Big changes start with small steps

It has been almost two years since the release of “Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector.”In that piece, my colleagues and I looked at how the combined effect of demographic shifts, technological advances, increasing emphasis on working via networks, evolving norms around civic engagement and volunteerism, and the blurring of boundaries between sectors was putting enormous pressure on nonprofits to think differently and work differently–to become true “futurists” in pursuit of mission advancement. Much has changed in two years (put down that iPad–you can check responses to your organization’s Twitter feed in just a few minutes), but one thing has stayed the same: the “future” is a moving target. Keeping current can feel like drinking from a fire hose, and adapting is hard.

The response to “Convergence” was fascinating from the start. Even in 2009 there were organizations saying, “Of course! We’ve known this for ages and we’re on top of it.” Much more commonly, however, the following reaction has occurred: “Where do we start?” Or, “We’ve started, but just barely.” And, “We’re strapped. What can we realistically do now? How do we move forward, even in just one or two areas?” Prolonged economic battering has made a difficult task next to impossible for many organizations, especially those that were under-resourced to begin with.

So where can you start, if you’re not one of the fortunate few setting the pace for the rest of the sector? The following questions can help focus your efforts:

1.    What do you want to do differently? Reach out to a broader audience via as-yet-untried social media tools? Engage more supporters in ongoing strategic planning? Shift from a traditional membership model to one that encourages broader participation from a wider network? Build (and truly leverage) a more diverse board or staff team? Consider a multi-sector partnership? Engage in some spirited discussion about where the need for change is most pressing?

2.    Why? How will making that shift help your organization to better advance its mission? What is the change imperative that will drive your organization and its staff, board members, and volunteers to truly do things differently?

3.    How can you take the first steps forward in each area? What information do you need and how will you get it? What “baby steps” can you take to start down the path (or paths) you’ve identified?

4.    Who can take the lead? Is there a champion for this change? Who will do the actual roll-up-your-sleeves work of making things happen? Is this something a volunteer or one staff person can handle? Perhaps a team? Or are you looking at the need for a culture change throughout the organization?

5.    When and how will you evaluate your progress and its effect on your organization’s ability to advance its mission? There are a thousand, even a hundred thousand, things you can do to step further into the future–you must choose carefully and learn from each success and failure.

Of course, taking time for this type of conversation isn’t always easy, nor is sustaining the momentum generated when you do. Ideally, questions like this are a regular feature of your board meetings, staff retreats and planning sessions. If they are not, think about where you might be able to introduce them. We encourage our clients to commit to a protected piece of time on both board and staff agendas at least once a month for truly strategic discussions. Wrestling with how to respond and adapt to the rapid changes facing everyone in the sector certainly warrants the time and attention.

Don’t let the enormity of the topic intimidate you. It’s easy to dive into “what” and “why” and find yourself back to the question that brought you to the discussion in the first place: Where do we start? Start small. Identify your top three questions and go find answers. Test your idea. You may fail, but you’ll learn from it. Be specific, and be willing to check in and articulate the next three steps when you reconvene.

Change is never simple. External change can be overwhelming, and internal change rocky. Starting with the basics–what, why, how, who and when–can help make it more manageable.

See also:

The Nonprofit Business Plan

The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution

Image credit: adds.com

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