Reflections from my sofa

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on April 3rd, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Like all of us, as we ponder the future of our organizations, our families, ourselves, my mind is a whirling dervish, full of random thoughts, taking me from one subject to the next, with no discernable logic.  I share with you those that I think could be useful for the times in which we currently find ourselves.   

  1. Break down your silos.  Don’t say you don’t have them, as that is not very likely.   While there are likely silos in your service offerings, if you provide multiple types of programs, there is an ever greater likelihood that your finance, development and marketing functions, to the extent you have them, are each in their own silos, and definitely apart from the program silos.  Now is a time for massive amounts of generative thinking—the thinking that is outside the box, creative and produces innovation.  We are likely to get the greatest innovation when we have a “clash” of worldviews coming together to figure out how to create the new dynamic we need. In case you haven’t noticed (and this is an attempt at humor), folks in direct service, finance, development, marketing, administration, etc., have very different worldviews.  We want those different perspectives and understandings of how the world operates to butt up against one another in order to take us to a new idea.  And we need new ideas, not just for the now, but for the future as well. What we are experiencing now has forever changed what we will do in the future.  The more varied minds working on this the better.  
  1. Remember your core competencies.  In looking for the new, I am not for a moment suggesting tossing your core competencies.  In hard times, we want to cling to that which we do better than others, as this is part of how we can differentiate ourselves from the pack.  Protecting our core competencies, however, absolutely does not preclude the need to think about new ways of delivering on what we do best.  In the last several weeks, many of us have reinvented how we work as individuals, as teams and as organizations; we have transformed and/or are still working on ways to transform how we do our mission work, looking for new modes to provide for our clients in a world where the old ways are no longer viable.  But in pursuit of urgency and pushing through all of the work to redesign, it is easy to fall prey to the low-hanging fruit, forsaking the harder work that rejiggering our core competencies is likely to demand.  Don’t make that mistake. 
  1. Wave proudly your flag of trustworthiness.  According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust is the sum of two things that others believe about your organization.  One is the belief that your organization actually delivers on its promises (which he calls competence, but I would call integrity) and the other is that it is ethical (which he describes as “doing the right thing and working to improve society”).  While none of the four economic sectors studied—for-profits, government, media, and nonprofits—is viewed as both competent and ethical, nonprofits are the only one seen as ethical, while for-profits are the only one seen as competent.  But you and I know that there are many highly competent nonprofits in our society, so wherein lies the disconnect?  First, society’s assessment of competency more often than not has to do with how much money/how large a company is (size and wealth of a for-profit often are used interchangeably on the assumption that the larger a for-profit the richer it is and the richer a company is the larger it must be) which does not translate to what makes a nonprofit competent.  For us, it is how well our “products” work:  ultimately, did we change lives?  But second, even when nonprofits have the data to prove their competency, they fail to waive their flags of success, to tell stories of their competence and to educate the public about an alternative indicator of competence.  Now is an excellent time to unfurl that flag and keep it waving into the future. 
  1. Use whatever downtime you have to work for the future.  The first month of remote working and new modalities has been stressful and chaotic.  While the stress is unlikely to lessen, the chaos should, leaving many with some “downtime.” One of the things I tell every leader (whether leading a team, a department, and organization, a board) is that s/he must find the balance of working in the organization versus on the organization. Too few listen to my admonition.  You would be wise to use any new-found time, no matter how small in size, to work on those things that you have been putting off, those things that you’ve wanted to get to, those things you may have labeled, as Stephen Covey labeled his Quadrant II, important but not urgent.  The reality is that too much of what folks put in that quadrant is exceedingly important for the future health and well-being of the organization, whether it is building a strong board and board culture or developing a long-term sustainability and viability strategy, or beginning the daunting task of diversifying your income streams.  Too often what we label as important but not urgent are things that reveal we are penny wise and pound foolish (and, hence, may lead some to see as lacking in competency).  Now is a good time to get people working on the organization as our ability to work in the organization has been curtailed. 

While you may not feel you have the bandwidth to work on all of these, picking just one will produce benefit to your organization now and into the future. 

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.