Three Recommendations for COOs Navigating Change

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If you’re a COO, the challenges of leadership may sometimes leave you feeling isolated, unsteady, or uncertain about how to chart a path forward. You’re not alone.

I recently facilitated a multi-year learning cohort with 11 COOs from organizations of various sizes and developmental stages. Initially, the group planned to focus on issues related to organizational growth. Inevitably, those conversations expanded as they faced the realities of leading through a pandemic, a presidential election, and a racial reckoning. From October 2019 to May 2021, thanks to funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the group met monthly to learn together, talk through challenges, raise questions, and support one another.

Again and again, three things kept coming up: how much they valued peer connection, how critical it was to understand themselves in order to lead effectively, and the importance of strengthening their capacity to adapt. I lift up these recommendations for other COOs grappling with some of the same dynamics.

Learn more about why Hewlett believes it’s important to invest in the COO role in these videos.

See what COOs have learned about their role and the importance of investing in it in this Q&A blog post.

1. Seek out peers.

COOs are often uniquely alone in their roles, acting as a bridge between the CEO/board and staff. Finding peers from other organizations can make a tremendous difference. COOs in the cohort were willing to be vulnerable and candid about their own experiences and they received practical, relevant feedback in return. Over time, these interactions led them to feel more connected and better resourced. That’s what peer connection makes possible. Reach out to COOs from other organizations. Chances are, they are also craving connection.

2. Manage yourself.

COOs don’t often get time or space for self-reflection. Yet, for those in a role that is constantly leading others through change, it is also crucial to look inward at what’s driving you and how you show up. During cohort sessions, COOs tackled questions like: How do I deal with difficult thoughts or feelings? Where am I getting in my own way? What practices help me stay grounded and steady? The more you understand about yourself, the better equipped you’ll be to do the work.

3. Embrace adaptation.

If “the job description of a COO is to navigate change,” as cohort member Layla Zaidane of the Millennial Action Project said in our Q&A blog post, then the work is dynamic by nature. It calls for COOs to respond as challenges and opportunities arise, staff change, team dynamics shift, and the organization’s work evolves. Proactively create planning and learning cycles that allow you (and others) to look ahead, respond to changing conditions, and evolve your thinking and approach.

These three things have always been important. But right now, as COOs navigate the prolonged uncertainty of the past two years, investing in them is key to making sure that nonprofit organizations are prepared for the years to come.

Five Steps to Reimagine Your Organization’s Future Through Scenario Planning

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While the COVID-19 crisis has brought tremendous challenges, it is also bringing out the best in many nonprofit leaders as they work to sustain their missions and create more equitable communities. Many leaders are pivoting their organizations’ services; tending to the professional, emotional, and safety needs of staff and volunteers; forging new partnerships; and testing creative ideas to address inequities.

This type of proactivity is no small feat amid significant disruptions to services, operations, and funding that can leave leaders feeling uncertain about what to prioritize and how to adapt. It can be easy to deprioritize planning completely or default to contingency planning and risk management. In times of crisis, many leaders understandably take a singular focus on preserving the organization’s operations and planning for contingencies. Of course financial health is crucial for continuing services, and our research and experience show organizations also need to take a broader view. Before doubling down on financial health and organizational preservation, nonprofits should focus on the impact they want to have and imagine possible new futures. One way leaders can do this is through scenario planning.

Scenario planning can help your organization manage uncertainty, envision new opportunities, and spot unexpected threats. It helps you focus on the things you can control – even amid great change and uncertainty – so that you are better positioned to achieve your desired impact. It improves your organization’s sustainability by helping you financially prepare for the worst and take data-informed actions sooner than you otherwise might have.

Scenario planning can happen in five steps:

Adapted from Diana Scearce, Katherine Fulton, and the Global Business Network community’s “What If? The Art of Scenario Thinking for Nonprofits.”

1. Define key questions.

What questions do you hope this plan will answer? Are you looking to determine how best to hold steady during turbulent times, or do you want to reimagine your programs and services for a new future?

What is your time horizon for planning? Organizations facing great upheaval and uncertainty may decide to look out only six to 12 months while other organizations may be able to take a longer view. Either approach is fine.

