Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Networked Nonprofit: A New Mental Model of Organizational Growth

In a previous post, I talked about the impact of mental models on our work. Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, beliefs, generalizations, or images that influence how we see the world and how we take action in it.

I suggested that "if we proceed with strategic planning without examining our mental models, we run the great risk of creating a plan based on assumptions and beliefs that are, in whole or in part, obsolete. A plan based on faulty thinking is not going to lead to the kind of impact we desire."

I recently came across an excellent article that challenges some of the traditional mental models we have about growth in the nonprofit world.

The article is The Networked Nonprofit by Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano. It appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The authors suggest, with some compelling examples and arguments, that nonprofits that pursue their missions through networks of long-term, trust-based partnerships achieve more sustainable mission impact than would be possible through traditional approaches to organizational growth. Some quotes appear below, but please read the article. It carries an important message that should have an impact on your future strategic planning efforts.

"We have studied several organizations that exemplify this network approach. By mobilizing resources outside their immediate control, networked nonprofits achieve their missions far more efficiently, effectively, and sustainably than they could have by working alone. Many traditional nonprofits form short-term partnerships with superficially similar organizations to execute a single program, exchange a few resources, or attract funding. In contrast, networked nonprofits forge long-term partnerships with trusted peers to tackle their missions on multiple fronts. And unlike traditional nonprofit leaders who think of their organizations as hubs and their partners as spokes, networked nonprofit leaders think of their organizations as nodes within a broad constellation that revolves around shared missions and values.

Most social issues dwarf even the most well-resourced, well-managed nonprofit. And so it is wrongheaded for nonprofit leaders simply to build their organizations. Instead, they must build capacity outside of their organizations. This requires them to focus on their mission, not their organization; on trust, not control; and on being a node, not a hub.

According to our research, nonprofits that pursue their missions through networks of long-term, trust-based partnerships consistently achieve more sustainable mission impact with fewer resources than do monolithic organizations that try to do everything by themselves. Unfortunately, however, many practices in the nonprofit sector inhibit the creation of such networks.

Nonprofit leaders often view organizational growth and revenue increases – rather than impact – as their primary metrics of success. As in the corporate sector, the nonprofit sector considers growth of some form – whether scaling up existing programs, expanding to new locations, raising more money, or proliferating new programs – to be a sign of vitality and impact. Organizations whose budgets, staff, and programs are growing in direct response to an urgent need are often viewed as the most successful.

Networked nonprofits like HFHE, WWB, and GDBA (three “networked nonprofits” profiled by the authors) share a third trait: They see themselves as nodes within a constellation of equal, interconnected partners, rather than as hubs at the center of their nonprofit universes. Because of the unrestricted and frequent communication between their different nodes, networked nonprofits are better positioned to develop more holistic, coordinated, and realistic solutions to social issues than are traditional nonprofit hubs."

No comments: