Jamie Notter

  Jamie Notter


In days gone by, we did not particularly value agility inside nonprofit organizations. Last century, when things moved a bit slower and were a bit more predictable, we tended to value things like quality, efficiency, and productivity. Stay focused on your mission, because the operating environment is fairly stable and probably won’t require making significant shifts within a short timeframe.

That’s not true anymore. The environment moves much faster today and nonprofits are faced with more challenges and fewer resources.

  • How do you adapt when for-profit organizations step into your line of work?
  • How do you adapt to ever-changing attitudes and behaviors around online engagement and giving?
  • How do you adapt to the Millennial generation – as donors, as recipients of your services, and even as employees?

Agility is no longer a luxury, and becoming more agile is not a matter of editing your mission statement or changing a few processes. You have to build agility deep into your culture. How do you do it? There are three steps.

Step One: Start with What Is

Start with a deep understanding of your culture, as it is right now. Most leaders want to skip this step. They go off-site and brainstorm a list of glorious new core values (including agility!), and come back to the office with a renewed sense of vigor and optimism for this wonderful new culture they’re going to build. And then nothing changes. People applaud the new values, but their behavior looks remarkably like it did before. Why?

Because the leaders did not connect their vision of the new culture with the reality that people are already experiencing. This is critical. You need to know exactly how agile you are (or aren’t) inside your culture as a first step. And I don’t just mean the high level, like whether your culture embraces change.

You have to go deeper. What matters more: title/tenure, or knowledge/expertise? Does the senior level get out of the way so people can get things done? Can you move quickly but still maintain appropriate levels of quality? You’ll need to get that granular about how your culture does agility in order to start proposing changes, because that’s the only way your people will be able to make sense of the change you’re proposing.

Step Two: Connect Agility to Success

Once you see your culture as it really is, you’ll start to figure out which parts need to be changed in order to improve on the agility front. But remember, you’re not trying to be agile to be cool. You need to make a direct connection between being agile and delivering on your mission.

I worked with a nonprofit that had been struggling with issues of transparency. The experience inside that culture was that people wouldn’t share enough information with each other. But as they dug into that issue, they realized the transparency issue was because every decision had four or five people involved. With that many people involved, at least a few of them felt like they didn’t have the information they needed. Was the answer to share information internally?

No. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that their stakeholders were complaining that the nonprofit had become too slow. Where the information the nonprofit was providing to the community used to be considered cutting edge, now it was behind the curve. Sharing more information internally, while it sounds like a good idea in general, would actually make them even slower.

Since they needed to improve speed to be successful, they decided to become more rigorous about their decision-making processes. Instead of sharing more information, they involved fewer people in the decisions, and they started to regain that speed they had lost. When you start to make cultural shifts, you always need to connect it directly to what drives your success.

Step 3: Make It Real, and Make It Permanent

The last step in culture change is actually changing things. Unfortunately, too many organizations fall down on this step because they fail to manage both the short term needs and the long term needs. There are two sides to the culture change coin: making it real and making it permanent. You must work on both at the same time.

Making it real requires high visibility changes that can be done relatively quickly and easily. By implementing quick wins in these areas, you make it clear that this culture shift is real and not just management’s flavor of the day.

Are you trying to shift your culture to value knowledge and expertise over title or tenure? Try implementing a lunch-and-learn program that features some of your younger employees demonstrating their knowledge to the rest of the team. That change alone will not completely transform your culture, but you’ll be showing people, right away, that you’re serious about this new direction.

Making it permanent requires changes to your organizational infrastructure. This takes longer and involves more people, but if you don’t change some of the basic ways you do things, those making-it-real changes will simply fade away and the old culture will retake control.

If you want knowledge to be more important than title, you may need to change your whole organizational structure. Or, like the example above, you might need to change the fundamental way you make decisions inside the organization. It’s important to at least start on some of these long-term changes right away so that people understand the importance of this change.

Don’t let agility become the management flavor of the day. Do a deep dive into your culture to understand exactly why you are (or are not) agile, and then come up with a change action plan that connects directly to improving your ability to deliver your mission.

It’s time for the nonprofit community to start leading the way when it comes to management and workplace culture, and agility is a perfect place to start.

Jamie Notter is a Partner at Human Workplaces, a culture management firm that uses future-focused understanding of culture problems and people problems to generate full organizational potential and help you stay ahead in a changing world. He can be reached at jamie@humanworkplaces.net

This article is reprinted from Issue #10 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!

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