In our “new normal”—or new abnormal—environment, social organizations face the pressures of increasingly rapid and continuous change every day. Major demographic shifts, technological innovation, and a volatile economy are just some of the forces reshaping the playing field. Game-changing strategic responses to these pressures, however, are less common.

What is a game-changing strategy, and how does it differ from any other? In our view, it is a strategy that impacts the organization’s work at every level, entails a healthy dose of risk, and marks a definitive turning point for the organization that alters its trajectory.

La Piana Consulting recently interviewed several nonprofit leaders who have taken the plunge into game-changing strategy to learn what distinguishes nonprofits and foundations that have proven themselves as game changers.

We found that their successful strategies were born at the confluence of shifting circumstances, opportunity identification, and execution. Game-changer organizations tend to embody a set of skills, competencies, and behaviors that touch on each of these areas—three in particular:

1. Market awareness

Staff and volunteer leadership draw from a combination of intuitive knowledge and empirical data to inform change. This means that they are attuned to the market and can recognize when conditions are ripe for a radical new endeavor.

One example is the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), formerly the AIDS Hospice Foundation. As the change of name might suggest, the foundation adjusted its strategy in 1990 and made the game-changing decision to shift its emphasis from hospice care to clinics as new medications began to extend life-expectancy. At the time, this move was a gamble—the field was young and the focus on treatment was new. But the gamble paid off: Today, the organization is the largest nonprofit provider of HIV/AIDS medical care in the United States and a major player in 30 other countries. It serves 230,000 patients and is a global advocate for HIV/AIDS policy.

2. Openness, creativity, and risk tolerance

Organizations that have successfully implemented game-changing strategies are also willing to re-examine—and, if necessary, revise—their purpose in light of new factors or a changing environment. This means challenging sacred cows, thinking bigger than usual, and taking risks.

For example, in 2012, the national youth development organization Camp Fire, facing declining participation, undertook a reinvention and rebranding initiative involving not just a new logo and messaging, but also a radically different business model. 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 methodology that integrates adolescent developmental psychology and neuroscientific research has also been game-changing by tying together strategy, activities, and results in a new way.

Creativity is critical to these kinds of organizations; they are committed to having generative conversations with internal and external stakeholders that open the door to big, bold ideas.

Another example is The Y (formerly YMCA of the USA). Three years ago, it revitalized 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 to the vision of “strengthening communities,” The Y expanded the ways in which it partners with other community resources; it also consolidated its message and cohesion as a movement. By clarifying its role and purpose in creating stronger communities, and scaling these efforts, The Y brought new energy and relevance to its work, resulting in greater impact.

3. An “improvisational mindset”

Whether they know it or not, leaders who successfully execute game-changing strategies display what Frank Barrett has described as an improvisational mindset, taking a cue from jazz music. Barrett identifies several actions or behaviors that jazz greats and change leaders share:

  • They “say yes to the mess,” accepting the current situation in all its complexity and uncertainty.
  • They “perform and experiment simultaneously,” embracing their mistakes as opportunities for learning.
  • They are comfortable with “emergence,” treading the edge between order and chaos, known and unknown.
  • They learn to play both “solo” and “support” roles, balancing autonomy and interdependence—they follow their instincts but also let others shine.

These examples highlight that there is no one recipe for successfully changing the game in an organization or industry. Every story has a complex mix of urgency, opportunity, inspiration, innovation, risk tolerance, leadership, improvisation, cultural awareness, and tools to navigate change. Game changers leverage awareness, opportunity identification, and execution, but developing and acting on a game-changing strategic response is not a one-time event. Rather, it entails a mindset, and an approach to leadership that consistently recognizes and adapts to the opportunity inherent in contextual change.