Learning to change

Organizations and, more specifically, not-for-profit (NFP) organizations are changing at incredibly rapid speeds. Both large and small NFP organizations are struggling to keep up. Clients, customers and organizational stakeholders are demanding more and better results; employees are being asked once again to “produce more with less”; traditional funding is drying up and new sources of revenue are increasingly competitive.

To survive in today’s world, NFP organizations must not only be able to make changes faster, but also have a higher probability that the changes made actually produce the desired results. The question is: how? Universalia has been engaged in organizational assessment and change for the past 30 years. Looking back at this experience, we have learned a few key practices that allow NFP organizations to stay in front of the pack. These are:

  1. Leadership matters:  Staying in front requires a leader that embodies the vision and mission of the NFP. As Jack Welch says, leaders must “live” the organization’s vision. The key to exceptional leadership is creating the conditions that will lead staff to follow the strategic and operational direction of the firm. The centerpiece of such followership is a leader who believes in the strategy.
  2. Organizational performance evidence matters: For too long, NFP organizations have been primarily driven by their heart and not by the evidence of their actions. We might be feeding the hungry, but is the food adequately nutritional? We might be helping girls get to school, but is the school safe for girls? We might be providing “safe births,” but is pre-natal care adequate to produce healthy babies? Performance results matter and are at the core of assessing organizations and creating change. Does your organization have good performance evidence?
  3. Seek to understand the future: Although it is incredibly difficult to predict what the future will bring, you can keep in touch with the future by encouraging staff to scan their external environment for new and interesting ideas. These ideas can be brought into your company through informal get-togethers, brown bag lunches and guest speakers. Engaging everyone in keeping their eyes and ears open helps create the conditions that will minimize shocks and surprises when the future becomes the present. Getting people’s input into the organization’s strategic processes helps keep the NFP up-to-date and provides a foundation for change.
  4. Partner appropriately: “It takes a village” to raise a child. It takes useful partnerships to solve many of the challenges identified by NFP organizations. We are no longer in an era where we can do it alone. Building an organization that knows who and how to partner provides opportunities that support change.
  5. Culture matters: Perhaps the most elusive of the qualities related to change are the underlying norms, symbols and values that are associated with the change process. This is often called the culture of an organization. Change is facilitated when staff feels that experimentation is valued.  Change is supported when people are rewarded for trying new approaches and, conversely, not punished when attempts at new approaches fail.

These lessons have been the product of exploring the strengths and weaknesses of NFP organizations using our Universalia\IDRC organizational assessment framework. You can download our framework and tools free and let us know how they help your organization to make changes.


For over 30 years, Dr. Charles Lusthaus was a Professor in the Department of Administration and Policy Studies in Education at McGill University. During that time, he taught Educational Management courses in organizational theory and behaviour, strategic management, organizational development, planning, and monitoring and evaluation to over a thousand graduate students.

Dr. Lusthaus is also a founding partner of the Universalia Management Group and is reputed for having pioneered an approach to institutional and organizational assessment (IOA). Today, the framework is used by a variety of international bodies including CIDA, IDRC, IDB, IUCN, and ILO. Dr. Lusthaus’ work on IOA is published in three books, one of which (Enhancing Organizational Performance) has been a bestseller for its publisher, the International Development Research Centre, for the past five years.

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