Mission Creep and Customization
The problem of weakened NGOs is not just an organizational issue; it affects the broader social mission as well. On the one hand, NGOs are coping by picking their targets. The $29.2 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, focuses on just two goals: raising the U.S. high school graduation rate and finding better ways to fight the diseases that disproportionately afflict poor countries. But because social problems do not stand still, even the most ruthlessly focused organizations will have to find ways to deal with mission creep. Inevitably, these problems grow more complex, and a strategy of picking targets is not, in itself, enough.
Hence the value of customization. In recent years, a number of leading for-profit companies have seen the need to make trade-offs as they expand, distinguishing between the new products and services that genuinely add value for customers, and those that merely add more complexity and cost. This approach, developed at (and trademarked by) Booz Allen Hamilton, is known as “Smart Customization,” and we have seen it implemented firsthand in companies ranging from airplane manufacturers to consumer products retailers. Early work with NGOs shows that it could also make a difference in the nonprofit world.
At heart, Smart Customization is based on a simple principle: In any complex set of processes and programs, some are universally applicable while others are good fits with either a particular group of customers or a particular local circumstance. When you scale up and standardize the universal while keeping the particular as customized as possible, you combine immense cost advantage with the resilience and flexibility of a custom operation. In a nonprofit, this principle translates into an unconventional kind of project development: designing programs to operate in similar ways across a variety of locations. The goal is to separate those elements that are always needed (such as food in a relief operation) from those that change depending on the environment (such as security needs in a war zone versus those in a peaceful region). This kind of planning for scale reveals where economies of scale are possible — for instance, in creating a single e-mail server for the entire organization, or a single back-office operation for donor-payment processing — without sacrificing the ability to meet the needs of particular locales or groups.
Creating such modular program designs also helps each operational unit benefit from the knowledge gained from similar experiences in other places. Without modular architecture, each project is unique and carries a high probability of costly duplication. Some local managers might argue that a standardized organizational infrastructure would limit innovation, but the converse is more often the case: A lack of fixed architecture means that the organization spends more time and money building the same services and then running into the same problems over and over again, perpetually reinventing the wheel and falling into the same potholes.
Smart Customization can also help project leaders achieve a greater understanding of the overall cost of a given kind of operation. Most typical project costs depend on factors that are already determined before the project starts. For example, the costs associated with property leases, equipment leases, and most local staffing can be known long before the doors of any new facility open. These numbers are easier to gather and keep when the processes involved are standardized; cost-to-serve numbers can simplify budgeting and reassure donors that the organization knows its business in detail.
The Smart Customization principle could also be helpful in fund raising. In many nonprofits, development staff often struggle to reach an ever-widening circle of potential donors with surprisingly little analysis about which groups they can pursue profitably and how they should go about it. Frequently, the result is a collection of unrelated tactics that rely on instinct. Instead, foundation and nonprofit leaders do better with a more differentiated approach: First, calibrate the cost to reach and cultivate a given prospective donor against the anticipated yield. Second, separate those parts of donor service that can be standardized, and design a more centralized or common approach to them (for example, some nonprofits have begun to outsource their accounting and tax functions). Only then should nonprofits devote some thought to the aspects of relationship-building that cannot be standardized. The goal is to use both standardized processes and in-depth awareness of donors and potential donors to build the capability to ask for the right amount of money from the right target at the right time.