Organization Assessment: Stepping Back ...Taking Stock
by Carol Lukas, author of Consulting with Nonprofits
NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS are under tremendous stress these days. Demands for response and change assault organizations continually from both internal and external sources. Just as people need to occasionally step back from their busy lives to take stock of how they're doing and where they're going, so do organizations.
In the life cycle of organizations there are natural times to take stock, even in the absence of specific problems or stresses. Annual and strategic planning processes provide opportunities to get perspective on what is going well and where attention is needed. Frequent review of the organization's overall situation and health will help prevent unexpected and difficult problems from emerging.
Even with the most diligent planning and attentive management, periods of stress and tension are common within organizations. They frequently emerge during or immediately following significant change or growth. Changes in leadership, change of direction or major shifts in resource base frequently cause upheaval with people, structures and systems. Some organizations grow so fast that they can barely keep up with the daily challenges and crises, much less strengthen their internal structures and systems to handle the increased volume or complexity of work. Other organizations have gone through so many changes for so long that they've lost sight of their purpose and goals.
Weak or ineffective leadership over time can lead to low morale, conflicts and power struggles. In some organizations people have different views of what the goals should be, or of how they should be accomplished. Still others say they're doing okay in quality of service, but morale is low, productivity is down, or not everyone is pulling their weight.
What all of these situations have in common is that members of organizations—board, executives, staff—can become so immersed in daily tasks that they lose sight of the big picture, or they see it but don't know what to do about it. Even when organizations can define where they need to focus, or can identify the source of their stress or problems, it's very difficult for a member of an organization, even the leader, to know how to bring about needed changes in a way that empowers and strengthens members rather than creates more frustration and anxiety.
What is an organizational assessment?
An organization assessment is a data gathering and diagnostic process in
which you step back from the day to day details of life in the organization and try to see the bigger
picture, the trends, patterns and dynamics that have made the organization what it is today. The
review can be broad, scanning all aspects of the organization (programs/services, structure, staffing,
personnel, finances, internal systems, leadership, culture, etc.); or it can focus on selected areas,
depending on the needs of the organization. In many cases, the organization assessment is the first
step in a broader planning, change, or improvement process.
The end result of an organization assessment is an accurate and sometimes painfully honest picture of the organization's current situation, including its strengths and weaknesses, and challenges and choices for the future.
What are the steps?
The assessment process needs to be adapted to fit the needs, timetable and
culture of the organization. Generally though, it follows some key steps:
- Get agreement on the scope of the review, responsibilities, timetable, and who will be involved. If an outside consultant will be used, this first step should include them;
- Orient all board and staff, as appropriate, to the review process (and to the consultant); clarifying questions re participation, confidentiality and reporting;
- Collect data about the current situation via records review, individual or small group interviews, nominal group processes, brainstorming meetings, and/or survey;
- Analyze and summarize the findings, including looking at interrelationships between key issues;
- Review findings with board and/or staff to gain agreement on priority issues and concerns;
- Develop recommendations for change; getting agreement about change strategies from all affected people within the organization (steps 5 and 6 are best done in a full day meeting);
- Develop an action plan for addressing priority concerns, including responsibilities and timelines; and
- Implement the action plan and monitoring progress.
Where do we begin?
An accurate assessment of the current situation can be long and complex, or
can come in a flash. Our experience is that the success of the review depends as much on the
process used as on the content areas explored or amount of time invested. Several guidelines
might help you conduct a review of your situation:
- Involve people in the process. Commitment to change happens in direct relationship to a person's involvement and participation in identifying the need for and planning the change.
- There are no right or wrong perceptions of where your organization is right now. Everyone's perception is accurate for them, for their experience in the organization. The slightest hint of criticism, or judging of ideas, will squelch individuals' willingness to participate in an open exploration of issues.
- Be sure to check in with all levels of the organization. Line or support staff are often overlooked as valuable sources of information. A truism of organizational theory is that whatever vision, unity and strength exists at the top will be reflected throughout the organization; problems which exist at the top will multiply themselves geometrically downward.
- Avoid the "quick fix", the band-aid approach to problems that might only be a symptom of what is really causing the stress. Scan the entire organization first, then look at the patterns and relationships between various issues that emerge before even starting to think about solutions.
- A carefully planned and executed organization review doesn't assign blame. Issues are described as part of "what is", part of the organization's reality at that point in time. Organizational members are invited to choose whether to accept this reality or create a different one for the future.
Do-it-yourself vs. getting help
A review can be done through the leadership of staff or board members when
four conditions are met:
- there is general agreement on what the current situation/challenges are;
- leadership, skill and time is available to devote to managing the review;
- a high degree of trust exists between people in the organization, and
- no major conflicts exist which could bog down the process.
The review process is difficult to manage without outside help when any of those four conditions are absent.
If you need to find outside resources to assist your organization, here are some guidelines that might help:
- Be sure to interview several consultants. To gain the trust of your board and staff and to maintain credibility, your consultant will need appropriate skills, expertise and a style that fits with your organization's culture.
- Contract carefully with the consultant, including scope of inquiry, consultant's role, project timelines, costs, deliverables, and methods of payment.
- Don't worry about having everything carefully defined before seeking help. Your request might be a very specific one, e.g., "We need help rethinking our mission and long range goals," or "We want help restructuring our staff to help them feel greater ownership in the organization." Your request can also be vague, e.g., "Our services just aren't as good as they could be. Could you help us ?" or "Staff just aren't pulling together—what can we do?". A good consultant can help you clarify what you need.
- Organizational reviews need not be negative, a sign of pathology or mismanagement. Reviews are normal, developmental steps that initiate a time of renewal for the organization.
- The key to strengthening or transforming an organization lies with the leadership of the organization: their unity of vision, their commitment to change and improvement, and their willingness to respond openly and flexibly to the challenges of the present and future.
- The solution to organizational stress lies in the search for solutions. Change is happening too rapidly and profoundly to assume that what works today will work tomorrow. Locking into rigid structures or systems that can't respond quickly and flexibly to future challenges will just re-freeze the organization into a new (though different) pattern.
Only a spirit of inquiry, an attitude of learning and discovery, and a process for constant experimentation and adjustment will provide a long-term solution to organizational stress.
Other Assessment Resources
Six Keys to Successful Organizational Assessment
These factors have implications for the approach you choose and the resources you will need to do assessment well.
Benchmarking 101 for Nonprofits
Learn the basics of benchmarking including what it is, how it can be useful, and how it differs from evaluation.
Create a "Culture of Evaluation"
Creating a culture of evaluation is the surest way to improve services. Here’s how to help everyone in your organization see the benefit of evaluation.
Free e-newsletter “Nonprofit Tools You Can Use”
Sign-up for our e-newsletter to get tools and tips twice a month.
For more information, please contact Sandy Jacobsen at 651.556.4510 or email her at sjacobsen@FieldstoneAlliance.org to discuss your interests and how we might work together for strong nonprofits and communities.
Carol Lukas, President of Fieldstone Alliance, is the author of Consulting with Nonprofits; co-author of Strengthening Nonprofit Performance: A Funder's Guide to Capacity Building. and Conducting Community Forums; and a contributing author to A Funder's Guide to Organizational Assessment.
Copyright Fieldstone Alliance. For reprint permission, click here.