Academic Purity vs. Practical Reality

I love discussing new and exciting approaches to serving communities within the nonprofit sector.  But I also get frustrated sometimes that too often there is such a huge gap between theory and practical reality.

Two discussions that appear with frequency in several LinkedIn discussion groups are related to strategic planning processes and board governance.  There also appear to be two very divergent approaches to both topics: academic and practical.  Although not usually verbalized that way, for the reader it can be apparent.

The academic approaches to board governance and strategic planning are based on the premises that there are many models, approaches, processes and essential research.  The inference?  Lots of time, money and knowledge are required before a nonprofit can make a decision on which to use.

The practical reality approach, on the other hand, is based on the needs for simplification, shorter time frames and less cost.   And, it is up to the leadership to not take time and money away from essential services on what could be viewed as a purely academic exercise.

Let’s face it, for the millions of nonprofit professionals and board members in small to mid-sized nonprofits, which approach makes the most sense? Obviously the practical reality approach.  However, there is a subliminal message that is often given to nonprofit leadership via these discussions that anything less than the academic approach is somehow wrong, ineffective, and inefficient or a waste of time.

A perfect illustration is the simplified strategic planning approach I developed several years ago.  I found in my consulting business that the majority of small nonprofits had no strategic plan and were not interested in planning because they saw it as potentially too expensive and a waste of time.  This attitude generally came from board members who had bad experiences with planning processes on their job.

So, I developed a six-hour, facilitated process that engaged the board and senior staff in a review of the organization’s vision and mission, included some basic organizational assessments, and led to identification of anywhere from two to four strategic goals in each of the core elements:  administration, marketing, resource development, community involvement, board/volunteer development, and programs.  As the facilitator, I took the notes from the session and summarized it in a one-page strategic goals document which jump-started a never-ending planning process for the nonprofit.

The nonprofits loved it.  I started using the process with dozens of other nonprofits with the same positive results.  I then put the process together in a guide, The Six-Hour Strategic Plan, and entered it in an innovation contest, where it won an award.

Now I’m on cloud nine.  I’m thinking I’ve hit on something that will be extremely valuable to the nonprofit community.  So, I have the audacity to talk about it on a LinkedIn professional group focused on strategic planning.  Boy, was I in for a surprise.  The academics in the group tore me and the process apart, piece by piece.  You would think I had spat on the Holy Grail.

That incident proves the point of this blog:  academic purity and practical reality are often two totally different things.  What works in the real world and what academics think will work are not necessarily the same.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for research, developing theories and academics, but we should never allow the theory or academics to overrule the practical and field-tested approaches.

So, whether it is a discussion of governance models or strategic planning approaches, we as nonprofit professionals must also keep the practical realities in mind when we are working with our nonprofit boards.  Or, to paraphrase something my father used to say, “Don’t be so academic minded that you are no earthly good.”