Let me start by giving you a sense of three places where our firm has worked with several organizations in a single community. Each has its own distinct and quite exceptional set of challenges and the nonprofit, foundation and government managers in these places do so in particularly demanding contexts.
Rhode Island is our home base and its state government is facing the worst deficit in its history…the state is short $500 million of a $6 billion budget and that number is growing every day. The "Governor's Budget" published in April offered nothing but draconian cuts to social service spending and threatened to de-stabilize several components of the sector. The battle is on to pit one group of vulnerable people against another in a resource war like no other...the elderly in nursing homes, the developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, the children of illegal immigrants, etc. The agencies that serve these constituents are facing losses of 30-35% due to the combination of increased costs of energy and health insurance coupled with revenue cuts of 20-25%...all of which will come due in the next 18 month period. Our Rhode Island work is about retrenchment, consolidation and alliances, about influencing public policy and about managing in a crisis environment.
We have worked in New Orleans for over seven years, watching with horror when much of what was accomplished before Katrina seemed to wash away over night and have also watched with awe at what has returned. Here it can be clearly said that among the unsung heroes of the recovery of New Orleans are the nonprofit managers, both service providers and foundations, who have effectively restructured their services and investments to assist in the reconstruction of an entire city, of an entire society. However, the challenges keep coming: the withdrawal of national funds that flowed into the city since Katrina has begun. The sector will need to continue its reinvention to adjust to a new city with different demographics in an economy that is affected by the housing crisis and the uncertainty of the national economy.
Calgary, has, in the words of some, experienced its own kind of disaster. Clearly, the challenge for nonprofit managers here is keeping a hold on its workforce. The upward pressure on prices of housing and energy coupled with the explosive growth of the City and the inability of immigration to keep up with workforce needs has caught the nonprofit sector in a financial squeeze that undermines the ability of many organizations to provide continuity of care and to maintain the quality of what they do. Most of health and human services are based upon the quality of the relationship between the person at the boundary and the person receiving help...rapid flux inevitably undermines effectiveness.
These are the contexts for much of our work.
There is a reason that the Chinese say that "May you live in interesting times." is a kind of curse. Clearly the sector's managers in each of these locations understand the truth in that. It is hard to interact with people who have only known how to build and expand, whose entire careers have been about expanding access, adding services, pushing out to wider geographic areas, inventing new ways to help, building teams of staff that have taken years to assemble and refine, when your message is about undoing, pulling back, shrinking, eliminating services, crafting a smaller, tighter, more nimble organization, letting people go. Too often the people who are adversely affected are not just employees, not just colleagues, but have, through a career of shared proximity, become friends. This is just painful to watch.
Of late, however, we have begun to observe an emerging skill set that nonprofit leaders, in particular, are exhibiting to adapt to these challenges and sustain and allow their organizations to prosper through periods of rapid transformation. I'd like to share with you six skills that seem to be making a profound difference for some agencies.
1. The ability to not confuse the ends with the means
This boils down to maintaining utter and profound commitment to core values, to the essence of what you do, while expressing complete flexibility in how you do it.
2. Knowing when to fold
Faced with significant cuts in one program, several agencies have had to decide whether to give up the program or support it with revenue taken from elsewhere in the organization. Faced with the potential of doing nothing well, we have watched one leader after another make the tough call to shut down programs. Facing up to the bitter truth, and helping others to face the bitter truth, is part of this skill set around knowing when to walk away.
3. Knowing when and how to fight
We have logged several examples of where groups of organizations have found their voice and used their collective power to influence how change unfolds or to postpone or ameliorate the change. This has involved quite delicate and artful negotiation but has also, at times, involved a parallel strategy of demonstrations and/or legal action. There is a time to hang tough and the leaders we see are astute at understanding the timing and circumstance of resistance.
4. The willingness to make tough calls, to place task above relationship in a crisis
Dealing with crisis requires giving orders that may negatively impact employees. It may require decisions to lay off substantial numbers of staff or major realignment of roles and responsibilities. The leaders we know don't quail at the thought of ordering major change.
5. Knowing how to shrink
There are basically two approaches to shrinking an organization. One creates a smaller organization that is exactly the same as the larger previous entity. The other tries to identify the key elements of the organization that are likely to be most adaptable or most capable under conditions of uncertainty. We call this skill set retrenchment planning and it involves the ability to make decisions about who will go and who will stay based not upon something easy like seniority, but on careful thought about who, on the other of the cutbacks, will be best positioned to rebuild the organization. Those decisions can be about identifying the core group of people with the necessary competencies, or the core programs that are most likely to recover quickly, or the core set of values that must continue to be expressed.
6. Playing well with others and the ability to make new friends quickly
Networks and collaborative models are emerging in all three locations. The ability to negotiate collaborative relationships and to recognize the need to develop relationships with CEO's who may be viewed as former competitors is our last major skill. And it may be the most important. In two of our three locations there is enormous pressure to consolidate the sector. The skill of positioning your organization within these emerging system changes may be the most important survival skill of all.
In our cynical moments, we think of nonprofit organizations as dependent entities that cannot exist without funder investment. To get that investment in any quantity, nonprofits often appear to be sheep-like and compliant, followers and not leaders. And certainly in all these contexts we see organizations who simply, like deer caught in a headlight, are standing stock still and waiting to be rescued or told what do to.
