The first step to becoming a well-organised NPO
Well-organised NPOs are always more impactful and sustainable than those that are poorly organised. Paying attention to the organisation is crucial not only for administrative efficiency but, much more importantly, for enhanced impact and sustainability.
A surprisingly common leadership approach that refuses to attend to the organisation is what I call the Panglossian approach. Dr Pangloss (in Voltaire’s Candide) famously held that we always live in the best possible world. The pessimistic Panglossian leader firmly believes that their organisation is in the best possible state that it could be - no further improvement is possible. The optimistic Panglossian believes firmly that no further improvement is even necessary. Both are flawed, not only because of their hubris in the face of complexity and change, but because they ignore the very thing which produces outcomes and impacts, the very thing which is to be sustained: the organisation itself.
As important as funding is, especially in tough times, it is also not enough. To translate funding into impact requires organisation. It is by organising better that more resources can be attracted and then multiplied as meaningful outcomes on a more sustainable basis. An ongoing commitment to a better organisation is both possible and necessary in a changing world characterised by challenging conditions.
Poorly organised NPOs are wracked with fragmented functioning and internal conflict, grinding inefficiency, inertia, discontented stakeholders, and ultimately by their short life spans. However, being poorly organised is not always a terminal condition. A lot can be done about becoming well-organised.
But what does being ‘well-organised’ involve? Organisations are multi-faceted beasts and each is unique in many respects. This makes it difficult to describe in a nutshell what being well-organised entails.
This, of course, should not stop us from taking a crack at it. Broadly speaking, how well a non-profit is organised refers to the state of three interrelated dimensions of the organisation:
- its functioning as an integrated system of values, goals, people, practices, structures, financial resources, knowledge, equipment, processes and technologies;
- the degree to which the organisation secures and translates resources into mission-critical outcomes and valued impacts;
- and, the sustained fitness of the organisation in relation to its changing environment.
All three dimensions show that there is a direct line from better organisation to greater impact. All three involve the whole organisation and therefore require ongoing leadership attention.
A first step towards better organisation is to bring it into view. This sounds simple, however, the organisation as a complex whole is often least visible from the inside. Still, an honest, shared view of the organisation is essential for NPO directors and executives. Not a view of only this or that part, or this or that programme, but of all of them as a multi-dimensional whole.
A key input to leadership at this level is reliable evidence about the current state of the organisation. Such evidence involves taking a historical view of the dimensions we identified above. The difficulty, however, is that historical information degrades and is less useful if it is not brought up to date. NPO boards and executives typically rely on patchy and outdated information about the organisation as a whole and this makes governance and strategic decisions even harder to make. This is why the annual three-day strategic planning workshop does not suffice.
Although challenging to develop, a shared view of organisational reality is crucial to joined-up leadership. Therefore, there ought to be more frequent occasions for NPO leaders to jointly deliberate on the state and direction of the NPO. Such occasions should be free of the ‘regular business’ of board meetings and allow for a process of “stepping-in and stepping-out” which brings the organisation into view without losing sight of its dimensions.
If you organise better you can do more with what you have. You can organise better by paying more attention to the organisational whole as it stands.