Tag Archives: organizational culture

Scaling for Impact

Hello, there.

Still me, somewhat obsessed with scaling and nonprofit impact.

There are two new resources I want to share about scaling: a piece from the Social Impact Exchange about how collaborations can scale impact, and the video and proceedings from the annual conference on scale (see, it’s not just me–there’s a whole scale conference!).

But, first, some reflections on why I think scale is so important.

Often, when I’m sitting around a conference room talking with nonprofit leaders (usually, the CEO/Executive Director, the Vice-Presidents or equivalent, and maybe some program director-types), the conversation quickly turns to how tired they are and how overworked and how stressed.

There’s a lot of gallows humor like that, among social workers, and some of it, I know, is the product of unhealthy organizational cultures and attitudes that equate ‘busy’ with ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ or ‘noble’.

The quotation marks hopefully convey my skepticism about that calculus.

But a lot of it is real.

There are many nonprofit employees who make tremendous sacrifices, rarely seeing their own families, neglecting their health, giving up friendships and hobbies, because they care so deeply about the people they’re serving and the organizations they’re running.

I respect them and appreciate them and value them. I try to support them.

But I also think we have to be honest about the perennial elephant in the room:

We’re doing all of this for relatively little impact.

That’s not at all to say that our efforts don’t matter. That’s not the kind of impact I’m talking about.

Of course, every child whose life is improved from child abuse prevention services, every adult with a mental illness who gains a new measure of health, every person who finds a good job, every light bulb that goes off in the mind of a struggling youth, every policy win advanced by a health advocate, every program developed to fight homelessness…

it all matters.

But, measured against the scale of the problems against which we are arrayed, the size of our impact can often pale.

And that’s not an imbalance that can be corrected by working harder–or even smarter–within our organizations. If it was, we would already have done it, right?

No, what we need are new structures, scaled to be capable of delivering the impact that the urgency of our problems demands.

We need collective commitment to well-defined problems. We need data that can point us in the right direction. We need collaborations across sectors to get us out of our silos.

We need scale.

It won’t make us get home in time for every after-school activity. It might not make us fit in our 30 minutes of exercise every day. It certainly won’t take away the stresses that come from navigating the messy realities of human lives.

But it can make all of those efforts echo more loudly, and stretch further, and last longer.

And that matters, I think.

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?

Devils and good decisions

One of my favorite insights from Decisive relates to the importance of diverging opinions in crafting good decisions.

I think this is incredibly important, perhaps especially when organizations–like the nonprofits with which I normally work–are embarking on new journeys, including the effort to integrate advocacy into their work. I would much rather have someone asking critical questions, even really difficult ones, than have the organization coast along, having failed to adequately account for the potential risks of their positions and to prepare to articulate the rationale behind the transition.

I think ‘devil’s advocate’ role is a good fit for social workers, in particular.

  • We tend to care deeply about our organizations and its purpose, which is essential; someone who wants to see the organization fail, or who just delights in ‘blowing stuff up’ cannot possibly play the same productive role.
  • Our excellent communications skills can help us to articulate our concerns within the context of a desire to serve the organization, with attention to the socio-emotional consequences of challenging people’s ideas.
  • Our relationships with peers can help us to surface others’ contrary arguments, too, when they may not be willing or able to voice them themselves, enriching the process.

But although criticism is a ‘noble function’ (p. 97), it’s one that can’t be filled regularly by the same person, if the process is to work well.

If someone always plays the ‘no’ card, that person will be marginalized within the organization. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on one person, too, especially given the reality of power imbalances within any organization.

What we need, instead, are structures that create space for devil’s advocates to work, and, indeed, that encourage them.

I’ve seen this in some of the organizations with which I work: the nonprofit whose staff surfaced an internal agency policy as the first target of their advocacy agenda, and got an encouraging ‘go ahead’ from the leadership, who acknowledged that there was an authentic interest in finding better solutions than what they had initially crafted; the agency whose practicum students are invited to share candid feedback about the organization after grades have been posted and recommendations written; the organization that started our advocacy TA process with meetings with every departmental team, sharing the proposed work plan and giving people a chance to veto particular projects and suggest new directions (time-consuming, yes, but buy-in afterwards was through the roof).

These organizational practices–and, indeed, they have to be practiced to become ingrained–take the onus of being the ‘devil’ off any one person or even department (even we skilled social workers who are a bit less conflict-averse, I think, than many professions) and, instead, enshrine it in the agency’s operations.

We invite the ‘devil’ to sit down at the decision-making table with us…and we are the better for it.

