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  • Pat Libby

4 Steps to Radically Rethink Your Nonprofit's Operating Model

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Everyone who cares deeply about nonprofits knows that the pandemic will change the sector in profound ways.

Last month I started a conversation about Radically Rethinking the Nonprofit Operating Model – initially through a blog and then through a workshop I presented at the City of San Diego’s Nonprofit Academy. If you weren’t able to attend and would like to see it, watch the video of that presentation.

While I was and am focused on strategies for helping organizations think through a process of separating out mission critical functions from operating functions, big thinkers on the national level have been doing some truly audacious things.

Most notable among them is The Ford Foundation – one of the oldest and largest organizations on the planet providing grants to change-making people and organizations (it has an endowment of nearly $14 billion).

Ford recently announced it would borrow $1 billion by issuing bondsa financial mechanism that is commonly used by the corporate and public sectors but rarely seen in the nonprofit world.

Ford is doing this so it can dramatically increase its giving at a time when the sector is desperate for money.

Four other national foundations – MacArthur, Kellogg, Mellon, and Doris Duke – are also moving forward with innovative financial plans that will enable them to give more generously in the next few years.

This is highly unusual – not only because of the bond issuance, but because most foundations reduce their giving when they perceive their financial portfolios may be at risk.

These foundations determined that they need to step up their support to nonprofits because it is fundamental to their mission.

They figured it was time to GO BIG OR GO HOME.

But please don’t think innovation or risk taking is a quality that only belongs to the big boys and girls.

Yes, Darren Walker, the CEO of Ford, is bold and visionary. Yes, he oversees billions in endowed funds.

And he is also radically reshaping the work of his organization to meet the needs of his constituents.

If you’re less bold, or uncertain, it’s OK to start with baby steps at first (as long as you know that you will still need to ask difficult questions of yourself, your colleagues and your board in the very near future).

On a local level there are many instances of nonprofits that are using this bizarre time in the history of the world to think about the low-hanging fruit of collaboration.

One fantastic example is the Nonprofit Resource Exchange that is co-sponsored by the Fieldstone Leadership Network San Diego and The Nonprofit Institute. It is a simple mechanism for allowing nonprofits to swap and share what they need.

How do YOU begin a process to orchestrate organizational change that is both strategic and lasting?

  1. Read my last blog and have a series of conversations with your staff and board about what is mission critical and what is operational (along with the other points I suggested).

  2. Think about mapping your organization within the context of the larger nonprofit sector. That exercise will provide you with invaluable clues about potential allies and partners. Learn about strategic mapping here.

  3. Talk to other organizations about this process so that each of you can come together with your own thoughts on potential alliances.

  4. Think big! Draw upon the expertise of your big brained board members to help you reimagine your organization so that it can advance your mission in new and exciting ways.

  5. It’s time to create the change we need to happen in our organizations.

As I said during my presentation, there is no knight in shining armor who will gallop in to save your nonprofit or the sector as a whole.

We are those knights and we’ve got the horse power to ensure that we can get through this together.



Pat Libby is a consultant that helps nonprofits with organizational strategy, board restructuring, and executive searches. Pat has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

Get in touch if you have any questions!



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