• Building Adaptive Capacity

Strong organizational capacity can’t be imported or taught; it has to be built over time by nurturing and encouraging the organization’s strengths over its weaknesses. What can be taught are the skills and habits that help organizations understand and develop sound strategies. Adaptability is a quality that organizations can develop to position themselves to succeed.

In today’s rapidly changing world, adaptability is increasingly important. Yet organizations often possess characteristics that work against their ability to adapt and change. For example:

  • Human services organizations have historically relied on government contracts, resulting in bureaucratic systems and infrastructure that leave little room for innovation. Many of these nonprofits are still transitioning from legacy data systems, falling behind the potential of new data collection tools and other technologies to enhance efficiency, reach, and service delivery. To take advantage of new technologies, human services nonprofits need more than hardware and software (let alone the cloud) — they must develop the internal systems and organizational cultures necessary to use them effectively. This often requires information sharing and common protocols, adaptations that are inhibited by their traditionally siloed organizational structures.

  • Arts organizations prize artistic vision. The people in them (particularly in large organizations like symphonies or operas) are classically trained, and that training places high value on reverential presentation of great works. As a result, they may be dismissive of what is popular with younger audiences or insensitive to the business needs of their institutions because their highest priority is the art. Lacking sensitivity to the market, they are less able to adapt to changing needs. We have seen leaders who try to instill market awareness meet with resistance, and even dismissal.

  • Animal welfare organizations have an unyielding passion around the way in which they approach treatment of animals and animosity toward those who don’t agree with their approach. One of our foundation colleagues recounted the story of three funders that had worked for six months to try to convince two animal welfare organizations to share feral cat traps because both used the traps only occasionally; but they failed because the two organizations disagreed over the protocol for spaying/neutering the cats once captured. Both were unwilling to adapt, even when it came down to jeopardizing their ability to access the funding they were seeking.

Many of these barriers to adaptive capacity are embedded in organizational cultures and structures. Helping nonprofits overcome them means working with the organizational culture to align people and processes behind organizational goals. It also requires an understanding of internal structures and decision making, and may entail a reinvention of those structures to enable organizations to more nimbly adapt and respond strategically to an ever-changing environment.

Share a success story: Can you think of examples where organizations have  evolved their cultures or structures to be more adaptive?

Tags: nonprofit consulting, organizational culture, technology


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