Building Organizational Capacity Not Just to Survive but to Thrive

FEBRUARY 18 / Donna Kennedy-Glans

Not only is the not-for-profit sector expected to address the disparities and fill the gaps exposed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but nonprofit leaders are not exempt from the calls for greater accountability, equality, fairness, and sustainability—from the public as well as their funders, employees, volunteers, and the communities they serve. In these uncertain times, what strategies can help not-for-profit organizations not only to survive but to thrive?

To understand how successful leaders build the organizational capacity required to adapt to a changing ecosystem and maximize opportunity for growth, it’s essential to understand the most relevant challenges your nonprofit is facing, then deploy strategies that connect the dots between external threats and foundational organizational values and capacities.

Understand your nonprofit’s most pressing challenges

The following are some of the challenges cited in conversations I’ve had with nonprofit leaders over the last two years. What are the greatest challenges your leadership team currently faces? Identifying your priorities is the first step.

  • Our teams are motivated by an unflagging sense of purpose, but people are overwhelmed and fatigued.

  • We’re struggling with the transition back-and-forth between face-to-face and virtual engagement.

  • Our current leadership team is finding the next generation of leadership challenging to mentor; at times, they seem hesitant to step up.

  • To access resources, we’re subject to agendas set by government agencies and corporate partners. How do we make sure we don’t feed partisan agendas or be part of a green-washing or virtue-signalling corporate campaign? Some decisions we face are very polarizing. For example, should we accept donations from hydrocarbon companies?

  • We’re feeling pressure to scale up and grow, to fill the gaps, as more and more responsibilities are downloaded to the voluntary sector.

  • Everyone talks about innovation, innovation, innovation! But it’s not easy to let go of what you know.

  • Just because I’m Indigenous doesn’t mean I speak for every Indigenous person; how can we make representative voices effective?

  • All this advocacy for DEI—on our board of directors, for our volunteer and employee rosters! These changes can’t be implemented overnight.

Deploy strategies that can work for your organization

Once you’ve defined the challenges you need to address, you can begin to design and implement strategies to bolster your organization’s confidence, effectiveness, and resiliency.

Step #1: Make sure that your nonprofit’s core values and purpose shape your unique organizational response to emerging expectations and issues.

Pay attention to how your peers react to public calls for diversity or social justice. While it’s smart to understand how competitors in your sector adapt to qualify for new government or corporate grant dollars, above all else, as a nonprofit leader, you need to design strategies that are rooted in your organization’s unique values and purpose. Stay focused on what matters to your organization and ask better questions, for example: What happens to our assumptions if we are agnostic about growth, evaluating what’s “enough” rather than how we can get “more”?

Step #2: Demonstrate your organization’s integrity by effectively monitoring and communicating how your values and purpose align with commitments and actions.

Be explicit about what “walking your talk” looks like. For example, when the Calgary Zoo decided to pivot from its primary purpose as a local tourist attraction to emphasize its role in wildlife conservation, it took time to direct employees’ and visitors’ attention to the new mission. To make sure everyone was pulling in the same direction, big decisions such as budget allocations, as well as myriad smaller ones, had to be treated differently. Every piece of paper or information shared with visitors now explicitly references the zoo’s conservation values, such that even the student with a summer job at the snack kiosk feels galvanized by the zoo’s purpose when the receipt he hands to the customer with the hamburger says, “Thank you for supporting wildlife conservation.”

Step #3: Assess whether your internal systems and processes are designed to support your nonprofit’s aims.

The COVID-19 pandemic has afforded every leader the rare opportunity to reevaluate what parts of the organization need to be rebuilt and what parts are better left behind. Are there processes in your nonprofit that no longer serve the organization and could free up resources and time to do essential work? What needs to be rebuilt? Among for-profit enterprises, Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil did financial contortions to survive the pandemic and may well emerge in more resilient shape: It hopes not only to return to business as usual but also to become a player in streaming platforms. Forward-thinking management is helping museums and cultural institutions do the same— figuring out ways to redesign their operating models to leverage live experiences and performances and exhibits in the digital realm, effectively amplifying the outputs of their resources.

Step #4: Take a close look at your nonprofit’s leadership team and make sure you have the skills needed to lead your organization through these uncertain times.

Foundational leadership skills—the ability to assess risk, make decisions, and execute to plan—are essential but often insufficient leadership attributes in such a disruptive environment. If your nonprofit is motivated to innovate new ideas and approaches outside your comfort zone your leadership team may need a skills boost. Higher-order leadership skills could include the ability to catalyze: to purposefully disrupt the status quo and provoke fresh momentum or a new direction, even when the outcome is not clear. And if partnering across sectors becomes imperative—to deliver services and products to more people with greater efficiency and resiliency—perhaps your organization requires leaders who truly understand how to collaborate, without compromising your organization’s values and purpose.

Some nonprofit leaders hunker down, sustain business as usual, and hope the status quo will be enough for their organization to survive the storm. The nonprofit enterprise that will not only survive, but thrive, in these uncertain times keeps a close eye on the challenges in the zeitgeist but doesn’t get distracted from the essential work of building their organization’s internal capacity to succeed in a very different future.

Link to original article: Philanthropy News Digest