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Author’s Note: This post is the second part in an eight-part series on the strategic framework of the nonprofit organization United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Click here to read the full series.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, created the BHAG  (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) framework for organizations and leaders.  A BHAG is a clear, compelling goal that helps drive an organization’s vision.

When we began to explore a potential BHAG for the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, we knew it needed to drive us beyond our wildest expectations. The country, and particularly Southeastern Michigan, had just gone through the economic implosion of 2008. During that time, there wasn’t much hope for our city, region, or state. People were losing jobs by the thousands and leaving the state in similar numbers. The demand for help was escalating at a pace beyond capacity.

The revenue projection for UWSEM was grim at best.

As a team, we looked at one another and asked, “How can we know we will be  successful 10, 20 years out?” and “What will be different about our region if we hit all of our strategic goals?”

We decided that our organization would be viewed differently by donors, partners and the community-at-large.  We wouldn’t be viewed as an organization that just raises funds and then disburses them to other nonprofits. Instead, we would be an “agent for social change.”

Simply, we could get things done at scale on important social issues. That, in many ways, was an internal BHAG. But we pushed on the external view.

Our region could have a chance to become a top place to live and work if we had the following:

Children who are ready for school by age 5;

More than 80% of students graduating from 30 of our lowest-performing schools;

Pathways for families to springboard out of the safety net and into financial stability.

We know that we are but one of many organizations that must come together to meet these goals. But we also know that we are an important leadership organization in greater Detroit and that we have a critical role to play in  repositioning the region.

Hence, we landed on the BHAG of making Greater Detroit one of the top five places in the country to live and work by 2030. To reach that goal, we looked for the very best strategic partners in the public, private and nonprofit communities to leverage their expertise, resources and passion.

This BHAG has now cascaded through the organization, and we have begun to create functional BHAGs within work groups.  Our Board of Directors at UWSEM uses the BHAG to make decisions.  At a recent board meeting, we had a helpful push from Lisa Ford, UWSEM board member, when, consistent with Jim Collins’s philosophy, Lisa asked, “Shouldn’t we have ‘mini-BHAGS for along the way to our big BHAG?”

It was the right question, and it has us thinking more deeply about what mini-BHAGS will look like and how we can incorporate them in meaningful ways.

A BHAG is only effective if it’s living inside the organization — it should alter and influence the nature of dialogue and decisions.  For us, the BHAG has become a powerful tool.

Other blog posts on Building a Strong Nonprofit

Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 1: Our Mission to Empower Metro Detroit Communities
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 3: Core Values
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 4: Crafting a Purpose Statement
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 5: Our Theory Of Change
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 6: Strategic Anchors
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 7: Engagement Pyramid and Cycle
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 8: Board Roles


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