Forces of Change: Reshaping How Non-Profit Organizations are Governed, Managed, and Resourced

Posted on in Inclusion Delivery System – “It’s easy . . . to lose sight of long-term trends amid short-term gyrations,” – Ezra Greenberg, Martin Hirt and Sven Smit (April 2017) in The Global Forces Inspiring a New Narrative of Progress, McKinsey Quarterly

Non-profit organizations are living in an environment of great complexity, accelerated change, and unprecedented competition for resources. Some call it an “inflection point” that will fundamentally reshape the non-profit sector. Others call it a time of enormous disruption, which is recasting all the rules. Andrew Zolli (2016) in Thriving in an Age of Volatility, says, “we’re not in Kansas, but nor are we in Oz . . . we’re somewhere in the whirlwind” in between.

Many agree that it is not business as usual. The leaders of organizations that thrive are highly attuned to the shifts taking place and continually evaluate and adapt based on their own unique context. They probe for opportunities. They are curious and willing to take risks, and they know how to find that sweet spot between organizational stability and agility.

Synthesizing the shifts for organizational leaders

However, it’s challenging. There is a lot of information about the shifting landscape, from many different sources, and it’s not always translated so boards and management can easily see the implications for their own organization. It was for this reason that the foundation Ignite NPS and The Philanthropist decided to gather and synthesize the trends and forces whirling around organizations into themes that are strategically meaningful to leaders. The purpose was to identify those trends and forces that impact how non-profit organizations are governed, managed, resourced, and organized to accomplish their work. To describe them; to identify strategic questions they raise; and to propose actions organizations can take to address them.

The journey resulted in the publication of a resource: Trends and Forces Reshaping Nonprofit Organizations: Actions and Strategic Questions for Leaders. The content is based on an extensive literature review and in-depth conversations with more than 30 thought leaders, with diverse expertise and experience.

Four key themes

The trends and forces are captured into four theme areas that emerged from research and discussions. Here are some highlights:

Mission effectiveness

Leadership approaches and workforce expectations

Networked and collaborative action

Deeper and broader engagement

Big, hairy questions arise at the intersection of these themes

Thought leaders may be familiar with these themes, however, looking at where the themes “collide, mesh and interact with one another” (Spencer, 2013) generates some bigger, hairier questions. It provides an opportunity to explore what’s fundamentally different about how organizations are governed, managed, resourced, and organized to achieve their missions.

This time of intensified competition for resources, growing need to collaborate across ecosystems, and increasingly urgent demand for more significant impacts, presents both challenges and great opportunities. It raises some profound questions:

Boundaries are blurring between non-profit, for-profit and government. Sophisticated competencies are required to navigate through this complex environment.

Looking at the convergence of the themes also raises questions about which organizations will thrive in this environment.

 So what?

These are some of the questions that emerge from the convergence of trends and forces. Many sector and capacity building organizations and networks are doing important research and creating forums for thought leaders to grapple with these big and complex issues.

Trends and Forces Reshaping Nonprofit Organizations: Actions and Strategic Questions for Leaders adds to this dialogue. It is directed to boards and management who are ready to think about how their organizations must adapt to new technology, demographic, economic, and social realities. It provides tangible actions and a platform from which leaders can see the full landscape.

Now more than ever, board members and management from all sizes and capacities of organizations must lift up from the day-to-day gyrations and reflect on the longer term implications. The willingness and ability to do this will separate those who will thrive and those who may be left behind. McKinsey (2017) in The Global Forces Inspiring a New Narrative of Progress offers advice on how to respond to the powerful forces at play. They: “ . . .  demand thoughtful responses and contain the seeds of extraordinary opportunity. Leaders reaching for these opportunities will need to question their own assumptions and imagine new possibilities. Those who do will compete more effectively; they also will be better able to contribute to broader solutions, and ultimately to a new and more inclusive narrative of progress.”



Zolli, Andrew (2016). Thriving in an age of volatility, webinar Stanford Social Innovation Review, August 11, 2016. Accessed here:

Mowat NFP, (2015) ‘Change work: Valuing decent work in the not-for-profit sector,’ Ontario Nonprofit Network and Toronto Neighbourhood Centres, p 23, November 2015.

Broadhead, Tim (2010) ‘On not letting go to waste: An Innovation Agenda for Canada’s Community Sector,’ p 98, The Philanthropist, Volume 23.1.

Spencer, Frank (2013) ‘Why predicting trends doesn’t help prepare for the future,’ Futurist Forum, Fast Company, November 20, 2013.

Greenberg, Ezra, Hirt, Martin, Smit, Sven, (2017) ‘The global forces inspiring a new narrative of progress,’ McKinsey Quarterly, p 22, April 2017.

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