Kristen GrimmWant Influence? Eliminate Blind Spots

By: Kristen Grimm In: Nonprofits| Philanthropy

5 Mar 2013

Organizations working to make the world a better place have strong ambitions. They want to reduce gun violence in the wake of Sandy Hook, get Americans off the couch and active, and keep children safe from climate change. These groups need to wield influence to succeed—not in a Machiavellian way but in a public interest way. Yet often, they can’t articulate exactly how this influence will happen. It is a missing link in their plans to create change. When there is no clear idea for how influence will happen, it often doesn’t. Social change remains elusive.

Charting influence is a tricky proposition. It is made trickier when organizations don’t approach planning with a clear idea of what the possibilities are for cultivating and using influence effectively. Rather than clarity, they have blind spots in their change strategies and these blind spots can undermine even the most worthy campaigns. Spitfire Strategies has developed a short guide to help nonprofits and foundations navigate a trail of influence by identifying—and eliminating—blind spots before they sabotage change strategies.

First order of business is to figure out how blind spots sneak into change strategies. Here are some top culprits:

  1. THE FAST AND FURIOUS. Groups start fast and don’t do their homework. They don’t completely think through the influence question, assuming they can safely figure it out as they go along or “build the plane while flying it.” The consequence of this approach is that these groups fail to take the time to understand upfront how decisions will get made, and while they may get lucky, their efforts are inefficient and not as strong as they could be.
  2. READY, FIRE, AIM. This is a close cousin to those in the fast and furious category. Here, groups handicap their efforts by making strategic decisions out of order. For example, some groups form a coalition before they identify which decision makers they need to influence or on what grounds they will make their case. Rather than crafting a strategy based on the interests and passions of the decision maker and then picking the strongest partners to bring that strategy to life, they are stuck developing an approach based on the assets and self-interest of the partners already assembled.
  3. THE UPSIDERS. This crew sees only the upside and approaches influence with rose-colored glasses. They don’t look at who stands to lose if their campaign is successful. The Upsiders don’t think about who is working against their effort, publicly or behind the scenes. The consequence? By not seeing any downsides, the group leaves itself vulnerable to opponents it doesn’t even realize it has.
  4. THE OVERESTIMATORS. These folks overestimate a decision maker’s willingness to step out on a difficult issue. They overestimate what they have to work with, such as relationships or credibility. They overestimate the simplicity of influence and as a consequence underestimate the difficulty of tasks necessary for their proposal to get traction. They never stop to ask: “If this is such a no brainer, why hasn’t it happened yet?”
  5. THE NARROW FIELD OF DREAMERS. These groups lack objectivity. They pick and choose which facts support the idea that influence is possible, and they dismiss any evidence to the contrary. Buoyed by selective facts and a perceived urgency that may or may not exist, these groups end up with an effort based on fantasy rather than reality.
  6. THE GUT REACTORS. These organizations think the decision will get made for certain reasons (such as moral imperative) when, actually, it will be based on something entirely different (such as job creation). They lament, “Why do people act against their own self-interest?” The truth is that the people in question are acting in their own interest—it’s just not the interest the group thought it would be. If their gut is wrong, these groups will end up on the sideline of an important debate rather than front and center.
  7. THE NO GPS CREW. Some efforts just get lost. Pick any mix of the culprits above, and you’ll find them present and accounted for here. The group picked the wrong decision at the wrong time, misjudged how complicated it would get, or chose the wrong grounds for arguing its case. Instead of stopping, taking stock, and trying a new direction, they keep plugging away. At best, these efforts are futile and waste valuable resources. At worst, they end up alienating the very partners, champions, and potential supporters that they will ultimately need to succeed.

Kristen Grimm is founder of Spitfire Strategies, a public interest strategy firm that helps nonprofits and foundations raise their voices to create positive social change. This blog originally appeared on Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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