nonprofit management circle

How to Thrive in Changing Times: Two Key Shifts to Make in Your Nonprofit Management 

We rarely think specifically about how we lead as nonprofit management professionals.   

Our management models are as invisible to us as our own breathing.   

The way we choose to manage and support our teams is either inadvertent or unconscious — we manage the way we do because that’s how we were taught, it’s reinforced by the organization we work within, it causes the least friction, or it simply matches our personal style best.   

But, by examining and evolving our leadership model, we may be better equipped to inspire our teams to meet the challenges of the moment and have more fun doing so. 

In this blog, we offer two recommended shifts in practice or ways to up level your nonprofit management approaches to become better positioned to help organization navigate the uncharted waters ahead. 

Shift #1: Examine & Adjust Your Nonprofit Management Model 

Gary Hamel, professor of strategic and international management at the London Business School encourages those involved in management to consider management as a kind of “technology” that can be strategically designed.  

This technology can be deployed to work for an organization in the same way a business strategy or service delivery might be developed.   

In fact, he has argued that research shows that innovations in management models, though generally ignored in favor of product or business model innovation, have the highest impact on organizational success.   

He also argues in his Harvard Business Review webinar, Innovation from the Bottom of the Organization Up, that in today’s world, characterized by unrelenting change and unprecedented challenges, we need bold organizations that are willing to change. 

 In order to thrive, we need organizations that are willing to shed their bureaucracy, which can crush creativity and stifle innovation, and become as nimble as the changes we are experiencing. 

And these aren’t merely theories.  He shares examples of companies who’ve made the shift and are more productive than ever. 

So, if you’re struggling to realize greater program impact, and feel fettered by an overly-engineered structure, take heart.  

You are not alone. 

But there are also steps you can take, starting with the way you choose to manage. 

Hamel encourages entrenched businesses to re-imagine themselves as a startup. With a clean sheet of paper, he suggests they begin to imagine a new way of going about the tasks of management.   

It’s a fascinating exercise, but also extremely difficult.   

If we’ve never acknowledged the hidden ghost in the machine, the unconscious, knee-jerk processes we employ when we manage, how can we possibly change them for the common good? 

Hamel helps us by breaking down the tasks of management into discrete tasks.  He also identifies several key processes where innovation can take place.   

nonprofit management thought clouds

5 Key Questions to Ask About Your Current Nonprofit Management Strategy 

To generate ideas that might work for nonprofits, below are five of Hamel’s key recommendations for change. I’ve posed two questions relevant nonprofit management for each.   

These are certainly not the only choices available to you, but they may help you get started thinking about your own strategy for nonprofit management and what you might try to grow. 

And, by the way … if you’re working toward a more equitable management style, these will help you get there faster. 

1) Change how priorities get set.  Are your team priorities dictated by the requirements of your latest grant, or are they determined by a community needs analysis? 

2) Change how performance gets measured.  Do you base your performance on how many people are served by your program, or by what happens to them as a result of interacting with you? 

3) Change how knowledge gets applied.  Does your team decide to try new, but untested approaches because they sound like they might work, or do you have criteria for evaluating potential best practices and a way to catalog them so anyone can use them at any time? 

4) Change how resources get allocated.  Is the budget process left to the executive level, or are people at all levels for the organization tapped, early in the planning process, for their thoughts on spending priorities and needs? 

5) Change how power gets exercised.  Are the people who train your team the only ones with the power to decide what information is important enough to share? Or can anyone upload and share newsworthy and helpful information in an easy-to-access online open forum. 

Hamel also identifies other choices you can make — how opportunities get identified, how strategies get created, how decisions get made, how teams get built, how tasks get assigned, how rewards get shared, and how activities get coordinated.   

It can seem overwhelming, but don’t let it be.   

If you’re serious about changing your management technology, pick one or two areas to innovate.   

Get started with the decisions you can make at the local or departmental level without approval from the higher-ups (which are most of these, thank goodness!).   

Then, ask your team to help you pose the right questions and make the changes that will benefit everyone. 

nonprofit management team

Shift #2: Upgrade How You Prepare and Support Your Team(s) 

In addition to examining and evolving your nonprofit management approach, you can also improve your team’s performance by upgrading how to prepare and supporting your team 

High-quality training can improve the confidence, results, and overall morale of both employee and volunteer teams. A robust training program also helps you reduce turnover and retain top talent. 

In fact, training has a big impact on your organization’s volunteer retention rate.  According to “Volunteer Management Practices and Retention of Volunteers,” a study by the Urban Institute, “Charities that say they have adopted to a large degree the practice of hosting recognition activities for volunteers have a higher rate of retention, as do those that offer training and professional development opportunities for volunteers.”   

