Non-Profits and Constructive Abrasion

A perennial challenge for any non-profit organization is to balance the mission of serving others, for the benefit of humanity, with the management basics required for the organization’s survival and growth. Both sides of the house, program management and business management, require experience and skill sets particular to each functional area to be successful. The latter focuses more on the heart, in the sensitive intricacies of caring and compassion involved in serving others. The former demand a pragmatic view and sometimes involves making difficult and unpopular decisions. Non-profit organizations are important to the well-being of society and their very survival is often dependent upon having strength in both, seemingly dichotomous domains.

What this challenge highlights, at the core of many organizations, is a constructive abrasion between departments or groups. In many cases, the mission of a particular department inherently conflicts with that of another. For example, the customer service department may promise a delivery that the transportation department cannot make. Or, the business planning department may focus on growth numbers, while ignoring quality of the program(s). Or, the program development department may bring on a client that falls outside the parameters of successful program delivery. Think of constructive abrasion as a form of checks and balances in its healthiest form, by which different departments challenge each other to be the best they can be. In a less healthy form, it often leads to inefficiencies and organizational dysfunction that prevent people and the organization from achieving their goals.

No simple and formulaic answers exist to solve the inherent difficulty of divergent groups working together. However, we recommend the following initiatives for non-profits to undertake. Besides inherently moving the organization forward in supporting the core mission, an intrinsic benefit is the collaborative nature of successfully completing these initiatives and bringing the organization closer together for its purpose and raison d’être.

First, there are components of strategic planning that many organizations undertake on an annual or other periodic basis:
– Develop lasting and resonant statements for vision, mission, and values
– Conduct a broad review of the environmental context outside the organization
– Conduct a hard look at the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and strengths (SWOT)
– Develop or update the three-year strategic goals based on the environmental scan and the SWOT analysis, with an actionable plan for how the organization will achieve these goals each year

A well-considered communication plan for the Board, key funders and other stakeholders, employees, and the community (as appropriate) will help assure alignment and commitment to the strategic plan. Based on the strategic plan, all initiatives and all departments within the organization need to assure via a documented process that their activities support the strategic goals. If necessary, certain departments may need to clarify their own mission statements to assure they align with other departments. In particular, a disciplined budgeting process would support these goals and help to assure achievement of the strategic goals.

A secondary, but critical set of activities, is to design and define core processes required to support the program and the organization. The level of process development depends on the size of the organization. However, not having accountability in the processes will assure that compliance is loose and the effectiveness of the process degrades. Good process design, particularly at a detail level, also is imperative for assuring the consistent and reliable collection of data. In turn, this data supports the reporting and business intelligence to transform it from bits and bytes into useful information and knowledge.

Often in conjunction with strategic planning and process design, many organizations begin to develop metrics by which they measure themselves against the strategic plan. These key performance indicators (KPIs) typically relate to financially based parameters or are indicators of them. These are obviously important for measuring the health of the organization, but may not measure the quality of the program and delivery of services. This measurement is often the crux in that reliable KPIs are based on some form of data. Relationship-based services may rely on anecdotal indications of service quality that provide insight but are unreliable in determining trends or performance. Working together the business-oriented and the program-oriented folks can identify realistic inputs and processes for gathering the data for reporting the KPIs. The key is developing the best way to collaborate and improve the program and the organization together, as well as appreciating different perspectives on “success.”

From the program delivery folks’ perspective, it’s not all about money and numbers – but managing those is critical for operational survival and growth. While the collection and analysis of data does not develop the relationships and provide the programs’ services, the trend is for evidence-based programs to receive recognition and therefore funding, which is fundamental to survival. Evidence is typically quantitative and therefore driven by data. By working through strategic planning, communicating it effectively, developing effective processes, and creating key performance indicators, a strong organization can become even stronger. The very undertaking of these initiatives and executing them successfully will bring together divergent parts of an organization for their common mission.

By James Middleton, Director

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