Is Your Nonprofit’s Mission Disruptable? Remove “Rose Colored” Glasses!

Is Your Nonprofit’s Mission Disruptable? Remove “Rose Colored” Glasses!

By: Eugene Fram

The missions of many in independent book stores have been disrupted in recent years, although a few with unique offerings seem to be making a comeback. Nonprofit board members and managers may feel their missions are immune to disruption. They come to the following conclusions, using the proverbial rose-colored glasses.*

  • Our board is doing a great job!
  • We have no worries—we have (or just hired) a great CEO or Executive Director!
  • When push comes to shove, our board can raise big dollars!
  • Our board of directors is like a good family!

But nonprofit realists know it can happen—they point to Easter Seals that successfully modified its mission when polio vaccine was introduced. In contrast, many nonprofits offering face-to face counseling services failed to understand the impact of new pharmaceuticals, the number of counseling agencies declined.

Following are a number of issues the should interest board members and CEOs if they want to test the disruptabilty potential for their organization’s mission: **

  • Continually review core assumptions: It is the standard question, “What is our business?” One nonprofit, serving the homeless/elderly thought themselves in the safety net business, intervening for clients in trouble. But based on strategic inspections of core assumptions, they concluded they were in the sustainability business, helping clients to achieve a sustainable lifestyle.
  • Potentials for disruptions: To focus on this issue, management must be at the state-of–art in its field and board members must ask generative question based on a wide variety of sources and experiences. Example of the latter: A board member experienced in space technology might suggest adapting procedures from his/h field be applied to a nonprofit’s mission.
  • Trade-offs: Coping with a disruption will probably require the abandonment of some legacy programs or procedures and the adoption of new ones. The board needs to assess what they will be and make provisions for handling them with a minimum of anger and resentment. Especially difficult will be those related personnel realignments or layoffs.
  • Leadership capabilities: These relate to both board members and management. Both the board and management should have sufficient numbers of people with strategic planning experiences, be sound critical thinkers, and practical visionaries. This can be a tall order for some nonprofits I have encountered that didn’t have a single director who understood strategic planning, and board members could only work on projects related to their employment fields. Also the leadership quality of the CEO and board chair must be carefully vetted in the event disruptive challenges arise.
  • Culture: Do all board member view the culture of the nonprofit in the same way? I would estimate that typically there is quite a diversity of views, and only members of very large nonprofits have attempted to measure it. It is too difficult and costly a task. However, top talent will certainly try to assess it before accepting a position, and it is certainly worth the minimal effort to know what employees are saying about the agency’s culture and to place an “alert” for social media comments on the organization.
  • Impact of Technology: Board members need to have an awareness of the technologies that may carry a threat of disruption with them. If there aren’t enough board members who can provide this type of review and the CEO is not visionary, the board has a legal obligation to seek an outside review.   This should also include attention to cyber security.
  • The Audit Committee: The audit committee needs to have a robust report available to meet the information requirements arising from disruptive challenges. Especially important is an estimate of the financial resources available, to last throughout a reinvention period, if the nonprofit is to survive.

Major disruptions to for-profit and nonprofit organizations usually don’t occur quickly. Embryo warnings develop over a long period. Nonprofit boards need to be in a position to begin corrective actions when the first signs of disruption appear.

* “Going for Impact” ©2016

** Deloitte Consulting (2/17/17) “Directors’ Alert 2017: Courage under fire: Embracing presumption”



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