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Weighing Your Options: A Decision-Making Tool

scalesWe’re keeping on the topic of decision-making, assessment and handy charts after Leslie shared a nifty risk-assessment tool last week.

The hardest part of planning is deciding what you will – and won’t – do. And, in a nonprofit the process is often compounded by, well process. Our sector tends to think things through as much with our hearts as we do our minds. People get attached to a project or activity and it’s hard to let go. Think about the last time you tried to suggest getting rid of a special event!

When there are several options on the table we often turn to a ranking chart loosely based on the Boston Matrix, a tool originally developed by Boston Consulting Group to analyze product portfolios.

Instead of thinking about market share and growth, nonprofits are usually thinking about mission fulfillment and sustainability. So, with a minor tweak, the matrix can be transformed into just the thing you need to sort through your options.

This can work for fundraising or for program decisions. Just adjust the tool according to the criteria by which you’re measuring your options.

The most typical format we use is one that has “mission fulfillment” on the vertical axis and “sustainability” on the horizontal axis. Sometimes we like to define “sustainability” in a more specific way, depending upon what’s happening at the organization. You might put “staff time” on the horizontal axis, or “donor interest” or whatever filter is most important to you as you’re making this decision.

Whatever you do, make sure you’re clear about what each axis actually means before you begin placing your options in the tool.  Here we have “Mission High” and “Mission Low” on the vertical which means that any given activity is more or less in keeping with the organization’s core mission.  And we have “Sustainability High” and “Sustainability Low” on the horizontal axis which means that any given activity is more or less like to be effective over the long term from a financial and organizational perspective.


You can certainly do this exercise by yourself at your desk, but we highly recommend you try it with a larger group of staff and/or board. It’s something we often do during strategic planning or annual planning and it helps get everyone on the same page. It’s a lot easier to for people to understand why their favorite event or project has been rejected when they see how it ranks against critical criteria.

This exercise works very well on a large white board. Draw the matrix and then write all your options on sticky notes. Involve the group in putting each option on the matrix and then move the stickies around until there’s consensus on where they should be.

Once this exercise is complete, your priorities become very clear. The options that appear in the upper right quadrant are probably the things you should explore further!

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