5 lessons for building an agile non-profit organisation

In today’s rapidly shifting world, agile management is the only organisation philosophy that makes sense. If you don’t get that, the next round of disruption is on the way to teach you.

Take Lebanon, a country already facing a crippling recession, a refugee crisis and Covid-19 – then 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated in a Beirut warehouse last month, wiping out its main port. Faced with the sudden loss of a 120,000-ton-capacity structure used to house the country’s grain, one nutrition and refugee services organization (and client of MzN) did not panic but rerouted its supplies locally via the eight private mills in the country and is now using storage facilities in Tripoli. This move made sense, but what is amazing is that the organization did so within three days, including handling the notoriously difficult associated budget updates, programme changes and massive communication effort required to contact donors, beneficiaries, HQs, partners and others. Thanks to its agility, it was able to turn a crisis into an engineering challenge. Its digital platform-based processes, implemented over the course of 10 months only last year, were the backbone, but the autonomy and empowerment of its staff are what made the real difference.

Thanks to its agility, it was able to turn a crisis into an engineering challenge.

Development agencies and iNGOs, by their very nature, have to be agile. Operating in the international sphere, they are used to responding to war, economic crises, sudden drops in aid budgets … take your pick. And then 2020 happened. The pandemic has caused a crisis for many of MzN’s clients, calling everything into question: where and how to work; how to partner; how to finance.

But we noticed that those organizations with the most agility built in – meaning the ones with an operating model based around self-steering, high-performing teams with a stable, digital foundation – adapt most effectively to such shocks. Around seventy per cent of our development and iNGO clients are currently accelerating their agile transformation. Digitalization is a keypart, putting platforms into place that linkboardrooms with country offices. But the key are people!

Over the past six months, it’s become clear to my colleagues and I that the organizations with little digitalization and static management structures are also the ones struggling the most financially.

Organizations with little digitalization and static management structures are also the ones struggling the most financially.

Change is constant. But agile working can make organizations resilient enough to withstand it. In the aid and development sector, that ultimately means surviving to help the people who depend on them become resilient, too.

Here are MzN’s top 5 lessons for building an agile non-profit:

1. Agile organizations cope better

This is not just conjecture; it is rooted – like all good management – in data (see lesson #5). Surveying about 30 of our clients on issues such as productivity, continued impact delivery, donor satisfaction and employee happiness, iNGOs and development agencies that were already comparatively agile at the start of 2020 have fared much better. One Dutch NGO was able to switch to remote working in Europe, then later allowed its Lebanon team – in the wake of the port explosion – to resume office working in order to bolster morale. It did not matter where they worked, but under agile working, it had established platform metrics that ensured everyone was on the same page regardless of how they were organized.

On the other hand, many non-agile teams found the fundamental changes of the pandemic deeply disruptive, in many cases completely obliterating their fund-raising capacity for several months. Bound to rigid, top-down working practices such as the Monday-morning catch-up meeting, they weren’t ready for the new world of asynchronous work and platform-based flexibility.

2. Think and analyse global, decide local

Agile working is about giving everyone the same rules, but allowing individuals to play the game differently. The traditional model of linear “point-to-point” communication, where local operatives relay information back to HQ, is being replaced by the platform model that allows for devolved decision-making. Such flexibility is carried by a rigorous set of performance targets and results that are put on a freely accessible platform for employees, trustees and even external partners to see, and it is up to local offices how to fulfil them.

“…. it’s about giving everyone the same rules, but allowing individuals to play the game differently.”

The flipside of this flexibility is accountability. One NGO client has decided, under the current circumstances, that helping its beneficiaries in Lebanon means physically being in the office, while in South Sudan – where the client had a relatively intact digital infrastructure – more can be achieved online and by working remotely. “I knew we were going to be OK when the Lebanon and Sudan offices downloaded the same indicators, and two days later informed us of their new programming approaches. Which were completely different,” the client told us.

… “the need for an operating model that can keep up will grow.”

3. Your operating model is the key factor for continued impact

Speaking to me recently, an executive of a leading UK-based NGO hit the nail on the head: “Look, Covid might go one day, but the speed of change will continue to grow. So the need for an operating model that can keep up will grow.” Often, when non-agile organizations move into a new country, they replicate their entire operating model once again: they undertake a needs assessment, register their organization, open an office, attract donors and finally start programming. These days, this is too slow. Agile organizations don’t need to recreate this infrastructure, because much of it already exists on their operational platform. Why do you need a finance director in every country when financial information needs to be analysed and acted upon globally anyway? It’s the same with other backbone operations. Platform working allows agile operators to restructure – and scale up or down – much more frequently, without the financial (and emotional) pain this once caused.

4. Preparation overplanning

Ditching old-style “command-and-control” management means giving up the illusion that we can predict the future. Instead of placing faith in charismatic leaders to plot the way forward, agile means empowering teams to build their capacity to react to multiple futures. As one of our clients said recently: “You build the muscle and you flex the muscle. You may not need it for every movement, but you need it to be there.” Sometimes this can mean investing in capacities that seem redundant in the near term – but true agility involves preparing for all scenarios. Those dormant capacities can spring to life when you least expect it.

Agile means taking your organization’s temperature – all the time.

Organizational analytics are key here, requiring a real-time view of the people, programmes, finances and context. Capacity boosting is needed in such areas as digital communications, training, and fraud and error detection;you also need constant context analysis and strategy innovation (think “disrupt yourself management”). In short, the world changes fast, and that means having a sharper set of eyes and ears in order to gauge external factors quicker and more efficiently. Agile means taking your organization’s temperature – all the time.

5. Trust the data

I recently sat in on a call between a CEO and a 21-year-old programme analyst as they discussed how to approach the peace-building process in a West African country. The CEO, a Nobel prize nominee, gave a 10-minute speech, but the analyst stopped him: “That’s not right – at least not for here.” He went on to share a link to the programme dashboard, which included context analysis and internal performance metrics and turned the conversation into a completely new direction.

That conversation showed trust at play. All agile organizations must embrace trust – but that trust is not coming from anywhere but is built on clearly defined data metrics visible to all on the platform. Everyone, from the country analyst up to the CEO, is held accountable by it – which doesn’t always play well with old-style “male, pale and stale” leadership used to wielding unquestioned authority. But in order to be fully agile, to avoid being held hostage by outdated methods and erroneous assumptions, central management must relinquish control and let the data notify it when things are going awry. That CEO did this because he knew the data was better than his instinct.

If you have any comments, thoughts, ideas or question on our insight above, please email Chris here.