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May 26, 2018

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A Nonprofit's Existential Moment

 

Every now and then it happens. One of those predictably unpredictable moments when the nonprofit realizes, once again, that "knowing enough is not enough." The typical response? Instinct kicks in, again. Teams work harder than ever. Meaner and leaner. Devising even newer combinations and configurations of collective skill sets. Adapting. Modifying. Innovating.

 

The upside of the periodic "knowing enough is not enough" is good stress and good strain. The kind that develops nonprofit stamina and strengthens institutional muscle. As long as there's synchronization to the predictably unpredictable, "knowing enough is not enough" is an optimizing dynamic.

 

But what happens when an unpredictably unpredictable circumstance, challenge or crisis materializes from the inside, from the outside, or from out of nowhere? One with enormous consequences, dictating outcomes that are 180 degrees out of phase from the innate or learned abilities of the team? One that actually lies beyond the probabilities or possibilities of the current organizational capacity to manage, absorb or contain? One that confounds the very existence of the nonprofit?

 

The stakes couldn't be higher: the soul of the agency hangs in the balance. At this existential moment, will "knowing enough is not enough" be enough to carry the nonprofit through? Or will it rely instead on a radically converse response that "knowing not enough is enough." Some nonprofits will already be acquainted with this alternative concept, and thrive. Some will be slower to catch on. But once they do, they'll survive. Some, unfortunately, will not grasp it at all.

 

THOSE WHO THRIVE

 

Nonprofits routinely practicing self-awareness, self-assessment and self-scrutiny---in light of unimaginable scenarios---are the first to realize the reckoning power of "knowing not enough is enough." Forecasting how the constitution and properties of internal and external structures and systems could be fundamentally different in the short-, mid- or long-term. Estimating how the organization's "not enough" might be revealed or exposed in conspicuous, consequential ways. Predicting how all of this would confront the agency's very existence.

 

Thankfully, knowing this in advance is enough. Enough to give a savvy nonprofit an edge to think preemptively and proactively. Enough to give an agency time to develop strategies and contingencies almost sci-fi in scope and scale. These are the nonprofits considered futurists in their fields. Speculating, conjecturing, postulating, anticipating, front-loading and rehearsing courses of action in light of those unimaginable scenarios. These are the ones making bets the improbable is probable. The impossible is possible. So much so that when the existential moment actually manifests, the organization is not taken by surprise. Instead, it seizes opportunities. Steers clear of threats. Succeeds, flourishes and thrives.

 

THOSE WHO SURVIVE

 

Other nonprofits are not as perceptive. These groups are slower in coming of age. Each comes later to the epiphany of "knowing not enough is enough." It usually begins when the agency feels an intimation of a shift. Internally, externally, or underneath it all. First there's friction. Then frustration. Fault lines begin to appear in foundational assumptions or expectations of the institution. Finally, a foreboding sense that the essence, the essential substance of the organization is on shaky ground. That this time it's decidedly different. That this time it's going to take more than the group's collective instinct and ingenuity to stand. And to withstand.

 

The just-in-time responses of faltering nonprofits are usually rendered with a struggle. Once resolved, these organizations settle the score, surrender to the new reality, and shift gears for a sudden and swift redirect. More often than not each self-corrects at great costs. Salvaging enough equilibrium to secure a continued existence. Each making it through the existential moment. But barely. Going forward, these survivors will have a lot to learn from the thrivers.

 

THOSE WHO DON'T

 

And what of the nonprofit caught totally off guard by its existential moment? Completely deficient in "knowing not enough is enough." Clueless regarding the ways and means to navigate through it successfully. Or at least survive it. When faced with the circumstance, challenge or crisis confronting its very existence, the oblivious organization will be defenseless. Diminish by degrees. Decline by default. It will eventually run its course, shut down and meet a merciful, existential end.

 

The cavalier nonprofit, the one throwing caution to the wind, is just as deficient and clueless. It will meet a similar fate, but at a different pace. Falling prey to ego, stubbornness, pride, denial or, worse, deception. Deciding to buckle down, defy convention and try anyway. Tackling the existential moment with earlier, but now obsolete calculations. Relying on a frenzy of "knowing enough is not enough." Frantically expending more energy, desperately exercising hope against hope, and pushing to the extreme until the last resource is extracted. Only to realize too late that, in the wake of its existential moment, everything about everything has forever changed. And not in its favor.

 

The truth is that every nonprofit will have an existential moment in its institutional life cycle. If it pulls through, it may even have another or several more for that matter. With each episode, its destiny will hang in the balance. The wise will thrive. The slow can survive. The naive and the neglectful will meet a sure and certain demise. Unless these too decide to survive. And eventually learn to thrive. Knowing not enough is, actually, enough.

 

Sounds like an existential moment to me.

 

Follow @JoeMazzu3 on Twitter and Instagram. Visit intentionalconsulting.com to learn about his business serving nonprofits.

 

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