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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

The Rule of Thirds: Discovering Relationship Benefits through Three-Dimensional Thinking

Over the years, lives have been transformed by the uniquely structured missions of organizations at the hands of businessmen and women, donors, volunteers, and common change-makers alike.

However, throughout the history of philanthropic ventures, many trials and triumphs have shaped the nonprofit sector into what it has become today. The nonprofit sector has and will continue to evolve to face these challenges, especially in the way relationships are formed and maintained between all benefiting parties.

How we relate to one another in this sector is ever-changing — and not just because of how we interact in our technologically advanced, Facebook/Twitter world. It's ever-changing because our definition of engagement within the causes we believe in are changing. The real test of a nonprofit's survival is its staff members' willingness to not only embrace this ideology, but to channel it constructively.

When we adapt to this change, we must learn to not think of the benefit to ourselves, donors, business partners, or the community alone. We must address the needs and goals of each equally and in a way that is mutually beneficial in order to build strong, sustained relationships.

I was first introduced to this concept in a volunteer management class. My instructor, Kelly Ramella, introduced an important three-way Venn diagram: the circles were labeled agency, volunteer, and client with listed goals of each in their own circles, demonstrating how each could be benefited mutually in the middle. The diagram shows that, while each entity remains independent, they are all reliant upon each other for advancing the mission of the organization. The goals of each are indeed unique, but many also intersect across the groups. This powerhouse trifecta may look simple; however, when used appropriately, it can help us to determine strategic plans and management goals within and outside of volunteer management.

While attending ASU Lodestar Center's Third Generation workshop (a Nonprofit Management Institute offering), I was not surprised to find that this concept is not only applicable to nonprofits today, but it's essential in order to reach the three-dimensional thinking that's needed within the sector today. During the workshop, we received a workbook that included two three-circled Venn diagrams of its own. The Triple Bottom Line diagrams demonstrated what's required for both corporate social responsibility as as well as successful collaborative efforts.


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The first diagram focuses on the three "P's" of corporate social responsibility: people, profit, and planet. The second diagram looks at Triple Bottom Line from a collaborative standpoint, with three integral elements: employees, community, and stakeholders/shareholders. With individual and organization-wide research, surveys, and data analysis, this diagram offers nonprofits a chance to envision how their actions are contributing to meeting the needs, goals, and expectations of each vital entity. This three-dimensional thinking ultimately benefits all parties by giving nonprofits a much clearer picture of how their actions affect everyone involved.

As we move into a new era of inclusive and engaging partnerships, collaborations, and relationships, we see that it's crucial to have the mindset to adapt to our ever-changing, continuously developing culture. Our thinking needs to be as inclusive and three-dimensional as our modern nonprofit sector.


^ [1] Volunteer Management: Mobilizing all the Resources of the Community. Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch.
^ [2] The Triple Bottom Line: How Today's Best-Run Companies Are Achieving Economic, Social and Environmental Success — and How You Can Too. Andrew W. Savitz, with Karl Weber.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog