What community advocates should know about the Princeton Offense

2310501543_c25c74204f_bIt occurred to me, while watching Georgetown trounce Western Carolina a few weekends ago (thanks for the game, Eric!), that nonprofit advocates might learn a thing or two from the Princeton Offense practiced by the Hoyas and others.

The Princeton Offense, so named because of its origins at its namesake university early in the 20th century, is a high-energy offense that uses constant motion, frequent passing, and sharp cuts to create shooting opportunities. The offense relies on nimbleness and speed … by making frequent and sudden cuts timed with sharp inside passes, players often find themselves all alone with the ball and an easy layup. If the defense pulls in to cut off those opportunities, the offense finds itself with more open three-point shot options.

The Princeton Offense has some limitations. For one thing, it depends on the entire squad being strong at passing, layups, and shooting three-pointers. Everyone doesn’t necessarily need to excel at everything, but they all need to be solid. For another, it requires a great deal of preparation and discipline, effective communication, and tight teamwork. This may be true for basketball in general, but it’s exacerbated in an offensive scheme based on sharp, precision movements.

But it doesn’t rely on overpowering your opponent, which is good given that small community groups are often at a disadvantage in terms of funding, political connections, and political muscle. Instead, it relies on qualities often found in spades among nonprofit advocates: agility, high-energy, and versatile team members.

This analogy is a stretch, I know, but the basic point is sound: play to your strengths. Design strategies that take advantage of your assets, and sidestep or minimize the strengths of your opponents. Whenever possible, set the terms of the engagement rather than play their game.

If you like the basketball-as-political-strategy analogy, the basketball team at Grinnell College offers another fun example. Unable to compete for the best players (it’s a small college in the middle of Iowa, after all), but still able to recruit a bunch of guys with solid high school experience, they twisted convention on its head: rather than field their best players for longer stretches, they substitute fresh legs constantly so that every Grinnell player on the court is able to play at 100% for the entire (short) time they’re on. The details vary every cycle, but they send in substitutes every half-minute or so, and within the first three minutes Grinnell has already fielded fifteen players playing an average of a minute each. They shoot like crazy and they leave guys on the offensive end (violating convention but not the rules). Although their opponents may consistently field better players, each member of the Grinnell squad can play at 100% the entire time they’re on the court (versus, say, an opponent, only playing at 80% because of their need to pace themselves for longer stretches of game time). “The System,” as it’s called, is a controversial approach, and it isn’t popular among basketball purists, but Grinnell – with a 7-2 record this season – is figuring out a way to play competitive ball despite being underpowered and out-skilled.

Analogies like these obviously have their limits, but there might be some wisdom to draw from the comparisons, and at the very least they can help reinforce some basic instincts about crafting effective strategies even when outmatched by your opponent.

(Photo by Flickr user Keith Allison.)

Jacob Smith is the co-author of The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, the former mayor of Golden, Colorado, and a nonprofit consultant.

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