June 1, 2023

Do You Know the Surprise Ingredient that Creates Less Exhausted CEOs?

Is this what’s missing at your nonprofit?

Before my gluten-free days, I used a bread machine to make school lunches. Most mornings, we’d wake to the smell of fresh bread. On other days, when I forgot to add the yeast, dawn included the aroma of burnt toast and looking at a hot brick.

Failing to align your nonprofit is like skipping yeast when making a loaf of bread. You combine your ingredients and hit start. Without alignment around the destination and direction, you get a hot mess instead of mission, resources, impact, and vibrancy.

What is Alignment?

Alignment is a critical ingredient in sanely run nonprofits. Some call it strategic alignment; others operational alignment. Let’s call it alignment for simplicity. I like Dr. Otis Fulton and Katrina VanHuss’s definition best “when every member of an entire group is aware of and agrees on the group’s direction.”

a ball on a hill with some people pushing it up and others pushing it down- lack of alignment

What Makes It a Surprise?

It’s under-appreciated, seldom recognized, and in action, richly nuanced. Author and search firm expert Dennis C. Miller calls it an “innovative concept.” I disagree. I find hundreds* of examples of it in thriving nonprofits. It seems innovative because we fail to name, uplift, and seek more of it.

A tired CEO surrounded by groups and individuals going different directions

What Happens When It’s Missing?

Short answer: Tired staff, board mischief, and CEO burnout.

For instance, instead of relying on the internal- map-app that alignment provides, CEOs must run around getting individuals and groups to move in the right direction repeatedly.

In its best form, alignment shapes and becomes part of your organization’s culture, resulting in progress in your three bottom lines. Instead of “culture eating strategy for breakfast,” as Peter Drucker proclaims, alignment invites culture and strategy to play together long-term in harmony.

Here are some other symptoms of missing alignment that pops up:

  • Staff bickering. You see disdain for others’ work and silo-building. You hear, “Don’t blame us. We’re doing our work.”
  • Board micromanagement and, maybe surprisingly, disengagement. Boards thrive with they have a higher purpose and know it. Without alignment, they warm seats or pick tasks (usually yours).     
  • Rogue leaders. Individuals see a void and grab it, reasoning, ‘Since nobody is sure about what we’re doing or where we’re going, I choose my way.’

There is more, but that’s enough for you to grasp that failing to align opens Pandora’s box. Now, let’s peak at the value of alignment to nonprofits.

The Value of the Missing Ingredient

Why is alignment vital? It answers these big questions for you and your staff, board, and supporters:

  • What are we doing, and where are we going?
  • What am I supposed to do to help?
  • How does my work contribute?
  • What parts are other people playing?

When your staff, board, volunteers, and others get laser-clear about these answers, CEOs know that progress is underway. It’s a game changer that infuses these leaders with the confidence to take vacations, mini-sabbaticals, and walks to think about your not-for-profit’s flight plans and destinations instead of daily operations.

The word Aligned with a CEO with arrow following people all going in the same direction.

And More Benefits

Brown & Yoshioka found that “Perceived mission alignment helps attract employees…” and Kim and Lee saw that mission orientation between nonprofit employees and the organization significantly influences employee retention. Perhaps, this is not surprising because employees are attracted to nonprofit missions and keeping employees requires living out the mission—and making “the sausage” is messy.

I’ve never seen Jason so engaged. I‘m thrilled, because a lot of the execution is within his purview.- one of my client after a strategy session.

As if answers to these questions and the self-care benefits aren’t enough, let’s turn to employee recruitment and retention, where alignment also shines.

Life is just better when everyone knows what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how their work contributes to a nonprofit’s grand adventure.

Reality Check

“So, Karen,” you ask, “You’re obviously sold, but is alignment a cure-all?” Of course not. Like in baking, you add other ingredients, so your nonprofit needs more than just alignment to thrive.

However, from the CEO’s viewpoint, alignment moves daily operations to self-propel more often, giving CEOs time for the 20 percent of their work, that is, the best things for the nonprofit’s top executive to do.

Big circle: your work, Smaller circle inside- the 20%, your best things to do

How it Works

How do nonprofits get alignment? Alignment is often an unexpected but appreciated by-product of planning. Planning processes include the obvious–strategy development—and windfall planning, fundraising, and community planning such as cultural plans.

What is the #1 best way to generate alignment? Focus on it, as befits its value. Deliberately add it to every planning process.

Retaining alignment also benefits from your intent. Over time as newcomers arrive, whether board, staff, volunteers, donors, customers, or funders, you’ll want to amplify your alignment so all hands remain on deck. You circle back as needed. How will you know? Like yeast, you routinely measure your alignment’s potency and impact.

In all cases, you grow alignment by engaging the people who will execute the plan in co-creating it, sharing insights, formulating solutions, and finding fresh meaning together in whatever challenges your nonprofit encounters. Like mixing yeast with warm water, engagement stimulates nonprofit growth.

 *The nonprofits and CEOs I helped with planning processes that involved alignment, worked with otherwise, interviewed, or studied are in the thousands.

Your Reality Check

1. On the one to ten scale, with ten high, how aligned is your organization?

2. Rank these groups from most aligned to least in your nonprofit:

  • staff
  • donors
  • volunteers
  • board
  • funders


    3. What tangible benefits do you see from alignment in your nonprofit?

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Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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