Even if your primary focus is on stabilizing the organization and looking at the near term, scenario planning presents an opportunity to think about steps you can take now that will position you for long-term impact.

2. Explore drivers.

The trajectory of the virus will have many ripple effects, such as closures of schools and other places due to social distancing and economic impacts that affect state budgets, employment, and donor/funder behavior. In most communities, the COVID-19 crisis is widening the racial inequities many nonprofits are working to address. Focus on the two to three driving forces that most affect your organization’s future and are the most uncertain.

3. Build scenarios.

Once you have prioritized the drivers that matter most to your organization, develop a set of plausible and thought-provoking scenarios that represent a range of future outcomes. Here is an example of what scenarios might look like for a nonprofit that identified school closures and state budgets as key drivers.

4. Develop plans based on assets and opportunities.

Envision what each scenario would mean for your organization and what you would do in response. Play out how each scenario might impact the community you serve, your programs, funding, staff, and operations. Pay attention to how each scenario and your response might widen or decrease inequities. For example, data show that communities of color are disproportionately feeling the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. What is your organization doing to address disparities, and how can you ensure your response does not inadvertently contribute to existing inequities?

As you develop your plans, consider where you might have the greatest opportunity for impact. If you are getting stuck trying to imagine a different way of creating impact, take a step back and consider your organization’s core purpose. What are the three things you must hold on to? Maybe those things are your values, the population you serve, or the way you show up in the community. What three things might you change or let go of to stay focused on what matters most? Maybe you are open to changing your funding model, ending a longstanding program, or having staff build new skills. This helps you identify where the greatest opportunities lie in each scenario, what tradeoffs you may need to consider, and the steps you need to take to prepare for the future.

5. Monitor indicators.

To be able to act on your plans, you will need to have a sense of which scenario is playing out. Identify two or three metrics that indicate the organization is transitioning into each scenario, so you can make timely choices about how to respond. Many organizations set financial indicators, such as progress against fundraising goals, to guide operational decisions. Consider what outcome indicators might guide programmatic decisions as well. For example, if you see a widening of racial disparities in your community as the virus spreads, you may decide to double down on your efforts to address those disparities, and that may require you to let go of other activities that don’t support efforts to decrease disparities.

Imagining a New Future

During disruption and uncertainty, scenario planning helps organizations focus on the things they can control. It can clarify what’s most important to your organization and what to pay attention to. Imagining what you would do in your most severe scenario will push you to think creatively and identify actions you could take to help ensure long-term sustainability and improved community outcomes.

While scenario planning can help stabilize organizations during times of crisis, it can also help you imagine a new future. As you embark on scenario planning with your organization, bring an asset-based mindset to consider not just future risks but also the strengths within your organization and community. Build on these assets to find the new opportunities and possibilities for the future, even in times of uncertainty.

Podcast: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Sector

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In a recent episode of the Business of Giving podcast, Amy Celep (CEO of Community Wealth Partners) talks with host Denver Frederick about what we’re hearing from the organizations we work with. The conversation explores many things including:

  • How the COVID-19 crisis is exposing deep inequities but also accelerating action to address those inequities.
  • The ways leaders are leading effectively in a virtual world and taking care of staff and themselves. If you want to do best by your mission, clients, and staff, Amy says, you have to pay attention to what you need. And as Maurice Jones, CEO of LISC, told Amy, “We’ve had to up our game in matters of the heart, and give people permission, through our words and deeds, to display their pain.”
  • How scenario planning can help organizations prepare amid uncertainty. Around Minute 8, Amy shares a five-step process for scenario planning.
  • How funders can address power dynamics to better support nonprofits. Funders can proactively encourage grantees to be bold in their asks. They can also continue practices of trust-based philanthropy long after this has passed.
  • How nonprofits can better understand the reliability of their revenue streams. Nonprofits can ask bold questions of donors and funders like, “What are your intentions for our grant/donation? What do you anticipate continuing to do and fund? What might you consider stopping or pausing?”

You can listen to the full interview here on the Business of Giving website or below.