When a sector is going through major changes and facing challenges, we always see responses from organisations within, that can range from “bring it on” to “the sky is falling”. Right in the middle of these is “I’m sure someone will tell us what to do”, which is the most frightening of all.
For most organisations in the non profit sector, change is a way of life and can come in many forms that include shifting funding landscapes, new legislative requirements or even public attitudes towards their cause just to name a few.
Depending on the type and size of the organisation, some changes can have a devastating effect blowing away their operating models or sending them broke. Negative changes can also take the form of innovation and breakthroughs, that create new opportunities for some, but turn their part of the world upside down sometimes bringing new competition or making them irrelevant.
So why do some organisations weather the forces of change and others crumble under the pressure? This is a complex question however many organisations make it hard for themselves by something as simple as not having a strategic outlook.
I am a big advocate of keeping non profits true to their purpose and avoiding the temptation of over corporatising, but there are many beneficial things non profits need to adopt from the commercial world that will give them a better than even chance of avoiding catastrophe and growing into their desired futures.
Keep on top of Risk. Many organisations think that risk is limited to work health and safety or physical environmental forces, but risk also encompasses political landscapes, technology, competition and client needs. One of the biggest risks many non profits face is not being open to change and thinking tomorrow is just today plus ten percent.
Regularly evaluating what they are doing, how effective and efficient they are, and scanning the landscape are just the beginning.
Carry out scenario planning and consult the devil’s advocate. Exploring both good and bad possible futures is an excellent way of projecting your thinking into ‘what if’ mode.
What would happen if our major sponsor pulled out? What would happen if a better alternative became available? What are the parts of our service or operation that we rely on to stay relevant or attract attention, and how would we survive if they were taken away?
I know we all hate he pessimists in our midst, but those devil’s advocates may have some insights or background knowledge that needs to be factored into current plans or future endeavors even if they don’t communicate it that well.
Making time in your board meetings to discuss possible futures against current events is critical. There must be time in your board meetings for this, but if you find most of the time is being chewed up with operational issues, then hold a separate strategy discussion on a regular basis.
Consult the organisation often by asking staff questions about sector happenings, send out customer surveys to gauge their satisfaction, and visit the operations. If time permits, attend webinars and seminars to stay current as it is always easy to develop tunnel vision through the narrow lens of board meetings.
I do not advocate going behind the CEOs back, but board members should also have an independent view and opinion.
Revisit strategic plans on a regular basis and check them for currency and legitimacy. Have assumptions changed or have the numbers and expected outcomes eventuated?
It’s not wise to pull the strategic plan out of the draw after three years and see if you were right so make direction adjustments on a regular basis. Tweaking plans by removing unnecessary or unrealised elements and adjusting goals or objectives will ensure your plans are living documents making the organisation will take them more seriously.
The future will come whether you are prepared for it or not, so having a mindset that change is inevitable and discussing possible futures is a vital role of all boards, especially in the non profit sector.