So, why do so many nonprofits leave the preparation of their teams up to chance? 

Whether it be a simple orientation to the policies, procedures, and mission of the organization or a five-day boot camp of complex technical information your team must learn before they are able to provide direct service, everyone need be provided information that will help them do their job to the best of their ability.    

An effective training program will not only improve your program outcomes, but it will also help create a smooth onboarding process for both employees and volunteers as they acclimate to their new environment.   

The successful initiation of your team will promote higher job satisfaction and, ultimately, greater retention.   

Unfortunately, some nonprofit managers haven’t invested the time necessary to develop a solid training program that adequately prepares their teams for success.   

Often, the training content development is left to well-meaning ad hoc trainers with little experience.   

They fire up the PowerPoint deck and start making slides based on what they believe to be important.   

The final training materials and methods inevitably vary in effectiveness, depending on who’s training and the topic du jour.  In the end, participant learning is inconsistent at best. 

Develop Nonprofit Team Training Curriculum in 8 Steps 

Alternately, it is possible to develop training materials the ensure that your teams learn the critical “need to know” content at your organization.  For less intensive volunteer jobs, your content may focus on your organization’s mission and vision for the future.   

High-quality training experiences will result in volunteers and employees who are knowledgeable ambassadors for you.   

For more intensive roles, a training process combined with a certification test may be what’s in order.   

Regardless of the length and level of intensity, presented online or on land, or synchronous or asynchronous, any instructional design team can develop training like a pro using the process below.  

1)  Develop Your Work Plan — Decide who will be on your training development team, what are the key tasks they will complete, and when should they be done.  

You may also want to set up an advisory group of end-users to give feedback on the materials you develop.  Better yet, include some of your key volunteers on the development team. 

2)  Determine Tasks & Priorities — Create a comprehensive list of all the possible tasks a volunteer might be responsible for.  

Then group similar tasks and prioritize them.  Which are the most important and hardest to learn?  They should be the ones you focus on in your training program. 

3)  Write Task Analyses — Break your priority responsibilities into step-by-step task analyses that describe exactly how the task should be accomplished, in what timeframe, with what tools, and to what standards.  

Task analyses are the blueprints that you will develop your training from. 

4)  Structure Course & Objectives — Once you know exactly what you will be training, as identified in the task analyses, develop your course structure.  

Will your training be broken into discrete modules?  How long will they last? What will be their topics? And what are the learning objectives for each module?  In other words, what will people know how to do (not just have an awareness of) when they leave the training? 

5)  Select Methods & Develop Materials — Only after you’ve figured out exactly what the end goals of the training are, can you begin to develop your materials.  

You’ll need to decide how you will deliver the training (in-person, self-study, live online, on-demand, etc.).  Once that’s decided you can develop the materials that make the most sense given the delivery. 

6)  Orient Trainers — Make sure the folks who will be responsible for presenting the training (paid and/or volunteer) are given an opportunity to get to know the materials and how they work.  If they’ve been in on the development from the beginning, you can skip this step.

Consider how you will also orient your trainers, and what tools you will supply, s that training is delivered in a consistent way and all the content is covered. 

7)  Pilot & Revise Course — No matter how experienced you are, there’s always something that doesn’t work according to plan. When you pilot test, make sure you have at least one observer who is not presenting training.  They should be timing the various sections of the training module as well as observing participants to see if there are moments where they appear confused or unhappy.  

Also, participants should be encouraged to give their feedback on training evaluations.  The training should be revised as needed to improve the experience for both learners and trainers. 

8)  Present Course & Evaluate Results — Once the training is revised, it is good to go.  But you aren’t finished yet.  Plan to conduct ongoing evaluation of your training program.  

Are the volunteers learning what is being trained?  Does the training content still reflect the current volunteer tasks and priorities?  What is the feedback you are getting from learners on training evaluations?  Are there any significant trends?  If you keep a running file of your observations, you’ll be ready for the next update of your training program. 

You spend a lot of time and energy finding and welcoming your new employees and volunteers.   

Don’t make the mistake of offering sub-par volunteer training that deflates their enthusiasm or makes them feel inadequate.   

Instead, provide them with an engaging and focused learning experience that builds confidence and a deeper connection to your good cause. 

For more on how to develop training specifically for volunteers, check out Chapter 4 of our The Essential Guide to Managing Volunteers at Your Nonprofit HERE>>

When you make these two shifts in your nonprofit management approached – 1) examine and evolve your management model and 2) upgrade how you prepare your teams for success, you set the stage for greater organizational resiliency through good times and bad.  

You also create an exceptional place to work and support.