The Rule of 3 in your NFP

People find it easiest to remember three things:

  • Three is the smallest number of elements necessary to form a pattern
  • Three elements are more memorable than say, two or four
  • We like to have a choice, but we get confused when we have too many options

A selection of memorable patterns formed using three elements is highlighted in the header image for this post.

We can thank Aristotle for being one of the first to recognise this when he identified ethos (appeal to credibility/ethics), logos (appeal to logic), and pathos (appeal to emotion) as the three most effective rhetorical devices – as summarised in his Rhetorical Triangle. Orators and writers will often use three repetitions of a word or phrase to create a memorable or more compelling impact on their audience. Likewise, authors use three main characters to generate more interesting plot dynamics e.g. Harry, Hermione, and Ron, in the Harry Potter stories (amongst many others).

A Latin maxim ‘Omne Trium Perfectum’ (‘everything that is three is perfect’) expressed the high regard in which trios, triplets, and triadic patterns were held historically.

Chunking trios

Cognitive science has more recently given us the concept of ‘chunking’. This is simply a way of dealing with or remembering information by organising it into groups or clusters, called ‘chunks’.

The technique is used for several purposes, including private study (memory), communications (message framing), and strategy (issue analysis) as illustrated in the chart below. A review of my blog post titles will reveal that I have often listed three elements. These may have been used to suggest three aspects of one theme, or three (loosely) related themes covered within the post.

Three main methods of chunking have been identified to make information more memorable: lists; trees; and maps. Your preference for one or other of these methods is likely to have been ‘programmed’ from an early age. Those of us who prefer to use mind maps to organise information had positive early experiences with branching structures. Those who prefer a more linear approach will opt for use of lists and trees (like directory trees).

The rule of thirds

While the Rule of 3 is most often referenced as a rhetorical device, it is also used in graphics and art. Painters and photographers are advised to ‘frame’ their images using The Rule of Thirds, by which the picture plane is divided into vertical and horizontal thirds, with key features being positioned on (or adjacent to) the intersections of these lines. This is one of the methods used to create a more dynamic, and therefore visually appealing, composition.

The Rule of 3 in Governance (Strategy and Risk)

Triangular and pyramid models have been used extensively to explain governance and management concepts. From Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs to the EDM Governance Model, these triangular concept charts and diagrams have aided our thinking about the elements and relationships involved in many aspects of our organisational lives.

As with most models, of course, these are incomplete snapshots. While they may be easier to grasp and recall, they don’t necessarily do justice to the complexity of the situation or problem in question.

Fifteen examples of three-factor models used in non-profit governance and management are highlighted in the chart below. Close observers will note that some charts use the central inverted triangle to name the purpose of the surrounding triad, while others add a fourth active element to the mix e.g. the Policy and Quality Triangles.

3 NFP Triadic Models

Most of the triadic models illustrated above have been referenced in one form or other in previous posts, however, the Policy, Analysis, and Decision Triangles are new to this blog.

All nonprofit organisations can make use of these three triadic frameworks to expedite policy deliberations, help shape advocacy campaigns, and bring deeper insights to bear on their decision-making.

McKinsey’s SCR (Situation-Complication-Resolution) Model was developed in the 1970s, and since then has evolved into a number of highly valued frameworks, including:

Rule of Three in Strategy Meetings

Mike Burrows in his 2020 audiobook Right to Left: The Digital Leader’s Guide to Lean and Agile, advocates a version of the Rule of Three to help organisations work on their organisational structures, and not just in them. He recommends that you:

“Design your strategy and governance meetings so that they invite active contribution from at least three levels of seniority. Include representatives from a range of different disciplines who have skin in the game and are respected for their direct knowledge of the situation”. (emphasis added)

Rule of 3 cubed

In addition to simple three-factor triangle charts, I have also used the isometric cube format to show or imply relationships between three dimensions of a topic. Examples of some of these are offered in the two quadrant charts below.

Some charts here have three approaches juxtaposed, while others invite the viewer to imagine points of intersection between elements on each face within the cube

This second approach suggests that the large enclosing cube is really a collection of multiple smaller cubes, each of which has some relationship with factors on each of the three large faces of the cube. In the case of a cube with five elements on each of the three faces, this results in 125 smaller inner cubes. A topic cube with three elements or factors on each of the three faces will have 27 inner cubes – as illustrated here.

Using the Rule of 3

Whatever purpose your nonprofit serves, however it is structured, you will find meaningful uses for the Rule of 3. Amongst other uses, look for :

  • the three main reasons supporting a proposal;
  • the three main appeals in your key messages; and
  • the three key perspectives in analysing issues and problems.

See also:

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