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May 18, 2022
When Nonprofits Falter, Defining Success Will Clarify What to Do
Book Saving Organizations

Because nonprofit organizations can stumble and find themselves thwarted from fulfilling their mission, identifying and fixing the problem is essential, and a good place to start is by reflecting on the advice offered in Saving Organizations That Matter.

The goal for organizations in trouble is not just about regaining their footing, but setting themselves on a new path to future success, writes Rey Spadoni, president of Boston-based ZDconsult, who helps nonprofit, mission-driven organizations improve their effectiveness, performance, and long-term viability.

In a word, it’s all about culture. As Spadoni notes: “An unhealthy corporate culture can sink a ship more effectively and more rapidly than unfavorable environmental factors or hostile competitors.”

Many nonprofits face growing demand amid level, or even diminishing, resources, and the coronavirus pandemic has, among other things, made it more difficult to recruit and retain employees and volunteers. Such conditions, according to Spadoni, can lead to a “woe is us” attitude and a culture characterized by fear, lack of trust in formal communications, and acclimated to receiving bad news.

In such cases, he writes, “Alarming trends no longer seem all that alarming. Organizations are lulled to sleep, especially ones with legacy assets and endowments that can be slowly depleted over time.”

While nonprofits get into trouble for any number of reasons, moving forward starts with diagnosing the problem: “You can’t fix what you can’t see. And you can’t solve a problem you don’t understand.” But even for organizations that do a good job of collecting data, he writes, identifying key performance indicators may not help if senior managers don’t use them.

What such organizations need is not a turnaround, but, according to Spadoni, a transformation.

But transform to what? The answer ties directly to defining what future success looks like. And while that sounds simple enough, Spadoni acknowledges it can be difficult, observing “that along with a compromised or dysfunctional organizational culture, the lack of definitions of success is the most likely culprit when transformation efforts ultimately fail.”

Spadoni analyzes the four main obstacles for defining success, and, drawing on his extensive consulting background, outlines a detailed, practical approach for overcoming each of those impediments.

More than that, he provides expert guidance on how to use a SWOT analysis, define logistical characteristics of the transformation initiative, define performance metrics for improvement, and assign responsibility for managing the initiative, among other critical steps.

In the end, it will still be about culture. The transformed organization, having been given a rebirth of sorts—after a lot of hard work—is primed for success because the revitalized culture has set higher expectations for itself and will police itself for bad behaviors, according to Spadoni.

Nonprofit organizations unquestionably matter; they were established because the founders identified a pressing need and enlisted supporters to address that need. The question for struggling organizations is whether the original purpose still holds, and if it does, what it needs to do to recalibrate—transform—in order to continue to deliver on its mission.

Saving Organizations That Matter: Ascending From the Confluence of Chaos is available from Amazon.

Reviewed by Peter Lowy
January 2022

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