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Sort It Out Amongst Yourselves

Poster-based sorting exercise: Molly McLeod/Code for America

Sort It Out Amongst Yourselves

June 10, 2015

Audrey Haberman, Managing Partner, The Giving Practice

We have recently worked with several foundation boards who are in the process of initiating, deepening or affirming their foundation’s strategy. One of the first steps we often take is checking to see if everyone is on the same page. Uncovering assumptions and orthodoxies can be both tense and freeing. People often assume that everyone else agrees on certain fundamentals like strategy, values or approach. Sometimes they do; other times not so much. To draw out these assumptions, we have used a range of sorting exercises that can be both enlightening and thought-provoking.

In general, sorting exercises ask a group of people to stand along a continuum of whether they agree with the statement or not. The statements might come from their peers, the community or even their own current operating assumptions. Here are three examples:

1) For one client who is attempting a collective impact model, we asked people from the backbone organization, lead funders and primary nonprofits whether they agree with this statement that is essential to the collective impact approach: “Successful community change initiatives must include shared goals, shared leadership and shared data.” (See below for a sample version of this exercise, created by my colleague Nicole Trimble.)

Before they sorted along a line of agreement, they assumed they’d all cluster together closely. In fact, they found themselves widely dispersed along a continuum, looking at each other and feeling quite surprised. Their responses helped surface and name some of the tensions they had been experiencing due to their different assumptions about the meaning of the statement and its importance.

2) Sorting exercises can also reveal unexpected agreement. A group of family foundation trustees we were supporting all believed everyone else thought differently about issues of long-term legacy versus sunsetting. In fact, they all agreed and were surprised to find themselves standing so close to one another when we asked them to line up.

3) You can also do a sorting exercise by putting statements on a wall and having people vote their opinion (e.g. rate each statement 1-5) anonymously with Post-Its. The facilitator puts the post-its up and it creates a great prompt for a conversation.

Sorting exercises are critical for developing strategy, but to see your strategy thrive, be sure you take the time to make sense of the information you have and the values and opinions of those who steward the process. Try it at your next staff or board meeting and see how it feels.


Sample TGP continuum exercise

Learn more about "spectrograms" from AspirationTech

Photo: Molly McLeod/Code for America