Time to Pivot Our Values About the Nonprofit Sector

By Marita Phelps and Molly Penn

We are poised at an unprecedented moment – we can either watch until things become clearer or to take action.   A global pandemic, an economic recession and an exploding social justice movement are convergent forces calling on nonprofit leaders, funders and consultants to do our work differently going forward.  For the first time in modern memory, we have an opportunity to reevaluate all of our assumptions, perceptions, procedures and systems.

 As consultants, we had to adapt our practices early to do our work virtually.  But that was just the process of how work gets done.  It did not require us to rethink our practice.  We also lowered our prices – understanding that we are all in an economic recession and funding will not be as available as before.  But this too, was a relatively simple adjustment.

The real question for us in this moment is about the assumptions underlying our work in a changed context.  As accomplices in the social justice movement, we are called upon to bring an equity lens to all of our work.  We are doing our own work on this, talking and sharing readings and building trainings to raise awareness.  But we also need to think differently about how to help our clients do this work at multiple levels.  Admittedly, this is a work in progress, but we are rolling up our sleeves in search of a radically different approach to social progress.

 As we end a period of economic growth, we are struck by the fact that we have been thinking of our organizations as oases. Ports in the storm.  This individualism – this savior mentality is actually part of the problem.  We need a dose of humility as we confront the fact that no organization can work alone.  We must appreciate that our organizations are part of multi-faceted systems.  Only by thinking systemically can we truly hope to create social change and only by thinking systemically will organizations survive.  So, here are some of the principles that will be guiding our work with organizations going forward.


During the recent robust economic period, organizations became very focused on growth, sustainability and building their institutions, while the world was slowly changing around them.  Today there is growing distrust of institutions, and the relationships between money and power are being called into question. Organizations are called upon to center the voices of their constituents in their work rather than be guided by the interests of their donors.  We have traditionally acted in the best interests of our constituents as seen by those with money and power, rather than asking our constituents to decide what best serves them.  Our approach now focuses on clearly understanding and codifying organizational relevance to its constituents.

·      How do you know your constituents’ needs?  How did you get this information?

·      How is your work relevant to what your constituents need today?

·      How often do you uplift their voices in your work – centering their perspective as you develop solutions?

·      In what ways are your offerings unique or different from others?

Social Capital

People who grow up in poverty often lack access to social networks that can advance them.  The same is true for nonprofit organizations.  We must recognize that organizations literally cannot afford to be islands, solely focused on their own institutional prowess. Today’s needs are complex and require networked or collaborative approaches.  People of color have long since recognized the power of community in a way that white folk have not. Going forward, our work with organizations will recognize and leverage the assets resident in the communities in which they work. This is what we mean by social capital – recognizing that financial capital is only one kind of capital.  Relational capital is now being centered in all of our work.

·      How clearly do you define your community (not only income, race, gender, but also, geographic boundaries)?

·      What other assets exist in your community that your constituents might need (other organizations, governmental programs, religious communities)?

·      How broad is your organization’s social network?

·      How can you strategically partner with these people or entities to provide more comprehensive services for your constituents?

Organization Redesign

We must remember that our organizations themselves are systems – living human systems.  If we want our organizations to work and think differently, they need to be designed differently.  If we want to pull down the walls of systemic racism, we must reconceive all of our assumptions about what is “right” and “normal” in organizational life.  Here are some of the questions that now guide our internal work with organizations.

·      Where does power reside in your organization and how concentrated is it? Have you examined the rationale for that?

·      To what degree do you understand and implement distributed leadership in your organization?

·      How do you uplift the power of values in building cohesive culture?

·      What type of board do you have and how does it embody your philosophy about power and decision-making within the organization?

·      How might your own leadership need to change to embrace a more agile, adaptive structure?

Peer Coaching Groups

We recognize that all of this work will call on organizational leaders to embrace humility and undertake rigorous self-examination all while continuing to “fly the plane” and having no peer in the organization to serve as a thought partner.  We acknowledge that may be an unrealistic expectation.  We believe nonprofit leaders need trusted networks of advisors to help them think through their decisions in this unprecedented and changing social context.  Going forward, we will be carving out a more significant portion of our portfolio to convene and facilitate peer coaching groups to help leaders think through the redesign of their approach to their missions and structure.  We have run these kinds of groups for over 10 years and we know the power they can have in building resiliency, confidence and strategic thinking in leaders.

 We are not finished pivoting and reworking our approach.  We know we have more work to do internally as well as continuing to rethink our work in the world.  But we are deeply committed to rethinking and rebuilding our work with organizations to support the kind of world we want to see.  If this values pivot resonates with you, call us! We would love to work with you.

Drop in for Office Hours and talk with our experts!

Scroll to Top