Quick on Your Feet: Why Nonprofits Need to Adapt

“The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.” – Confucius

Published: November 10th, 2020

            “If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the rate of things coming at you is increasing,” says Jennifer Bonnett – President and CEO of the Nonprofit Lifecycles Institute. “Our ability to be nimble is key.” The coronavirus pandemic, a rapidly changing economy, and unprecedented tech advances are just some of the disruptions that are forcing nonprofits to update their operations. Through her work as a nonprofit consultant, Jennifer has seen more and more organizations struggle to adapt to the changing landscape. Associate Director Lindsay McClung of the Gifford Foundation has seen a similar trend: many nonprofits have deeply entrenched systems in place and struggle to pivot when change happens.

The newest program from the Gifford Foundation is designed to help nonprofits stay nimble in a rapidly changing world.

                In response, the two women have recently launched the newest program from Gifford entitled Embracing Disruption: Resilience Amidst a Changing Environment. The 15-month capacity building initiative will pair participating organizations with a dedicated consultant who will guide them through an intensive self-evaluation and provide tools to boost their flexibility. “It could be funding changes, it could be major staff changes – change is inevitable,” says Lindsay. “Helping our organizations prepare for that is our utmost priority right now.”

                The pandemic has revealed that many organizations lack a plan for sudden change. What happens when a key employee leaves suddenly or falls ill? If new expenses emerge, is the budget structured in a way that is adaptable? What technology investments will actually pay off in the long run? It is not enough to just survive the current chaos – history tells us that more upheaval will eventually come. With that in mind, creating contingency plans for these scenarios is an important part of the program’s mission.

                Jennifer likes to use the analogy of a ship heading toward the big X on a treasure map. The ship is committed to reaching its target but is prepared for the unknown challenges that lie in its path. For nonprofits, Jennifer reminds them to stick to their mission but also remember that they will have to overcome many obstacles along the way. For mature organizations, the difficulty often comes with breaking free of longstanding habits and deeply entrenched operational systems that may bear little relevance to the world of today. For – startup nonprofits, the challenge is to build a sustainable structure that won’t crumble under duress.

Jennifer Bonnett of the Nonprofit Lifecycles Institute uses the analogy of a ship seeking treasure to describe the balance organizations must find between staying mission-focused and navigating the many obstacles along the way.

            The Gifford Foundation recently commissioned an in-depth evaluation of their flagship capacity building program ADVANS conducted by an outside consultant team. The lessons learned from that report helped shape the Embracing Disruption structure, including the choices to make the application process open rather than invitation based and also to focus more heavily on external and environmental factors. For organizations debating whether or not this program is a good fit, Lindsay and Jennifer offer a reminder that the experience balances significant benefits with significant commitment on the part of the participating nonprofit. “This is not the program to save an organization, this is a program to help an organization that is strained by change,” says Jennifer. “We’re looking for an organization that is weathering the storm but needs that extra support to get through it.”

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