Monday, September 22, 2014

Rising to the Challenge—a need for a new level of nonprofit leadership

By Steven M. Worth, President at Plexus Consulting Group, LLC

The world we live in is reeling from problems that the traditional economic and political order seem ill-equipped to handle. It is in fact a situation tailor made to those organizations dedicated to the public good, but can they rise to the challenge?
The primary challenge—
How will historians characterize our times? After the fall of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama famously declared the “end of history.” With western liberal democracy the definitive “winner” nothing more need be said or written!
But it doesn’t feel like we are winners, does it? For the first time in our country’s history we are facing the very real possibility that a succeeding generation will live less well than the preceding one. We are definitely not entering the land of milk and honey; it is more like the land of rising temperatures, pollution, and competition for scarce resources on a global scale. Rather than an ideological struggle, our times will be marked by how we handle what sociologists call the “tragedy of the commons”—a struggle that nonprofit organizations are uniquely qualified to address.
The tragedy of the commons is a social phenomenon characteristic of human activity throughout the world. Its thesis is that individuals take care of what personally belongs to them; but they tend to abuse and rush to exploit resources that are shared in common, in their haste to get what they can for themselves before these resources run out entirely.
This human tendency to see no further than our own limited interest has always existed of course; but, apart from a few sociologists and environmentalists, it did not attract a great deal of attention until relatively recently. Now with global warming reaching a tipping point, global fisheries in full collapse and every other shared global resource in crisis, even ordinary citizens are starting to realize the impact six billion human souls are having on our planet. Something has to give…
It seems a natural fit that nonprofit organizations could be/should be especially involved in all of the critical issues stemming from these “tragedies of the commons.” Nonprofit organizations are by definition enterprises that are intended to benefit society; to this point, they are or should be the antithesis of the tragedy of the commons.
Can human behavior be changed in a democratic society that respects individual rights and free enterprise? There is ample evidence that it can; but in this, historically governments and corporate communities both have ambitions and competencies that are regarded with a certain amount of skepticism by the general public—and perhaps rightfully so. An overly aggressive government—be it local, national or multinational--is sometimes seen as a menace to individual liberties, while unfettered corporations are often seen as rapacious. Only the nonprofit community has the vocation, public trust and competency to fill this role as a catalyst for societal change. Or does it?
The secondary challenge—
The time may be right for the nonprofit community to play an historic role in our society and in the global community at large, but will these organizations be up to the challenge? Traditionally there are three categories of key strategic and organizational issues that challenge the effectiveness of nonprofits. These relate to: relevancy; insightfulness; and efficiency/effectiveness. As volunteer leaders, here are the kinds of questions you should be asking your organization.
Are you responding to market need?
  • If you are a membership organization, are your members representative of the market as a whole
  • How have you segmented your markets and do your products and services match the needs of each?
  • Are your products and services perceived to set the market standard?
  • Are your sales figures matching or exceeding market growth rates year to year, and do your prices more than cover your costs?
Are you preparing for where these needs will have moved in 5, 10, and 15 years? 
  • What percentage of your annual resources--as measured in terms of time and money--are spent in new product development, market surveys, benchmarking and trend analysis? At least once every few years it pays to do some trend analysis and from there to envision what your world will look like in 5, 10 or 15 years. The results can sometimes be heart-stopping or, alternatively, they can produce “eureka” insights. Of course predictions can sometimes be wrong; but it is also true that “surprising” organizational collapses in retrospect generally tend to be not all that surprising.
  • Nonprofit organizations tend to be inward or outward looking--how outward looking is yours? Do you rely on affiliates and/or partnerships or are you more comfortable in employee and vendor relationships? Do you have high turnover in your volunteer leadership positions—are your leadership positions eagerly sought out by newcomers--or do you typically keep the same volunteer leaders for 6 or 10 years or longer? Do you have any board members from outside your industry to provide an outsiders perspective? If you are seeking to change the world—or at least that part of it that relates to your mission—you need, by definition, to be outwardly-focused; and for each and every organization this requires a conscious effort to achieve.
 Are you operating efficiently? 
  • As fast, as efficiently, and as effectively as the best possible?
  • Do you have a clear and recognized brand image/reputation that matches your vision
  • Do you have a memorable and meaningful purpose as perceived by your stakeholders inside and outside your organization?
  • Do you have the market-focused tools and resources you need to achieve your mission?
  • Your challenge in working with volunteer leaders—
How can you expect to change the world if you cannot attract and constantly replenish your supply of volunteer talent?
Volunteering implies three things: a voluntary commitment in which all parties (meaning the nonprofit organization itself as well as the volunteers) bring something to the table that the others cannot as easily do for themselves; that each party’s strategic goals and missions complement the other’s; and that the overriding goal of this voluntary partnership serves a greater purpose. In these respects volunteering is a partnership.
Ideally partnerships carry with them at least five benefits:
1. they allow and encourage a sharing of resources—they permit all partners to do
more than they could on their own;
2. they allow all to expand their networks of professional contacts;
3. nonprofit partnerships (ideally) provide an opportunity to do well by doing good;
4. they are enriching experiences through which all parties can learn from each other
new ways of doing things; and
5. partnerships allow all concerned to gain greater credibility and influence.
Work is hard—even volunteer work, so it may seem counter intuitive to say that having fun is a good litmus test for the effectiveness of your operations. The ancient Greeks defined happiness as the full employment of one’s abilities in endeavors that matter. As serious as the issues are that you and/or your volunteer leaders may be tackling, the work itself should be fun, because you are employing your unique abilities in furtherance of something that matters!

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