to resist providing the general operating support that can fuel innovation and change. At the same time, the business sector is experimenting with new models of funding, structure, and investment, sometimes claiming that a for-profit solution is the answer to some of our deepest troubles.

Still, we’ve also seen glimmers of hope in the journey toward social equity with movement toward marriage equality, the possibility of significant reforms in immigration policy, and an awakening among the middle class of the inequities in our current distribution of wealth and power.

In this sometimes turbulent and frightening and other times exhilarating and powerful environment, nonprofit organizations need to be aligned around a unified strategy more than ever – getting crystal clear on the drivers of sustainability for the organization, both programmatic and financial. Part of forming strong organizational strategy is getting clear on where you’re headed – but strategic planning in this environment is not so much about deciding what to do to get there as it is about deciding how to be. Surfer

Gone are the days of the sea captain model of leadership, where a stalwart veteran commands and controls vessel and crew, charting a course through the ocean waters to arrive at a particular destination. Leadership today is much more akin to surfing – changes come at us rapidly and we can easily find ourselves flailing in the water. Leadership in this environment requires us to be more like surfers – relying on agility, balance, and heavy doses of both technical knowledge and intuition. To truly succeed, we also need to be willing to get knocked down by the wave occasionally and harness a good amount of courage to get back up on the board.

This is where a clear organizational strategy can help – articulating where the organization is truly exceptional in its programming and having a strong understanding of how that work is financed can help foster a leadership orientation that promotes organizational sustainability. As we all continue to experiment and find our balance in this shifting landscape, we’re beginning to recognize that it’s not about doing more with less – it’s about doing more of what matters most. Getting clear on strategy can help us decide which waves to ride and which to let pass. Effectively executing on that strategy is largely about harnessing the power of our networks, our organizations, and ourselves as we collectively move into a new era of change.

In part two of this two-part blog post (available here), I present five essential practices to support leaders in developing and executing strong organizational strategy. In the meantime, take some time to reflect on a few sustainability indicators for your organization:

  • When was the last time you felt like your organization was “riding the wave,” powerfully moving toward its intended goal? What were the conditions – internal and external – that propelled that momentum?
  • Are you or other leaders in your organization approaching your work with a sea captain perspective? What might be gained from building on the power and leadership throughout the organization – including staff, board, and constituents?
  • What happened the last time you slipped into churning waters as an organization? What can you learn from that experience to inform future decisions?

They are big questions, but worth understanding the answers to as you start to think about your organizational strategy.

Read Part 2.


Shannon Ellis is a Project Director at CompassPoint Nonprofit Services. She consults and trains in the areas of finance and strategy. 

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