Advocacy Evaluation and Data-Driven Cultures

A huge part of the advocacy evaluation collaborative I’m working on here in Kansas is, as I’ve discussed, the mental shift to get nonprofit organizations thinking about evaluation as something they do for them, instead of something driven by those who write the checks.

It’s the difference between asking, “what do we what to know?” and “what did they say we’re supposed to put in response to #3?”

For some organizations, this is welcomed with open arms.

They developed tools and systems a long time ago, to collect the data they need to answer the questions they need to ask, and they are thrilled that there might actually be ways to share–and be recognized for–these insights.

But, for others, there’s some hesitation here.

Maybe it’s, in part, lack of certainty about how to collect (and, more importantly, analyze) the data they need. Maybe it’s concern that they could become ‘slaves to data’, in a way that would somehow negate their practice wisdom or instincts about how to best approach a given policymaker. Maybe it’s a human resource concern, since very few nonprofits have individuals with either the skill set or the work schedule to make them comfortable with taking on data analysis duties.

Or, most likely given my conversations with organizations through this initiative, it’s sort of all of the above.

Some posts on Beth’s Blog relating to data and measurement and how nonprofit organizations can and should embrace metrics as tools for change offered, to me, a new insight:

Some organizations have ‘data cultures’.

And some don’t. At least not yet.

While most of the conversation, linked above, relates to social media metrics, the typology of organizations and their evolution towards ‘data embrace’ applies to advocacy evaluation–and general program evaluation–too.

In some organizations, staff are comfortable with experimentation, because they know that there will be opportunities to learn what’s working, and what’s not, and to adjust accordingly. They have established systems–like a Quality Improvement Department–that shepherd data collection and analysis throughout the organization. They encourage staff at all levels to ask questions about key indicators, and they include clients, too, in the process of interpreting findings and making sense of them in practice.

And, in some organizations, what data there are (maybe some program participation counts, or raw numbers on donations, or maybe website page hits), are sequestered in one part of the organization, usually towards the top, such that there’s no real conversation around information. These organizations don’t spend much time collecting data, but they spend even less really understanding them, and that’s a bigger concern.

In my work with advocacy evaluation, I’m trying to avoid, if possible, use of the term ‘data’ at all. I think it scares people, especially social work-types, so I try to substitute something more innocuous, like ‘information’, instead. We’re trying to find methods of data collection that fit with organizational work flow and complement their existing strengths.

But Beth’s posts made me realize that we need to attend to something else, too.

We have to connect evaluation to the organizational culture.

This could mean relating every evaluation question back to the organization’s mission. Or highlighting the organization’s key values and those that can be enhanced, in some way, by evaluation (innovation, maybe, or excellence). Or finding champions within the organizational structure who have significant informal influence, and asking them to spearhead the progression towards a data-driven or data-informed approach.

Because dealing with data can be difficult.

Evaluation isn’t easy.

If it’s counter-cultural, that just makes our jobs harder.

Organization Culture, Advocacy, and “Free Spaces”

These days, I have the luxury of existing somewhat apart from an organizational culture. As a consultant, I get to swoop in, sometimes, knowing that my mere presence will shake things up for the organization’s traditional way of operating, and that, within that dynamic, there are new opportunities for change.

I also get to observe different organizational cultures, which is a very valuable experience. I can often get a quick ‘feel’ that a particular organization is, for example, particularly receptive to an advocacy orientation, or especially concerned about appearances and protocol. In one organization I’ve done some work with, they even started a Transformation Council, to specifically look at how the organization itself needs to change, in order to more fully live its mission. The formation of that council, in turn, has created momentum for change, which is embedding itself now within the organization’s culture (in a way that openness to change begets more openness to change).

Since much of my work involves helping nonprofit social service organizations integrate advocacy and social change work into their direct service provision, I’ve been thinking about the role of organizational culture in helping institutions make this shift, and about how to use organizational culture as a lever for the kinds of alignments and redirections necessary for the organization to take on this advocacy function as a complement to their services.

As quoted in Switch, “organizational culture isn’t just part of the game; it is the game”, and I find that that’s no where more true than in trying to get an entrenched organization, and, more importantly, the stakeholders who are entrenched within it, to embrace a new way of seeing those they serve (as co-creators of social change), their services (as bridges to fundamental social transformation), their staff (as catalysts for empowering advocacy), and their organizations (as resources to be leveraged in pursuit of social justice).

