Clarity Trumps Strategy


cplI’m a highly organized person, and can spend endless hours creating strategies, with corresponding tactics, timelines and to-do lists. But in my experience, one thing trumps strategy: clarity. You can have all the strategies, logic models, and theories of change in the world, but you won’t get far if you aren’t crystal clear inside your head about what you are trying to accomplish.

Let me give you two quick examples from my life, neither of which have anything to do with philanthropy.

Many years ago I was in an unhealthy relationship. For five years. Thousands of dollars of therapy later, it wasn’t until I had clarity that this person wasn’t going to change, I needed to get out, and I deserved a better life that I had the courage to end it. The days, weeks and months that followed were painful, but it didn’t matter. I was clear I was doing the right thing. That clarity kept me calm and focused, and guided all of my decisions. I never looked back.

Fast forward eight years, and I decided to relocate my life and business from the San Francisco Bay Area to Cleveland, Ohio, where I was going to get engaged, become a stepmom, and live in a new city where I had no friends and few business relationships. I had to sell my house, say goodbye to all my friends, and communicate this move to my clients without losing their business. All in a span of 3 months, during which I maintained a full consulting practice. I recall it as being one of the most stressful times of my life, and I had to wake up at 3:00am almost every day to get it all done. What got me through it? Total clarity that I was doing the right thing for me. My friends questioned my sanity, and my business coach suggested I give myself more time. But I was clear on what I wanted in my life (marry my now-husband and be closer to my family), so all of my decisions were easy, my strategies were obvious, and I stayed focused on my goal.

Once you have clarity, the strategies and tactics will follow fairly quickly. Without clarity, you can be all over the map. If you know that you want to help high school students successfully graduate high school and enter the workforce, your strategies might include increasing graduation rates (reducing absenteeism, academic credit recovery), career exposure & experience (job training, job shadowing, internships, summer jobs), and helping students get into college (college visits, application support, ACT tutoring). But if you can’t decide whether you want to help kids get jobs, reduce teenage pregnancy, reduce youth violence, or provide universal pre-K to all four year olds, you won’t get very far. All are important and will help young people successfully graduate and transition into adulthood. But if you aren’t clear you are stuck, and you can’t help anyone.

How do you get clarity? Well, that’s a tough one. Just like “lucky”  people are actually people who put themselves in situations where they can easily take advantage of new opportunities (they constantly learn, network, are open to new ideas, etc.), I think clarity comes when we keep ourselves informed, try new things, practice trusting our instincts, are self-aware, and disciplined in making decisions. You can’t force yourself into clarity, any more than you can force yourself into falling in love.

Look at some important decisions you need to make in the next few months. Whether it’s deciding how to focus your grantmaking initiative or where to send your child to school, ask yourself if you have clarity about your decision. If not, why not? Have you given yourself the time and space to think about it? Sought the advice of trusted colleagues or friends? Armed yourself with enough data to make an informed decision? Given yourself permission to follow your instinct? Do it now.

For more philanthropy tips and resources, read “5 Grantmaking Challenges You Will Experience, and How To Avoid Them and “One Question Guaranteed To Save Funders Time, Save Money, and Achieve Results“.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and advisor. If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

© 2014 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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