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The Agile Approach to Nonprofit Management




I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for high-performing organizations to have a mindset of adaptability in order to meet ever-changing challenges and opportunities. One of my favorite Peter Drucker quotes is on planning: “People who plan are the unhappiest people in the world. Opportunity is unpredictable. Most of the time, opportunity comes in over the transom. And opportunity doesn’t stay long. If you don’t respond to an opportunity, it moves on.”

At GuideStar, we have made a conscious efforts to be adaptable with our planning. As an example, we now have a large team of developers and product managers committed to the Agile method of software development. One of the key tenets of Agile is a focus on planning rather than creating a plan. Do you know the difference? Planning suggests estimating, being flexible, and responding to conditions and feedback from the marketplace. The word “plan” suggests a product that is completed. Agile suggests using a methodology of plan-adapt-plan-adapt. Nonprofits often get trapped into something more like plan-plan-plan-do and find out too late that the plan is wrong or out of date.

While I’ve been musing on adaption, Rick Cohen, a writer at the Nonprofit Quarterly, offered me the opportunity to take a look at a paper he has just written on the organization Habitat for Humanity. You’ll be able to see his full report this fall in the Quarterly. The key to success for Habitat to remain a high-performing organization is – you guessed it – adaptability. Read more:

High performing organizations look very different. The measure for one might be output, for another impact, for a third synoptic leaps in efficiency. Most distressingly avoided in the high-performance literature is the turbulent surrounding political and economic environment that compels truly high performing nonprofits to continuously adjust, adapt, and change. Habitat for Humanity International may be an example of an unusual high performing organization facing the challenge of constant learning and adaptation to the complexities of operating in diverse cities and nations while holding true to an identity at the nexus of creating affordable homeownership and furthering a mission of religious faith.

Earlier this year, some 60 executive directors of local Habitat for Humanity affiliates responded to a half dozen questions on the political and economic challenges they face. Their answers were hardly uniform, but they reflect how the constituent members of a geographically far-flung system try to sustain and improve upon their high performance.

Remember that volunteer Habitat effort in your town, mobilizing church members and potential home purchasers to roll up their sleeves and build a modest, affordable home? Sort of like a modern, frequently urban barnraiser, except that instead of a barn, the product was to build a home for a poor family? While still volunteer- and faith-based, the Habitat network is international, big, and influential. And most of the public, and perhaps even much of Habitat’s internal constituency of board members and staff, may not fully grasp it. As one Habitat affiliate CEO told us, “when I moved to my current affiliate 8 years ago, I had to put on a little show I called ‘We’re not your Daddy’s Habitat’ to get people’s attention that we were willing to embrace change.” Daddy might not recognize it.

Habitat today is a much more dynamic organization than the simplistic image implicit in its very valuable brand. As a result of its now decades of experience building owner-occupied housing for people with little other than their own sweat as a potential home downpayment, Habitat for Humanity confronts a situation where it is one of the few housing and community development networks with a reach into thousands of low-income urban and rural neighborhoods across the nation and as a result is being turned to for much more than volunteer build projects.

Habitat is a complex network of grassroots organizations, likely to face continuing challenges in the years ahead, particularly as charitable and government funding shrink in the face of a national economic recession that is hardly disappearing. But the network seems to have recovered enough confidence, following the Fuller debacle, to adapt to the environmental turbulence of the national and international housing development market to suggest that it meets or surpasses much of what is needed to qualify as high-performing.

The aspirations to high performance in the Habitat system is based on the adaptation and replication of its small scale, volunteer model fitted to multiple cities and countries with different political and economic contexts and systems.

Habitat EDs see themselves as continually adjusting to a world that requires change and adaptation. One respondent summarized the challenge of social entrepreneurialism in a broader framework: “We are changing with the times, no matter what you label it. We are doing more building or handicap ramps and making existing homes more accessible, we are organizing neighborhood clean-ups, and we are organizing service clubs to go out and change light bulbs/smoke alarm batteries/furnace filters so that elderly home owners don’t fall. This was necessitated by the downturn in the economy and to make sure we honor the ‘safe, decent and affordable’ mantra we repeat every day. IF we don’t adapt, we die. The question for us is then, what is the best new path?” But adapt how?

How are you adapting your organization to meet today’s challenges? What planning model do you use?

Bob.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Bob Ottenhoff,  Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice