Be a hedgehog…but also lift your peacock feathers

Ari Betof
Ari Betof
Mar 25 · 7 min read
To live their mission, nonprofits must remain fiercely resolved to both be excellent at what they do and make sure people know about it. Image credit: Pixabay

A hedgehog with peacock feathers? We’ll get back to that in a bit. Before we do, we have to address an insidious risk to nonprofit organizations: overextending and trying to be all things to all people.

We all know in our hearts that we can’t be all things to all people. When we try, more damage results than just leaving task lists incomplete. Choosing quantity over quality — intentionally or not — robs everyone we interact with of the best we can bring to that moment. The same is true for organizations.

Overextending in our personal lives leads to unfulfilled promises to loved ones, lack of sleep, damage to our health and wellbeing, and decreased happiness. It also leads to jumbled thoughts as we sprint to do more than we can accomplish. A wonderful guided meditation by Alexis Santos from 10% Happier reminds the listener, “When we are mindful, our experiences actually become more simple.” We cut ourselves off from this clarity and efficiency when we try to squeeze fifty pounds of sand into a forty-pound sandbag.

Organizations are no different. When organizations take on too much they risk moving farther away from their raison d’être, overburdening their staffs, and possibly even putting their mission and whole business model at risk. This is as true for nonprofits as it is for for-profit companies.

In the nonprofit sector, “doing more with less” is seemingly woven into our institutional DNA. Focusing on fewer programs and seemingly doing less for our community goes against our very nature. We would not have entered this line of work if we weren’t passionate about how we can change the world. The commentary that we stubbornly tell ourselves can, in turn, keep our organizations from doing their best work and having the most impact. At its most extreme, the combination of altruism and scope creep leads to the collapse of the organization from ineffectiveness and exhaustion.

Let’s look at a hypothetical student-focused nonprofit in a small city. It may have started as a scholarship organization, then expanded to offer all sorts of student-oriented services, like tutoring, aftercare, school lunch support, STEM education, and even career services and internship programs for recent graduates.

All of these are worthy initiatives and likely something that the community needs. But there are only certain things that, at this point in time, the organization can truly do well. Some of its programs are adequate and others may even be mediocre, not really meeting the needs of its clients.

The worst part is that by doing so much, the pieces that are transformative — those that offer a unique answer to a problem that no other organization can handle — get buried beneath everything else. It could be that the career services and internship programs are key to the community. But if the organization continues to spread its focus so broadly, it risks concealing, and possibly even starving, what makes it truly unique and valuable.

Sometimes this scope creep comes from a desire to serve; it can also come from a need to bolster revenue. Small colleges and independent schools have faced both problems. As discount levels have increased dramatically, colleges and independent schools have spent more than two decades extending programs in an effort to grow enrollment and increase net tuition revenue. We are seeing the downstream impact as a large number of these institutions have become undifferentiated from one another in the competitive marketplace and are closing at alarming rates.

What should nonprofits do? Be a hedgehog but also flaunt your peacock feathers.

Be a Hedgehog

In his books Good to Great and Good to Great and the Social Sector, Jim Collins suggests that organizations need to function like hedgehogs:

For a thoughtful discussion of Archilochus’ parable, listen to NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast episode, “The Fox And The Hedgehog: The Triumphs And Perils Of Going Big.” Image credit: Pixabay

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? In his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Collins uses a Venn diagram to help determine, with piercing clarity, how to produce the best long-term results and then the discipline to say “no thank you” to opportunities that fall outside of this sphere.

The three circles should look to answer three things about your organization:

· Its core values, mission, and purpose;

· What it uniquely contributes better than any other organization; and

· The time, money, and brand drivers of its resource engine.

Only by aligning the mission, contribution and resource engine can a nonprofit attain true organizational sustainability.

Seth Godin shared a connected idea in a recent blog post about minimum viable audience:

The smallest group that could possibly sustain you in your work…if you could pick them and needed to delight them because you had no one else available, would your product or service improve? If you had no choice but to ignore the naysayers (they’re not in the group) or the people who don’t think they need you or your work, would that force you to stop compromising and start excelling?

