Better Knowledge for Greater Success
What is your most important asset for the success of your nonprofit organization? Money? Yeah, you need money to do most things. However, I’d argue knowledge is more important than money. Imagine you had plenty of money, but lacked the knowledge you need to make good, informed decisions. You’d probably end up losing money doing things that don’t work.
Knowledge: Your Most Valuable Asset
All around us, we can see advancements made possible by knowledge. Indoor plumbing. Airplanes. Satellites. Medical advancements that save lives.
When you’re tackling big goals, such as helping people overcome homelessness, improving well-being in your community, or expanding opportunities in education, you need knowledge. Good information that can help you and your team to make effective decisions such as:
- Whether or not an idea for a new project would be a good use of resources
- How to shape strong new programs and services
- What to tweak, what to do more of, and what to drop to strengthen your activities
- What effects you’re having, including positive or negative effects that you didn’t anticipate
Without good knowledge, you can’t make effective decisions that maximize your organization’s potential.
When it comes to social programs and public issues, finding the best available knowledge can be hard. Various groups, each with their own vested interests, make different claims about how best to solve the issue. Each side backs up its way of doing things with its own collection of research studies. Here, I introduce the three pieces that you need to build better knowledge for making better decisions.
Three Pieces for Building Better Knowledge
Based on my and my colleagues’ years of research and experience, we’ve found that building better knowledge involves three pieces. If your knowledge is lacking in any one of the three pieces, it will be less likely to work as you expect when you put it into action.
Data and Facts
One piece of building better knowledge is gathering data and facts. Valuable data and facts can come from many sources. They include your own data that you collect to track your progress and outcomes of your specific activities. They also include knowledge in the field that you discover in conferences and workshops, professional publications, academic journals, books, newspaper articles, and other sources. The more sources of reliable data and facts you gather, the better your knowledge will be.
Meaning and Relevance
From looking at a lot of program assessments, one thing I’ve seen is that you’ve got to find out what’s meaningful and relevant to people. Talking with people who have personal or professional experience in your topic adds understanding that you can’t get from looking at data.
In other words, collaborate with people in shaping programs and strategies that will affect them. Avoid “top down” solutions done for people or to them.
In addition to meaningfulness/relevance, to take your programming to the next level, you also need the other two pieces of knowledge: data/facts and structure.
Knowledge structure is the often-missing piece of knowledge that is now getting more attention. Structure is not about what you know, but about the cause-and-effect relations between the things that you know.
Lower-structure knowledge is often what comes most naturally. This is thinking in terms of few causes and few effects. For example, that our “one right solution” can alone solve our problems. A comforting thought, perhaps. However, low-structure thinking tends to lead to unintended negative consequences, missed opportunities, and programs and strategies that don’t work as expected.
Higher-structure knowledge shows more things that are relevant to the situation and more cause-and-effect connections between them. Higher-structure knowledge shows better understanding of your situation, and hence greater chances for success, because the real world is interconnected. (Presuming that your knowledge is also based on good data/facts and is meaningful/relevant.)
As you’re gathering knowledge for making decisions, you can strengthen your knowledge structure by seeking a broad understanding of potential paths to desired goals, effects of your activities, and aspects of your operating environment.
Paths to Reaching Your Goals
In order to sustain and grow your programs, you need clear paths to making things happen.
- What makes your activities successful?
- What are the challenges and strategies to overcome them?
- Looking at each step leading to your goals, what do you need to take to make that step happen?
Effects You’re Having
Capturing more of your effects lets you better demonstrate your value to funders. Also, valuable and much-needed programs sometimes also have some unanticipated negative consequences. Planning helps you to avoid them.
- What are your short-term program effects? What longer term effects will those lead to?
- What are you program effects for people, for organizations, and beyond?
- What unexpected effects are your activities having, positive and negative?
Your Outside Environment
Better understanding your operating environment, and what it means for you, can reveal opportunities for improving efficiency and performance that you hadn’t considered.
- How do your activities compare with what others are doing or have tried before?
- What else (within the control of your team or not) helps or hinders achievement of your goals? What could you do to directly or indirectly affect those things?
Think of at least one thing you’ll do to strengthen your knowledge—in terms of data/facts, meaning/relevance, or structure—to build better knowledge for greater success.
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