Introduction

My last blog, which was written in the pre-COVID environment, laid out a more optimistic outlook for how we want to think about philanthropy at the end of this new decade. Little did we know that we would soon be facing one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern history, one that has shaken the world in unprecedented ways. More so than any of the crises we have faced in the past, from 9/11 to hurricane Katrina to the 2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 situation challenges us in a way that jeopardizes our very existence. This crisis calls for us to not just imagine, but to act quickly and perhaps even dramatically so that our nonprofit sector can survive and continue to move forward.

My question now is, how can we move through this immediate crisis in a way that also sets us up to be better prepared to respond to unexpected developments in the future, whether large or small scale? In other words, what can we do in the name of survival right now that also imagines a way of being in which 1) our survival never hangs in the balance again and 2) we are generally more resilient, nimble, and powerful organizations? I believe that the answer to this question is a shift, right now, toward a model of greater organizational agility.

In the business world, enterprise agility has emerged as the new paradigm for management, replacing the traditional, hierarchical approach. Organizations that have a built-in agility are less rigid, more fluid, and able to navigate their way out of what might be a serious crisis or disruption. The agile model has begun to be adopted by the nonprofit sphere and I believe that now more than ever is a time for all of us to consider how our organizations can more fully embrace its tenets.

What is enterprise agility?

In short, enterprise agility refers to an organization’s ability to respond and adapt quickly to change. Agile enterprises have built-in systems in critical functional areas that enable them to fire with all cylinders, in a coordinated fashion, even in the face of unforeseen realities. In such times of challenge, people and priorities can be redirected so that the values the organization is committed to providing are maintained and sustained.

McKinsey & Company has been leading the effort in researching agile organizations world-wide and this is a statement from a recent report:

Agile organizations can quickly redirect their people and priorities toward value-creating opportunities. A common misconception is that stability and scale must be sacrificed for speed and flexibility. Truly agile organizations combine both: a strong backbone or center that provides the stability for developing and scaling dynamic capabilities. (McKinsey & Company)

Adopting a model of agility for your nonprofit can enable your organization to establish a strong, nimble backbone that provides stability while also enabling it to stretch, adjust, and scale its efforts in response to what it is called to do.

Key Dimensions of Agile Organizations

Following McKinsey’s research-based findings, the following are key dimensions that contribute to enterprise agility for businesses. I believe these are also applicable to nonprofit organizations:

Strategy – Organizations have a shared purpose and vision that serves as their North Star. In addition, agile organizations can sense and seize emerging opportunities and do so with a more flexible resource allocation.

Structure – Teams are networked, operating with “high standards of alignment, accountability, expertise, transparency, and collaboration…”(McKinsey). Management-employee dynamics are organized according to flat rather than hierarchical structures. 

Process – Barriers and bottlenecks that inhibit efficient and effective decision-making have been eliminated. Organizational practices are committed to performance, transparency, and continuous learning.

People – From leadership to staff to volunteers to the board, all involved are fully engaged and work in a cohesive fashion allowing for creativity and entrepreneurial drive.

Technology – Organizations know how to access and leverage effective tools, both internal and external, that advance their mission. They are ripe for adopting new technology that will enhance their practices in all areas.

By operating within these key dimensions, agile businesses have achieved results in metric areas highly promising to the nonprofit sphere. These areas include client/constituent satisfaction; engagement among leadership, staff, and board; operational performance; and financial health.

Where should nonprofits focus their efforts to achieve agility?

The above list offers key high-level principles inherent to enterprise agility. With these principles in mind, nonprofits and fundraisers addressing the challenges unleashed by the coronavirus should focus their attention on four main areas:

    • Developing new skills that are responsive to current challenges;
    • Re-examining one’s organizational culture to make sure it does not inhibit or impede adaptation, but rather facilitates the shifts in mindset needed to build organizational capabilities under new circumstances;
    • Investing more time in engagement of clients and donors, bringing them closer to the organization and harmonizing their journey with the organization;
    • Modifying the existing business model to make sure it aligns with current requirements and expectations on results, productivity, and impact. Nonprofits will need to unpack their strategic plans and the theory of change their plans are based on.

As the nonprofit world continues to import this new paradigm from the business world, we will also be continually adapting it to reflect our particular needs and values. How does agility ideally manifest in the social sector? According to Suzanne Smith (2018),

Agility in the social sector is less about developing processes and organizational charts and more about creating values and culture that anticipate and support change. (Smith, Suzanne, Social Impact Architects, July 2018)

The more we continue to enact a paradigm shift within our field, the more we will develop a model that is uniquely, and effectively, our own.

Conclusion

By focusing on re-skilling, fine-tuning organizational culture, increasing levels of engagement with stakeholders, and rebuilding business models, nonprofits can make the investments necessary to remain stable and sustainable for the long haul. While the contexts we work within and the bottom lines we work toward are different than those of for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations can benefit from applying the principles employed by businesses for becoming more agile. Our adoption of this new paradigm will help us withstand the current firestorm and disruption engendered by the coronavirus. 

Solomon Belette, Director, Sanford Institute of Philanthropy, JFK University