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Resilience and the Nonprofit Sector

I’ve had some interesting reactions to my blog on the need for high-performing nonprofits to be capable of “adapting” and about our Agile approach to software development, where we learned to plan/adapt/plan/adapt rather than just focusing on making plans. (A special word of thanks to Lyssa Adkins, our Agile training coach; she has a great website:

I found out that the word adapt makes some people uncomfortable because it sounds so ad hoc. It suggests blowing in the wind, and reacting to every tug and pull without having a solid sense of direction. It reminds readers of the familiar phrase: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any direction will work.”

In this blog and another to follow in a few days, I’m sharing some thoughts that helped me work through this tension.

The first insight came from an amazing documentary my wife and I were given the chance to view last week about an event that happened on 9/11. After the World Trade Towers fell, the Coast Guard put out an alert to all boaters to help rescue survivors. In the course of the next nine hours, nearly 500,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan by an armada of over 150 vessels, of all shapes and sizes. This was more people than were evacuated from Dunkirk in World War II in nine days. There are nice summaries of the documentary here and here.

The documentary was shown at a day-long film festival organized by the Center for National Policy, the Rockefeller Foundation and others here in Washington on September 7. In his introductory remarks the other night, the Center’s president, Dr. Stephen Flynn, said the retrospective will not only honor those that died, and the heroic work of those that responded, but the resilience of the survivors.

Flynn said the focus of the 9/11 retrospective will be to “strengthen national resilience by inspiring and guiding Americans to better withstand, recover from, and adapt to chronic risks and periodic catastrophes.” He pointed out that since 9/11, our nation has experienced Katrina, other destructive hurricanes, earthquakes and a financial meltdown, to name only a few challenges. It’s impossible, he said, to prevent occurrences like these from happening or even fully protecting ourselves from their consequences.

Resilience is an intriguing word to be used in the concept of 9/11. The dictionary defines resilience as “the power or ability to return to the original form after being bent or stretched.” It doesn’t mean simply enduring or succumbing – but taking determined steps to return to normal.

It’s an important concept for all of us aspiring to run high-performing organizations. Adapting suggests we need to constantly respond to the world around us and not get so fixed on a certain course of action. The word “resilience” reminds us that despite our best efforts, bad things will happen to us and our organizations, but it is within our power to respond affirmatively.

A quote from the Center for National Policy’s website prompted me to think about my ability to respond to adversity and feeling optimistic about our nation’s big challenges:

“Americans have always bounced back better and stronger in the face of adversity. Our history – as a nation, a culture, a people – is filled with examples of our resilience. As such, we are the heirs to a powerful legacy of confidence and optimism about our ability to shape the future for the better. But, lately a torrent of new economic and security challenges appears to be sapping our “can-do” spirit. We must once again draw upon the democratic principles of open dialogue and collaboration, civic engagement and volunteerism, and a shared commitment to bond together in common cause to overcome adversity.”

Topics: Charitable Giving