Avoiding the 'Dead Horse Theory'

Doing things differently

The "Dead Horse Theory" is a well-known business concept that explains the tendency of individuals and organizations to persist in ineffective strategies, even when they are not achieving the desired results.

The theory reads something like this, when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. However, in business and government (and social impact organizations), a whole range of more “advanced” tactics are often employed, including:

• Buying a bigger whip

• Changing riders

• Appointing a committee to study the horse

• Lowering standards to include dead horses

• Providing additional training to improve the horse’s performance

In other words, the dead horse represents an unproductive strategy someone is trying to improve with tactical changes. It’s something I think we’ve all seen in the volunteer engagement space.

“It’s always worked before!” is a cry I often hear. I hear it especially in volunteer recruitment. Organizations struggle to find volunteers but the traditional methods have “always worked before” are becoming less and less effective.

Instead of coming up with a new strategy, though, the organization doubles down on the old way of doing things. “If posting in five places doesn’t bring in enough volunteers, we’ll post in 50!”

It’s not just with volunteer programs, either. The Dead Horse Theory can be seen in fundraising strategies that aren’t effective, operational programs that aren’t meeting the needs of the community and organizational structures that are not allowing for maximum impact.

But why does it happen?

One of the reasons why volunteer engagement leaders persist in outdated strategies is a fear of change. Change can be hard, and many organizations are hesitant to allow significant changes to previously successful strategies or operations. That fear can lead to a situation where aprogram is stuck in a rut and unable to make progress towards achieving its mission.

Another reason may be a lack of resources. Social impact organizations, and volunteer programs especially, often operate with limited budgets and resources. That can make it difficult to test out new strategies or to make significant changes to their operations.

In some cases, a volunteer program may be stuck with inadequate strategies simply because they do not have the resources to try something new.

The most common reason, though, is a lack of understanding by senior leadership. Volunteer programs are rarely top-of-mind for board members or executive directors. Because of this, they often see only the surface of the program—the “what” rather than the “why.”

If leadership is focused on “what”, it can be easy to think that a bit more effort with the current strategy will fix things. Until they have an understanding of why something isn’t working, it can be extremely difficult to get the go-ahead to make radical changes to the underlying strategy.

How do you avoid the Dead Horse Theory? It is important for organizations to be willing to make changes and try new strategies and for all leaders, senior and otherwise, to have an in-depth understanding of why a strategy works or doesn’t work.

That can involve taking a step back and re-evaluating the organization's mission and goals, as well as engaging in regular evaluations to ensure that programs and strategies are still meeting the needs that they were created for. It is also important for leaders to be open to feedback from volunteers and community members, and to use this feedback to make improvements and changes to their programs and strategies.

Another way to avoid the Dead Horse Theory is to prioritize innovation and creativity within the organization. That can involve encouraging staff members to think outside the box and to come up with new and innovative ideas for programs and strategies—regularly question the status quo. “We’ve always done it this way” is a shortcut to obsolescence.

Social impact organizations can also prioritize collaboration and partnerships with other organizations in the community, which can help to bring new perspectives and ideas to the organization.

Avoiding the Dead Horse Theory, though, isn’t all. Volunteer engagement programs can also use this concept to improve their operations.

By recognizing when a strategy is not working, leaders can take steps to make changes and improve impact. Be warned, though; this involves being willing to make difficult decisions, such as ending long-standing programs that are losing their effectiveness and reallocating those resources to more useful strategies.

The Dead Horse Theory is an important concept to understand and address. Once leaders are able to recognize when they are persisting in ineffective strategies and take steps to make changes, volunteer programs—and social impact organizations as a whole—can better achieve their missions and have a greater impact in their communities. It requires a willingness to embrace change and prioritize innovation and creativity.

You know, I think you’ve got this.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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