Ear to the Ground, Eye on the Horizon: Notes from the Field


Over the past six months, we’ve had the good fortune to partner with more than 100 client organizations of all sizes, located across the nation, and serving a diverse array of social missions. Although each engagement is uniquely focused on the nonprofit’s particular needs and goals, a few common challenges and opportunities have surfaced that we believe are influencing the sector more broadly.

1.    Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is Everyone’s Issue

Across the board, the organizations we work with are experiencing in a heightened way the imperative to not just serve and represent diverse communities, but be of and by those communities. Although diversity has long been on the radar with respect to organizational leadership, governance, and services to a demographically changing population, the recent deepening of the dialog to focus on inclusion and equity reflects a more mature understanding of the sector’s role in addressing civil rights and social, economic, and environmental justice.

For some neighborhood-based organizations, this means developing strategies for how to serve communities with a changing ethnic majority or those that are undergoing new development and the displacement of gentrification. Others are grappling with the shift from being primarily a direct service provider to embracing more of an advocacy role to have a greater lasting impact. Even major civil rights organizations and other movement-based nonprofits are negotiating how to position themselves with respect to new, social-media-enabled grassroots organizing and next-generation activists.

From the Ford Foundation’s new focus on challenging inequality to the conversations on race at GEO’s 2016 National Conference, developments across the sector are signaling that this is a defining moment. Meanwhile, the national discourse (and discord) around race, class, gender, and other forms of difference has intensified, upping the ante such that diversity, equity, and inclusion can no longer be ignored, and making it everyone’s issue.

2.    Implementation is Critical to Success

Planning without execution is meaningless, yet operationalizing the aspirations of social sector organizations continues to be a challenge. For nonprofits, the field of vision is too often narrowed by limited human and financial resources – and too often marred by the myriad distractions of shifting conditions and competing priorities. In a classic nonprofit paradox, the “change sector” faces numerous barriers to actually enacting change.

Our work with some clients has entailed our deep involvement in implementing a new partnership, structure, or other way of working. In other cases, the organization’s staff has taken full ownership of implementation from the very outset. Either way, the transition from planning to execution demands that organizations find ways to leverage their investment in planning to activate continued, sustained efforts that fulfill those plans.

As consultants, we can help provide structures, tools, and processes to translate plans to action and create mechanisms for tracking and monitoring – but it is ultimately the nonprofit that must do the day-to-day work, provide the accountability, and adapt the plan as necessary.

This last piece – the ability to adapt – is worth reiterating. The shift from planning to action is, in essence, a leap of faith. Whereas planning offers the illusion of control, execution is invariably an exercise in managing the unexpected.

3.    Capacity Building is Needed, Now More Than Ever

As the prevailing dialog in the sector skews toward innovation, entrepreneurism, and cutting-edge ways of doing business and delivering services, the relative banalities of what it takes for an organization or network to function effectively (i.e. management, systems, infrastructure, etc.) are often overlooked. While the need for general operating support is finally receiving long-overdue attention (huzzah!), the case for capacity building and organizational development seems to need a better publicist.

Our work with several nonprofits (large and small) has revealed the need to strengthen management teams and/or management skills, particularly among mid-level staff. In some cases, organizations with great ideas and aspirations are hampered by the lack of bandwidth and/or expertise to execute them. In other cases, clients are reluctant to set a bold agenda because of such limitations. We have also seen organizations fall short in their strategic efforts because they have not done foundational work needed in board or leadership development, financial planning, or other core areas.

With limited time and resources to invest, nonprofits may be reluctant to prioritize back-to-basics capacity building, banking instead on more high-profile planning, program development, or marketing and communications efforts. But as more is being demanded of the sector and its leaders, now is the time for greater focus on the fundamentals – not less.

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