Even charitable organizations can suffer strategic tensions

Research and Innovation
Research and innovation
Telfer School of Management
Acfas 2024

By University of Ottawa

Office of the Vice-President, Research and Innovation, OVPRI

Top view of team brainstorming around a meeting table.
In the world of strategic management, non-profit organizations (NPOs) are often left by the wayside. However, according to Professor Saouré Kouamé, NPOs often face genuine strategic challenges that can jeopardize their social impact and threaten their long-term survival.

In a recent interview, Professor Kouamé, who hails from the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, discussed these challenges and what his research team has discovered.

NPOs are often caught between their mission and their survival

The research conducted by Professor Kouamé and his team dispels the belief that strategy is easier in NPOs than in profit-driven enterprises. This idea is often based on the fact that NPOs operate in a relatively stable environment.

“In reality, it’s not so much the stability of the environment that causes problems, but rather the internal strategic tensions that are typical of such organizations,” said the professor. For example, United Way, an international NPO, is very dependent on funding from private businesses, and must balance its need for funding versus its commitment to its social mission.”

According to Professor Kouamé, this dependency often requires these organizations to abandon priorities that have the greatest social impact to cater to the marketing-driven goals of their financial backers.

Moreover, some NPOs face internal dilemmas, such as having to choose between an approach that focuses on individuals rather than one that targets systemic transformation.

Professor Kouamé recalls the case of a philanthropic organization that strives to prevent childhood poverty. This organization debated which social transformation strategy it should adopt: should it intervene directly by assisting individual children (a clinical approach) or should it bolster the social system that surrounds these children (a community-based approach)?

Professor Saouré Kouamé
Strategic tensions in NPOs

“These tensions can paralyze decision-making and generate friction among leadership, which creates a toxic work environment and hampers the organization's collective performance.”

Saouré Kouamé

— Associate Professor of Strategy at the Telfer School of Management

Strategic tensions in NPOs the subject of an ACFAS symposium

Professor Kouamé and his colleagues are organizing a symposium on this topic as part of the ACFAS conference at the University of Ottawa on Monday, May 13, 2024 (in French only). 

The event aims to raise awareness, among NPO leaders, academics and experts, of the issues involved when strategic tensions arise. “This initiative will begin an ongoing conversation about the long-term success of non-profit ecosystems,” added the Telfer professor of strategy. 

What’s more, Professor Kouamé has partnered with other experts in the field to write a collective work entitled, Managing Non-profit Strategic Tensions. This book, which they expect will be published this year, takes an in-depth look at the various strategic tensions that NPOs face and offers practical ways to handle them.