Two things happen when you delight your minimum viable audience: 1. you discover it’s a lot larger group than you expected; 2. they tell the others. On the other hand, if you aim for mass (another word for average), you’ll probably create something average. Which gets you not very far.

I saw a similar phenomenon at the start of my career as a faculty representative on the Northfield Mount Hermon (NMH) admission committee. D.L. Moody founded Northfield School for Girls in 1879 and Mount Hermon School for Boys in 1881. The schools merged in 1979. By the time I joined the faculty and admission committee in the early 2000s, the school served 1,100 students across two campuses five miles apart.

NMH’s massive physical plant was driving its enrollment target and the resulting student population exceeded its viable admission pipeline. I was fortunate to teach a wonderful group of students, and the school educated many of them well. But declining net-tuition per student was a critical concern and the increasing breadth of student needs exceeded the school’s existing support structures. In 2005, NMH’s board of trustees made the difficult, painful, and ultimately necessary decision to close one campus and consolidate its operations. It is now a thriving, and arguably much stronger, school of 650 students with a clearer vision of the students it effectively serves.

Flaunt Your Peacock Feathers (Don’t Bury Them in the Sand)

Being a hedgehog or serving your minimal viable audience incredibly well isn’t enough. Your nonprofit must find a way to ensure that people know what you are doing.

If not, it is like your organization is a peacock that has decided to bury its beautiful feathers in the sand.

A male peacock with its feathers in the sand is stunning, but only if you happen to see him. Image credit: Pixabay

Peacocks, of course, are known for their plumage and the males use them to attract mates. These feathers are stunning and unique, so much so that fashion designers have, for generations, collected them for use in high-end clothing. The images of peacocks strutting are so ingrained in society that when TVs transitioned from black and white to color, NBC adopted the peacock as its logo to show off the vibrancy of the new broadcast medium.

Nonprofits are trying to attract clients to serve and donors to fund their efforts. In the case of some nonprofits, they are trying to attract other organizations to buy their services or to attract students to educate and who can pay tuition. It is very, very hard to do this if you hide what you are best at from the people you are trying to reach.

With all that color, why would you hide your feathers? Worse, why would you bury them?

At the height of the Great Recession, I explored how Friends (Quaker) schools go about promoting themselves to their constituencies as part of my graduate research about nonprofit organizational sustainability. One of the unique facets of Friends schools is that Quakers comprise a very small portion of the school community, often with far less than 10% of the student body and faculty identifying as Quaker. Simplicity is a central facet of Quakerism. In A Quaker Book of Wisdom (1998), Robert Lawrence Smith argues that “Humility is simplicity of spirit, and simplicity of spirit is at the heart of Quakerism.”

Humility, however, is neither a way to cultivate an effective organizational brand nor a successful approach to fundraising. This perceived tension — often rooted in an inaccurate understanding of core Friends testimonies — resulted in a tentative marketing program that did not do enough to tout what makes Friends schools unique as a cohort and what makes each school unique from one another. Many Friends schools suffered, and several closed, as a result of inadequate funding from tuition revenue and philanthropy despite being in markets where other schools with similar ideologies were thriving.

Many individual Friends schools have shed at least some of this hesitancy in the years following the Great Recession. Often this has been accomplished through a combination of more explicit community dialogue about the reality that it is very hard to drive an organization’s resource engine if there isn’t enough gas in the tank and an approach of “showing not telling” what is vibrant about the school. Underpinned by increased marketing and communications budgets, these schools have seen the dividends of raising their peacock feathers in ways that feel authentic and are also effective. Concurrently, Friends Council on Education has been instrumental in lifting up the national voice of Friends schools. The results have been gains in the quality and diversity of a robust applicant pool as well as meaningful benefits to revenue.

Be a Hedgehog and Lift Your Peacock Feathers

To live their mission, nonprofits must remain fiercely resolved to both be excellent at what they do and make sure people know about it. Be a hedgehog, but also make sure you lift your peacock feathers for all to see.

Ari Betof

Written by

Ari Betof

President of Organizational Sustainability Consulting

Org Sustainability — Insight and Advice for Leaders that Change the World by Ari Betof

Org Sustainability is a collection of insights, advice, and reflections from Dr. Ari Betof, president of Organizational Sustainability Consulting

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