Relevance is a word that has been tossed around a lot lately, both for the nonprofit sector as a whole and within individual organizations. Many nonprofit leaders have been considering their organization’s place in a world that is being rapidly redefined by technology, the impact of the economic downturn and demographic shifts. This, I believe, is a good thing. However, an all too common response to the “Will we continue to be relevant?” question seems to be turning inward, doing a quick review of all the things an organization is doing well, and then proudly reporting to constituents that, “Yes, we are relevant. More relevant than ever.”
To really consider the question of relevance, for today and tomorrow, organizations will benefit from looking beyond their own walls. In doing so, an organization must consider the broader environment in which it operates and the changes that could rapidly threaten the relevance of many organizations. In La Piana Consulting’s, Convergence: How Five Trends Will Shape the Social Sector, the authors state, “Thoughtful observers recognize that five years from now the sector will not simply have returned to its previous, pre-crisis state. They know that a fundamental change in Americans’ attitudes toward credit, debt, risk, work and philanthropy, coupled with the loss of 100,000 or more nonprofits, will permanently change the landscape.” Nonprofit organizations that do not adapt to these forces and trends, either as leaders or as followers, are at risk of becoming irrelevant.
Although predicting the exact course of the nonprofit sector’s future is impossible, paying attention to emerging trends and adapting in response will be a key determinant of continued relevance for individual organizations. Consider these trends (See trends one and two posted on March 22):
3. Leadership and organizational culture
In the 2008 Compass Point report, Ready to Lead: Next Generation Leaders Speak Out, only 32 percent of respondents to the large, nationwide survey on the nonprofit leadership pipeline responded “probably yes” or “definitely yes” to the question of whether they wanted to be an executive director during their career. For many young professionals in the nonprofit sector, the executive director position is simply unattractive as it is currently designed. One response to this kind of statistic is to conclude that there will be a leadership gap because the demand for executive directors will exceed the supply. Another response is that younger leaders within the nonprofit sector will drive change around what it means to be an executive director, thus redefining the role. On the other side of the generational spectrum, the population of baby boomers looking to engage in nonprofit work, either as an “encore career” or as a volunteer continues to grow. These factors, of course, create opportunities and challenges for all nonprofit organizations.
With more young professionals filling leadership positions and boomers looking to engage in the sector’s work in new ways, the way nonprofits operate is likely to change. The authors of Convergence identify six expectations that younger workers may bring to the management and leadership of the nonprofit sector: engagement, transparency, technology, professional development, diversity and work-life balance. Thus, organizations that strive to be more deliberate about leadership development, focus on developing clearer career paths for talented young staff, proactively work to bridge generational differences, work to engage boomers and consider shifts to shared leadership models will be more prepared to face the challenges of this decade. Those that start incubating these new approaches to leadership will be positioned to attract and retain the sector’s top talent – on both ends of the generational spectrum.
4. Ability to adapt – and adapt quickly
And, most importantly, organizations must build the capacity to adapt quickly within this rapidly changing environment. The speed at which change is happening means that adaptable organizations will be most successful at generating resources, meeting evolving needs and achieving the greatest mission impact. While jumping on each new thing is not a recipe for sustainability, staying informed about these trends, thoughtfully considering the impact on your organization and acting to align trends with your organization’s strategies is essential for long-term relevance. As stated in Convergence, the world will not return to “normal” in five years, as the world has fundamentally changed. How will your organization fit into, or lead, in this new world?
By Sarah Fischler, Director of Consulting and Special Projects at the Community Resource Center, a nonprofit capacity organization serving Colorado. Sarah is also the Board President of the Denver Young Nonprofit Professionals Network.