Review of case studies of organizations that successfully tackle change find an important practice in common: the existence of small-scale gatherings where like-minded individuals can exchange ideas without surveillance from opposition, including internal opposition. These gatherings allow people to gain strength in unity, somewhat set apart, until they are ready to engage more openly. Applying what social workers know about groups, that’s how cohesion, and the norms that accompany it, set in, so that, in this case, before there is an effort to unleash the new ideas on the larger entity–the organization–they have rooted themselves within a part of it, demonstrating, of course, in the process, that the sky will not fall down.

Understanding the critical role of these ‘free spaces’ within organizations, and the role they play in successful organizational culture shifts, doesn’t necessarily tell us how to build them. Or, perhaps more accurately, how to permit them to grow, since there’s a certainly organic element implied. They are in some ways like the learning circles used in the Building Movement Project’s model, except that, here, there’s a greater willingness to let only those staff members enthused about social change cluster together initially. In some ways, because of the appearance of distance from the rest of the organizational apparatus, they have a sort of ‘cell’ quality, which means that organizations, and these actors within them, will have to get at least a little comfortable with tolerating some dissent and division on the road to a larger purpose.

Have you been part of a ‘free space’ within an organization? What did it look like and how did it function? Organizational leaders, what do you do to cultivate this learning circle approach, and what within your organizational culture supports or resists those efforts? And social service agency change agents, when have you attempted organizational transformation without the benefit of this ‘incubator’? How do you think it might have made a difference?

The Future of Nonprofits, Part I: Innovating for Advocacy

This week, in the spirit of the season of giving, I’m writing three posts related to my thinking on some of the ideas raised in The Future of Nonprofits, and then giving away a copy of the book to a randomly-selected commenter at the end of the week. Today’s post tackles the core of the book–building an orientation to innovation within nonprofit organizations–specifically regarding what I think this means for transforming organizational cultures to embrace advocacy as a central mission imperative. Much of what I’ve written about here before (accepting risk, seeking mission fit, rigorously evaluating advocacy efforts) complements the authors’ insights on what innovation can look like, and can mean, for nonprofits, although I’ve never thought about it as explicitly “innovating” until reading this book.

I look forward to your comments, from those who have read The Future of Nonprofits and those who would like to, and especially your ideas on what the future can look like for our field, and more importantly, for the causes to which we dedicate ourselves, if we commit to building it together.

There’s an analogy in the opening of The Future of Nonprofits about how we respond to a moth in the room–taking the time to usher it carefully outside v. swatting at it with the back of our hands–that the authors use to illustrate how we often deal with new ideas in a nonprofit organization (hint: many of us are swatters). Honestly, I’m not totally enamored with the analogy, because what we often need to do is embrace the “moth” and shower it with the attention it deserves as it grows, rather than even kindly sending it on its way, but it did get me thinking about one of the greatest challenges we face in integrating an advocacy orientation into our primarily service-focused organizations:

We are very anxious about distractions.

Some of this preoccupation with focus is good, of course: none of us would want to work in (or be served by!) organizations without a clear sense of mission and how its activities advance those goals. We owe our clients, especially, accountability, and we need to avoid the temptation to do a little bit of good wherever we can, instead of developing real excellence that can revolutionize our world.


Advocacy is not a distraction.

Nor is it the kind of small side initiative (like the office recycling program that the authors use to illustrate inventions v. innovations) that we can tack onto what we’re already doing, in the hopes that either (a) it will magically make our lives better and our work more effective or (b) it will satisfy our guilt, at least, about what we should be doing, and get people off our backs for awhile.

It requires infusing a commitment to social justice, a willingness to engage even our adversaries, a recognition that standing with our clients requires (at least sometimes) standing in harm’s way, and a passion for mission that becomes a calling.

And that makes it an innovation, in the clearest sense of that word–something that contributes creatively and powerfully to what our organizations should be doing: “creating ways to deliver on their mission through products and services that are insanely great” (p. 23).

But how do we get there? How do we get past this fear that stepping up to the advocacy challenges that so demand our attention won’t, somehow, turn us into these political monsters embroiled in every nasty fight we read about in the papers, or, conversely, detract from our services so much that we cease to be relevant to the causes to which we are committed?

The Future of Nonprofits suggests that what our organizations need, in fact, is more waste. Translating this concept to advocacy, it means time spent contemplating the roots of the problems faced by those we serve, and thinking collaboratively and very intently about the policy approaches that could eradicate them. It means building this time, and respect for it, into our employees’ job descriptions, and into our organizations’ priorities. It means structuring our organizations so that there is room to explore, so that we can be deliberate about our advocacy AND still extremely competent in our services.

Because, really, we can do more than one thing at a time. Even well.