In thinking about what all of these organization leaders have in common and what that list of skills actually imply, I have come to the conclusion that it is largely a matter of locus of control. Nonprofit leaders who see the destiny of their organizations as something separate and apart and clearly in their own hands are far more likely to exhibit these skill sets and to navigate effectively in these very troubled waters. It is certainly our privilege to learn from them and to support them when we can.
Photo Credit: fdecomiteRead More
We are pleased to be hosting this week's Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants. The theme is the evolution of nonprofit organizations.
To start off, we would like to share with you FIO Partners perspective on the importance of stage of development in nonprofit capacity building. Understanding the stage of development of our clients is one of the pillars of our practice and integral to our firm philosophy around how to help organizations implement change - let us know what you think!
Next, many of you may be considering at what point in your evolution should your organization engage in social media. Beth Kanter recently posted her thoughts and materials from a one-day social media workshop she delivered for a group of Arts organizations in Philadelphia which you may find helpful. Beth is also one of the leaders of a collaborative effort to create a curriculum for organizations who are considering social media-- called WeAreMedia. A great place to start is: Module 1:Why Should Your Nonprofit Embrace Social Media? (Or Not?). Beth Dunn's post on your option to not engage in social media -- a null hypothesis -- synchs with the ROI portion of WeAreMedia. Over at the Philanthropy Journal, Peter Tavernise points out the importance of social networking with intention, noting the success of two organizations - Youthnoise.org and Teach Without Borders.
For more-established organizations who would like to reclaim a bit of their start-up passion, Kivi suggests getting clear about your "founding story". Alternatively, if you are just getting started, and looking to upgrade your IT infrastructure, NTEN has a helpful post, "How to find good IT help for your nonprofit".
As you consider the evolution of your own organization, do you have a roadmap? A roadmap for change or for growth? A process to explore new ideas and implement them into your practice? How do ensure that your organization keeps evolving -- or doesn't get stuck? Post your thoughts here...
[The next edition of the Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants will be hosted on October 1 by Ready, Aim, Inspire and the theme will be "what it takes to be a great leader."]
There are occasional debates underway within the capacity building, and to some extent, within the academic communities concerning non-profit strategy and accountability. To us, what appears to be lacking within this debate is a clear and useful conceptual framework for the discussion. This is further exacerbated by the lack of a detailed conceptual map for how a non-profit evolves through time and by the fact that, largely, capacity building models are not adjusted for stage of development of different industries of the sector. Think about it, there are some fields that are still quite experimental, and some others that ought to be operating on evidenced based practice by now. That difference makes a ton of difference in how an organization is managed and ought to make a difference in how we build its capacity.
From our perspective, most of the nonprofit capacity building field is, from an evidence perspective, still in the experimental stage. Even though, taken as a whole, the nonprofit capacity building field tends to seek and promulgate "normative models" rather than dynamic, process oriented models and doesn't evaluate what it does. There are many, many publications that say that "Boards should …" or "The CEO should…" as though every nonprofit in every industry or field of the sector at every stage of development has more in common than not and, as though these norms have been proven to be effective.
This became apparent to us during a four year project to redesign the capacity building infrastructure in a US city. The process of discovery undertaken to build a base of knowledge in current practice led us to ask a series of increasingly probing questions: How do organizations change? What are the most potent exterior influences that encourage nonprofit effectiveness? What is meant by nonprofit effectiveness? What are the most powerful means of building organizational capacity? What tools exist that are of proven effectiveness? How can capacity building and organizational stage be measured in sufficient detail to be helpful to the nonprofit manager and consultant?
One of the curious things we discovered as part of this process was the recognition that most of the activity in the nonprofit capacity building world deals with building the capacity of individuals rather than organizations. Most of the effort is invested in training individuals and while there are certainly many instances in which individuals attend training and then bring the new knowledge or skill back to the workplace, there is actually little evidence that this way of introducing new knowledge has a significant effect on organizational functioning. While consulting is the next most used tool, much of it is organized as a "service bureau" model...with consultants providing what consumers ask for. Very little consulting is based on a structured assessment of how well the organization is functioning relative to norms that are adjusted for stage, of organization or field.
In framing answers to the questions raised above, we focused on developing interventions that will have maximum organizational impact. This focus forced a process of deep research and cross disciplinary thinking in order to frame a more effective means of (1) understanding organizational development of nonprofits and how effective strategy development helps nonprofits evolve over time; (2) how to provide more effective capacity building that actually produces change in nonprofit organizational functioning; and, (3) how to measure whether organizational interventions have had any effect on increasing functionality. The results of this effort have transformed our practice, pushing us to develop a set of tools to measure functional stage of development, to know and understand the stage of development of the fields in which our clients operate, and to always adjust our intervention accordingly.
What do you think? How do you think about stage of development in your work?
[Thanks to WTL Photos for the great shot!
We will be hosting the September 15th edition of the Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants. The deadline for submission to the Carnival is this upcoming Friday, September 12th. We are interested in your posts on the evolution of nonprofit organizations. What do you have to say about the evolution of the nonprofits you work with, or the evolution of issues or perspectives from your corner of the nonprofit world?
We are looking forward to reading your submissions!Read More
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