Is anyone else wondering where the mainstream nonprofit leadership conversation is going these days?

Not too long ago were proposals for theories and frameworks and best practices.

All valid points, but haven't we always been deluged with best practices and frameworks for the longest time now?

Sadly, in response, the deja vu sinks in as I see the same suspiscious pitches from formal programs and courses that supposedly "teach" nonprofits to become more:

  • entrepreneurial
  • adaptive
  • innovative
  • business-like
  • effective
  • collaborative
  • "strategic."

This leaves me wondering about the substance under the layers of cliches and platitudes.

The mainstream conversation hasn't flatlined, but the radio noise will always be around.

For you vexed adaptive/hybrid practitioners and observers who have encountered the same problem, you're not alone.

A lot of us end up frustrated because nothing new is being said about nonprofit leadership. We're not seeking more thrills on a bandwagon. We are just looking for substance. We all want to see the nonprofit sector advance.

So, where is everyone else?

There's a loosely connected space that operates parallel to the mess. You might be a part of it already. Those who occupy it are the curious staff members, senior leaders, facilitators, and adaptive hybrid practitioners who sought a place where they can dissect the nonprofit design problem from a different angle.

This new space is all about hacking it forward by example.

But I'll explain, because not everyone is hacking it forward.

I had written a short summary for Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design that served as a brisk intro to the book's entirety. It touched on some distinguishing qualities from naturally creative companies:

  • blending divergent and convergent thinking
  • systems thinking
  • problem finding, framing, and reframing
  • making small calculative bets and risks
  • useful experimentation and disruption
  • wicked problems

For those already engaged in the experimentation of lean and agile development, human cenetered design, and design thinking et al., this will be nothing new. As long as a nonprofit is made up of people that want to solve a problem — a social ailment or something else — then the legal structure of being not-for-profit or for-profit is irrelevant. Notice that the vocabulary is very different.

So where's the convergence with all those points with the current nonprofit leadership conversation?

So, hacking it forward. Let's review a few points about that:

1. A lot of us have already moved away from best practices and management frameworks (and lengthy strategic plans).

Goes without saying, but the nonprofit leadership conversation has hit its ceiling. Frameworks are fine, but again, it's about the substance underneath.

I'm happy that more and more people are asking the right questions. But, we've arrived at a juncture where more senior leaders and managers will start dissecting the super-sloganeering behind nonprofit innovation, collaboration, and entrepreneurship. People are inclined to do so whenever their learning and patience reach a turning point.

2. The drivers and clues to nonprofit evolution are already out there.

– just not explicitly spelled out for nonprofits at this time. You just won't find it at the usual news outlets.

For example, the Institute for the Future spells out the drivers that are forcing us to rethink the key competencies in any organization. Here's an interesting report named Future Work Skills 2020 that outlines emerging patterns on the world stage. I recommend reading it in full.


Credit: IFTF: Institute for the Future

By the end of this report, I realized that the nonprofit leadership conversation should be reframed. While I won't rehash too much here, here are some major core competencies in the report that should be explored by anyone interested in reframing 21st century nonprofit leadership:

  • Sensemaking
  • Novel and Adaptive Thinking
  • Social Intelligence
  • Design Mindset
  • Cross Cultural Competency
  • Trans-disciplinarity

Try and tell me again that what you need here is a strategic plan. :P

3. The new changemaking nonprofit is a design problem.

Whatever we might call it — nonprofit 3.0, the 21st century nonprofit etc. — it will be an ongoing, collective design issue.

Design today goes beyond aesthetics, but how something works and functions. So rather than just products and services, the idea of designing for collective change extends to how people work and collaborate together. That just takes a different craft.

While I was wraping up the Rise of the DEO summary, I caught a perfect definition of culture by the book authors. Here it is concisely stated:

Culture is the unique collection of beliefs and practices that communicates a company's values, whether or not they've been formalized of articulated.

Which means that aside from a mission statement, what does it do everyday?

Recently, there was the issue of building a field-specific leadership pipeline in Bridgespan. This is a great question. As you can see this topic is wide open for exploration.

Culture will be a key distinguisher in the sector's evolution. This is where senior leaders must step up to craft culture. The vessel needs to be built up to make way for continuous deliberate change.

This is also a reason why plugging in a tool, training program, or random silver bullets have such short life expectancies: If they don't really understand what they're trying to change, and the reasons driving them (point #2), then there won't be a real shift in mindset, and thus not a reinforced cultural attitude.

Do we need a reboot? Or do we need to hack it forward for nonprofit 3.0?

I'm leaning towards the latter. And I think this is how many of us have moved forward for some time now.

I'm convinced that the most sensible and expedient way is to hack it forward by example. This is a major leap for newcomers who are mostly exposed to the longstanding default for strategic plans as a first solution. The journey won't always be easy and enjoyable, but it might help people take a new approach to old classic problems.

It's true that there was the Lean Impact movement and we've even scratched the surface with design thinking for social innovation. Thankfully, people have carried the ideas on for further testing. Check out your local meetups for Lean Startup for social good.

Want to deconstruct the abstractions? Here are some tips you can use to filter for substance:

The next time you encounter more of the same cheerleading for innovation and change. Question the substance. Pause, reflect, ask: "What's not being said? Can they spell it out what they mean exactly?"

  1. Innovation as a continual progression of solving problems, rather than a full-out sprint from one novel idea. Get them to define innovation. Innovation is the creation of new value in the context of your mission. If all one did was improve the efficiency of how you receive donations, I'm afraid that's not exactly what we're talking about.
  2. Thinking outside the box? You need both divergent AND convergent thinking. Business schools had a history of focusing on the "one right answer," usually the most safest and comfortable options on the table. This turned out to be detrimental in the long run because it prematurely limits new potential opportunities when that is exactly what collaborators should be looking for.
  3. Testing assumptions and reframing the problem. What if you're looking at the problem the wrong way? Check out this great exercise from PeerInsight on Observation.
  4. Identifying value vs waste. Real value in operations and brute honesty about waste. Think lean startup and lean development.
  5. Collaborative thinking Not to be entirely dismissed by those who fear the dreaded "groupthink." While group collaboration fails for some, it shines for many others. Any organization's "collaboration engine" will consist of a combination of ingredients: process, cognitive awareness, and individual skill, just to name a few. Are staff members allowed to "donate" new ideas for consideration everyday? What is the pipeline of new ideas like before they get quashed? Do new ideas even get a chance to be heard?
  6. Designing, testing, and reiterating on programs and services? Knowing where to make small bets, designing this into the strategy, and having some kind of feedback loop so that you know whether to stay the course and iterate, or pivot.
  7. Researching context? How well do you understand the problem your trying to solve? Be honest with the brutal reality when something isn't working, and refuse to be emotionally attached to pet projects that yield little social impact.

The craft to building culture and facilitating change has already started. Here's to hitting reboot. Here's to a new start of some substance in this 21st century leadership conversation stuff that actually gets the nonprofit sector moving and breathing again.

From which end of the table will you observe the evolution of the nonprofit sector? What role will you play in hacking it forward?

Happy hunting!