I was at a three-day training last week for the Standards of Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for Nonprofit Sector. One of our trainers, Justin Pollock of Orgforward helped us dig into both the why and the how of each of the major areas of the code.
He posed two provocative questions set up our conversations – When XYZ is going well in the organization, what does that make possible for the people? And for people to achieve these results, what are the favorable conditions that need to be in place?
Getting caught up in the "thing"
Too often organizations and the consultants that support them get too caught up in doing the “thing” – whether that is strategic planning, clarifying the mission and vision or program evaluation – without stepping back and thinking what they are hoping to get from this work – or what they are hoping will be different.
By asking “when strategy and mission is going well in the organization, what does that make possible for the people? What does it enable staff, board and volunteers to be able to do better? What are the benefits?” first, you get at the hopes, aspirations and motivations for the strategy or mission work. And further by asking, “what do they need to know, have access to, be able to do and believe?” – in other words – identifying the favorable conditions for making progress in this area.
Putting it into action
What does this look like in practice? With strategic planning for example – what will be different when you engage in strategic planning? Too often people complain about an involved process that just resulted in a plan that sat on a shelf. When does strategic planning have real benefits for the organization? This could be in terms of the process itself – having time and space to dig into why the organization does what it does. This could uncover misalignment between stakeholders – whether board, staff, clients – on expectations. By uncovering these, they can then be worked through to bring people closer together in their understanding of the organization’s goals. When done well, the process helps the organization focus its resources, letting go of activity that is no longer serving the mission. It can serve to enable the organization to work on reducing the “friction” and “static” within the organization.
What are the favorable conditions to make these positive results possible? Favorable conditions would include having an inclusive and participatory process. If people feel like they are simply being told what the goals and priorities are by a few people within the organization, they may or may not be ‘bought in’ to the desired outcomes. Even if they are included in the process from the outset unless they feel like they can speak openly and honestly, they will just be going through the motions. A second condition that supports success is to have a clear pathway to translate large organizational level goals into team work plans and individual goals for the year. This will facilitate action.
Uncovering the why and the how
So the next time you launch into a large project, takes some time to consider these two questions – when we are successful with our project, what will it make possible for people in the organization? – to get clear on the “why” behind your work. Then consider “what are the conditions required to make our work go well?” – to think about the “how” of your project and set yourself up for success.
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At this year’s ASAE Annual Conference, I moderated a session called, Walking the Talk of Change Leadership. At the beginning of the session, we asked audience members to write the questions they about the topic on index cards. We told one change leadership story then spent the rest of the session answering as many questions as we could. You can read an article about the session here. These were the questions we did not get to during the session.
1. Change in part takes a diverse board (gender, ethnicity, and age). How do you achieve that? “No more old white men boards.”
If you are not already doing so, implement and enforce term limits. Be proactive about publicizing the application and nominations process for your board. Get beyond current board members’ personal networks. Those networks will most likely be mirrors of who is already on your board. Create leadership development programs to train and prepare new leaders. Prioritize investing in emerging leaders who bring new perspectives to your board. And do not assume it’s only about emerging leaders – there may be leaders in your midst that you have simply looked past.
2. Why change? What we’re doing is working!
It is challenging to move any change forward if there is not any sense of urgency or recognition that issues exist. Consider helping those guarding the status quo to consider wider trends that could impact the organization. Or start elsewhere with a few allies. Start small and share successes.
3. How do you promote change and new ideas without current staff freaking out?
What are current staff freaking out about? What is it about the change that is upsetting them? Have you asked them? Is there something you can learn from their resistance? Can you iterate in way that addresses their concerns? Which ideas are low hanging fruit and could be implemented relatively easily? Share your early wins with those who are afraid of changes to demonstrate the benefits.
4. How to convince the board permanent staff is required versus volunteers?
Build the business case for the change. What is not currently getting done or done consistently with volunteers? What skills and knowledge are unique to your volunteer base? What would benefit from being professionalized? What will each group bring to the table to create a greater partnership? Who would benefit from making the change? What will the upsides be to making the shift? Also address the downsides so that those considering the change do not feel like they are being “sold.”
5. How do you manage the change as the change is happening?
Recognize and acknowledge to your staff that it may not feel like “management” while things are in flux. Even if things are moving fast, take a little time out to take stock and see where you are, where you have come from and what is coming next. Celebrate your small wins along the way.
6. How do you create energy for radical change when there is no crisis or chaos acting as a lever?
It is unlikely that you will be able to move quickly to radical change without a crisis. Consider where can you create energy for change, even if it is not yet radical. You might consider facilitating a conversation that helps the group consider the environmental trends that could spur a crisis if the organization is not paying attention.
Most associations rely on informal processes for moving innovation forward within their organizations finds a new study, Pathways to Innovation: Shifting from Informal to Intentional. The majority of new ideas and initiatives come from staff with the CEO and senior leadership leading most efforts. Many of these ideas are adapted from other organizations.
We are innovative
It was surprising that most of the association executives who were interviewed described their association as innovative. This runs counter to the prevalent narrative that associations struggle with innovation and change, Yet few organizations are taking a member-centric approach to creating new programs and services that meet their members’ unmet needs.
Informal market research processes
The majority of associations interviewed also rely on informal market research processes. As other studies have found, they have few formal mechanisms for regular review of their portfolio of offerings and find it challenging to sun set programs and initiatives.
Three primary foci of innovation projects
Current innovation projects of the associations interviewed clustered in three primary areas: upgrading internal technology systems, building online learning programs and shifting to shorter, more targeted events.
Download the full report, Pathways to Innovation: Shifting from Informal to Intentional.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.