Betting on Bold Change

In a recent post, we explored some of the reasons why nonprofits may find it difficult to commit to a major change, such as deciding to partner or merge, and suggested ways of lessening those barriers. In this follow-up, we’ll look more closely at the topic of risk, and how risk is not only inherent in making any kind of change, but also in not making change.

The nonprofit sector is a tough place to take risks. The nature of third-party funding and popular assumptions about what nonprofits should, or should not, do as “charities” can be stifling to innovation. But we are also beginning to see a shift toward more openness to risk, at least in the rhetoric around entrepreneurial thinking and learning from failure. Although many foundations, donors, and nonprofits are still learning to walk the talk in becoming more fearless, we believe the trend toward thinking bigger and acting bolder will define the future of the sector.

In this shifting context, the risk of marginal change or doing nothing may, in fact, be greater than the risk of making a bold move. Taking chances can sometimes result in disappointment or failure, but failing to take chances often means missed opportunities. For nonprofits, not taking the right risks can mean losing out on becoming stronger or growing, asserting leadership in the field or community, or increasing mission-driven impact. Always opting for the safest route can seem like the more responsible thing to do, but it can also short-change your organization and its stakeholders.

So what if you decide that your nonprofit deserves to do more and to be more, and that a bold move may be just the thing to enhance your ability to achieve your strategic goals? How do you work through the fear of taking the risk?

Face your fears. Identify what most concerns you and why. Put these fears on the table and have a straightforward discussion. What would be the worst-case scenario? What is the real likelihood that it would occur? What are the ways of mitigating this potential outcome?

Assess your conflict tolerance. Is fear of conflict (either with internal or external stakeholders, or potential partners) inhibiting your ability to make bold decisions? Is it time to build new skills in effective conflict management? Could some simple ground rules (e.g., assume positive intent, state interests rather than positions, set a time limit for debates) help you turn conflict into a constructive catalyst?

Think competitively. Competition is still an uncomfortable concept for some in the sector, but that makes it no less real. Remember that as strong a collaborator as your organization may be, it is always in competition with others in a world where resources are limited and achieving the mission is the bottom line. The ability to creatively and decisively respond to strategic challenges and opportunities is no less than a matter of survival in today’s competitive nonprofit environment.

Finally, but most important of all: focus on mission impact. Always, the most critical factor is what you want to achieve. As a nonprofit, you are likely working on big social problems that need equally big solutions. When weighing whether to take the chance on making that big bet, consider: What are the risks of NOT going for it? Or better yet: What if it actually WORKED?

Making bold change and taking the right risks is not just a matter of having the moxie to do it, but of having done your homework. Click here for more about managing change.

This post is a collaboration between Scott Cotenoff and Melissa Mendes Campos.

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