A New Model for Nonprofit Resiliency by Steve Stanton (Part 1)

Some nonprofits need to improve their marketing, and others have to focus on building up their boards, but ALL nonprofits need to improve their resiliency.

Resiliency means the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. This ability extends beyond flexibility and encompasses far more than “capacity building”. A resilient organization is able to find ways to succeed in all types of conditions and to bounce back whenever problems arise. To quote a cliché, resilience is the ability to “keep calm and carry on” in all types of situations, to extend success in good times and to recover quickly in troubled times.

Resiliency is the only thing that can ensure sustained high performance over time. And it needs to be a defining strength for all nonprofits.

When Planned Parenthood faced severe politically driven hardships at the national and state levels, its resiliency helped it to not only succeed, but to grow in funding and impact.

When Housing Families Inc. (HFI) experienced repeated leadership turnover within just two years, its commitment to its clients, the intensity of its board commitment, and the strength of its mission helped them survive several very tumultuous years. They’ve rationalized and focused their organization and are now growing again.

But why do nonprofits need resiliency now?

There’s an old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” And by that definition, most nonprofits are in that boat. In today’s nonprofit turbulence, most organizations are grappling with a wicked trifecta: Accelerating change, market unpredictability and technological novelty. These three trends are causing unprecedented challenges to most nonprofits.

Does anyone think things will slow down soon?  Or that we’ll return to calm times?  I didn’t think so.

Survival in difficult times requires the ability to adjust to new situations, make good decisions quickly, and overcome the organization’s inevitable problems without despair.

That’s Resilience.

What strategic questions about resiliency should a nonprofit board be asking?

  • Does the organization have the capacity and capability to overcome current challenges?
  • Can the organization identify and address its next set of challenges?
  • Do we know what we need to do to sustain our performance over time?
  • Is our leadership open to new ideas?
  • Is our strategy current and useful?
  • Does our leadership team spend enough time looking outside our organization to recognize changes in the environment?
  • Do we trust our ED to evolve as new situations may require?
  • Do we have succession plans in place for board and staff leadership, so we’ll never be surprised?
  • Do we have sufficient financial reserves to tide us over in difficult times?

And questions from an Executive Director’s perspective:

  • What capabilities and capacities are needed to overcome current challenges? Do we have them now?
  • Do we know where can we improve our performance? Do we know what’s stopping us from doing that?
  • When financial resources are tight, do we know where to invest and where to cut? Do we have the courage to do both?
  • Are we watching market trends to see what customers, competitors, funders, and regulators are doing and thinking about?
  • Do we really know what program/services our customers like, need, will need next?
  • Do we know what our high performing peers/competitors are up to?
  • Are we surprised by recent staff turnover?
  • Do we have the Three “C”s to truly improve our performance: Capacity, Capability, and Culture?

Part two of this new model focused on the the actual elements of nonprofit resiliency.

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