Good decision making in social service organizations

Does your nonprofit organizations make good decisions?

Consistently, over time, when it counts, in ways that contribute to impact?

How do you know?

And how do you establish processes that make it more likely that you keep making good decisions, to drive towards your vision of change?

I’m a little obsessed with these questions right now, contemplating what distinguishes nonprofit organizations that thrive–and bring impact along with them–from those that sort of muddle through or coast–failing to make the mark that they could.

I have been thinking about this a lot more since reading Decisive, and I’ve looked at the organizations with which I’ve been working most closely over the past few years, through the lens of that analysis, for patterns and ideas about how to catalyze better decision making.

But I’m also very interested in your experiences and your practices, to drive good decision making.

What works for you, what have you learned, and what are you willing to share?

  • You need good information for good decisions: It sounds obvious, I know, but there are still many organizations without much evaluation capacity, especially in advocacy, and with few channels to systematically collect and, even more importantly, interpret, the information they need. This has to be zoomed in and out, too; you need base rates and big-picture data, but you also need stories and ‘texture’, to complete the picture of what is really going on with your organization and what you really must know. Without intentional methods through which to gather and act on this information, it won’t happen serendipitously.
  • Organizational culture matters: Organizations need a climate where people aren’t afraid to experiment and dissent, if they are to get good decisions over time. Maybe our nonprofits should have ‘failure of the year’ contests, where we celebrate the little failures that, collectively, can inform our futures? Maybe we need to think about how to institutionalize the devil’s advocate roles that must be part of our conversations.
  • Adaptive capacity is essential: We have to scan not just our own processes and histories, but also the landscape, if we are to have a chance to succeed not just in today’s context, but tomorrow’s, too. That means developing listening channels that help us to understand what other organizations are doing, what social indicators are telling us, and what our best predictions suggest is coming.
  • We have to recognize choices when they are present: There’s so much inertia in our lives, and our organizations are no different. To combat this, organizations need to know when to get off auto-pilot, so that we don’t limp through opportunities to make decisive changes. Not acting is an action, as I tell my students every semester–in advocacy and in nonprofit governance–and so we need to recognize when we’re faced with a decision point.

What are your techniques for making good decisions? What guidance would you share with others? What really excellent decisions have you made, especially if they weren’t immediately recognizable as such? What not-so-great decisions have you made, and what led to those?

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