Game Changers

Organizations Use Bold Strategy to Succeed in a Shifting Landscape

La Piana Consulting facilitated a panel discussion at the 2012 Independent Sector National Conference on Game Changers in the nonprofit world. The panel featured Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO of NAACP, Rip Rapson, President and CEO of The Kresge Foundation, and Lester Strong, Vice President and Chief Executive Officer of AARP Experience Corps.

As a follow-up effort, in 2013, we interviewed several additional nonprofit executives with experience in developing and executing game-changing strategies to try to identify what distinguishes these organizations and to explore what can be learned from them. Interviewees included: Michael Weinstein, President, AIDS Healthcare Foundation; Kathy Cloninger, former Executive Director, Girl Scouts USA; Anthony Romero, Executive Director, ACLU; Neil Nicoll, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Y (YMCA); and Cathy Tisdale, President and Chief Executive Officer, Camp Fire.

Below are brief snapshots of how each organization adopted an innovative – or even radical –new strategy to better succeed in today’s fluid environment. The impact and return on investment of these game-changing strategies have, in some cases, yet to be determined.  However, we posit that unanticipated—and even undesirable—results bear valuable lessons provided organizations fail fast and course-correct quickly.


In 2011, the NAACP launched a strategic planning process that examined the role the organization had played in some of the greatest civil rights victories of the nation’s past 100 years and asked what it could do now that would be equally impactful. Being a very dispersed movement, with thousands of local branches and units nationwide, the challenge of strategic planning was how to engage the membership and point a direction the entire organization would embrace. Through a process of deep reflection, research, and consultation, the NAACP identified five big-picture goals in these areas: Economic Sustainability, Education, Health, Public Safety and Criminal Justice, and Voting Rights and Political Representation. It calls these goals its “Game Changers.” Instead of a traditional strategic plan for incremental change and short-term wins, the NAACP opted for a bold vision and a powerful set of goals that will serve as its road map for as long as it takes to complete the journey. (Read more.)

The Kresge Foundation

The Kresge Foundation had built its philanthropic reputation over decades on providing capital grants to complete building and renovation campaigns by health, education, and other social service institutions. In 1997, the Foundation began a historic transition, prompted by the question of whether it might make a bigger impact by shifting from building facilities to funding the programs and services that go on within them. Through a deeply considered process, The Kresge Foundation identified seven areas for program grantmaking. It is now committed to this new role, focusing on “creating opportunity,” particularly in large urban areas and the human services. Making big investments in urban opportunities is central to the foundation’s newly emerging brand.

AARP/Experience Corps

Experience Corps, a lauded older adult volunteer and child literacy program, was eager to grow its reach nationally, but it lacked the resources and capacity to scale up rapidly. AARP wanted to offer its members high-quality volunteer opportunities—just the kind that Experience Corps represented. What began in 2011 as informal conversations among like-minded individuals at both organizations soon led to the articulation of a shared goal of audacious proportion: to expand the literacy program to serve one million children nationwide. To approach this bold goal, they adopted an equally bold strategy: a structural alliance. It took a leap of faith for both organizations, but the new partnership has already proven effective in reaching exponentially more children and senior volunteers than the program had ever been able to before. (Read more.)

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF)

AHF was founded in 1987 as the AIDS Hospice Foundation. As its name change suggests, the organization adjusted its strategy in 1990, making the game-changing decision to shift its emphasis from hospice care to clinics as new medications began to extend life-expectancy. At the time, it was a gamble – the field was young and the focus on treatment (soon to be furthered by the development of antiretroviral drug therapies) was new – but it was one that paid off. AHF started with a single HIV/AIDS hospice in Los Angeles. Today, with a network of pharmacies, thrift stores, managed care services, medical practices, healthcare contracts and other strategic partnerships, the organization generates significant income to support its work as the largest nonprofit provider of HIV/AIDS medical care in the U.S. and a major player in 30 other countries, serving 230,000 patients. And its growth continues. The annual operating budget has grown over the last three years from about $200M to nearly $1B. In the process of adopting a social enterprise business model, AHF expanded its reach, diversified its client services, became more financially self-sufficient, and strengthened its voice as an advocate for HIV/AIDS policy.

Girl Scouts USA

In 2006, Girl Scouts USA underwent a major reorganization aimed at creating a stronger and more integrated base for serving girls and volunteer leaders. This shift was informed by an organization-wide strategy development process that resulted in a successful rebranding of Girl Scouts USA as a leadership development organization and an extensive restructuring in which Girl Scouts USA consolidated from 312 chapters, or councils, to 112. The restructuring strategy was part of a larger change effort that included revising the organization’s mission statement, which had not been updated since 1957. The restructuring in particular sought to capitalize on shifting population patterns to encourage diversity within local Girl Scout councils and fund development opportunities to enhance their sustainability. This change was not easy and it is in many ways still underway. The Girl Scouts USA is not just implementing a plan but has made a commitment to continuous learning and change in order to remain a vital part of girls’ lives.


When September 11, 2001 changed the world, it also posed a strategic challenge to one of the nation’s most formidable civil rights organizations, the ACLU. Prior to the attack, national security legislation was not a specialty area at the ACLU. But in a post-9/11 context, the civil rights implications of emerging policy could not be ignored. The ACLU rose to the challenge, navigating a fast learning curve and overcoming a lack of dedicated funding to tackle the major issues of our time. This strategic move was not widely accepted even within the organization’s membership, and it faced criticism even as its leadership in this area effectively “remade” the ACLU. After taking the initial plunge, each success provided room to take new risks. The outcome is an unqualified success. The ACLU’s assets have tripled since 2001, its national staffing has doubled, and its 52 chapters actively support both national and local work on a variety of civil liberties issues.

The Y

Three years ago, The Y (formerly YMCA of the USA) committed to a game-changing revitalization of its mission and national brand. Using data on public perception, The Y identified the need to unite its diverse activities in a cause-driven purpose that went beyond its reputation for health and recreation programming. Committing itself to the vision of “strengthening communities,” The Y has expanded the ways in which it partners with other community resources and has consolidated its message and cohesion as a movement. By clarifying its role and purpose in creating stronger communities, The Y has brought new energy and relevance to its work, resulting in greater community impact in health, education, and youth development.

Camp Fire

In 2012, Camp Fire undertook a reinvention and rebranding initiative involving not just a new logo and messaging, but adoption of a radically different business model. The 100-year-old nonprofit faced declining participation. Focusing on the need to reaffirm and demonstrate its value and impact, Camp Fire reshaped its mission statement as a promise to its stakeholders and put new energy behind engaging with corporate and foundation funders to invest in its reinvention, a bold stroke that has moved the organization toward greater self-sufficiency. Camp Fire’s adoption of a results-based methodology integrating adolescent developmental psychology and neuroscientific research has also been game-changing, as it has created a stronger narrative for not only engaging additional support but uniting its councils behind a national identity and more clearly defined movement.


This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of nonprofit game-changers. These are only a few of the stories we have identified; and there are undoubtedly others. At the same time, game-changing strategy will always be the exception rather than the rule – practiced by the outliers with the skills, behaviors, and will to recognize an opportune moment in the organization’s life and the courage to take a chance.

Game changers are not for everybody and are not always necessary or even possible. However, these examples show how recognizing shifts in the environment can inform opportunities to change the game and better position nonprofits to thrive in a rapidly changing landscape.