Growing Your Patient Organization: A new series from Third Sector New England (TSNE)

Cara Hesse | February 09, 2016

We are delighted to offer a blog series from the experts at Third Sector New England (TSNE), a non-profit organization whose mission is to build the leadership and effectiveness of individuals, groups, and other non-profit organizations to enable them to create positive change in society.  

Our mission is the reason we exist and the passion which drives us. The health of our organizations is what enables us to do our best work and is an important part of how we achieve our intended impact. Yet we often don't stop to reflect on one key question ... how healthy is our organizational system? — Heather Harker, Director of Programs, Third Sector New England

The blogs will focus on a series of topics related to growing your organization and ensuring its sustainability over the long term. We will cover issues such as governance, strategic thinking, managing change and succession planning. 

As a pilot blog series, we would love to get your feedback! Please let us know if these are helpful to you and what other topics you might like to see covered in this space.

Organizational Assessments: A Reflective, Restorative Practice for Organizations

By Heather Harker, Director of Programs, Third Sector New England

All too often, we find ourselves as non-profit leaders running in the race of "making a difference." Whether that is supporting a rare disease patient community, saving the rainforests of Borneo, or correcting the environmental injustices that plagues our urban centers. Most nonprofit organizations are focused on the outcomes related to our missions and achieving our intended impact: Did we save increased acreage of trees?  Were our efforts to raise disease awareness successful? Did we relocate the bus depot that is causing health challenges?

And rightly so. Our mission is the reason we exist and the passion which drives us. And, yet, we don’t achieve these results alone. The health of our organization -- which enables us to do our best work -- is an important part of the way we achieve our intended impact, but we do not often stop to reflect on the health of the organizational system that allows us to affect that change in the world.  How healthy is your nonprofit organization?

Just as reflection is good for our individual souls and restoration, so too is reflecting on the health of our organizations.

The organizational development tool that best offers this restorative, reflective space for nonprofits is an organizational assessment. An organizational assessment can be a good diagnostic tool for nonprofits, and the beginning of an ongoing organizational learning. The basic goal of the assessment is to establish a common understanding among key staff, volunteers and board members about the current strengths and challenges of the organization, thus providing a base upon which the organization can begin to improve. 

This building block is timely when an organization finds that:

  1. People — board and staff members, constituents and partners — are not on the “same page.”
  2. The organization is repeating destructive patterns, whether financial, emotional or programmatic, and cannot break the cycle.
  3. There is a lack of clarity regarding organizational direction.
  4. Vital systems in the organization are breaking down.
  5. There is an upcoming major leadership transition at the board or staff level.
  6. The organization wants to see the whole picture and be intentional about planning their future organizational development.

With a thorough organizational assessment, nonprofit staff, board and key stakeholders come together to tell their collective story and create a shared picture of the group’s current reality. This becomes a shared road map that guides the organization forward as it evolves. A well-facilitated organizational assessment:

  • Provides a shared understanding of organizational strengths and challenges among key stakeholders
  • Develops common language to discuss the organizational system Identifying root causes, rather than just symptoms
  • Builds a solid basis for identifying specific action steps for further organizational improvements to achieve efficiencies and effectiveness
  • Creates a shared momentum for creating change going forward

Key components of successful organizational assessment

A good organizational assessment explores beyond problems or immediately observable symptoms to the discovery of “generators.” In order to successfully complete an organizational review, having a facilitator can be  essential. A facilitator assists the group uncover information about the way the whole system has operated over time and make meaning of it. Helping the group process the informaiton and find the change agenda requires a deep knowledge base most often built through extensive practice-mastery. And key questions that facilitator helps to address include a few of the following:

How does the organization learn? How does it make decisions?  How does it process the outside world inside of the organization?  What are the peculiarities of the field it is a part of and how is it affected by those peculiarities?  What phase of development is the organization in and what are the stories it tells about itself? 

The basic format of organizational assessment in most cases is a three- to four-hour facilitated conversation.The information sharing session is held with representatives from board of directors and staff and at the organization’s choice and where reasonable, other stakeholders. Sometimes, organizations may choose a few individuals from within the organization to undertake an organizational assessment or work together with the consulting team. As an alternative, the organization can use an organizational self-assessment tool, and then have a dialogue regarding the results and the next steps. You can download a sample assessment tool here.

In order to shape the future of the organization and its impact, it is crucial that the group create the time and space needed for reflection, as well as dialogue that allows for co-creation of the future. In this way, organizations are shaping their evolution by reflecting on their own present capacity and finding opportunities for improvements. To help guide you and your organization in the self-assessment process, we've included links to information and tools from a variety of well known and highly-regarded resources.

National Council of Nonprofits Resources Organizational Self-Assessments

Multilateral Organisational Assessment Network (MOPAN)

Reflect & Learn Organisational Assessment

Sometimes, organizations may choose a few individuals from within the organization to undertake an organizational assessment or work together with the consulting team. As an alternative, the organization can use an organizational self-assessment tool, and then have a dialogue regarding the results and the next steps.— Heather Harker, Third Sector New England

USAID Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool for Community-based Organizations

Organizational Capacity Assessment (OCA) Tool for quality health programs.

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