It means that advocacy shouldn’t be the prerogative of just the “policy person” in an organization. Everyone who works at a particular organization should be assumed to be passionately committed to its mission (or they shouldn’t be there), and there should be an intentional effort to weave advocacy responsibilities into their regular work, both so that advocacy initiatives have the benefit of multiple perspectives and so that individuals can be a part of something larger, even, than they own specialized functions. I’ve seen this in practice, with childcare workers allowed to travel for legislative visits on work time, and case managers whose advocacy efforts alongside clients emerge as their most treasured victories, sustaining them during draining periods of direct practice.

It also means that seeing advocacy as an innovation within an organization–a fundamentally new and very potent way to attack the problems that plague us–frames it as an endeavor to be approached with an eye towards evaluation and an acceptance of the risks that inevitably accompany it. That’s a healthy and sustainable way for organizations to embrace advocacy as a core part of their work, rather than that “stuck onto the side” distraction.

Because it’s not.

Have you SEEN a chicken with its head cut off?

I am NOT going to show you a chicken with its head cut off!

I once worked at a nonprofit organization where, EVERY TIME someone asked, “how’s it going?” the answer, seemingly by rote, was something along the lines of “unbelievably busy,” or “drowning, as always,” or, my personal least favorite, “running around like a chicken with my head cut off.”

As this semester winds down and I send another cohort of graduates off into the social work profession, I just want us to pause for a moment to reflect on this culture of “busy” and what it says about our organizations and, perhaps most importantly, what kind of message it sends to those we serve.

I think I know where this “busy reflex” comes from: nonprofit social service organizations are always squeezed for resources, so there’s a great deal of insecurity and everyone wants to prove that he/she is indispensable to the organization’s work. Besides, we often ARE really busy, even stress-inducingly busy, and it can be hard to break out of crisis mode when we’re often thrust there.


This orientation towards always feeling busy, or even acting busy, is pathological. Below, I’ve outlined some of my biggest concerns about this instinctive busy-ness, and then I’d love to hear your comments about organizational culture, the cult of overwork, and how to break beyond these constraints.

  • There’s a difference between seeming busy, or even actually being “busy” and being productive, of course. While social workers’ days are notoriously unpredictable, I always found that my professional life worked better if I started each day with a commitment to accomplishing at least one really important thing, something that led to a longer-term goal, and saved the “busy work” for the end of the day.
  • When everyone’s complaining about being super-busy, it’s harder for supervisors to hone in on the real problem spots. If you have a concrete complaint about excessive work, make it, in a way that’s designed to lead to corrective action. The rest of the time, come up with a different response to the “how are you?” question.
  • Organizational cultures that expect excessive work become toxic places, where people are ashamed to take vacation or leave at 5PM. While we need to be committed to meeting our clients’ needs, we know that we can’t do that in a climate that denies us the right to meet our own.
  • Our clients hear this kind of talk, too. Who wants to tell a social worker about a new problem, or ask for help with some new concern, when you’ve just heard that same worker say that she’s (actually heard this one) “going to kill herself if she gets any more cases”? It’s disrespectful to our clients to talk as though they are burdens.
  • Social workers who become trapped in a “busy reflex” often miss opportunities to pass work along to others–volunteers, clients, colleagues–because they’re afraid to give up control or afraid of looking as though they’re not doing enough. No one is empowered by you being a martyr, and no one wins bonus points for seeming the busiest.
  • If we’re accustomed to always thinking of ourselves as overwhelmingly busy, then we can miss the warning signs of burnout or overwork in our own lives, too. We need mentors who can objectively help us check our workloads, and how we’re physically and emotionally withstanding them, and who can help us find assistance when we really need it. But if we’re always crying ‘wolf’…

    I was shocked out of this “so busy” culture by a particularly astute boss who called me into his office to ask me which responsibilities I wanted taken off my plate, because I was “so busy.” When I could only, in fact, identify a couple of minor things (serving on one particular committee, I remember), he relieved me of those and then gave me the directive to come directly to him if I felt that I had too much work. I still remember that day as my “stop complaining” meeting, and I am still grateful to him for calling me on unhealthy behavior.

    Now, although I balance three young children, five part-time jobs, several volunteer commitments, and household management, I never respond the way some of my friends and colleagues do when asked how they are (“keeping my head above water, barely!”, “overwhelmed, as usual”). Instead, I reflect on what’s working, and what’s not, and what I need to attend to.

    Besides, people would much rather hear, “I’m fine. How are YOU?”

    Have you worked in a “chickens with their heads cut off” environment? How have you managed, or overcome, that culture? What keeps you productive and not overwhelmed? What advice do you have for soon-to-be-social workers, on time management?