After the election, I wrote about the implications of the coming Trump Era to nonprofits. Now that reality is settling in (or what passes for “reality” these days), I’d like to elaborate on a theme: building organizational resilience.
Nearly all organizations have a typical scope of work. For most nonprofits, this is a set of programs and services related to the mission. The context of day-to-day work is usually predictable. For example, a community needs a set of services, and that’s likely to be consistent over at least several years, and often a decade or more. Change typically unfolds at a moderate pace, giving organizations time to re-calibrate and adapt.
But what happens when serious change occurs on a scale of weeks or months rather than decades?
We often hear about the need for organizations to be “nimble.”(The term of art used to be “agile,” which, for unknown reasons, fell out of vogue.) Every nonprofit leader agrees they should be nimble, and many think they are. But the term lacks a clear definition, and it’s mostly used as a feel-good adjective.
I prefer adaptability and resilience to describe organizational traits that are critical to survival – much as they are for species in Darwinian evolution. It’s a good analogy. In nature, there are gradual changes that take place over millennia, but also immediate shocks that require an ability to respond toot sweet. (You’re actually reading this because our small Mesozoic mammal ancestors were much better at this than the dinosaurs, after an asteroid struck Mexico on a very bad day 60 million years ago.) Adaptability is a set of traits that prepare us for unknowns. Resilience over time is the result.
Trump is our asteroid. Many things are being shaken up – civil rights, immigration rights, environmental protections, healthcare access, international relations, the ability of neighbors to relate to each other and possibly (at some point), economic stability. Most nonprofits are directly impacted by these rapid changes. If you aren’t, many donors and clients surely will be.
The questions nonprofit leaders need to ask are: Can we adapt rapidly? And, if not, will our organization become irrelevant? Adaptation may require rapid deployment of new programs, immediate expansion or reallocation of resources, engagement with new partners, or mobilizing constituents in short order. Resilient organizations will survive, and may even be stronger when this chapter ends.
Adaptability and resilience don’t come by accident. They’re a function of design, which is, by definition, intentional.
Organizations can actively build adaptability. Consider these three actions nonprofits can take:
- Develop Flexible Plans
Strategic and operating plans (including annual budgets) are typically rigid and inflexible. Both can go sideways when circumstances change. An alternative framework is a multi-year strategy that is adjusted annually or when needed, and a budget designed to be revised once or twice during each year, as new information registers.
Public Interest Management Group uses financial modeling in strategic and business planning. This allows nearly instantaneous updates to assumptions and projections, months or years after a plan is adopted. Similarly, organizations can make revise organizational strategies using flexible tools like Real-Time Strategic Planning, which facilitates course adjustments in a single meeting.
- Build Slack
Why are so many nonprofits stretched to, or beyond, their limits, 24/7? It’s part cultural, part due to restricted funding requirements, and part due to general resource constraints in the sector. But there’s no rule that organizations can’t have surplus capacity. Absence of “slack” is the single biggest obstacle to adaptability, and no amount of culture change can create degrees of freedom when change is needed. You can build surplus capacity into your budget in the form of unallocated staff positions, a contract personnel or consulting pool, bulked-up data and administrative systems, and/or an opportunity response fund.
How can nonprofits fund slack? Engage your funders, and tell them why it’s essential, in the big picture. Many of them will be excited about your forward-thinking.
- Detail What-If Scenarios
While specific changes may be unpredictable, the likelihood of change is fully foreseeable. Scenario planning, backed up by specific organizational charts, position descriptions, recruitment procedures (even with particular hires or contractors in mind), and operational protocols can prepare you to respond to a range of possible situations. When needed, you can pull the best-fitting scenario out of the box, insert a battery, and voila – response in effect.
- Streamline Decision-Making
How many committee meetings does it take to change a lightbulb? I don’t know, but more than a few nonprofits I know could stretch this task well into their next fiscal year. Decision-making can reveal nonprofit culture at its worst.
Most nonprofit bylaws authorize the CEO to make decisions, and adaptable organizations realize this intent. Boards should proactively empower CEOs to make all operational decisions, within a set of clear parameters, and this must include adapting to rapidly evolving circumstances. Most CEOs regularly consult with senior staff and board members, a wise practice. But research shows that a pattern of decisive action is much more successful than lengthy processes.
- Run Quick-Pivot “Fire-Drills”
Why wait for the next meteor shower to play this out? Practice works, and organizations can train to pivot effectively on short notice – not just in responding to immediate crises, but also the sort of rapid strategic shifts I’m talking about. Create a hypothetical realistic situation, deploy, debrief and document what you learn.
The most adaptable nonprofits will respond effectively to current challenges, and the most resilient will emerge stronger than before. Adaptability, though, requires forethought, investment and preparation. We're barely into the Trump Era roller-coaster ride, and now’s the time to get busy.