The Deadweight Challenge: Are Outmoded Programs Dragging Your Nonprofit Down?

Empower Teams through the Art of Creative Destruction and Trade-Off Thinking

Image Source: SHVETS Production, Pixabay

Sometimes a nonprofit program underperforms or fails to serve its original purpose. Sometimes even a functioning program must end to free up resources for better initiatives.

For example, author Evan Wildstein recently pointed out an example to me of a nonprofit navigating possible demise, saying, “Many people don’t know March of Dimes was once focused on curing polio. Then… polio got cured… and they successfully moved onto infant mortality.”

So we must adjust, adapt, and sometimes, sunset things that aren’t working. But sunsetting or radically adjusting programs is painful, and nonprofits sometimes act like hoarders, clinging to hope that the program will somehow succeed. How do savvy nonprofit teams avoid this pitfall?

First, as nonprofit managers, we must congratulate our teams for recognizing these growth opportunities. We should be kind to ourselves and acknowledge that cutting programs is hard to do. We might consider some advice from tidying and decluttering expert Marie Kondo:

“When you come across something that you cannot part with, think carefully about its true purpose in your life. You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role. By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order. In the end, all that will remain are the things that you really treasure.”

We can apply Kondo’s advice to how we think about our nonprofit programs and projects. We can take the lead and not allow failed or stagnating projects to be forever projects that keep sucking up resources.

As I wrote in my book, Innovation for Social Change, there are some simple practices that can help us surface faulty assumptions, complacency, or initiatives we might have killed off long ago.

Share stories

We can share stories with our teams for how our organization (or other organizations) entrepreneurially launched, overhauled, and sunset programs. I was struck by a presentation by a CEO leading a policy advocacy organization. He shared a graphic of a timeline spanning decades that showed the birth and death of various programs at his nonprofit. He would periodically present this graphic in staff meetings, speaking of his own beloved programs that were sunset, while explaining how doing so was the right step. He emphasized that killing off his lukewarm programs didn’t mean he was fired; he shifted to roles with other teams and projects that were likely to have better impact.

This CEO encouraged his colleagues to internalize this ongoing process because, in his view, a nonprofit’s biggest risk is getting too comfortable with the status quo while becoming irrelevant. He called this ongoing process “creative destruction.” Sharing stories like this helps teams internalize that making hard trade-offs is normal—this is how we do business—and that projects, teams, or individuals aren’t being unfairly singled out. When leaders model killing off their own beloved projects, this provides credibility and sets an example.

Remove fear

We can remove fear of risk taking, primarily by encouraging candid conversations about what was learned. For example, according to authors Paul Brest and Hal Harvey, the Hewlett Foundation created a prize for grants officers for “the worst grant from which you learned the most.” A team member can share her earlier thinking for why she invested in a project, how she made her bets, what her assumptions and unknowns were, and how she came to learn that the project was not working. By approaching failures this way, with a light touch and sense of humor, other team members see that people won’t get fired for risks and experiments, as long as they learn and adjust after failure.

We can communicate that team members can shift into other roles when programs wind down, that the organization values entrepreneurial thinking, and that the organization is confident its team members can find new and better ways to apply their talents toward the mission. Everyone benefits when team members are at their creative and innovative best and when they are fulfilled and empowered to succeed, rather than when the organization holds on to stalling programs for all the wrong reasons.

Create incentives

We can create incentives to encourage team members to demonstrate creative destruction or make difficult trades, and we can reward people for thinking entrepreneurially. For example, we can include a question in performance reviews such as “Share an example of winding down or radically adjusting a program that was underperforming,” and we can compensate people according to their response.

Encourage creative, disciplined thinking

We can encourage creative, disciplined thinking. Proposals for new programs or projects can speculate about what an exit strategy would look like and under what circumstances the team would wind down a program or project. We should remember that just because our nonprofit may not be the right home for a project doesn’t mean the project is a bad idea. Nonprofits can encourage teams to think about spin-offs or partnerships. What does this mean for an individual team member? She may pivot to a different role, design a new role, take her expertise to another nonprofit, or become the founder of a new nonprofit. It is far better to find new and fulfilling ways to create value than to remain stuck in an underperforming program.