“Organizational restructuring” is a phrase that can inspire dread in the hearts of nonprofit staff and board members alike. New org charts, titles, roles, and responsibilities…Who has the time to think about all this, when our real work demands full attention?
Endless meetings and planning sessions, not to mention staff anxiety, is what usually comes to mind when thinking about retooling your nonprofit to adapt to changing times and new goals. However, clicking on “refresh” for your nonprofit’s structure may be the key to your ability to remain relevant and effective.
Many nonprofits follow one of at least two well-worn life trajectories. Born out of community need or individual experience, a passionate founder gathers volunteers to help him or her address a cause. With success comes some funding. Paid staff soon follow. Continued success translates into more funding and increased programming. Riding the passion of the founder, this organic growth often results in a structure that resembles more of a patchwork quilt than a thought-out, well-oiled machine. Call this the “upwardly mobile” organization, living the American Dream of growth and advancement through success. However, as the environment changes — community needs shift; government policies create new needs; funders modify their priorities — the dream begins to lose its luster. The quilt begins to fray, the seams between the patches tear, and the organization becomes less able to advance its mission.
Alternatively, an angel appears to provide a founder with a significant amount of funding for the first several years, and presto! An organization is born! Staff and programs are pulled together quickly, and the organization sets to work with the luxury of not having to worry much about funding issues. Let’s call this the “silver spoon” phenomenon. The staff and board pay little attention to changes in the external environment, blinded if you will by the sheen on the spoon.
So, the question becomes how to transform the quilt into an engine that hums, and how to keep the glare of the silver spoon from distracting from the realities of its world. In other words: How do you effectively anticipate and respond to changing needs, opportunities, and conditions in the external environment?
One way is to look beyond the organization’s walls. Keep in touch with the people you serve and those connected to your consumers. Stay on top of the news, and be aware of policy and legislative changes that may directly or indirectly affect your work. Maintain relationships with funders that go beyond the annual report and renewal request. Share your thinking with these external stakeholders, and solicit theirs on issues relevant to your work.
The other half of this equation is to turn a critical eye inward. Review your organizational strategy and determine whether it is time to refresh your organizational structure to carry it out. This is an often overlooked mechanism for organizational change, as we tend to assume that we can simply execute the new strategies using the same old structures. But a truly strategic review will include questions such as:
Does our org chart reflect our current (or future) organizational priorities? Do we have too few positions in any critical area? Too many positions in areas that we may want or need to de-emphasize?
Within each area (programmatic or administrative), do we have the right positions and roles?
Do all staff have the skills necessary to implement strategic decisions and contribute effectively to achieving the organization’s goals?
Are lines of reporting and accountability clearly understood and functioning as needed?
Is there sufficient infrastructure to support our core work?
Is the organization’s culture conducive to success?
I am not suggesting that you restructure your entire organization on an annual basis. That is surely a recipe for chaos and disaster. Rather, keep your organizational structure in mind when assessing new opportunities and setting new goals, and be open to making changes as needed to serve your mission. Asking questions about organizational structure can be uncomfortable, and making changes may take work, but better to have the right people doing the right things, even if it means enduring some transition, than to just go along with “business as usual.”
In the end, internal restructuring may be key to keeping your organization fresh, effective, and successful in these times of great challenge and change.